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Obama vs. bin Laden: A battle for Muslim hearts

Two recordings from the Al Qaeda chief and his deputy may signal that Obama's overtures, particularly his speech in Cairo Thursday, have put the organization on the defensive.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2009

Bahraini boys pass a cemetery wall Saturday, in Muharraq, Bahrain, that reads: "Oh God, bring victory to Sheik Osama bin Laden." Muslims are thought to have high expectations for US President Barack Obama, as he delivers a speech in Cairo Thursday.

Hasan Jamali/AP

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Cairo

Audiotapes attributed to Al Qaeda's two top leaders have sought to discredit President Obama on the eve of his much-heralded speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, declaring that he is no different from his predecessor and follows the same anti-Muslim policies.

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Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden accused Obama of "antagonizing Muslims" and of "laying the foundation for long wars," said the Qatar-based TV channel Al Jazeera, which aired excerpts of the tape shortly after the American president arrived in Saudi Arabia.

A day earlier, Mr. bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged Muslims not to heed Obama's "elegant" words, arguing that Obama's policies are already clear.

"His bloody messages were received and are still being received by Muslims, and they will not be concealed by public relations campaigns or by farcical visits or elegant words," said a 12-minute audio recording attributed to Mr. Zawahiri and posted on an al-Qaeda-linked website Tuesday.

Some analysts believe the tapes suggest Al Qaeda is on its back foot – both because of Obama's overtures to the Muslim world, and because of the rise of Islamist militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Thomas Hegghammer, the moderator of jihadica.com, a blog that monitors jihadi Internet activity, also says that the fact that bin Laden's tape didn't mention the Cairo speech and was delivered straight to Al Jazeera instead of released online may suggest greater restriction of movement and access.

"The most interesting thing about it was that it was not released on the Internet. It was handed directly to Al Jazeera," he says. "It may mean that bin Laden is not in a situation to record and post his statements on the Internet, which has been the case the last few years."

Mr. Hegghammer, a fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's international security program, concedes that a similar message would likely have been delivered if former president George W. Bush had come to speak. But he adds that it's evident from the recordings that Al Qaeda feels on the defensive "particularly since the election of Obama because his images and policies don't quite match their kind of story." 

There's another reason Al Qaeda may be on the defensive: It's lost the high ground as the leader of resistance to US policies to the Palestinian movement, Hamas and the Lebanese group, Hezbollah, said Marc Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University, in a recent discussion of Middle East public opinion at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

"Hamas, Hezbollah, even Iran are now positioning themselves in better position to capture that general mantle of resistance," said Dr. Lynch. "And I think ... [Al Qaeda is] losing their ability to become kind of the avatar of that kind of resistance."

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