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.
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.
The speaker on the tapes, believed by CIA analysts to be bin Laden, warns that the US troop buildup in the Gulf "for an attack on Iraq is only a link in the chain of continuing attacks on the countries of this region, including Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Sudan." "However," the speaker continues, "their real intention is to conquer and divide the land of the two holy sanctuaries, as they have long realized the strategic value of this target, ever since this objective was passed on from Britain to the United States 60 years ago."
The voice insists that the "United States' goal to divide and conquer the Middle East is not just a passing fancy."
Most Syrians, like other Arabs who had troubled 19th- and 20th-century ties with the British and French, view Western promises with a wary eye. During WWI, for example, the British backed Syria's Emir Faisal and promised him pan-Arab independence. The Syrians were disappointed, however, when the British, carving up the spoils of war, handed their country over to the French.
Fears of falling yet again under the Western yoke resound through Arab popular sentiment as a possible US-led invasion of Iraq looms. "George W. Bush is an evil man," says Mohammed Khatit, a Damascus schoolteacher. "He wants to control the world and no one can stop him, but we have to do something."
The view that the West is again out to divide and conquer the Arab world has brought together regional players with little else in common. Ironically, bin Laden shares a view of US intentions with important, often unpopular, Arab regimes that fear for their own survival in Washington's new Arab world order, says Hala Mustafa, a counterterrorism analyst with Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies.
Ms. Mustafa says that bin Laden understands the resonance of this message in the Arab world, which she contends still wears its colonialist past like an albatross around the neck. "Osama is wise to try to present the US as an embodiment of imperial power," she says. "He is clever to stress these fears at this time, and he clearly stands to improve his popularity by doing so."
Many Arab regimes face the precipice of real and unwanted change, says Mustafa. "Damascus is nervous because the regime still embraces old pan-Arab ideas and is deeply involved with the militant Hizbollah group in Lebanon," she says. "They know the US considers them a danger to its own interests. But in terms of nation building, Arab states have failed, on their own, to achieve reform and development. Traditional ways have produced no breakthrough and fanaticism is spreading."
Mustafa says that the only way to counter Arab fears of US intentions - if a war does break out - will be in the aftermath.
"Bin Laden's network is likely to get an initial boost from any US-led invasion of Iraq," she says. "To counter this, the US will need to stress democratization and nation building as the only way ahead. No one expects democracy to come overnight, but if leaders open to liberalization replace despots and fanatics, this will be a first step to refuting bin Laden's ideas."
• Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Washington.