Expect administration and intelligence officials to push the idea that al-Qaida in Iraq is reeling under pressure from the American troop surge. And helping them in making that argument, surprisingly, is Osama bin Laden.
On Monday night, CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden told Charlie Rose that he is confident that Al-Qaida in Iraq is hurting. This follows news reports that US military officials increasingly believe the same thing.
"Al-Qaida in Iraq, to borrow a phrase from my British friends, is at least on its back foot," Hayden told Rose, "...and may be back on another part of his body. All right?
"Now I don't want to overstate that, and I don't want to say it's irreversible. And I don't want to say this battle is won. We need to move on. I don't want to say any of those things. But we have had remarkable success against al-Qaida in Iraq over the past six to twelve months, and has a telling effect on the battlefield, an effect that is statistically recognizable in what's being reported out of MNFI (Multi National Force - Iraq), General Petraeus' headquarters in Baghdad."
Hayden made his comments after the latest bin Laden audio was released. Although there were few time references in the message, and some of the themes are old, there is a sense in the leader's words that he is not happy with his operation in Iraq. bin Laden criticized the strategy, the extremism and even the competence of fighters for Al-Qaida in Iraq.
Evan Kohlmann, an MSNBC counter-terrorism analyst, called bin Laden’s statements “quite amazing,” adding that many in the counter terrorism community have expected it.
“There has been increasing divergence in Iraq between Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaida,” he added. “Some big insurgent groups have attacked al-Qaida in the past few weeks. It’s a serious thing for them. He had to deal with it.”
After first larding his message with praise for those fighting the United States, bin Laden attacked their “wrongdoings,” their inability to find common ground, and even called on them to do better on the battlefield, citing problems with operational security and weapons preparation, among other things.
In one key section intelligence officials point to, bin Laden admits "wrongdoings" by some of his followers, mentioning a particular group of holy commandments that includes killings. Ironically, the man accused of being the most extremist of Muslim leaders chided jihadis in Iraq for their extremism. U.S. analysts believe bin Laden was criticizing those who kill other Muslims in sectarian attacks.
"I advise myself, Muslims in general, and brothers in al-Qaida everywhere to avoid extremism among men and groups," bin Laden says on the tape. "It is impossible for the people not to make mistakes, and when they happen, differences break out between them."
He also called for judicial hearings for those who have done wrong. "Whoever is accused of violating one of Allah's Hudood (restrictions) is referred to the judiciary. And there is no room for conflict between the Muslims who truly surrender to the order of Allah and the order of his Messenger."
Kohlmann suggested that bin Laden understands that extremist attacks on Iraqi civilians, even Shiite, has hurt the anti-US coalition.
“They have killed too many people, attacked too many villages,” he said.
Bin Laden also advised the jihadis to join together rather than fight among themselves, an apparent reference to growing divisions between foreign fighters and Iraqi insurgents.
"You have done well by carrying out one of the greatest of duties which few carry out: repelling the attacking enemy," said bin Laden. "But some of you have been tardy in performing another duty which is also among the greatest of duties: combining your ranks to make them one rank, as loved by Allah (the Glorious and Great), who said, 'Truly Allah loves those who fight in His cause in ranks, as if they were a solid cemented structure.'
"My brothers, the emirs of the Mujahid groups: the Muslims are waiting for you to gather under one banner to enforce the truth."
"Bin Laden says, 'It's not about nationalities,'" said one intelligence official, describing that line in particular as an admission that al-Qaida in Iraq is in trouble with the Iraqi insurgents. The United States has been trying hard to turn Sunni tribal leaders to turn against al-Qaida, with some success.
Surprisingly, bin Laden's strongest words were reserved for the failings of jihadis on the battlefield, saying they are not immune to "advice and admonition."
"You must protect your secrets and excel in your actions, for among the things which sadden the Muslims and delight the unbelievers is the hindering of some combat operations against the enemy because of negligence in any of the stages of preparation for the operation, whether it be reconnaissance of the target, training, integrity and suitability of weapons and ammunition, quality of the explosive device or other such arrangements. And when you lay a mine, do it right, and don't leave so much as one wounded American soldier or spy."
They are in a "storm of troubles," said the intelligence official, noting that bin Laden is calling on insurgents in Iraq and foreign fighters to join in operations against the United States.
"Where are the soldiers of the Levant (Lebanon and Syria) and the reinforcements from Yemen? Where are the knights of Egypt and the lions of Hejaz (Saudi Arabia)? Come to the aid of your brothers in Iraq," bin Laden demanded.
Kohlmann said the next development could be critical. He said that Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the head of AQI’s political wing, the Islamic State of Iraq, is expected to speak in the next few days about the rift between al-Qaida and the insurgents.
“If he continues to be nasty, to call for violence, against the insurgents, this could lead to a real fracturing between the two,” said Kohlmann.
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