Osama bin Laden ’emerges’ again

It has taken more then three weeks for a taped message purported to be from Osama bin Laden to emerge after the young Nigerian underwear bomber Omar Faroukh Abdulmuttallab tried to blow up a Delta Airlines plane as it prepared to land at Detroit. Several things are worth considering about the content, timing and motives of the latest audio message broadcast on Al Jazeera.

The message warns President Barack Obama of further attacks unless America finds a solution to the Palestinian crisis. In a soft, chilling manner that has become the trademark of Osama bin Laden, he warns: “The message I want to convey to you through the plane of the hero Omar Farouk [Abdulmuttallab] reaffirms a previous message that the heroes of 9/11 conveyed to you. America will never dream of living in peace unless we live it in Palestine. It is unfair that you enjoy a safe life while our brothers in Gaza suffer greatly.

“Therefore, with God’s will, our attacks on you will continue as long as you continue to support Israel.”

According to Al Jazeera, the message was thought to have been recorded just after the Christmas Day attempt of bombing, but released now. Why now? There are several explanations. Bin Laden is widely thought to be living somewhere in the north-west of Pakistan, heavily guarded and in conditions of great secrecy. He is a sick man and by various accounts needs kidney dialysis from time to time. Some even say he is dead. My suspicion is that it is unlikely he is no longer alive.

Recording a message and smuggling the tape out to Al-Jazeera takes time, especially when the hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban leaders is intense and American drone attacks are more frequent.

Equally important is the timing of this message. President Obama has suffered a number of major domestic and foreign policy setbacks in recent weeks. The enormity of his difficulties has become obvious in the last few days. The Democratic Party’s shock defeat in the Massachusetts Senate race has been a watershed in the young Obama administration.

Its effects for his plans for health reform, restructuring of the economic and banking system and tackling the unemployment problem are very serious. The Democratic Party is in disarray; the rump Republican opposition left in the Senate and the House of Representatives after the November 2008 general election is on an obstructive path, showing a surprising degree of cohesion and spirit.

Obama’s ambitious foreign policy agenda is also in disarray. His efforts to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace process have quickly reached a dead end, largely because of the Israeli government’s refusal to cooperate with his wish to see the construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories halted. The Palestinian leadership finds it extremely difficult to come to the negotiating table before it happens and the current Israeli right-wing government will not bend.

Obama’s Af-Pak policy that appeared to be a sensible approach at the start has caused more problems than its promise to find solutions. America’s desire to build an ever closer strategic alliance with India, aimed at expanding lucrative trade and finding a counter to China, has instead run counter to Washington’s relations with Pakistan. For the first time, Pakistan’s public opinion as well as its military and political establishment are openly hostile to Washington’s plans.

The mood of the Afghan parliament is increasingly rebellious. It has twice rejected President Karzai’s cabinet nominees. The refusal to approve a large number of nominees is not merely a snub to President Karzai, a US-installed leader in Kabul. It is a message to the occupying powers, primarily America, deploying nearly 40000 additional troops in Afghanistan. After the presidential election fiasco of 2009, there was a real possibility of greater fraud and disruption by violence in the parliamentary elections in May 2010. More Western soldiers would have died. And the new parliament may well have been even more rebellious.

These, and not the want of funds needed to hold elections, were more pressing reasons for the postponement of the parliamentary elections until September 2010. There must be doubt whether they will take place then. A lot depends on whether the additional troops manage to supress the growing rebellion across Afghanistan.

The underlying message of the ruling political-military elite of Pakistan is that if the United States chooses India as its senior partner in South Asia, there will be a price to pay in terms of lost cooperation with Pakistan. That prospect involves greater risk.

Osama bin Laden’s message is deliberately timed with all these unwelcome developments for the Obama presidency and days before the London conference on January 28. Bin Laden’s goal is to cause maximum confusion and panic when there already is great uncertainty. He has once again picked up the Palestinian issue, which is at the heart of the ‘web of crises’ afflicting the entire Muslim world and communities beyond. Right from its birth, the Palestinian crisis, and the presence of American troops on Muslim soil, have been the two most potent items on al Qaeda’s agenda.

The United States cannot afford to relax its efforts to make progress on the Palestinian problem without there being consequences. Similarly, Obama cannot afford to keep American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq indefinitely if he is to give the peace offer he made to Muslims in Cairo in June 2009 a chance.