WAR IN IRAQ: Bin Laden breaks silence with suicide attack call




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent, in London

Financial Times, 9 April 2003

Osama bin Laden yesterday appeared to have broken weeks of silence by issuing a taped message calling on Muslims to mount suicide attacks against the US and its allies in response to the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces.

The al-Qaeda leader has not issued a statement since February 11. The voice on yesterday’s tape, whose authenticity has still to be verified, said: “Do not be afraid of their tanks and armoured personnel carriers. These are artificial things. If you started suicide attacks, you will see the fear of Americans all over the world.”

Following the capture of many of its key operatives, the ability of al-Qaeda to respond with more than words to the invasion of Iraq has been in doubt. Equally, its operational capacity in the Middle East is less evident than that of other militant Islamist groups.

Muslim activists, regional analysts and intelligence officials are uncertain whether al-Qaeda is intent upon specifically harnessing anti-American feeling in the area surrounding Iraq to its cause. It is also unclear whether it has the capacity to do so since the “war on terror” was launched to confront it. But whatever its capabilities, it is al-Qaeda’s violent defiance of American power that is seen as having taken root to the extent it is expected to have a big influence following the Iraq war.

“Forget about al-Qaeda. It has suffered gravely and there’s little it can do,” said Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al-Qaeda. “Even so, by conducting 9/11, bin Laden expected the masses to rise up against the US. Iraq has created that condition, and the call to jihad is having a profound effect,” he said.

With President Saddam Hussein’s regime near collapse, the popular condemnation of the US-led invasion in much of the region has intensified among Islamist activists. The same is true of Arabs who are critical of both al-Qaeda and Mr Hussein’s dictatorship but feel humiliated by the US-led presence in an important Arab and Muslim country.

“There is a feeling that Arab national pride has been hurt,” said Nabil Osman, spokesman of the anti-Islamist Egyptian government.

Osama bin Laden’s encouragement of suicide attacks is at the extreme end of the activists’ spectrum. However, with the invasion of Iraq now seeming to bolster al-Qaeda’s regular claims that Washington has deep political designs on the region, its focus on jihad is likely to have a stronger pull than calls for a more secular “Arabist” opposition to the US-led campaign.

“Many [Muslims] had doubts about the [justification for the] 11 September attacks. But now, after people have seen the television pictures of the bombing of Iraqis, and the arrogance of raising American flags in Iraqi towns, bin Laden’s arguments are unquestioned,” said a prominent Saudi Arabian Muslim activist. Al-Qaeda supporters in Saudi Arabia have been told to “hold on, but be ready for action”, though its plans remain a mystery, he said.

“The threats from jihadist quarters made before the Iraq war have failed to materialise, although it is pretty clear that there are operations being planned,” said a senior western intelligence officer. “Al-Qaeda is having to transmogrify, having lost Afghanistan. But it is certainly not dead and buried. Those in Afghanistan have gone back to their ‘home’ Islamic groups, and it’s now much more likely that they will be planning small-scale attacks.”

The mobilisation of civilians across the Middle East wanting to oppose the foreign forces in Iraq militarily has already started, if ineffectively. The character of the longer-term response is now being formulated.

“These people are not seeing it as the humiliation of Saddam but the humiliation of the Iraqi people and the symbolism of the defeat of one of the strongest governments in the Middle East,” said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer in Beirut. “For those planning a response, [Lebanese] Hizbollah is the organisational model, with small and effective armed groups being looked at,” he said.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.