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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 03/26/2010

Osama tape has intelligence officials fuming

By Jeff Stein

U.S. counterterrorism officials seemed to have a hard time making up their minds on how to respond to Osama bin Laden’s latest tape.

On the one hand, the Qaeda leader’s threat to kill American captives was “so ridiculous” that it hardly merited a response, one official said.

“They started doing that 10, 12, 15 years ago,” he virtually sputtered to CNN’s national security producer Pam Benson -- anonymously, of course.

On the other, another official told Reuters, bin Laden’s threat to retaliate if the 9/11 plot organizer Khalid Sheik Mohammed, now in Guantanamo, were executed, was so absurd it demanded a response.

But while U.S. officials seemed so angry they could hardly talk -- and only anonymously, at that -- other intelligence sources and terrorism experts said on the record that bin Laden’s message was less a real threat that an exercise in personal and political propaganda.

"My message to you," bin Laden says in one of the excerpts aired by al-Jazeera, "is about our prisoners in U.S. custody." An al-Qaeda affiliate in Pakistan has been holding U.S. Army Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl since June 2009.

But it’s not really about taking and killing prisoners, says Peter Bergen, an author of well received books about bin Laden and co-editor of the AfPak Channel, a project of our sister publication, Foreign Policy.

“Main function,” Bergen said of bin Laden's missive: "Proof of life."

“It’s part of his ongoing campaign to confirm his relevance,” agreed Brian Jenkins, the longtime terrorism analyst at the RAND Corporation.

“Any statement from bin Laden,” echoed Paul R. Pillar, the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia when he retired in 2005, “serves at least the modest purpose, for him and his group, of showing that he is alive and kicking and sufficiently engaged to make new threats that play off recent issues or events.”

“I would tell you that there is no surprise here,” said a former top intelligence official who asked for anonymity because he is still consulting for the government. “This is precisely what I would expect al-Qaeda to do if they captured someone. These are the depraved lunatics who routinely behead captives.”

"I don't think Osama is central to the rallying of violence against the U.S." counters Graham Fuller, another senior former CIA official and author of The Future of Political Islam.

"These messages, which have been getting less messianic and more practical over time, help rally the troops, but I think he could disappear tomorrow and it wouldn't deeply affect the equation," Fuller added.

But dismissing the tape as an audio ego trip would be wrong, even dangerous, others said.

“It’s more than that,” said former CIA counterterrorism analyst Michael Scheuer, who headed Alec Station, the agency’s bin Laden tracking unit, from its inception in 1996 to 1999.

"It’s very timely,” Scheuer said. “It shows he’s near a studio where he can record things and … it shows he’s paying close attention to American politics.”

Yes, Scheuer said, Osama is threatening to respond “tit for tat” to an execution of KSM, whose fate has tied the Obama administration in knots. With that, he puts the White House on the defensive, responsible for al-Qaeda’s execution of Americans.

“He may … see this latest threat as an opportunity to sow some fear among Americans as the issue of how to dispose of the KSM case continues to be discussed, “ Pillar agreed.

But the al-Qaeda kingpin has also launched a strong “strategic” propaganda initiative with the tape, Scheuer and others said.

In the short term, “He’s putting forth an image of Obama in the Muslim world as kind of a Judge Roy Bean” in the Mohammed case, Scheuer said. “You know, ‘We’re gonna try ‘em and hang ‘em.’"

Both the president and Attorney General Eric Holder have expressed confidence that Mohammed would be convicted in a civilian trial and executed.

“Again, it shows they know us better than we know them,” Scheuer added. “The overarching strategic message is, ‘Muslims get the short end of the stick.’

“The only thing U.S. officials look for in these tapes is a threat against us,” he maintained.

The autocratic leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be forced to go along with bin Laden’s message, at least partly, said Scheuer, a nonpartisan critic of U.S. counterterrorism policies and tactics in his books, congressional testimony and media appearances.

Egyptian President Hosni "Mubarak and the Saudis will say, ‘Bin Laden is yesterday’s news,’ but they’ll also chide Obama and Holder” over pronouncing KSM guilty in advance of a trial, he said.

