Monday, April 24, 2006

Re-Casting the Conflict

While much of the chattering class was pre-occupied with the Mary McCarthy scandal, Osama bin Laden was busy releasing a new audio tape. The voice on the tape appears to be that of the fugitive Al-Qaida leader, although some accounts suggest that the tape had been heavily edited, prior to its release on Al-Jazerra.

In his latest message--the first in more than three months--bin Laden appears to shift focus slightly, railing against the west's "War on Islam," and urging his followers to fight a proposed UN peacekeeping force in Sudan's Darfur Region. He also criticized the U.S. and European suspension of aid to the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority, citing it as "proof" that the west has declared war on Islam.

What appeared to be missing from this tape was any overt reference to Iraq, and Al-Qaida's fight against U.S., coalition and Iraqi security forces. Some analysts have already suggested that bin Laden is trying to re-build support for his cause, since "attacking" Israel is a theme that still resonates well across the Muslim world. There have been recent indications that Al-Qaida is attempting to extend its influence to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and two members of the terrorist organization were recently captured and indicted by the Israelis.

At the same time, there are also indications that Al-Qaida may be exiting Iraq. An on-line magazine affiliated with the terrorist group, published an article back in January, encouraging followers to "attack the Americans elsewhere." More recently, U.S. commanders in Iraq have cited evidence that senior Al-Qaida operatives are leaving the country, although it was unclear if their departure was permanent, or only temporary.

As we've noted before, the battle for Iraq has become a losing proposition for Al-Qaida; the security situation is improving, and the new government is on the path to democracry. Moreover, continuing engagements wth U.S. and coalition security forces have become a major drain on Al-Qaida's limited resources--a problem compounded by the international crack-down on terrorist finances.

While these developments are encouraging, I'm not ready to declare total victory over Al-Qaida in Iraq. Bin Laden will probably leave a residual force in that country to the bitter end, trying to inflict additional U.S. casualties and undermine our resolve. Al-Qaida will lose most of its Iraq-based resources in the process, but that is of little concern to bin Laden. He is clearly shifting his focus to the west, toward "ground" in Gaza, the West Bank and Sudan that he perceives as more fertile. And most importantly, he is making this shift out of weakness, rather than strength.

History will also show that bin bin Laden's "move" is a strategic error of the first magnitude. The Israelis are more than capable of dealing with the Al Qaida threat, and they will apply the same, ruthless tactics that smashed the last Palestinian Intifada. The "occupied territories" will become another graveyard for Al-Qaida. Within 2-3 years, the terrorist leader may be searching for other green pastures.

On the other hand, the environment in Sudan is more hospitable, and this gambit is probably designed to protect key Al-Qaida assets. Despite its formal expulsion from that country in 1996, Al-Qaida still has access to training camps, arms caches and financial resources within Sudan. Bin Laden seems worried that an increased U.N. presence in Darfur would result in more pressure for the Khartoum government to finally end its support for terrorist groups, including Al-Qaida. More than five years into the long war, those are resources that bin Laden can scarcely afford to lose. It is interesting that bin Laden referred to the conflict in those exact terms in his latest video tapes. Early hopes for chasing the infidels from Iraq and Afghanistan were dashed a long time ago, and bin Laden is girding for the long haul. Sounds familiar.

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