Sunday, October 28, 2007

Osama bin Laden‘s appeal for unity between Iraq’s Sunni insurgent groups confirms what many have believed for some time: al Qaeda in Iraq is increasingly isolated and that splits in the insurgency may be its greatest weakness.

“Sticks refuse to break when banded together, but if they come apart, they break one by one,” bin Laden said in his latest audio message, portions of which were broadcast Monday by the Al Jazeera television network. “There is no room for conflict between the Muslims who truly surrender to the order of Allah.”

Analysts, however, are divided over the exact intended audience for the full message, which was released the following day with English subtitles by al Qaeda central’s media arm, As-Sahab.

In the message, bin Laden praises the bravery of the fighters he calls mujahedeen, or Islamic holy warriors, but gently chastises them for unspecified “mistakes,” warns them sternly against the dangers of factionalism and reminds them that disputes have to be settled according to the Islamic Shariah law.

The al Qaeda leader does not mention any groups by name, and while some commentators see his words aimed squarely at his own followers in al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), others see them pitched as a more general appeal to a Sunni insurgency increasingly riven by factionalism.

“He is trying to float above the fray,” said Evan Kohlmann, an international terrorism consultant who tracks the public statements of Iraqi insurgent groups and has testified in federal terror prosecutions.

“I don’t think the message was aimed solely at AQI,” he said.

But Fawaz Gerges, an academic and author who recently returned from a year in the region, where he researched the insurgency, said the message was aimed squarely at bin Laden’s own followers in AQI who had alienated their social base, the Sunni Arabs.

He said that the references to mistakes and how everyone makes them and how repenters are forgiven, was bin Laden “airing al Qaeda’s dirty linen in a belated and desperate effort … to rescue his besieged followers in Iraq.”

He said bin Laden’s talk about the need to submit to Islamic authority was “indirectly telling AQI [it] should defer to the Iraqi leadership” of other Sunni groups.

For its part, AQI’s press arm, the al-Fajr Media Center, posted a statement Wednesday charging Al Jazeera had “counterfeited the facts by making the speech appear as [if it were] exclusively targeting the brothers and sons inside al Qaeda.”

In reality, the group said, “the speech was originally an advice given to the Muslims of Iraq in general and to the honest people of jihad in particular.”

A U.S. intelligence official authorized to speak to the press said the bin Laden message was seen as just the latest manifestation of growing worries among al Qaeda’s central leadership about the situation in Iraq.

“There have been long-standing concerns about the ability to unite Sunni insurgents,” the official said. Last year, in an effort to give a more Iraqi face to al Qaeda’s role in the insurgency and to head off looming rivalries and splits with other groups, AQI declared the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq.

But the U.S. official said it had “proved to be in most respects a complete failure in terms of the effort to unite” insurgent groups.

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