Analysis of Bin Laden's Message Jan. 19, 2006

On January 19, the al Jazeera satellite network broadcast the first tape from Osama bin Laden in more than a year. The quality of the tape was poor, and his voice seemed weaker than in previous recordings, but it was unquestionably him. Bin Laden's reference to a report in the British press on November 22, 2005, regarding a reputed remark by President Bush to British Prime Minister Tony Blair about bombing al Jazeera established that the leader of al Qaeda was alive and ended speculation that he might be dead or seriously incapacitated. The tape contained a threat to the American people that more terrorist attacks were in preparation but also contained an odd offer of truce. Following is a summary of the various analyses from informed observers of al Qaeda and terrorism. The analysis centers on the fundamental questions of whether the tape signals bin Laden's strength -- that he is indeed in command of the terror network and that an attack against America is imminent -- or his weakness, in that the tape could indicate he has been forced into hidings.

Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, believes that the tape is a clear sign that an attack against the United States is imminent. He argues that the combined threat and offer of truce is similar to his message to the Europeans in 2004, a message that was followed by the simultaneous bombings of the London transit system on July 7, 2005. Scheuer also states that bin Laden's new tape conforms with the Islamic tradition of warning the adversary before an attack.

Ahmed Rashid, author of "The Taliban" and a longtime observer of jihadist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, believes the tape's release was intended to quell speculation about Bin Laden's continued existence. However, with shifting reports about the CIA's predator drone attack on suspected terrorist operatives in an isolated region of Pakistan's tribal regions, Rashid does not believe that this tape was produced in response to that attack, as it was released too soon after the event.

Intelligence consultants at Strategic Forecasting warn that this threat from the al Qaeda leadership should be taken seriously, pointing to the fact that previous threats were followed by successfully executed attacks, as with the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa during 1998. Further, although it is unlikely that the tape was generated in reaction to the U.S. missile strike that targeted a meeting of al Qaeda leaders in Damadola, Pakistan, the meeting could have been called to plan or discuss the "operations" of which bin Laden warns.

ABC News consultant Fawaz Gerges, author of "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global," argues that the tape was meant for Muslim ears: Bin Laden's proposition is meant to establish him in the eyes of his putative constituency as a legitimate leader, concerned with wartime diplomacy. That is, he too, like George W. Bush, is a wartime leader. Bin Laden and jihadist cohorts are waging an ideological war for Muslim hearts and minds, one they consider as important as their military campaign, if not more so. They desperately seek to convince Muslims, particularly militant Islamists, that al Qaeda is winning its war against America. Such conviction, they reason, would incite their sympathizers to attack American interests around the world.

Brian Jenkins, author of "Terrorism and Beyond: a 21st Century Perspective," believes the focus should be very much on bin Laden's audience. Though ostensibly directed at the American public, Jenkins believes that all bin Laden messages are instead aimed at inspiring his followers and reassuring them that he is alive. Given the logistical difficulties of getting a tape to al Jazeera's TV studios, Jenkins believes it's improbable that the tape was made as a response to the CIA attack in Pakistan, but believes it may be possible that it was held somewhere en route and then released as circumstances suited.

Abdel Rahman al Rashed argues in Asharq al Awsat that although Osama bin Laden is the most recognized terrorist in the world, he has become more of a symbol and is not involved in operational planning. Al Rashed states that "his long absence and being content with a badly recorded single cassette confirm his isolation from the world" and that as a result bin Laden has been reduced to simply "commenting on the news." His attempts at a truce may be his way of feigning legitimacy, but it is doubtful that he could actually bring the numerous factions that have sprouted from his network under his control. If U.S. military and intelligence assumptions are correct, and bin Laden is hiding or on the run in the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, then it is likely that he is using his role as a symbol to inspire young jihadis around the world to follow his lead.