Elusive bin Laden stirs followers

A tape released this week may burnish the reputation and influence of Al Qaeda's fugitive leader.

Zaid Mohammed is a Yemeni student with a gift for languages and a keen interest in world affairs. Reached by telephone in Yemen, he says he had been worried in recent months that his hero, Osama bin Laden, had faded into obscurity. He couldn't explain the disturbing silence, and he had even started to believe those who said that the Al Qaeda chief had been killed in the US-led bombing of Afghanistan.

But the release of an audiotape this week - purportedly of the Al Qaeda chief threatening to take on most of the Western world - has him beaming. "We are happy because we know he is still alive and capable of carrying out attacks against Americans," Mr. Mohammed says about his circle of like-minded Yemeni male friends. "The tape shows that he has been victorious and will continue to defeat the Americans."

The unexpected playing of the tape seems to have revived the flagging legend of Osama bin Laden in the Middle East. For critics of the terrorist mastermind, it is grim confirmation of his ongoing influence. To bin Laden's most devoted followers, it is reason for revived hope.

A boosted reputation

Charles Heyman, editor of London-based Jane's World Armies, says that the commanders of the world's greatest military continue to make a grave mistake by making Osama bin Laden "target No. 1." Mr. Heyman, who travels extensively in the Arab world, worries that bin Laden's reputation has been enhanced considerably by the almost certain confirmation this week that he is alive and speaking.

"Every day bin Laden survives - or even appears to survive - is a victory for Al Qaeda," he says. "In this guerrilla war against the West, if you live to fight another day, it is a conquest of sorts. Just making it through the initial stages of the conflict shows that bin Laden has survived the world's most powerful military."

History offers many examples of "wanted men" who, through their escapes, have increased both their following and stature, military experts say. During the French Revolution, an elusive British aristocrat, nicknamed the Scarlet Pimpernel, saved French aristocrats from the guillotine, dodged capture on numerous occasions, and became a legend in his homeland.

Several years earlier, another rebel who took on the world's greatest military of his own day, George Washington, won very few battles in the initial stages of the Revolutionary War. One of his greatest assumed "victories," however, was his stealthy escape (in a rowboat) from Brooklyn Heights after apparently being cornered by the British Army.

Criminals such as spree killers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow took on folk-hero status as they eluded capture, and Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez ("Carlos the Jackal") found international fame through a 20-year manhunt.

Bin Laden, of course, performed his own great escape at Tora Bora. In late November 2001, just as the US military's top brass openly voiced their strong suspicions of his presence, he began his trek out of the warren of caves.

Bin Laden went incognito for an entire year. Experts, pundits, and even his followers speculated that he could have moved into the frigid highlands of Kashmir or gone to Karachi and taken a small boat back to his ancestral homeland, Yemen. Still others said that bin Laden had escaped into Iran or merely gone underground in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas.

His possible reemergence has everyone from President George W. Bush to the average pedestrian in the Arab world abuzz over what it all means.

Mohammed Saleh, a bookish architectural engineer in Cairo, says that bin Laden's new message is meant to provoke the United States. "Bin Laden is taunting the US to prove to them that he is, indeed, a legend after the kind of media coverage he has received since Sept. 11."

Arab websites are full of constant chatter this week. "Jihad in your face!" types one apparent fan of bin Laden.

Others in the Islamic world, however, see bin Laden as a publicity hound who is spoiling the efforts of their own politicians to bring peace to the region.

Farouk Abd El Aal, a soft-spoken corporate manager in Cairo, blames the messenger. "Actually, I can't believe what the [Qatar-based] Al Jazeera satellite station does by broadcasting these Osama tapes to the world," he says. "Why are they always the first ones to put his message on their air? Bin Laden is just a stupid maniac with no connection to my religion, Islam. He should be shut up!"

Mokhtar Shoaeb, who produces a television program for Egyptian youth, says that most young people have been appalled at the new threats from bin Laden. "Especially during our holy month of Ramadan, which is all about peace and understanding, people are just angry that bin Laden is back and making trouble for the Arab world," he says.

Persistent image

Despite the anger, bin Laden and his reputation aren't likely to vanish anytime soon. Until Tuesday's message, peppered with time references to recent terror attacks, Osama bin Laden's disappearance had caused eminent leaders, from Pakistan's president to the FBI's own counterterror chief, to say they believed he was dead.

Now, even the US president, who called for bin Laden to be brought in "dead or alive," says he is taking the latest Al Qaeda message "very seriously."

Many analysts of the war on terror are suggesting that the White House should not respond so openly to a militant clearly bent on getting the world's attention.

Heyman's advice to the Bush administration: "Stop saying that bin Laden is target No.1, or you'll be looking sillier and sillier every day."

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