Osama bin Laden's October surprise

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Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Islamabad, is used to receiving taped messages from al-Qa'ida. They are usually handed over in the Pakistani capital's Aapara bazaar, where the courier can fade away in a sea of male shoppers wearing similar traditional clothing. But the men delivering Osama bin Laden's latest message were particularly brazen.

Ahmad Muaffaq Zaidan, al-Jazeera's bureau chief in Islamabad, is used to receiving taped messages from al-Qa'ida. They are usually handed over in the Pakistani capital's Aapara bazaar, where the courier can fade away in a sea of male shoppers wearing similar traditional clothing. But the men delivering Osama bin Laden's latest message were particularly brazen.

Instead of arranging an encounter in a teeming market, on Friday evening two men arrived in a white car at the Islamabad villa used as an office by the Arabic satellite channel. They did not bother with any cloak-and-dagger posturing. One of them casually handed a plain white envelope to the guard at the gate, who brought it inside. Then they drove away. In the envelope was al-Qa'ida's attempt at its own "October surprise" - the videotape in which a finger-wagging Bin Laden lectures Americans about the reasons for the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001.

"I opened it, and it was a big scoop, " Mr Zaidan said yesterday. As soon as he realised what was on the undated tape, and recognised the unmistakable features of Osama bin Laden, he transmitted it to the station headquarters in Qatar. It was dubbed and broadcast around the world just hours later.

What on earth was Bin Laden's remarkable intervention designed to achieve? Was it an attempt to steer US voters one way or another on the eve of the election? In the battleground states of the rural Midwest, voters have been inundated in recent weeks with a weight of political advertisements - some fair, some inaccurate, some seeking to play on people's fears, others trying to reassure the public that one or other candidate can keep America safe. None has been as extraordinary as the campaign advertisement of Osama bin Laden.

His message was undoubtedly political. "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qa'ida. Your security is in your own hands," said the al-Qa'ida leader, speaking in terms that suggested to a greater or lesser extent he had been following the election campaign.

But what effect, if any, the video may have on the election is unclear at this stage. "It is a double-edged sword," Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, wrote yesterday on his website, JuanCole.com. "On the one hand, it is a painful reminder that Bush dropped the ball, left the fight against al-Qa'ida half-finished, and ran off to the Iraq quagmire, so that Bin Laden is still at large three years after he killed 3,000 Americans and hit the Pentagon itself. That can't be good for Bush. On the other hand, because so many Americans confuse Bush's swagger and aggressive instincts with being 'strong on terrorism', any big reminder that al-Qa'ida is out there could actually help W. It shouldn't, but it may well."

With polls showing the two candidates neck and neck - the Zogby tracking poll yesterday scored it 47-46 in Mr Kerry's favour - any slight shift in the numbers could at this stage be critical.

As news of the video emerged on Friday, Mr Kerry was quick to point out that there had been missed chances to capture Bin Laden. "I regret that when George Bush had the opportunity in Afghanistan and Tora Bora he didn't choose to use American forces to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden," he told a television station in Wisconsin. "He outsourced the job to Afghan warlords ... I think it was an enormous mistake and we are paying the price for that."

Analysts from the Arab world yesterday said Bin Laden's comments were noteworthy for the way they were aimed at Americans. "It was very directed at Americans in particular, not Arabs. In 2001, he was saying this is a religious war and used a lot of Koranic verses - here he is talking about a clear political struggle," said Cairo-based analyst Dia Rashwan. "He read from a written speech, which is rare for him. He was at a podium, not wandering in mountains. There was no weapon at his side. The content was very political."

His reappearance after more than a year in which he was heard only on voice tapes has certainly reminded the world that he has not gone away. But was the video the prelude to an eve-of-election attack, or the substitute for the kind of "spectacular" al-Qa'ida no longer has the resources to mount? We will not know until the polls have closed in the US on Tuesday.

Yesterday Western security analysts were examining the tape for clues to Bin Laden's whereabouts. The prevailing opinion in Afghanistan is that he is somewhere in Pakistan, but officials in Islamabad doubt that he is still hiding out in Waziristan or the dusty badlands somewhere along the 1,500-mile border between the two countries.

Since March, two Pakistani army offensives in the tribal borderlands have flushed out Uzbek, Chechen and Afghan fighters, as well as Abdullah Mahsud, a one-legged Taliban commander who was released from Guantanamo Bay seven months ago. They even succeeded in rocketing and killing Nek Mohammed, a tribal militant chief, but there has been no trace of Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, his ideologue and second in command, who spoke on a previous video.

"Bin Laden's fallen off the radar," said an Afghan official in Kabul who works with the American search team. The trail has gone cold since the last credible sighting three years ago in the Tora Bora mountains.

Many speculate that he has since gone into hiding, either in the warren-like streets of Karachi, the Pakistani port city where other senior al-Qa'ida operatives have been captured, or just north of Peshawar in the Hindu Kush. Another guess is that the gaunt terrorist-in-chief has gone into a comfortable exile in Azad Kashmir, the Pakistani-held portion of the Himalayan province which is disputed by the subcontinental nuclear powers, India and Pakistan. This is home to several Islamist militant groups , some of whom have trained at Bin Laden's Afghan facilities, with organised networks of supplies and the wherewithal to hide someone of his stature.

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