CAIRO, Egypt — Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to launch a jihad against Israel, seeking to harness anger over the Gaza offensive with a new message posted on the Internet on Wednesday.
The al-Qaida chief vowed to open "new fronts" against the U.S. and its allies beyond Iraq and Afghanistan and also criticized Arab leaders, accusing most of them of being allies of the U.S. and Israel.
The White House dismissed the call to jihad, saying it reflects bin Laden's isolation and shows he is trying to remain relevant at a time when his ideology and mission are being challenged.
Bin Laden spoke in a 22-minute audiotape posted on Islamic militant Web sites where al-Qaida usually issues its messages. The 51-year-old al-Qaida leader has been in hiding since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, believed to be living somewhere along the lawless Pakistan-Afghan border.
It was bin Laden's first tape since May and came nearly three weeks after Israel launched the offensive against Hamas that Gaza medical officials say has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians.
He said President-elect Barack Obama has received a "heavy inheritance" from George W. Bush — two wars and "the collapse of the economy." He predicted that burden will render the U.S. unable to sustain a long fight against the mujahedeen, or holy warriors.
There is "only one strong way to bring the return of Al-Aqsa and Palestine, and that is jihad in the path of God," Bin Laden said, referring to the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. "The duty is to urge people to jihad and to enlist the youth into jihad brigades."
He also appealed for donations to finance the fight, saying the "tithes from any of the great Muslim or Arab traders" would be enough "for jihad on all the fronts."
Voice resembles previous messages
The authenticity of the tape could not be independently confirmed. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he had no reason to question its authenticity but was not certain whether the U.S. had verified the voice.
"It appears this tape demonstrates his isolation and continued attempts to remain relevant at a time when al-Qaida's ideology, mission and agenda are being questioned and challenged throughout the world," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House.
"This also looks to be an effort to raise money as part of their ongoing propaganda campaign," Johndroe said.
The tape, entitled "A call for jihad to stop the aggression on Gaza," was played over a picture of bin Laden and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites. There were no English subtitles or the flashy production graphics that usually accompany such messages.
That suggested the message had been hastily put together to exploit Muslim anger over the Gaza offensive. Israel says the offensive aims to halt rocket fire from Gaza against Israeli towns but Palestinian medical officials say half of those killed have been civilians.
"The bin Laden speech is an obvious and cheap attempt to capitalize on the Arab world's boiling anger about the Israeli invasion of Gaza," said terrorism expert Eric Rosenbach of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.
He said links between al-Qaida and Gaza's Hamas rulers are "tenuous at best" and that Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in 2007, has historically distanced itself from bin Laden's terrorism movement.
Bin Laden and his lieutenants frequently use the Palestinian issue to try to rally support for al-Qaida and often call for holy war to free Jerusalem. But there has been little sign that the terrorism group has carried out attacks in Israel.
Bin Laden made no direct reference to Hamas, and al-Qaida leaders have frequently criticized the Palestinian militant group for participating in elections and failing to seriously pursue jihad against Israel.
The al-Qaida leader also accused Arab leaders of "avoiding their responsibility" to liberate Palestine.
"If you are not convinced to fight, then open the way to those who are convinced," he said. Bin Laden accused most Arab leaders of allying themselves with the U.S. and Israel.
Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group that monitors militant Web sites, said bin Laden was "attempting to convince Palestinians and the Muslims around the world that the only group that can help them is the jihadists" and that "Arab rulers and the Palestinian movements have failed them."
"His other purpose is to exploit the conflict to exhort others to jihad and build support for al-Qaida," she said.
Katz said the bin Laden's appeal for money to finance jihad was unusual and "might reflect financial difficulties facing al-Qaida."
Bin Laden pointed to financial problems facing the U.S., saying that was a sign that the U.S. power was falling apart.
"The Islamic nation's jihad is one of the main causes of these destructive results for our enemies," he claimed.
He pointed to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq since the Sept. 11 attacks, saying al-Qaida was prepared to fight "for seven more years, and seven more after that, then seven more."
"The question is, can America continue the war against us for several more decades? The reports and signs show us otherwise," he said. He said Bush had left his successor "with a heavy inheritance," forcing Obama to choose between withdrawing from the wars or continuing.
"If he withdraws from the war, it is a military defeat. If he continues, he drowns in economic crisis," bin Laden said.
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