The release of a new tape by Osama bin Laden is always an important event. The most recent one is particularly important because of the tone it takes. It is far from resigned, but it is a gloomy analysis of al Qaeda's situation, focusing on the failure of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to resist the United States. Al Qaeda has a great deal to be gloomy about. Events were very much moving in its favor since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But December was a terrible month for al Qaeda: The United States began to gain control over the insurrection, and the diplomatic situation in the region began to shift in the U.S. favor. Al Qaeda has a problem and is searching for a solution.
Osama bin Laden released a new audio tape during the week of Jan. 5. It was different in tone and focus than prior tapes. The focus was less on the United States, Israel or Kashmir than on the Arab world in general and the Arabian Peninsula in particular. The tone was bleak and filled with anger at betrayal by Arab rulers. It represents an honest assessment of the war from al Qaeda's view, and it reveals the war is not going well for them.
Among the things bin Laden said:
O Muslims: The situation is serious and the misfortune is momentous. By God, I am keen on safeguarding your religion and your worldly life. So, lend me your ears and open up your hearts to me so that we may examine these pitch-black misfortunes and so that we may consider how we can find a way out of these adversities and calamities....
These (Gulf) states came to America's help and backed it in its attack against an Arab state which is bound to them with covenants of joint defense agreement ... they finally submitted and succumbed to U.S. pressure and opened their air, land and sea bases to contribute toward the U.S. campaign, despite the immense repercussions of this move. Most important of these repercussions is that this is a sin against one of the Islamic tenets...
Based on the above, the extent of the real danger -- which the region in general and the Arabian Peninsula in particular is being exposed to -- has appeared. It has become clear that the rulers are not qualified to apply the religion and defend the Muslims. In fact, they have provided evidence that they are implementing the schemes of the enemies of the nation and religion and that they are qualified to abandon the countries and peoples.
This is the essential tone of the entire statement: A serious misfortune has befallen the Islamic world. The responsibility rests with Arab rulers in general and on Saudi Arabia in particular. It was their collaboration with the United States that created these "pitch-black misfortunes" and forced al Qaeda to search for a way out of the "adversities and calamities." It is far from a declaration of surrender, but it is also far from the defiant triumphalism of earlier statements.
To understand bin Laden's mood, it is important to look at the war from a strategic standpoint. The United States mounted an effective invasion of Iraq, using Kuwait as a base of operations, and with the overt or covert cooperation of all other contiguous Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia. The United States was surprised by the coherence and tempo of operations of the Iraqi guerrillas, but the insurrection never moved outside the country's Sunni areas in any substantial way and therefore was confined to a relatively small part of Iraq. Even in this region, after several months of indecisive and ineffective action, the United States mounted a counteroffensive after Ramadan that resulted in a substantial decline in guerrilla operations north of Baghdad, and a much less intense tempo of operations in Baghdad and to the west.
Iraq's internal politics also have moved in an unsatisfactory direction. The majority Shia, in a vague alliance with the Kurds, have not so much supported the United States as opposed the Sunnis. They also have no use for the foreign jihadists moving into Iraq. They are prepared to cooperate with the americans, exchanging support now for control of the government later. The Sunni sheikhs, observing the deterioration of the guerrillas' military situation, are repositioning themselves, making deals with the Americans. The prospect of Shiite domination without any U.S. goodwill cushioning that process is more frightening to the Sunnis than the guerrilla movement. Therefore, the Baathist guerrilla movement is under severe pressure, while the foreign jihadists operating without the Baathists have no roots in Iraq, nor does the Sunni leadership welcome them. Therefore, al Qaeda's hope of bogging down the United States in Iraq as they bogged down the Soviets in Afghanistan is disappearing.
The broader strategic situation is even more unsatisfactory. Al Qaeda was hoping that Sept. 11 would trigger a massive rising among the Islamic masses, toppling regimes that were collaborating with the United States and forcing others to change their policies. That simply hasn't happened. Some expected the invasion of Iraq to generate a massive upheaval in the Islamic world. It didn't. Whatever the feelings of the Islamic masses, they have not translated into a massive political moment.
Quite the contrary: The movement in the Islamic world has been toward collaboration with the United States. The most important case is Iran, which has been moving toward such an alignment since September 2003, in a process that broke into public view after the earthquake in Bam. The Iraqi Shiite leadership has generally close ties to Iran, forged during years of exile and struggle against Saddam Hussein. Their accommodation with the United States and participation in the Iraqi Governing Council would not have taken place without Iran's approval. Iran's interests are geopolitical. The United States, seeking a solution to the Iraqi guerrilla war, induced Iranian-Shiite cooperation by promising a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq that certainly would be, if not a satellite, a buffer on Iran's western flank.
