New Al Qaeda tape hints at frustration

In the tape, 'Azam the American' threatens attacks against Melbourne, Los Angeles.

Al Qaeda has marked the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington with a warning of future strikes in Los Angeles and Melbourne, and this rebuke to the American people: You don't get what we're fighting for.

The 11-minute message, purportedly from Al Qaeda and produced by its video production house As-Sahab, was delivered to ABC News in Pakistan and seen by the Monitor in Kabul. In the video, a masked combatant identified as Azam al-Amriki, or Azam the American, speaks in American-accented English; Arabic subtitles are included.

Mr. Azam says Western leaders have misled the public about Al Qaeda's motivations.

"Four years after the blessed raids on New York and Washington, we find the people of the West continuing to speculate about their causes and objectives," he says. "We see no acceptable excuse for this continuing uncertainty, especially since the mujahideen have been unambiguous in stating their methodology on justice and the reasons for their armed struggle against the crusaders, and they have not heeded anything."

For some US analysts, the frustration expressed in the most recent tape is more a reflection of the failings of Al Qaeda since the success of their Sept. 11 attacks than of the world's inability to understand their cause.

"Once again this expresses Al Qaeda's complete naivete about the real impact of their actions," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military affairs analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Most terrorist organizations have internal debates about their tactics and appear to adjust them based on results, Mr. O'Hanlon says. But not Al Qaeda.

"If you look at the terrorist groups targeting Israel, you see they debate what targets and means are legitimate, there is some indication of a debate about the ethics of terrorism. But we don't see any of that in Al Qaeda," he says.

Rather, recent statements by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, suggest that it is the lack of debate in the West about the political aims behind Al Qaeda's terror attacks that seems to be bothering Al Qaeda.

In a November 2004 message to the American people, a yellow-robed Mr. bin Laden sought to play more statesman than terrorist, explaining the roots of his wrath towards the US and suggesting his goal was to bankrupt Washington through costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A Sept. 1, 2005 statement by Al Zawahiri, meanwhile, went even further, calling the British people "idiots incapable of understanding."

In the latest tape, Azam, flanked by two automatic rifles, demands a withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as changes in Western governments.

"Rid yourselves of your current leaders and governments and their anti-Islam, anti-Muslim policies or suffer the consequences," Azam says.

Unless Western leaders "heed the mujahideen's demand for justice" in the Muslim world further attacks can be expected, he says. "Yesterday, London and Madrid. Tomorrow, Los Angeles, and Melbourne, Allah willing. At this time, don't count on us demonstrating restraint or compassion."

Azam chastises European leaders for "arrogantly dismissing" a bin Laden truce offer "with the false claim that, 'We don't negotiate with terrorists, and that in any case, Al Qaeda has no demands to meet.' "

For O'Hanlon, the expectation that a group can go around the world "targeting innocent people, and then expect those same people to see the rightness of its cause is just absurd thinking." What that suggests to him, is that "Osama bin Laden is not the mastermind of hearts-and-minds warfare that he is often portrayed to be."

Others say the frustration expressed in the tape probably reflects more than anything the reality of an Al Qaeda that is unable, four years after Sept. 11, to mount a terrorist action in the US at will.

"Had the terrorists had any residual ability to strike in the US they would have done it in the wake of Katrina and with the 9/11 anniversary, but all they could do was make a tape," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence office and terrorism expert.

The real source of frustration for the Al Qaeda leadership, Mr. Peters says, is that "9/11 has backfired horribly on them. What's infuriating them is that they have failed to gain traction in the Muslim regions where they thought they would."

Just back from a swing through east Africa, Peters says he saw repeated signs of Al Qaeda's failure to raise anything beyond occasional individual interest.

"Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has not been able to excite a mass international movement," Peters says. "Their frustration, despite their occasional success at mounting a dramatic operation or inspiring other groups to do one, is that no matter what they do, on the broader scale they are unable to make progress."

US authorities believe Azam is the nom du guerre of Adam Gadahn, a California native and Muslim convert believed to have joined Al Qaeda. He was the front man on an earlier As-Sahab video released just days before the 2004 US presidential elections that warned of colossal terrorist attacks.

The latest video disputes speculation in the West about the role of Al Qaeda tapes. "The numerous audio and video tapes issued by ... leaders of the jihad have not been released merely to dispel rumors of their deaths, or, as the Americans once ridiculously claimed, to send coded messages to their followers," says Azam. "No, these communiqués have been released to explain and propound the nature and goals of the worldwide jihad against America and the crusaders and to convey our legitimate demands to friend and foe alike."

The tape was delivered to an ABC producer in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sept. 10 by a courier who would not identify himself. It was the second time a courier delivered an As-Sahab release to the US network.

Reporter Gretchen Peters is also ABC's producer in Pakistan.

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