According to the Washington Post, Osama bin Laden has been in touch with his man in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, imploring him to expand his operations outside that country. U.S. intelligence recently intercepted a message from the Al-Qaida leader to his Jordanian-born surrogate, encouraging Zarqawi to strike American targets both overseas and here at home. That report led to renewed speculation about possible attacks, and a potential change in our terrorist threat level.
Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but I don't see this report as an indication of a resurgent Al-Qaida, or a harbinger of imminent strikes in the U.S. homeland. Instead, bin Laden's request paints a picture of an organization in serious trouble, with little hope for a short-term cure.
On the surface, bin Laden's message seems to depict a united Al-Qaida, with open channels of communication between senior leadership and its best-known field lieutenant, Zarqawi. It also suggests a new wave of terrorist attacks may be in the offing, utilizing the combined resources of Zarqawi's network and other, established Al-Qaida cells.
But bin Laden's directive also reflects a more desperate Al-Qaida, scrambling to strike back at the U.S. and its allies. By encouraging al-Zarqawi, bin Laden seems to suggest that he and members of his inner circle, are still "heads down" along the Afghan-Pakistani border, unable to effectively plan or coordinate another major attack. Indeed, bin Laden's message appears to indicate that the organization is still in a de-centralized mode, with cell leaders and other lower-level commanders enjoying wide autonomy in selecting targets and carrying out attacks. While this approach has produced some successes (such as the Bali nightclub bombing and the train attacks in Madrid, Spain), it is not an operational system capable of producing a spectacular event, along the lines of 9-11.
Bin Laden's communique may also be a veiled warning to Zarqawi: get out of Iraq while you still can. While still a threat, the Zarqawi network has also suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks, with the arrest of several senior aides. General John Abazaid, Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), recently told Congress that Zarqawi's days are numbered. He also hinted, vaguely, that U.S. intelligence may have penetrated the Zarqawi organization, suggesting "treason" within the ranks helped produce the recent arrests.
Reading between the lines, bin Laden's directive for Zarqawi is less an operational plan than a cry for help. And, thanks to the work of our military and intelligence community, Zarqawi is in no position to render that assistance.