BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 28 (UPI) -- Reports that Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted fugitive with a $50 million U.S. bounty on his head, has broken cover to move around Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent weeks has raised concern he may be planning a new major attack on the West.
But a specialist with access to Islamist militants says the objective may be even more dangerous: merging al-Qaida's war against the West with the wave of uprisings across the Arab world that largely target regimes allied to the United States.
The Arab pro-democracy revolts have toppled Presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and currently threaten President Ali Abdullah of Yemen, where al-Qaida is particularly active, and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya.
Trouble is brewing too in the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and its regional allies have dispatched troops to the island kingdom of Bahrain to support the Sunni monarchy against protesters.
Many see the hand of Shiite Iran in the swelling gulf violence, with toppling the U.S.-allied monarchy of Saudi Arabia, one of the world's leading oil producers, as the ultimate target.
These uprisings, stirred in part by economic hardship and demands for greater political freedoms from authoritarian regimes, weren't connected in any way to al-Qaida nor were the upheavals in Egypt, Syria, Jordan or North Africa.
But it may be more than coincidence that both Shiite Iran and al-Qaida, which comprises Sunni militants who embrace the extremist Salafist ideology of Islam, should find common cause in seeking the downfall of such regimes from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.
This suspicion is deepened by the indication that the key figures within al-Qaida who have engineered this apparent major shift in strategy include several top lieutenants of bin Laden who until a few months ago were in Iran.
They include jihadist ideologue Suleiman Abu al-Gaith, bin Laden's former spokesman, and operational commander Said al-Adel.
According to Syed Saleem Shahzad, Pakistan bureau chief of Asia Times Online who has unusual access to Islamist leaders in Pakistan allied with al-Qaida, Gaith and Adel overcame diehard jihadists who favored polarizing the Muslim world, a school of thought widely criticized by Islamic scholars and mainstream theologians.
"This appears to be the beginning of a new era for a broader struggle in which al-Qaida, through its Lashkar al-Zil (Shadow Army) will try to capitalize on the Arab revolts and the Palestinian struggle and also revitalize and redefine its role in Afghanistan," Shahzad wrote.
"While fears attached to bin Laden's unprecedented visibility and movement for a grand al-Qaida operation cannot completely be dismissed, it is more possible that al-Qaida will undertake both worldwide terror operations and join forces with mainstream Muslim groups."
The reports of bin Laden's treks across the Hindu Kush regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent weeks came from intelligence sources in those countries and Saudi Arabia.
Hard evidence of bin Laden's whereabouts has been in extremely short supply for years, although it was widely believed he was holed up in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan with his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
But in recent weeks, Shahzad reported, "intelligence officials believe they have top-grade accounts, as they come from the inner circles of militant camps.
"Officials are said to be 'stunned' by the visibility of bin Laden's movements and their frequency, in a matter of a few weeks."
These were unprecedented since bin Laden vanished into Pakistan after narrowly escaping capture by the Americans at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001.
His mysterious perambulations may indeed indicate he's up to something.
But if it's aimed at hooking up with the new revolutionaries of the Arab world it remains difficult to see how al-Qaida can exploit the Arab uprisings that were apparently ignited by non-jihadists.
These were overwhelmingly ordinary citizens fed up with high food prices, unemployment, state tyranny and a complete lack of political freedom, rather than inspired by the extremist ideology of bin Laden and Zawahiri.
Despite what Gadhafi says, there's been no evidence jihadists played any role in the uprising against him. He had, in fact, effectively crushed them.
But al-Qaida documents captured by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007 showed that more Libyan jihadists fought there than any other non-Iraqi Arab group.
Where are those men now?