The Iranian shift increased Saudi Arabia's dependence upon the United States. Saudi Arabia's nightmare is Iran as the dominant regional power without a Saudi security guarantee from the United States. That is precisely the direction events were going this past fall. Saudi Arabia grudgingly accommodated the United States before the war. Afterward, as the guerrilla movement intensified in Iraq, the United States turned to Iran, further eroding Saudi security. As this process took place, the Saudis had to move against al Qaeda in the kingdom. This was a fundamental U.S. goal in its invasion of Iraq. It did not happen quite the way the United States might have wanted it, but it did happen. The Saudis and the other Gulf states have moved aggressively to accommodate U.S. interests -- including attacking al Qaeda throughout the region.
The avalanche of bad news did not stop there. Libya, fully aware of the trends in the region, decided this was a propitious time to move closer to the United States. In the Arab world, only Syria remained outside the process. The Syrians had badly misread the situation during last summer, betting that the United States would get bogged down in Iraq. They bet on the guerrillas. Suddenly, as December wore on, they realized that they had not only guessed wrong, but had become completely isolated in the Arab world and surrounded on all sides by enemies. Damascus began to make accommodating gestures as the New Year began, inviting Likud Knesset members to Damascus and sending President Bashar al-Assad off to Turkey.
In Pakistan, jihadists tried -- and failed -- twice to kill President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The danger to Musharraf's life did not prevent him from reaching out to India in a peace process, nor did the attempts trigger a military or popular rising against him. Al Qaeda knows that the culminating battle of the war will be waged in northwestern Pakistan when U.S. forces go after Osama bin Laden and his command cells. They must topple Musharraf to generate a major obstacle to U.S. plans. Therefore, the jihadists must get Musharraf. So far, they have failed.
At the moment, nothing is going al Qaeda's way. That does not mean al Qaeda is defeated. The war isn't over 'til it's over, and as the United States is showing in Iraq, reversals in war are common; the measure of victory is how quickly and effectively one adjusts to the reality and creates a new strategy. Al Qaeda has clearly lost the first round; it is readying for the second.
This second round appears to consist of two parts. One has been clearly defined: Al Qaeda will try to bring down the Saudi government. Riyadh's assault on al Qaeda certainly has hurt the group, but it has not destroyed it. The Wahhabi zeal -- which has fueled al Qaeda -- has its home in Saudi Arabia and is deeply rooted there. Opposition to the Saudi regime is not trivial. Whether al Qaeda can overthrow the regime is unclear, but bin Laden's statements make it clear that this is where his focus will be.
There is then the question of an attack on the United States. Bin Laden concedes that Sept. 11 failed to achieve al Qaeda's strategic goals. In fact, events since then have moved in just the opposite direction. The problem was the lack of political preparation in the Islamic world. The weakness among Arab regimes generally and Saudi Arabia particularly meant that the U.S. response -- rather than triggering massive anti-American resistance -- resulted in broad-based collaboration.
Another attack on the United States on the same order as Sept. 11 is not likely to succeed either, since collaboration has intensified. Given that al Qaeda does not intend simply to kill Americans, but rather to achieve political goals in the Islamic world by killing Americans, an attack at this moment squanders resources without achieving the wanted goal. At the same time, al Qaeda must demonstrate that it has a way out of the "pitch-black misfortunes" that have befallen it. It must do something, and do it quickly. Overthrowing the Saudi regime is not going to happen soon.
From a strictly strategic viewpoint, al Qaeda should postpone attacking the United States until it can reshape the politics of the Saudi peninsula. From a political viewpoint, the more impotent al Qaeda appears, the less its chances to achieve that political redefinition. It is caught in a chicken-or-egg problem -- and time, most definitely, is not on al Qaeda's side.
One solution would be what we would call a trans-Sept. 11 attack -- an attack that dwarfed Sept. 11 in significance. Obviously a nuclear, biological or chemical attack designed to cause enormous casualties would be such an attack and potentially -- and we emphasize potentially -- would accomplish two things. It might reinvigorate al Qaeda in the Islamic world by reinforcing its capabilities and competence -- neither is highly respected at the moment -- thus contributing to the political reality bin Laden spoke of. Second, it might -- in al Qaeda's mind -- convince the American public that the price of fighting al Qaeda is too high. There is a risk, of course. The Islamic masses might well take the same course that followed Sept. 11: vigorous conversation coupled with inaction, and the American public might want blood instead of withdrawal.
A serious question is whether al Qaeda can pull off a trans-Sept. 11 attack. It might be forced to go for a Sept. 11-type attack because that is the best available. Or, alternatively, it might decide to avoid any attacks in the United States, opting instead to focus resources on the struggle in Saudi Arabia and on bringing down Musharraf in Pakistan.
These are some of al Qaeda's choices. Which it will choose is an open question. What is clear is that al Qaeda is at a crossroads and -- like the United States in the spring of 2002 -- it does not have really good choices, and therefore, must choose the best of a bad lot. Al Qaeda's original war plan is obsolete. The straight line it drew from Sept. 11 to the Caliphate has hit a wall. Bin Laden knows it. He doesn't have a good Plan B, but he will have to cook one up anyway. The war is not over, but for the moment, it is al Qaeda's turn to sweat out a solution to a difficult strategic problem. If they can't do that, then the war could very well be over, at least for this generation.
(*) Dr. George Friedman is chairman and founder of Stratfor.com