Osama tape has intelligence officials fuming
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."
“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.”
"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.
| 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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