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.

Hasan Jamali/AP
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.

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.

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."

Probably a sign Obama is 'doing the right thing'

The two tapes are not unusual in content and Zawahiri used more vitriolic language against Obama in a taped message soon after the American president's election last fall, when the Al Qaeda leader called him a "house negro." The insulting term once referred to black slaves who took the side of white plantation owners against other slaves who did manual labor.

Zawahiri said that Obama was not welcome in Egypt, which is ruled by corrupt "butchers and tyrants," and he urged Egyptians to "stand united in the face of this criminal."

"I don't think we should read too much into these statements," says Hegghammer. He adds that they probably are an indication that Obama is "doing the right thing" by trying to improve US relations with the Muslim world through his visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and speech on Thursday.

Bin Laden tape focused on Pakistan

Bin Laden's message does not mention Obama's tour to the Middle East. Instead, it deals mostly with the latest fighting in Pakistan's Swat Valley where the Pakistan Army has gone after the Taliban insurgency, a conflict that has left 2.4 million people homeless.

Asserting that Obama ordered Pakistan to take on the Taliban, bin Laden added: "Obama is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, increasing the enmity of the Muslims, as well as the number of fighting enemies, and initiating prolonged wars. The American people should prepare to continue to reap what the leaders of the White House are sowing, in the years and decades to come ...," according to a translation by The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington.

Zawahiri targets Israel

By contrast, Zawahiri's message focuses on Israel. "Obama's message to the Muslim World was delivered when he visited the Wailing Wall, with the Jewish skullcap on his head, when he performed the Jewish prayers despite claiming that he is Christian," Zawahiri said.

He also noted Obama's campaign pledge to Israel supporters in the United States that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel. Obama later back-tracked on that statement.

"The honorable people of Egypt despise Obama and consider him an international criminal, and an arriviste politician who serves the Zionist cause in order to get promoted to the highest levels of government," Zawahiri added, according to a translation provided by the CBS NEWS web site.

Notwithstanding Lynch's analysis that Hamas and Hezbollah have overtaken Al Qaeda's popularity, bin Laden still remains personally popular with a small but signficant percetange, according to University of Maryland Middle East expert and pollster Shibley Telhami. He "is still popular and identified as a preferred leader by a significant number of people [in the Middle East], roughly 10 percent," Telhami said in the same discussion at Brookings. When asked why he is admired, "the largest group says, in fact, that it's standing up to the US. And very few people say, 'We embrace its agenda of a Taliban-like state.' "

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