Broader objective seen in videotape

In his message to U.S., bin Laden appears to be trying to expand support

`Casting himself as a statesman'

Election 2004

October 31, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Although his latest videotape addressed American voters, Osama bin Laden's real aim may have been to enhance his stature and broaden his support in the Arab and Islamic world, analysts said yesterday.

Capturing media attention across the United States and triggering a new dispute between President Bush and challenger John Kerry, bin Laden forcefully injected himself into the American electoral debate this weekend without staging the major attack that senior American officials have been fearing for months. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday that there were no plans to raise the nation's terrorism threat level, which stands at "yellow," or "elevated."

"This gives Arabs the notion that he's able to influence events. ... Bin Laden talks; people listen," said Harlan K. Ullman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recalling a famous television ad used by the investment firm E.F. Hutton. "We're falling into his propaganda trap by responding in a big way."

Analysts disagreed on whether bin Laden was trying to sway the election, and if so, whether he intended to help either Bush or Kerry. Some Arab commentators drew comparisons with the March bombings in Madrid that helped defeat the party of Jose Maria Aznar, who had sent Spanish troops to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

But all agreed that bin Laden chose a moment when his words would have maximum impact.

"He was casting himself as a statesman in a part of the world where there is a leadership vacuum," said Bruce Hoffman, Washington director of the RAND Corp., a think tank that conducts research for the government on national security.

The vacuum is particularly acute now after the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the departure of an ailing Yasser Arafat from the Palestinian territories.

Bin Laden "presents himself as an alternative to the Arab leaders who have abandoned their basic values, renounced the Palestinian cause, the Lebanese cause and other Arab causes, and who have been indulging in oppression, corruption, repression and in bequeathing their seats of power to their sons," said Abd-al-Bari Atwan, chief editor of the London Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi. His comments Friday, on the Arab channel Al-Jazeera, which aired bin Laden's latest videotape, were translated yesterday by British Broadcasting Corp. monitors.

Influencing the U.S. election "creates recruits and shows that his organization has teeth, has impact," said Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

In preparing strikes against the United States in the 1990s, bin Laden saw himself as "the rallying point and organizer of a new kind of war to destroy America and bring the world to Islam," according to the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.

Although some of bin Laden's previous messages have presaged attacks against the West, Ullman said, the latest video may not fit that pattern because American forces already present a target in Iraq. "There's no reason to attack Americans here when he can attack us there."

The videotape's absence of a specific threat "was calculated," Katzman said, in an attempt to win over moderates in the Islamic world who condemned the mass killing of American civilians in the Sept. 11 attacks.

"He may be trying to broaden his base. ... He's trying to pick up people in the reasonable center," Katzman said.

Bin Laden told Americans that al-Qaida launched its attacks "because we are free ... and want to regain freedom for our nation. As you undermine our security, we will undermine yours."

In a message to Europeans in April, bin Laden gave their governments three months to leave Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries or risk a terrorism campaign. "Now he's extending the same distorted magnanimity to the United States," Hoffman said.

A number of analysts who study bin Laden have described him as driven by several overlapping goals: to drive America and its influence from the Middle East, to topple the autocratic Arab rulers who are allied with the United States and whom he views as corrupt, and to broaden his appeal in the region.

To advance the latter last aim, he plays off political themes that resonate with Arabs and Muslims with a skilled use of classical Arabic, exerting charisma and deft timing.

Although bin Laden has long denounced U.S. "crusaders" and Jews, he has increasingly focused his attention over the past few years on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on U.S. support for Israel.

In the video released Friday, bin Laden dwelt more than he had previously on the turmoil in Lebanon in the 1980s and, in particular, on Israel's 1982 invasion and bombardment of Lebanon.

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