Osama bin Laden's growing anxiety

He's struggling to direct fewer and fewer followers.

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In yet another sign of trouble for Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden publicly conceded that his like-minded militants in Iraq "made mistakes." In an audiotape broadcast by Al Jazeera this week, he sounds deeply anxious about the survival of Al Qaeda in Iraq – a group that is largely independent of his own organization but adheres to a similar ideology. Al Qaeda's top leader appealed to Sunni Arab tribes and other armed Iraqi Sunni groups to stop fighting Al Qaeda members and unite against the real enemy – the US-led coalition.

Al Qaeda in Iraq faces growing indignation from fellow Sunni Iraqis fed up with its indiscriminate killing of civilians and its Taliban-like religious laws. In the past year, Sunni tribes and fighters have risen against Al Qaeda's branch in Iraq and, working jointly with US troops, killed and expelled scores of its militants from their neighborhoods, particularly from Anbar Province. Besieged both internally and externally, Al Qaeda in Iraq struggles to survive and absorb these catastrophic military setbacks.

Coming to the rescue of his followers in Iraq, Mr. bin Laden lays his personal authority and credibility on the line. In a rare moment of self-criticism, he advises "himself, Muslims in general, and brothers in Al Qaeda everywhere to avoid extremism" and put the interests of the ummah (universal Muslim community) above those of tribe, party, and nation.

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True to form, bin Laden stops short of saying exactly who speaks for the ummah and how the interests of this imagined ummah can override those of separate nation states and special groups.

Never before had bin Laden, ambitious and media-savvy, gone so far in airing Al Qaeda's dirty linen in public. In the past, he and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had privately advised chiefs of Al Qaeda's wing in Iraq against fueling sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and imposing their extremist ways on Iraqis. But their pleas didn't fly.

In his latest "message to the people of Iraq," bin Laden's misgivings reflect the gravity of Al Qaeda's crisis in Iraq and a belated effort to win over Sunni Arabs opposed to the militant organization. Stressing unity over the current division and disarray, he urged Sunni tribes to uphold their "tradition of resisting" foreign occupation like that of British colonialists in the last century.

Bin Laden even invoked the prophet Muhammad to drive home his message of unity and forgiveness: "The prophet peace be upon him said once: no one is perfect. We all make mistakes and we should seek forgiveness of these mistakes. Human beings commit wrongs, and wrongs always lead to conflict and dispute. Having acknowledged that we have made mistakes ... [w]e can now seek to rectify these mistakes."

In addition, he openly scolds his followers in Iraq for their "fanaticism," using the Arabic word ta'assub, which means extremism in allegiance to a parochial group or tribe that excludes others.

Ironically, this self-anointed leader of all mujahideen who wage wars against both their own pro-Western Muslim governments and the United States will probably not see his followers in Iraq, or Sunni tribes and fighters, heeding his call for cooperation. Having expelled many Al Qaeda members from their quarters at great costs, Sunni communities will not let these members back. And while welcoming bin Laden's public apology, Iraqi Sunni leaders have already dismissed his message as too little, too late.

But bin Laden's troubles transcend Iraq. Prominent clerics and former militants call into question the very legitimacy of bin Laden's authority as a spokesman for Islam and Muslims. And last month, one of bin Laden's most prominent Saudi mentors, the preacher and scholar Salman al-Odah, wrote an open letter reproaching him for "fostering a culture of suicide bombings that has caused bloodshed and suffering and brought ruin to entire Muslim communities and families."

Bin Laden's Al Qaeda was dealt another shattering blow from within when one of its top theorists, Abdul-Aziz el-Sherif, renounced its extremes, including the killing of civilians and the choosing of targets based on religion and nationality. In the past few months, Mr. El-Sherif – a longtime associate of Zawahiri, who crafted what became known as Al Qaeda's guide to jihad – called on militants to desist from terrorism and authored a dissenting rebuttal against his former cohorts.

In early October, Abdulaziz al-Ashaikh, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa prohibiting Saudis from engaging in jihad abroad and accused both bin Laden and Arab regimes of "transforming our youth into walking bombs to accomplish their own political and military aims."

Today, Al Qaeda in Iraq possesses limited options, and is trying to buy time. But while entrapped and weakened, Al Qaeda is far from dead. Bin Laden's brief moment of self-criticism shows that, although he listens, it's difficult to keep a ship from sinking after being thrown overboard.

• Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of international affairs and Arab and Muslim politics at Sarah Lawrence College, recently returned from 15 months in the Middle East. His books include "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy" and "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."

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