After Taliban Baradar arrest, does Bin Laden matter?
Pakistan announced the arrest of the most senior Afghanistan Taliban commander since 2001, Taliban number 2 Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. With growing intelligence cooperation between the US and Pakistan, could Osama bin Laden be next?
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A weaker echo
Bin Laden, who heads a small group of international Sunni militants dedicated to the destruction of the US, had demonstrated once again that he was alive in defiance of a multibillion-dollar effort to capture or kill him.Skip to next paragraph
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But the echo of his latest remarks was hardly heard beyond his small circle of supporters. In both tapes he made populist appeals in what analysts said was a clear attempt to broaden Al Qaeda's appeal beyond its base to the broader Arab and Muslim world.
In the first tape, released Jan. 24, he praised failed Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and sought to link Al Qaeda's goals in attacking the US to a desire to free Palestine. That's boilerplate for bin Laden. But the Jan. 28 tape took a more novel approach – fingering the US as the principal culprit in global warming and calling for a boycott of US commerce to bring its economy to its knees and thereby save the planet.
These populist appeals – on Palestine and the issue of global warming – have long been features of Al Qaeda rhetoric. The problem for bin Laden is that fewer and fewer in his audience appear to be listening to, never mind heeding, his call.
"After 9/11, a new bin Laden tape had the impact of an atomic bomb in the media," says Evan Kohlmann, an independent consultant on Islamist militant groups who has closely tracked Al Qaeda's propaganda messages and organizational tactics since shortly before the 2001 attacks. "But now, the fact [that Al Qaeda] has released so many recordings since then means their impact has been diluted. The supporters are still thrilled when they hear his voice, but it does not have the same punch beyond that."
There have been about 60 audio or videotapes by bin Laden or close aides like Ayman al-Zawahiri since 9/11. Bin Laden himself released six tapes last year.
Muhammad Ahmed, a Cairo taxi driver, is a member of their target audience. But as he sipped tea with a reporter in early February, he confessed that he hadn't heard anything about a recent bin Laden tape. Mr. Ahmed echoed many Egyptians when he said he considered bin Laden an extremist and a terrorist. "With regard to Al Qaeda, bin Laden is very important. But with regard to everyone else, he's not," Ahmed said.
Bin Laden and Al Qaeda had hoped the spectacular success of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington would jump-start mass recruitment of Muslims to their cause, generating millions of new followers willing to participate in terrorist attacks on the US and to seek the overthrow of regimes in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt that Al Qaeda views as ungodly and corrupt.
That was always something of a pipe dream. But in recent years, polling across the Arab and Muslim world has shown that populations have moved further away from Al Qaeda and its goals, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have fed a broader Muslim anger at the US.