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Al Qaeda taps Arab war fears

Analysts say new bin Laden tapes exploit concern over a possible Iraq war.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 2003



DAMASCUS, SYRIA

Osama bin Laden is likely to gain support and foot soldiers should the US military lead an invasion of Iraq, warn leading counter-terrorism experts and a senior US intelligence official.

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The analysts, whose view that the Al Qaeda terror network stands to gain from a US intervention are disputed by Defense Department and White House officials, say that Mr. bin Laden has tailored several recent audio messages to fit with long-standing Arab fears of Western military domination.

"Bin Laden is a dreadfully talented player," says a senior US intelligence analyst, also the anonymous author of the book, "Through Our Enemies' Eyes," an account of bin Laden's network and views. "He remains focused on three things that have the support, I think, of most Muslims, whether they're liberal or conservative. Many disagree with his tactics and actions, but almost no one disagrees with him that the US should get its forces out of Saudi Arabia, end sanctions on Iraq, and lean on the Israelis about their treatment of the Palestinians. These are apple-pie issues in the Muslim world."

The US official, who spoke from Virginia on the condition that he remain unidentified, says that bin Laden probably believes current US interventionist policies strongly favor his own designs. He suggests that bin Laden is thinking that the US has "already flooded the Arabian peninsula with troops and will not only be starving Iraqis through the embargo, but will now kill them with our military. It's marvelous for him."

The official adds that bin Laden's recent messages show that the Al Qaeda leader "doesn't want the US to back off now. It's a way to ensure the Muslim world that it is a Christians-versus-Muslims war."

Rohan Gunaratna, the author of "Inside Al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror," says he expects that Al Qaeda will gain far more regional Arab support if the US leads a war against Iraq, particularly if it is without a UN Security Council mandate.

"Osama bin Laden's initial goal in the early '90s was to rid 'the land of the two holy sanctuaries' (Saudi Arabia) of all US troops," he says.

A reader poll on the Web page of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera cable network this past weekend asked in Arabic if readers supported Al Qaeda's message that US forces should leave the Gulf area. Of nearly 60,000 respondents, 87 percent said that they endorsed the view. Though the poll was unscientific, analysts say they are concerned that so many Arabs would even respond to a question posed in the name of a terror group.

Al Qaeda's new audio recordings, released on Arab websites this month, warn that President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are waging a campaign to carve up the Middle East in a fashion similar to a 1916 British-French pact that divided the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.

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