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Bin Laden’s New Message

3 minute read
Timothy J. Burger

In his latest audiotape pronouncement to the world, released Dec. 16 on an extremist Islamic website, Osama bin Laden largely shifted his attention from the U.S. to the Saudi royal family. He called its members “agents of infidels,” praised the Dec. 6 attack on the U.S. consulate in Jidda and urged Muslims to support the insurgency in Iraq. According to one leading expert, the new tape was part of a change in emphasis in recent communications by the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri–an effort to speak as much to the Muslim world as to the U.S. and a paving of the theological way for what may be another major attack on the U.S.

Michael Scheuer, an al-Qaeda analyst who recently retired from the CIA and once headed its bin Laden unit, tells TIME he believes that in their series of recent messages and tapes, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have been subtly addressing criticism from some Muslim clerics that the Sept. 11 attacks violated Islamic edicts against surprise attacks. “The Prophet’s guidance,” says Scheuer, “was always, Before you attack someone, warn them very clearly and offer them a chance to convert to Islam.” He contends that bin Laden, by making his warnings very explicit, has “done everything that’s required” so that, in his mind, “the criticisms he got after 9/11 won’t be valid this time around.” Adds Scheuer: “I think what he’s done is clearly set the stage for a large attack.”

Scheuer says he was particularly alarmed by the video of al-Zawahiri, aired Nov. 29 on the Arabic TV network al-Jazeera, in which he offered a “final piece of advice for America … You must choose between two ways of behaving toward Muslims: either you deal with them on the basis of respect and mutual interest or you treat them as easy prey.” Scheuer says, “What bothered me is he said this is the ‘final’ time we’re going to raise this. I had not seen them ever before say, This is the end of this discussion we’re having with you.” If al-Zawahiri intended his message to be a last warning to the U.S., bin Laden’s latest could be seen as a corollary shift in focus toward the Muslim world.

A U.S. intelligence official said all tapes by the two terrorists are “a matter that’s taken very seriously, and their appearance causes concern.” But the official stressed that the tapes could be interpreted several different ways. For his part, Scheuer concedes that he has no idea where or when an attack might occur. “I’ve been wrong too often trying to predict dates,” he says. –By Timothy J. Burger

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