On Jan. 24, a voice purported to be that of Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for the botched attempt to bring down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day. The short one-minute and two-second audio statement, which was broadcast on Al Jazeera television, called the 23-year-old Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a hero and threatened more attacks.
The voice on the recording said the bombing attempt was in response to the situation in Gaza and that the United States can never dream of living in peace until Muslims have peace in the Palestinian territories. The speaker also said that attacks against the United States would continue as long as the United States continued to support Israel.
While the U.S. government has yet to confirm that the voice is that of bin Laden, Al Jazeera claims that the voice is indeed that of the al Qaeda leader. Bin Laden’s health and welfare have been the topic of a lot of discussion and debate over the past several years, and many intelligence officials believe he is dead. Because of this, any time an audio recording purporting to be from bin Laden is released it receives heavy forensic scrutiny. Some technical experts believe that recent statements supposedly made by bin Laden have been cobbled together by manipulating portions of longer bin Laden messages that were previously recorded.
It has been STRATFOR’s position for several years that, whether bin Laden is dead or alive, the al Qaeda core has been marginalized by the efforts of the United States and its allies to the point where the group no longer poses a strategic threat.
Now, questions of bin Laden’s status aside, the recording was most likely released through channels that helped assure Al Jazeera that the recording was authentic. This means that we can be somewhat confident that the message was released by the al Qaeda core. The fact that the al Qaeda core would attempt to take credit for a failed attack in a recording is quite interesting. But perhaps even more interesting is the core group’s claim that the attack was conducted because of U.S support for Israel and the treatment of the Palestinians living in Gaza.
Smoke and Mirrors
During the early years of al Qaeda’s existence, the group did not take credit for attacks it conducted. In fact, it explicitly denied involvement. In interviews with the press, bin Laden often praised the attackers while, with a bit of a wink and a nod, he denied any connection to the attacks. Bin Laden issued public statements after the August 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks flatly denying any involvement.
In fact, bin Laden and al Qaeda continued to publicly deny any connection to the 9/11 attacks until after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. These denials of the 9/11 attacks have taken on a life of their own and have become the basis of conspiracy theories that the United States or Israel was behind the attacks (despite later statements by bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that contradicted earlier statements and claimed credit for 9/11).
In the years following 9/11, the al Qaeda core has continued to bask in the glory of that spectacularly successful attack, but it has not been able to produce the long-awaited encore. This is not for lack of effort; the al Qaeda core has been involved in several attempted attacks against the United States, such as the attempted shoe-bomb attack in December 2001, dispatching Jose Padilla to the United States in May of 2002 to purportedly try to conduct a dirty-bomb attack, and the August 2006 thwarted plot to attack trans-Atlantic airliners using liquid explosives. Interestingly, while each of these failed attempts has been tied to the al Qaeda core by intelligence and investigative efforts, the group did not publicly claim credit for any of them.
While the group’s leadership has made repeated threats that they were going to launch an attack that would dwarf 9/11, they simply have been unable to do so. Indeed, the only plot that could have come anywhere near the destruction of the 9/11 attacks was the liquid explosives plot, and that was foiled early on in the operational planning process — before the explosive devices were even fabricated.
Now, back to the failed bombing attempt on Christmas Day. First, the Yemeni franchise of al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has already claimed responsibility for the attack, and evidence strongly suggests that AQAP is the organization with which Abdulmutallab had direct contact. Indeed, while some members of AQAP have had prior contact with bin Laden, there is little to suggest that bin Laden himself or what remains of al Qaeda’s core leadership has any direct role in planning any of the operations conducted by AQAP.
The core group does not exercise that type of control over the activities of any of its regional groups. These groups are more like independent franchises that operate under the same brand name rather than parts of a single hierarchical organization. Each franchise has local leadership and is self-funding, and the franchises frequently diverge from global al Qaeda “corporate policies” in areas like target selection.
Furthermore, in an environment where the jihadists know that U.S. signals-intelligence efforts are keenly focused on the al Qaeda core and the regional franchise groups, discussing any type of operational information via telephone or e-mail from Yemen to Pakistan would be very dangerous — and terrible operational security. Using couriers would be more secure, but the al Qaeda core leadership is very cautious in its communications with the outside world (Hellfire missiles can have that effect on people), and any such communications will be very slow and deliberate. For the al Qaeda core leadership, the price of physical security has been the loss of operational control over the larger movement.
Taking things one step further, not only is the core of al Qaeda attempting to take credit for something it did not do, but it is claiming credit for an attack that did little more than severely burn the attacker in a very sensitive anatomical area. Some have argued that the attack was successful because it has instilled fear and caused the U.S. government to react, but clearly the attack would have had a far greater impact had the device detonated. The failed attack was certainly not what the operational planners had in mind when they dispatched Abdulmutallab on his mission.
This attempt by the al Qaeda core to pander for publicity, even though it means claiming credit for a botched attack, clearly demonstrates how far the core group has fallen since the days when bin Laden blithely denied responsibility for 9/11.
The Palestinian Focus
Since the beginning of bin Laden’s public discourse, the Palestinian cause has been a consistent feature. His 1996 declaration of war and the 1998 fatwa declaring jihad against the West and Israel are prime examples. However, the reality of al Qaeda’s activities has shown that, to bin Laden, the plight of the Palestinians has been less an area of genuine concern and more of a rhetorical device to exploit sympathy for the jihadist cause and draw Muslims to al Qaeda’s banner.
Over the years, al Qaeda has worked very closely with a number of militant groups in a variety of places, including the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in China. However, while one of bin Laden’s mentors, Abdullah Azzam, was a Palestinian, and there have been several Palestinians affiliated with al Qaeda over the years, the group has done little to support Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas, even though Hamas (as the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) sprang from the same radical Egyptian Islamist milieu that produced al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), which al-Zawahiri later folded into al Qaeda.
Jihadist militant groups such as Jund Ansar Allah have attempted to establish themselves in Gaza, but these groups were seen as problematic competition, rather than allies, and Hamas quickly stamped them out.
With little help coming from fellow Sunnis, Hamas has come to rely on Iran and Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, as sources of funding, weapons and training. Even though this support is flowing across the Shiite-Sunni divide, actions speak louder than words, and Iran and Hezbollah have shown that they can deliver. In many ways, the political philosophy of Hamas (which has been sharply criticized by al-Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders) is far closer to that of Iran than to that of the jihadists. With Iran’s help, Hamas has progressed from throwing rocks and firing homemade Qassam rockets to launching the longer range Grad and Fajr rockets and conducting increasingly effective irregular-warfare operations against the Israeli army.
Hezbollah’s ability to eject Israel from southern Lebanon and its strong stand against the Israeli armed forces in the 2006 war made a strong impression in the Middle East. Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are seen as very real threats to Israel, while al Qaeda has shown that it can produce a lot of anti-Israeli rhetoric but few results. Because of this, Iran and its proxies have become the vanguard of the fight against Israel, while al Qaeda is simply trying to keep its name in the press.
Claiming credit for failed attacks orchestrated by others and trying to latch on to the fight against Israel are just the latest signs that al Qaeda is trying almost too hard to remain relevant.
This report was republished with permission of STRATFOR