Friday, July 10, 2009

Bin Laden distressed by Obama?

A day before President Barack Obama is to deliver a speech here seeking goodwill with the Islamic world, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden tried in a new message Wednesday to convince Muslims they should hate him.

The message was the second from al-Qaida in as many days criticizing Obama. Analysts said the PR offensive shows the terrorist organization worries the new president will succeed in improving America's image in the Muslim world and undermine the group's anti-American jihad, or holy war.

"Obama's election is just about the worst thing that could have happened to these guys," said Tom Sanderson, a terrorism expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They knew right away that his election undermined a key part of their argument that the U.S. was anti-Islamic, that the U.S. was racist."

Obama's speech at Cairo University Thursday is part of a campaign to prove he differs from former President George W. Bush, whose invasion of Iraq and aggressive counterterrorism tactics stoked Muslim ire and helped al-Qaida rally support.

Al-Qaida has tried to counter that message by painting Obama as no different from Bush, highlighting U.S. involvement in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

In his audiotape, aired on Al-Jazeera television, bin Laden said Obama has inflamed hatred toward the U.S. by ordering Pakistan to crack down on militants and block Islamic law there.

He claimed U.S. pressure led to a campaign of "killing, fighting, bombing and destruction" that prompted the exodus of a million Muslims from the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. He was referring to a Pakistani military campaign against the Taliban that began in April, an indication the tape was made since then.

"Obama and his administration have sown new seeds to increase hatred and revenge on America," bin Laden said. "The number of these seeds is equal to the number of displaced people from Swat Valley."

Bin Laden did not specifically mention Obama's speech in his message. Al-Jazeera did not say how or when the tape was obtained, and its authenticity could not be immediately verified.

On Tuesday, al-Qaida's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, said in an audio message that Obama's upcoming speech would not change Muslim sentiment because of the "bloody messages" the U.S. military is sending in Afghanistan and Iraq.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in Saudi Arabia with Obama, said al-Qaida wants "to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts ... (to) have an open dialogue with the Muslim world."

Obama is popular in the Middle East, in part because of his friendly words toward Islam, his promises to withdraw from Iraq and his own personal background. Still many Arabs remain skeptical about how deeply he will change U.S. policy, which they see as biased toward Israel.

Sanderson said Obama's approach could make it harder for al- Qaida to recruit supporters and raise money.

"It starts to tighten up avenues for them for finance, for people, for information," said Sanderson.

Al-Zawahri has been critical of Obama since his election, even releasing a message that referred to Obama as a "house negro," a slur for a black subservient to whites. Bin Laden has been more sparing in his criticism, and his harsh rhetoric in Wednesday's message could indicate he has become more concerned about Obama's impact.

"They have been trying to present him as a continuation of the old policies and discredit him," Jeremy Binnie, an analyst with Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center in Britain, said. "I think to a certain extent that it shows they are worried by this guy."

Obama's decision to deliver his speech in longtime ally Egypt highlights one of al-Qaida's frequent propaganda points -- the alliances between the U.S. and repressive Arab governments.

Al-Zawahri called the Egyptian officials welcoming Obama U.S. "slaves" who have turned the country into an "international station of torture in America's war on Islam."

The Obama administration has hinted it won't hinge its relationship with Egypt on human rights demands and democracy promotion. Still, in an apparent nod to rights concerns, the Obama administration invited several opponents of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to the Cairo speech.

Ayman Nour, a top opposition leader who challenged Mubarak in 2005 elections and called for greater democracy, said he would attend. Nour was imprisoned on forgery charges after the election, sparking heavy criticism from Washington. He was released in February in an apparent gesture to the U.S.

Also attending are 11 lawmakers from the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful opposition movement, said one of the 11, Mohammed Saad el-Katatni.

Many analysts argue Washington should engage the Brotherhood directly to show it is open to dealing with nonviolent Islamist movements. But U.S. administrations have balked, wary of upsetting Mubarak's government.

The Brotherhood, which calls for an Islamic state, renounced the use of violence in the 1970s and now says it seeks democratic reform in Egypt. It is banned and hundreds of its members have been arrested. Still, its members run as independents in elections and hold 20 percent of parliament's seats.

One prominent young Brotherhood activist, Abdel-Moneim Mahmoud, said Obama should talk to the movement "because we are moderate and nonviolent Muslims."

By doing so, Obama would help protect the U.S. "because only moderate and balanced-thinking Muslims can help to rid their countries of extremists," he said.

AP correspondent Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report.
Copyright C 2009 Deseret News Publishing Co.
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.


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