Bin Ladin in Trouble?

Posted: 3rd June 2009 by Thomas Hegghammer in AQ Leadership, Bin Laden, Zawahiri

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What we have here is a short, outdated tape delivered manually following a series of longer, up-to-date statements distributed online.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.

  1. Ben says:

    I believe that you are definitely making the good point about the Bin Ladin’s statement and his personal situation, which seems to required much stricter security precautions than before.

    The next question is: How do you think these two statements are symptomatic about al-Qaïda losing his ability to shape the storytelling over the “big story” (Terror and Martyrdom) ?

    I think that Nial al-Jubeir, the Saudi information ministry is quite right saying that: “It’s an act of desperation” (http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/06/200963123251920623.html)

    Couples events in the Gulf are currently breaking al-Qaïda storytelling:

    – Muhammad Al-‘Awfi, from , turned himself in to the Saudi authorities of his own free will. (See the last “Sada al-Malahim”).

    – The fact that al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya is welcoming (with expectations but not with hostility) Obama’s speech in Cairo can also be a bad sign for al-Qaïda storytelling. Even if this group is not related to al-Qaïda and should be consider as a former terrorist organization, the message doesn’t match al-Qaïda’s kind of story.

    I could add many stories to these two but I strongly believe that Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawihir are aware that Obama’s speeches and attitudes toward Middle East (on a global scale and on specific topics such as Israel/Palestine) is making their task way much harder.

    Now that we know how the “old al-Qaïda” is reacting to last events, it seems interesting to observe what “jihad shaykhs” and “strategic thinkers” will say…

  2. Thomas says:

    http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/A5E2D777-7580-4360-B470-113D9AAE77CC.htm

    Al-Jazeera’s website links to the full recording of the statement. Al-Jazeera only played 4 minutes of the clip, rather than the entire 25 minutes.

  3. JMB says:

    It’s been clear for some years now that Bin Laden and Zawahiri are in different locations, because of exactly what you describe here. Since about 2003 or thereabouts, bin Laden’s messages have been of extremely low visual quality, while messages from Zawahiri, Yahya Al Libbi and others have been of professional, near-broadcast quality.

    When you consider that the difference is really a matter of sending one guy on a motorbike with a camera, this suggests to me that either Bin Laden or Zawahiri may be quite far afield, possibly even outside of Pakistan (more likely bin Laden than Zawahiri).

    You can also clearly infer from the allocation of media resources who is in charge these days (and has been for quite some time).

  4. andy says:

    For the unusual lenght of the message, there could be other possible interpretations:
    In the past, AQ complained because Al Jazeera had cut its messages (see OBL voice message on Iraq broadcasted by Al Jazeera on Oct. 07). May be that in this occasion Bin Laden recored a shorter message hoping that Al Jazeera would brodcast it without any cut.

  5. jallen says:

    Thomas, I found this alternative translation today. Can you help clarify which is correct? The differences seem significant.

    “no one from the representatives of the major corporations gives the slightest attention to what we have said to the White House.”

  6. Gblue says:

    “the statement has not yet appeared on the forums.”

    Yes it did, also on Al-Firdaws and their new playground http://www.ansarnet.info Mujahedeen Network.

    Since Bin Laden also talks about the Swat-issue it is from recent date.

    It’s well known that Al Zawahiri and Bin Laden do not travel together, or stay at the samen place. This would be a great risk and it’s also known that Bin Laden is only with 4-6 of his personal protectors/bodyguards.

  7. Ben: I agree that AQ central are on the defensive. They are doing everything they can to prove that Obama is just like Bush. They wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t a real risk that many Muslims see things differently.

    J Allen: I need to see an Arabic transcript first. Has anyone seen one? I didn’t have much time to look around yesterday and this morning

    G Blue: Thanks for the link. I saw it after I wrote the post. Yes the recording is from May sometime, but the Swat campaign began in early May, so the recording could be weeks old.

  8. jhall says:

    If AQ are really nervous about Obama and the new US stance then we should watch out for further attempts on a spectacular attack designed to provoke the West into military over-reaction? Mainstream Islamic support for anti-western rhetoric could well start to ebb away if the new American policy continues to run its course. The best solution for the radicals might be to provoke America into yet further military intervention. There best hope now might be that we reinforce their message that the USA in particular and the West in general are a ‘bad thing’.