“Sticks refuse to break when banded together, but if they come apart, they break one by one,” bin Laden said in his latest audio message, portions of which were broadcast Monday by the Al Jazeera Arabic language TV news channel. “There is no room for conflict between the Muslims who truly surrender to the order of Allah.”
Analysts, however, are divided over the exact intended audience for the full message, which was released the following day with English subtitles by al-Qaida central’s media arm, as-Sahab.
In the message, bin Laden praises the bravery of the fighters he calls mujahedin, or Islamic holy warriors, but gently chastises them for unspecified “mistakes,” warns them sternly against the dangers of factionalism and reminds them that disputes have to be settled according to Sharia law.
But bin Laden does not mention any groups by name, and while some commentators see his words aimed squarely at his own followers in AQI, others see them pitched as a more general appeal to a Sunni insurgency increasingly riven by factionalism.
“He is trying to float above the fray,” said Evan Kohlman, an analyst who tracks the public statements of Iraqi insurgent groups and has testified in federal terror prosecutions.
“I don’t think the message was aimed solely at AQI,” he said. “It was pitched more as an open address to everybody in the insurgency.”
But Fawaz Gerges, an academic and author who recently returned from a year in the region, where he researched the insurgency, said that the message was aimed squarely at bin Laden's own followers in AQI who had alienated their social base, the Sunni Arabs.
He said that the references to mistakes, and how everyone makes them and how repenters are forgiven, was bin Laden “airing al-Qaida’s dirty linen in a belated and desperate effort … to rescue his besieged followers in Iraq.”
He said bin Laden’s talk about the need to submit to Islamic authority, was “indirectly telling AQI you should defer to the Iraqi leadership” of other Sunni groups.
For its part, AQI’s media arm, the al-Fajr Media Center, posted a statement Wednesday charging Al Jazeera had “counterfeited the facts by making the speech appear as (if it were) exclusively targeting the brothers and sons inside al-Qaida.”
In reality, the group said, “The speech was originally an advice given to the Muslims of Iraq in general and to the honest people of jihad in particular.”
Kohlman said that one particular audience for the message were AQI’s former allies in the insurgency, groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq, which share al-Qaida’s Salafist ideology and until last year had worked with AQI.
Longstanding tensions between AQI and some of its allies suddenly became publicly visible in April, in a series of increasingly bitter and angry statements issued by the Islamic Army and other groups and tracked by Kohlman’s reporting for the Counter-Terrorism Blog.
A U.S. intelligence official authorized to speak to the media told United Press International that the bin Laden message was seen as just the latest manifestation of growing worries among the leadership of al-Qaida central about the situation in Iraq.
“There have been long-standing concerns about the ability to unite Sunni insurgents,” the official said
Last year, in an effort to give a more Iraqi face to al-Qaida’s role in the insurgency and to head off looming rivalries and splits with other groups, AQI declared the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq.
Bu the U.S. official said it had “proved to be in most respects a complete failure in terms of the effort to unite” insurgent groups.
“This is a crisis message,” Gerges said. AQI had made “major blunders, endangering the future of the resistance in Iraq.”
The ball, Kohlman believes, is now in AQI’s court.
“We are waiting to see what they will do,” he said, adding that a response from the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was expected shortly.
He said it was possible that the group might take “a step back: ‘Woah, we’ve gone too far; we’ve alienated too many allies.’”
But he said jihadists in Algeria in 1996 had responded to a similar appeal from al-Qaida central by killing two envoys bin Laden had sent.
“They’re attitude was, ‘We’re on the ground, we know best.’ AQI could take that path.”