This morning al-Jazeera aired segments of a Bin Ladin audiotape which most international media are reading in the context of Obama’s Middle East tour, which started today. This is despite the fact that the statement seems to say nothing at all about the President’s tour, but talks instead about the Swat campaign in Pakistan. Bin Ladin argues the hostilities in Swat have caused immense civilian suffering for which the United States is ultimately responsible. The message is essentially that Swat shows that Obama is no better than Bush.
For once, however, the most interesting aspect about the statement is not what it says, but how it surfaced. While most statements by AQ Central in recent years have been posted directly on the Internet, this one was distributed “the old way”, in a physical copy delivered by courier to al-Jazeera. As of 2pm EST, the statement has not yet appeared on the forums. Moreover, the absence of references to recent events suggests the tape was recorded several weeks ago. Finally the length of the tape is reportedly only around four minutes, which is unusually short. In all these respects, the latest tape differs from UBL’s three previous statements this year, on Gaza in January and on Gaza and Somalia in March.
What we have here is a short, outdated tape delivered manually following a series of longer, up-to-date statements distributed online. This suggests to me that Bin Ladin’s personal situation has changed in the past few months. He may have moved to a new location, and/or he is taking much stricter security precautions than before.
By contrast, today’s statement by Ayman al-Zawahiri was completely different. It was distributed “the usual way” on the forums, it was longer (11 minutes), and it was tailored in content and timing for Obama’s arrival in the region. Al-Zawahiri declared Obama unwelcome in Egypt and argued that the current president’s policies, especially toward Israel, are no better than those of his predecessors. For a transcript, see here.
The differences between the two statements suggest first of all that Bin Ladin and al-Zawahiri are not in the same physical location. Moreover, Bin Ladin’s situation clearly lends itself more badly to media production than that of al-Zawahiri.
We should of course be careful not to overinterpret individual messages like this, especially since there have been occasional aberrations to established distribution patterns in the past. But – at the risk of sounding like the 43rd president – my gut tells me this is quite significant.
Document (Arabic): 06-03-09-faloja-zawahiri-on-obama-egypt-visit
Document (Arabic): 06-03-09-faloja-transcript-of-zawahiri-obama-speech
PS: Those of you who have followed the “hall-of-mirrors” phenomenon will note the following very interesting passage from Bin Ladin’s statement (translation from CBS):
“Some of the wise and fair people in the research centers and other institutions over there might deduct from what I say here the reasons that push people to want to attack and get their vengeance against America, at a time when the agents of the big companies at the White House don’t pay much attention to what we say.”
Update (4 June): Adam R. kindly sent me a full transcript of the UBL statement from the Open Source Center (to which I don’t have access). It turns out the recording is longer than I thought (25 minutes), but there are indeed no references to events other than the Swat campaign.