Bin Laden Throws Support to Palestinians

Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden are paying fresh attention to the plight of the Palestinians, advocating solidarity in confronting Israel. On Sunday, bin Laden turned his wrath on Arab and Muslim leaders who he says have failed to give adequate support to the Palestinians.

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President Bush's praise for Israel during last week's visit has been answered by one of Israel's fiercest enemies. Twice in the last four days, Osama bin Laden has released messages calling on Muslims to fight the Jews and liberate Palestine, in his words, from the Israeli invaders and occupiers. For years, al-Qaida spokesmen have called attention to the plight of the Palestinians. But as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, some analysts see a new emphasis in bin Laden's messages.

TOM GJELTEN: Osama bin Laden has spoken out on many issues of concern to Muslims, ranging from the US military presence in Arab and Muslim lands to what he sees as the corrupt, pro-Western stance of many Arab and Muslim governments. But his two most recent declarations have focused squarely on the Palestinian issue.

Mr. OSAMA BIN LADEN: (Speaking foreign language)

GJELTEN: In a message released yesterday, bin Laden denounced Arab leaders for not defending the Palestinians. Jarret Brackman is research director at the Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point.

Mr. JARRET BRACKMAN (West Point): These are very, very targeted messages on the issue of Palestine. He doesn't bring in any other geographic dimensions, he doesn't talk about any other issues. It's a focus specifically on the plight of the Palestinians and the need for Muslims to throw off any restraints that they have been feeling and move to fight.

GJELTEN: Osama bin Laden mostly leaves it to his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to make pronouncements in the name of al-Qaida. But Israel's 60th anniversary, with President George Bush in attendance, was clearly an event bin Laden wanted to take note of on his own.

Bruce Riedel is a former terrorism analyst at the CIA, now at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. BRUCE RIEDEL (Brookings Institution): You see here Osama bin Laden looking down the road at the calendar, sometime several weeks ago, and saying I want to make sure I get my message out on this day because I want my message to resonate in the Islamic world. And I'll be happy to be set up as the one who's answering Bush on behalf of the Islamic world.

GJELTEN: Bin Laden's embrace of the Palestinian cause can be a bit problematic. The Palestinian leadership, including Hamas in Gaza, has been far more willing to work through a democratic process than al-Qaida has been. Bin Laden may be popular among the Palestinian rank and file, but al-Qaida as an organization does not have much standing in the Palestinian territories.

Bruce Riedel says bin Laden and these pronouncements is addressing those Palestinians who may be tempted to pursue negotiations with the Israelis. The message, he says, is clear.

Mr. RIEDEL: Don't even think about a path of negotiation. The only way that you will recover what you feel you have lost is through violence.

GJELTEN: When Osama bin Laden has spoken in the past, terrorism experts have scrutinized his declarations for any indication of an imminent terrorist attack. Lately, though, al-Qaida has been as much of a propaganda operation as an active terrorist organization.

Again, Jarret Brackman of the Center for Combating Terrorism.

Mr. BRACKMAN: They have gotten much more clever in their rhetoric over the past year or two, and you're really seeing a lot more nuance and sophistication in their writings, and they are much more attentive to the criticisms that they're coming under and trying to deal with each one.

GJELTEN: This change may be coming in response to setbacks, both military and political. Al-Qaida's operation in Iraq has been severely diminished as a result of attacks by U.S. and Iraqi military forces, and some Muslim leaders, notably including radical Islamists, have criticized al-Qaida for its willingness to kill Muslim women and children in pursuit of its goals.

Bin Laden's renewed embrace of the Palestinians struggles against Israel, a hot-button cause in the Muslim world, may be part of an effort to strengthen al-Qaida's position. How effective it will be is another question. Palestinian leaders, including those from Hamas have generally been careful to distance themselves from al-Qaida and bin Laden.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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