Osama bin Laden’s endorsement and backing of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi threatens to create an even deadlier anti-American alliance, national security observers say.
Bin Laden could benefit from Zarqawi’s daily publicity while Zarqawi may receive more financial assistance and support from bin Laden’s backers, the observers said.
But for bin Laden, the alliance comes at a price: He is now tied to a man directing bomb attacks against Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslims as well as Americans.
In an audiotape broadcast Monday by Al Jazeera satellite television, bin Laden described Zarqawi as the “emir,” or prince, of al Qaeda in Iraq and said Muslims there should “listen to him.” He also called for a boycott of Iraqi elections planned for next month.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, yesterday said the CIA technical analysis of the 2-minute, 5-second audiotape concludes with “moderate confidence” that the voice is bin Laden’s.
“Bin Laden gets the benefits of Zarqawi’s notoriety,” said Vince Cannistraro, former CIA counterterrorism chief. “[Zarqawi] has got the pre-eminent insurgency in Iraq. He’s the one who is the bloodiest, who carried out the most dramatic and public suicide bombings.”
The difference between this and other bin Laden alliances, Mr. Cannistraro said, is that bin Laden — a Sunni Muslim — “has not been a vocal enemy against the Shi’ites. By adopting Zarqawi, he’s taking that whole package, someone who is virulently anti-Shi’ite.”
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the Rand Corp., said Zarqawi also gets an advantage by the association.
“Zarqawi tried to milk his broader association with bin Laden and al Qaeda to win new sources of support and recruits and finances,” Mr. Hoffman said.
Zarqawi recently changed the name of his group to al Qaeda in Iraq from Tawhid and Jihad group.
“I think bin Laden wants to leverage off … Zarqawi’s cachet and popularity amongst radical jihadists,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Zarqawi realizes that his association with al Qaeda and bin Laden, perhaps not in tangible terms in the fighting in Iraq but in terms of support and assistance, can pay vast dividends.”
Ben Venzke, president of the private IntelCenter in Alexandria and a consultant to government agencies, said the alliance does not demonstrate any weakness by bin Laden. Rather, it enhances his public message.
“Al Qaeda is very savvy when it comes to understanding public perception, its media campaign and messaging, and its image,” he said. “There is no question, and I think it would be safe to presume, that al Qaeda understands that if they officially tie that name [Zarqawi] in, it gives them an even greater media presence in terms of operations that are being conducted.”
In calling for a boycott of elections, bin Laden appears also to be speaking as the spiritual and political leader of Muslims worldwide, not just a terrorist going into battle.
“In the balance of Islam, this constitution is infidel and therefore everyone who participates in this election will be considered infidels,” bin Laden says on the tape. “Beware of henchmen who speak in the name of Islamic parties and groups who urge people to participate in this blatant apostasy.”