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Analysis: Afghanistan top of al Qaeda's agenda

By CNN's Andrew Carey
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The latest communique from Osama Bin Laden received only moderate coverage in the MSM -- the mainstream media -- of which CNN is clearly a part.

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It was audio only, so there was no opportunity to chew over the length or color of Bin Laden's beard. No video also meant there was much less in the way of new "evidence" to assist conspiracy theorists in their assertion that recordings like these are all the work of the Pentagon.

But despite this, the recording should not be overlooked.

It was billed as a Message to the European peoples. And its theme was Afghanistan. Bin Laden again claimed responsibility for the September 11 attacks, but said that Afghans had known nothing about the plot.

This, he said, meant that the war launched by the United States and its allies in the wake of September 11 was unfair on the people of Afghanistan, whose only sin, he said, was to be Muslim. The speech also included what might be described as a direct appeal to the voters of Europe.

"It is better for you to restrain your politicians, who are thronging the steps of the White House, and work diligently to remove oppression from the oppressed. For justice is right and injustice is torment, and returning to the truth is the hallmark of men of understanding. And peace be on those who follow the guidance."

According to Ben Venzke of the U.S. based IntelCenter, which monitors closely the messages from al Qaeda, the message is clear. It should be viewed, he says as a "valid indicator of a possible upcoming major al Qaeda attack in one or more European countries."

In other words: Get out of Afghanistan quickly, people, or face the consequences.

"The fact that the address is aimed at the people of European countries as opposed to their leaders is done to later justify mass casualty attacks on civilians," says Venzke. "That's because it places the responsibility for a government's decisions on its people as opposed to the organs of government."

Bin Laden's message, assuming the people of Europe are listening, of course, comes at an interesting juncture. The NATO mission in Afghanistan has struggled in recent months to get member countries to commit the extra troops and equipment that military chiefs on the ground say they need.

On top of that, there is the growing perception -- albeit one angrily dismissed by NATO -- that increases in the number of suicide attacks and roadside bombings by Taliban insurgents suggest the mission is doomed to failure.

The Alliance did receive a boost last week when the Netherlands committed troops for two more years but the fact is that "Afghanistan," like "Iraq", is considered a vote loser in Europe.

And nowhere more so than in Germany, where opinion polls suggest two-thirds of the population are against their country's participation in the NATO mission.

Germans are already aware that their country is a target after three men were arrested in September for allegedly plotting to attack U.S. military bases there. According to Peter Neumann, a German national and director of the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College, London, a successful terrorist attack in Germany "would result in very heavy pressures on the government to withdraw from Afghanistan."

Even Germany's tough Interior Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, questioned on this by CNN during a recent visit to London, conceded: "You never know what would happen [to public opinion] in the case of an unimaginable situation."

With more than 3,000 troops committed in Afghanistan -- the third largest foreign contingent after the United States and Britain -- any pullout by Germany would be a huge blow to NATO, both operationally and in terms of prestige.

Al Qaeda quite possibly believes it can make this happen. Indeed Neumann believes Afghanistan is increasingly seen by al Qaeda as more winnable than Iraq, where the insurgency has begun to lose some momentum. Bin Laden's message serves to reinforce that view.

It also serves, along with the implied threat of attack that it carries, as a reminder of al Qaeda's most "successful" operation to date: The Madrid train bombings of 2004. Those attacks resulted in a change of government in Spain and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq.

A month after the atrocity, bin Laden sought to cash in on that success, offering Europeans a truce if they "stopped attacking Muslims or interfering in their affairs."

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This time, bin Laden has decided to stick the message out anyway, safe in the knowledge that Europe's leaders are desperate to avoid a repeat of the Spanish experience but might, in the face of an increasingly jittery public, be forced into it anyway.

And in an effort to make sure Europeans did "get the message" this time around, al Qaeda decided for the first time to have a speech by bin Laden subtitled in not one but two European languages. English, of course, was one. The other was German. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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