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Al Qaeda's Coils Grip the Media

Airwaves and the Internet fall prey to terrorist tactics.

September 10, 2002|FAWAZ A. GERGES

Aware of the symbolic power of Sept. 11, Al Qaeda's lieutenants have used media outlets to celebrate and capitalize on this historic moment. Gone is their pretense of denial. Now they have publicly taken full credit for the Sept. 11 attacks and have promised to visit more death and mayhem on the U.S.

Al Qaeda appears to have learned no new lessons about its past suicidal conduct. No second thoughts about killing thousands of innocent American civilians or precipitating a devastating war that has claimed more Muslim lives. No apologies about tarnishing the name of Islam in the world and jeopardizing the well-being of the Muslim communities in the West. No explanations about initially feeding Arabs and Muslims lies about their innocence and blindly luring their sons into a deathtrap in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In the last two weeks, Al Jazeera, the leading Arab television network, has broadcast interviews with two of the group's field lieutenants, who admit to helping plan and carry out the Sept. 11 attacks. Blindfolded and driven to a secret location apparently in Pakistan, Al Jazeera's correspondent said he was surprised to find himself seated next to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed--a close associate of the presumed mastermind of the September attacks, Mohamed Atta--and Ramzi Omar, also known as Ramzi Binalshibh, one of the highest-ranking Al Qaeda field lieutenants and one of the most-wanted fugitives in the world. Mohammed and Omar discussed Al Qaeda's organizational skills and its ability to strike at the heart of the U.S. without being detected and promised more attacks to come.

Although it is not the first time Al Qaeda has confessed to the crime--Al Jazeera says it has 19 videotapes by all the hijackers airing their grievances against the U.S.--Mohammed and Omar's acknowledgment timed to coincide with the attacks' first anniversary sheds light on the group's mind-set and desperate quest for recognition.

Hunted down and on the run a year later, Al Qaeda is trying to convince the world that it is still alive and kicking, capable of unleashing terror and death on its enemies. Since its war with the U.S. has not gone as well as it had hoped, Al Qaeda's strategy is designed to motivate hardened foot soldiers and inspire sympathizers to target Americans and continue the fight.

According to Arab and Pakistani sources who are close to Al Qaeda, at the end of 2001, after the Taliban's fall, Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants decided to withdraw their forces to Pakistan and Iran, with a preference for the former because of its proximity and the presence of militant supporters and to organize them in sleeper cells in preparation for future attacks.

Although Pakistani and Iranian authorities arrested dozens of Al Qaeda's fighters, hundreds of others, along with their families, escaped. Some settled in Iran, but most sought refuge in the rugged area along the Pakistani-Afghan border under the protection of tribal elders. Other members of Al Qaeda reportedly used Karachi's access to the Arabian Sea to travel to Oman, Yemen and Somalia.

Al Qaeda appears to be using the September anniversary to reassure these important hidden assets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Europe and elsewhere and to signal them to be ready and vigilant.

For example, two weeks ago, Bin Laden reportedly released a handwritten letter, posted on the Jihadonline Web site, in which he belittled U.S. power and claimed that it will ultimately be defeated and meet the same fate as that of former empires. Ironically, he called on Afghans, not Arabs (obviously, he has been disappointed with Arab inaction), to rise up against the U.S., which only understands "the language of force and jihad."

On Thursday, Bin Laden's confidant and spokesman, Sulaiman abu Ghaith, on a Web site frequented by militants, published an emotional letter addressed to Al Qaeda's "captives" in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He claimed that "the moujahedeen will not rest until they liberate their brethren in faith." He did not say how Al Qaeda, which possesses no naval armada, would be capable of sailing the oceans and infiltrating a well-guarded U.S. military base. Perhaps he was insinuating that Al Qaeda might take Americans hostage and then use them as a bargaining chip to gain the release of its prisoners?

Abu Ghaith's letter might not have provided a concrete plan or map of how to free the prisoners, but, imitating the example of his boss, he included fiery verses of poetry to lift the morale of the troops. This goal--keeping the jihad flames alight and preventing further erosion--lies at the heart of Al Qaeda's celebration.

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