Bin Laden tape recalls pre-election attacks





By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in London

Financial Times, 30 October 2004

The al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s decision to release a video-taped message four days before the US election follows two previous attempts by the terrorist group or its adherents to influence political events in targeted states.

Days before the Spanish election last March, a series of bombs on Madrid commuter trains killed scores of people and led to the downfall of José María Aznar’s government.

On September 9, an attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, took place shortly before the presidential election. The poll ended the presidency of Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose government has taken tough action against Islamists since 200 people were killed in Bali in 2002.

Debate has intensified among terrorism experts and intelligence officials about the role the central al-Qaeda leadership has among the disparate Islamist groups it has spawned since the September 11 2001 attacks.

“Asymmetric warfare is what al-Qaeda is capable of: it cannot defeat its enemy on the battlefield, but it can continue to scare people,” said a senior counter-terrorism official yesterday.

“Bin Laden has realised that timing statements or attacks at certain points in the political calendar has the potential to enhance his reputation.

“This new statement is a calculated attempt to both show that he is still very much around, but also to unnerve Americans by making a threat at election time as if to suggest that the same could happen there as happened in Spain. He is exploiting the power of his image,” the official said.

Montasser el-Zayat, a lawyer who defends Islamic radicals and was imprisoned in Egypt in the 1980s with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mr bin Laden’s deputy, said yesterday the video amounted to an “unprecedented attack on Bush at a very critical time, before the US elections”. It should also be seen as a message that the al-Qaeda leader is alive and active.

However, both Mr bin Laden and his deputy have come to be seen as inspirational figures whose physical isolation means that their advice on operations is rarely sought. Despite evidence that groups following al-Qaeda’s example are connected, the leadership is reliant on issuing occasional messages intended to provide guidelines and ideological backing.

“The groups around the world are really not in need of approval for actions by religious authorities any more. They are doing their own thing, and are capable of planning and executing actions without consulting bin Laden,” Yasser al-Sirri, an exiled Egyptian Islamist, said yesterday.

Even so, two weeks ago the presumed leader of the Tawhid wal Jihad group in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, said his group had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda after eight months of negotiation. Intelligence and counter-terrorism officials interpreted this as having been linked to the US election and intended to make Americans believe the invasion of Iraq had strengthened al-Qaeda.



© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.