Intelcenter, an Alexandria, Va., firm that monitors terrorism, took the kidnapping warning seriously, calling it “a valid indicator of an increased threat of kidnappings targeting Americans in the immediate period and following through the Khalid Sheik Mohammed trial in the U.S."

The company predicted “the threat of kidnappings will increase further as the trial begins,” and added that “attempts to kidnap Americans would not be limited to core al-Qaeda.

“The group's regional arms such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, which has been aggressively targeting Westerners for kidnapping in North Africa, may follow through on bin Laden's threat,” Intelcenter said.

“We have to care about it,” counterterrorism scholar Anthony H. Cordesman said. “It would be dangerous to ignore it.”

“It’s not like he’s running a network and giving orders, but the tapes reach virtually every Muslim extremist group and all the others who have links to them,” Cordesman added. It’s his “strategic communications” strategy.

U.S. intelligence is eavesdropping on extremist communications networks, from cell phones and e-mail traffic to jihadi Web sites, trolling for chatter about the tape and “a rise in key words,” Cordesman said – bombs, kill, attack, assassinate. Human spies can also be tasked to gauge reactions. A rise in attacks on U.S. targets can mean the base has been energized by bin Laden's jeremiad.

"Of course, only a tiny minority agree with bin Laden’s message of violence, but the message is impossible to ignore,” Cordesman said.

By Jeff Stein  | March 26, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  | Tags:  Al Jazeera, Alec Station, Anthony Cordesman, Bowe Bergdahl, Brian Jenkins, CIA, CNN, CSIS, Egypt, Eric Holder, Haqqani, Intelcenter, KSM, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Michael Scheuer, Obama, Osama, Paul R. Pillar, Peter Bergen, Qaeda, RAND, Saudi, UBL  
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Next: Career spy Robert Harding's covert op on Obama

Comments

Start spreading fake bin laden tapes with mixed messages. Its a stoke of evil, but hey, tit for tat.

Obscure the message, give doubt to the legitimacy of any tape, not just the "real fakes." Beat them at their own game.

Posted by: trident420 | March 26, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse


Rest in hell, Osamah. You will be alone, bye yourself. No one to talk to, not even your mommy. Burn, burn, burn.
Why do you have other people do your work for you? Because you have no balls.

Posted by: tsauer79 | March 27, 2010 2:20 AM | Report abuse

Nearly every source in this story is either former-CIA or CFR or neocon-connected or Anonymous... just trying to drum up fear again.

And btw, the link to the "tape" is broken.

Posted by: CitizenPain | March 27, 2010 3:56 AM | Report abuse

We operate well when the public is well informed. The information we have which need not be classified should be in the public domain. The public has paid to get it.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,915030,00.html#ixzz0jNUlvzgy

Keep the public well informed Post and be sure to get paid. As for the big islami problem, let me propose a toast. Here is to pure scholarship, may it never be of any use to anybody. Cheers dear.

Posted by: tossnokia | March 27, 2010 8:12 AM | Report abuse

Re: Bin Laden tape
FEAR and Loathing in America
Another CIA tactic designed to instill
added FEAR into the American public.
Another ploy to extend Canadian deployment in Afghanistan.
I might add, that the planet is waking up
to conspiracy and New World Order designs.
SHOCK and AWE us some more will ya?
Was Osama's new tape on cassette or 8-track?
If it was legit? Why not video...
Perhaps it will take a Canuck's ingenuity
to photo-shop one for you. We'll be sure to include a pipeline in the background, passing through a poppy field.
~eff~

Posted by: effrobertson | March 27, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

noone in this hemesphere fears Osama anymore...now Obama, thats something entirely different

Posted by: FranktheTank | March 27, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

Once again, I have trouble believing the authenticity of this tape.

The issue at stake with the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed is if he is actually guilty at all. He was tortured by american authorities, which means all of his collaboration and testimony is highly questionable.

What does this tape accomplish more than anything else in the public eye? It attempts to confirm KSM's association with Osama and as a high ranking member of his association as well; one important enough for Osama to threaten to retaliate over.

There is no talk about the authenticity of the tape.. which you would think would be the very first thing to address.

This just seems to convenient on a PR level to be real. I'm calling it another Emmanuel Goldstein.

Posted by: morikahn | March 31, 2010 3:47 AM | Report abuse

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