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April 16, 2004

bin Laden Tape Has Clues on Qaeda Command Status, Leaders' Location

By J.M. Berger

The release of a new tape from Osama bin Laden raises serious questions about U.S. and Pakistani claims to have disrupted al Qaeda's command-and-control structure.

The tape, which is believed to be authentic, is also indisputably recent. It contains references to the March 11 attack in Madrid, as well as the March 22 slaying of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas.

The tape was based on an audio recording, but distributed on video. While this may indicate that bin Laden lacks video capacity on site, it may also represent a strategic choice to avoid revealing location clues. In early March, it was reported that a rare shrub spotted on a bin Laden video had sparked a manhunt in the Afghan-Pakistan border region where the shrub grows. (The veracity of this report has been called into question.)

The tape (full text) also contains several references to Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush:
Had he (Bush) been truthful about his claim for peace, he would not describe the person who ripped open pregnant women in Sabra and Shatila (Sharon) and the destroyer of the capitulation process (Palestinian peace process) as a man of peace.
The dating of the reference isn't clear, but the timing of the release of the tape is extremely clear. It came just 24 hours after Bush endorsed an extremely controversial Israeli initiative to disengage with the Palestinians and retain its disputed claim to Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

"(The endorsement) undermines hope for a just and comprehensive peace, inflames feelings of enmity toward America and opens the door toward retaking these (Palestinian) rights by force, through all legitimate means of resistance," President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

bin Laden's tape arrived just as Arab leaders were firing the opening verbal salvos over the Sharon initiative. The net effect was that normally moderate Arab leaders were making speeches that sounded more extreme than usual, while bin Laden issued a speech that struck a conciliatory note and focused closely on Palestinian issues. The end result is that bin Laden has in a single stroke subtly realigned himself with the mainstream of the Arab world.

The most important question is whether the message was intended that way. If the bin Laden tape was recorded after the Sharon reaffirmed the initiative on April 13, before leaving for the U.S., that means bin Laden — where ever he may be — is capable of moving a sophisticated tape from recording to wide distribution within a matter of mere days — not much slower than Bush can stage a national press conference.

At the latest, certainly, the tape was recorded after the killing of Yassin on March 22, which may have been the impetus for its creation. The tape was distributed in three versions, one in Arabic, one with English subtitles and one with German subtitles.

Such capacity indicates that bin Laden may retain direct control over al Qaeda, and that the organization's command-and-control capacity may not be nearly as decimated as the U.S. and its allies have repeatedly suggested.

Last month, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf told ABC News that bin Laden and top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri were no longer in "operational control" of al Qaeda. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, responding to those comments a few days later, said "If one is thinking of highly centralized organization, single organization, where instructions go down, and they're obeyed, I think that's not likely. I think there's too much pressure on them." (It's not at all clear that al Qaeda was organized along such lines to begin with.)

At the very least, bin Laden is obviously able to transmit messages and orders to his operatives. He has knowledge of current events, as the tape's content demonstrates. If information is moving both to and from bin Laden, then command-and-control capacity exists. If the tape was produced within the last week, then command-and-control may be operating at nearly the same levels as they were before 9/11.

In the past, bin Laden and Zawahiri appear to have exercised command-and-control over al Qaeda activities largely (but not exclusively) through personal visits, face-to-face meetings and third-party emissaries. The first two options especially have been limited by U.S. and Pakistani operations along the Afghan border, unless the two leaders have left the area. Even in that case, the requirement for secrecy about their whereabouts will continue to be limiting.

Theological and political pronouncements continue to be distributed through privately published books, CD-ROMs, Web sites and the mass media. These include taped messages, written fatwas and other tracts. These methods do not appear to have been significantly impacted by Western efforts.

Top al Qaeda lieutenants used letters, faxes, phone calls and the Internet to give instructions to field operatives. These operations have evolved after 9/11, due to infrastructure disruption, the destruction of numerous base camps and a intense intelligence effort focused on technological tracking. None of these communication routes appear to have been entirely closed off.

It's very likely that bin Laden and al Qaeda's inner circle have begun using some courier and electronic communications for command-and-control functions, but little intelligence has reached the public on this front. The use of key, trusted emissaries has likely taken on paramount importance and may be the most vulnerable spot in the system.

In order to gather more intelligence about how command/control functions are now being handled, intelligence services first need to get a fix on bin Laden's general location, a crucial question potentially complicated by the new tape's content.

Given the amount of military activity around the Pakistan-Afghan border, it's unclear whether bin Laden could safely move a tape out from that area within a few short days. A Zawahiri audio tape released in March also referenced news events that had occured just days before its release.

If the tape is indeed authentic, and if it was produced within the last week, the question then becomes: Are bin Laden and Zawahiri really still in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions where troops are hunting them? If they are, how can they produce and distribute their messages with such impunity? And if they are not, where are they?

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