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Al Qaeda's media strategy

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

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Osama bin Laden's recent audiotape brought the focus back on the al Qaeda leader.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- In the beginning, there was the media strategy.

Osama bin Laden had a filmmaker with him in Afghanistan when he was fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. When he lived in Sudan in the 1990s, bin Laden appeared on Sudanese television more than once.

Al Qaeda had a media committee from its founding in the late 1980s, and its first spokesman, perhaps with a sense of irony, used the alias Abu Reuter.

Bin Laden did his first interviews with Western news media when he was in Sudan, then did his first Western television interview, when he met CNN in Afghanistan in 1997.

Peter Bergen was there.

"In 1997, when we interviewed bin Laden, he clearly had a thought-out media strategy," said Bergen, who is now CNN's terrorism analyst. "He asked us to submit a list of questions in advance. He only wanted to answer the questions he wanted to answer, and not personal questions."

A year later, when bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, publicly declared war on the United States, they did it at a carefully orchestrated news conference in Afghanistan that ended with a tea party and a fusillade of machine gun fire.

Before 9/11, bin Laden's appearances on tape often presaged an attack.

After 9/11, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri commanded greater media attention. Their appearances had a variety of motivations, from thumbing their noses at the United States to warning of future attacks to showing they were still alive.

An example of the last is bin Laden's video from late December 2001, apparently shot after the siege at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, his last known whereabouts.

Proof of life

Now comes the latest bin Laden tape, after 13 months of silence. At one level, the message is clear: Osama bin Laden isn't dead.

With his new audiotape, bin Laden effectively put an end to any questions about that. And, whether by accident or design, he also managed to change the subject.

Instead of talking about the recent attack aimed at killing al Qaeda's No. 2, al-Zawahiri, the focus is back on bin Laden.

He has not only made it clear that he's alive, but he has also made his most explicit threats since 9/11 about attacks inside the United States.

"It's only a matter of time; they are in the planning stages and you will see them in the heart of your land as soon as the planning is complete," he said on the tape.

Al-Zawahiri's last videotape appeared January 6. Like bin Laden's tape, it appears to date from December. So why hasn't bin Laden spoken until now, making al-Zawahiri the face of al Qaeda for the past year?

Bin Laden "waits until there's some particular reason to issue something like this," former CIA director James Woolsey told CNN. "And I think there is a reasonably good chance, yes, that something is being planned. Each al Qaeda attack in the past has been larger than the one before against us. Conceivably, it's something larger than 9/11."

So the new tape from bin Laden could mean all sorts of things, according to whom you ask: proof of life, threat of an attack, an effort to terrorize, a rallying cry for his supporters, a coded order to launch an attack.

The man who didn't come to dinner

It was only a matter of time -- 17 days to be exact -- before al-Zawahiri would make it clear that the U.S. missed in its attempt to kill him in a missile attack.

And of course he did it with a videotape, again complete with English subtitles, taunting President Bush for the failed attack on a religious feast in the Pakistani town of Damadola.

But al-Zawahiri also mentioned bin Laden's offer of a truce in his message, as well as the US reaction, which means that within the space of the 11 days since bin Laden's audio tape appeared on Al-Jazeera, al-Zawahiri was able to put together a polished video and have it delivered to the TV station.

There is of course the question, raised again at a White House briefing the day bin Laden's tape appeared, of why the tapes can't be used to find al Qaeda's leaders.

"I don't have anything for you on that," was White House spokesman Scott McClellan's reply to reporters.

A fundamental misunderstanding

As sophisticated as bin Laden and al Qaeda's media strategy has been, it has also been a failure.

There is a strong political component to bin Laden's latest tape: trying to turn the American people against President Bush, and offering a "truce" if the United States were to lay down its weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Bergen said that what the tape instead shows is that though bin Laden might know how to make his message resonate in parts of the Islamic world, he misunderstands America and Americans, who decided a long time ago that bin Laden and al Qaeda were terrorists.

"They have a media strategy," Bergen said, "but Americans aren't listening."

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