The messagerelatively "moderate" by jihadist standards, in that it appeared to stake out a hypothetical negotiating position and the prospect of coexistence with the U.S. at the same time as warning of new violencewas notable less for its content than for the fact that it was released at all. Despite directly addressing Americans, its primary purpose may nonetheless be to remind Arab and Muslim audiences of his existence, and to reiterate his claim to primacy among the jihadists. Bin Laden last message was released in December 2004, although the movement's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has continued to release occasional videotaped missives from his hideout in the wilds of western Pakistan. (Zawahiri's decision to pass up a dinner invitation last Friday appears to have spared him from a missile strike on a remote mountain village, where Pakistani intelligence officials say four other Qaeda operatives were killed.) But in the year of Bin Laden's silence, he has begun to be supplanted as the media face of global jihad by Musab al-Zarqawi, whose grisly exploits in Iraq grab headlines week after week. Not only that, Zarqawi may even be running operations abroadhis Iraq-based Qaeda affiliate is suspected of mounting last November's terror attacks on hotels in Jordan, as well as sending operatives on recruiting and fundraising missions in Europeand his theater of operations has, as Bin Laden acknowledged in his message, become the global magnet for jihadists seeking battlefield experience (in the way that Afghanistan was in the 1980s).
Although Zarqawi two years ago swore an oath of loyalty to Bin Laden, he is believed previously to have had something of a competitive relationship with the al-Qaeda leadership. And the public statements attributed to Zarqawi and those of Ayman al-Zawahiri have been noticeably at odds over questions of beheading kidnap victims and of wanton violence against Shiite Muslims. Zarqawi may have embraced the Qaeda brand with Bin Laden as its figurehead, but his essentially autonomous field operation in Iraq has become the movement's center of gravity.
The other radical Islamist competitor for the mantle of U.S. Public Enemy No. 1 has lately been Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has garnered attention for his bristling hostility to the U.S. and his threat to wipe out Israel, all in the context of his defiance of the West over Iran's nuclear program. The attention paid to Zarqawi and Ahmadinejad has moved Bin Laden to the margins of Western news coverage, but his strategy for building al-Qaeda, as the single umbrella organization of global jihad, with himself as its "Sheikh," has been premised on his being recognized among the radically inclined Muslim youth as America's most feared enemy. So, whether or not it is followed up by any of the actions it threatens, Thursday's taped message has at least succeeded in, however briefly, restoring Bin Laden to what he imagines is his rightful place in the headlines.