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Terrorists' message lost in Katrina's chaos

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those.

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- We have now seen this year's al Qaeda September surprise -- a video statement from a man purporting to be London bomber Mohammed Siddiq Khan who, with Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned of more attacks. But with hundreds of thousands displaced by Hurricane Katrina and a death toll that could run into the thousands, the questions are: Do we care right now? And do we believe them?

In New Orleans, no one is talking about terrorism. Entire communities are homeless. We still have no idea how many people died. But there is no fear in this country that the emergency response - whether appropriate in speed or focus -- will in any way spawn homegrown terrorism.

I was near the Superdome a couple of nights ago at a forward military command post. The Superdome always had a bizarre, futuristic feel to it, but the scene around me was like a B-movie where an American city was under siege and the military controlled it in the aftermath of some sort of terrorist event.

Yet, again, terrorism was not the cause of the disaster; and I do not believe it will create new terrorists.

Provoking memories

As we consider the horrors wrought by Hurricane Katrina, we are also approaching the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Every year since then, the remnants of al Qaeda as we used to know it would come up with some sort of provocative propaganda exercise. Usually it was an exhortation from bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, mixed in with some video footage.

There would be some footage of the 9/11 hijackers thrown in, just to rub salt in the wounds of the West and rally the faithful.

The twist this year - an hour-long video delivered to Al-Jazeera, bearing the imprimatur of al Qaeda's video propaganda team (al Sahab, which means "the Clouds") - is the inclusion of a statement from the man who appears to be Khan.

The intent of the tape is apparently to make us believe that the same people who planned and carried out 9/11 were behind the London attacks.

After all the talk from others about their motivations, for the first time we hear directly from a man believed to be one of the bombers.

The why of it

Khan was the oldest of the four July 7 London bombers. He was from the Leeds area of northern England, where he worked as a teacher's assistant and also sometimes as a volunteer youth leader at a Muslim community center.

It's not clear if he was the ringleader, but at least two of the other bombers would meet with him either at their homes or in the local community center.

We know from Pakistani immigration officials that he visited Pakistan at least once, for several weeks, beginning in late 2004, along with fellow bomber Shahzad Tanweer.

We don't have all of the videotaped statement, which appeared to be heavily edited.

Here's part of what the man, apparently Khan, did say: "Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world, and your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.

"Until we feel secure, you will be our targets, and until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment, and torture of my people, we will not stop this fight."

The return of al Qaeda?

Since 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, there has been a tendency among some terrorism watchers to think of al Qaeda more as a movement than the organization that planned the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

This tape is clearly designed to give the impression that the old al Qaeda is back. Especially because al-Zawahiri also appears on the highly produced tape, making a second statement on the London bombings following on from a video shown in August, and warning again there will be more attacks.

"[British Prime Minister Tony] Blair brought calamities upon his people in the heart of their capital, and he will bring more, Allah willing, because he continues to exploit his people's heedlessness, and stubbornly insists on treating them like uncomprehending idiots," he said.

Does this mean al Qaeda - as we used to know it - has played itself back in the game with the London attack? Or is it cleverly claiming credit to make itself more powerful than it really is?

It is certainly too early to come to that conclusion.

We won't know until we have more information about the tape itself. It could have been shot in Pakistan, perhaps suggesting closer links between the British bombers and the terror network there.

If shot in Britain, it would show that someone knew how to get the tape on its way to al Qaeda and that would also suggest links.

But whether this was an operation that either al-Zawahiri or bin Laden knew about beforehand may be irrelevant. It still happened, whether they planned it or not.

Do we care?

If al Qaeda was hoping to get a propaganda boost from this, they certainly mistimed it. The world's attention, especially America's attention, is focused on the horrible events here along the Gulf Coast.

There is certainly a great deal of importance in the video statement. It may help us understand how a young British Muslim came to make a last will and testament close in content to those made by the 9/11 hijackers before he committed an act of terrorism on British soil.

It may incite others to commit themselves to the same path. So it is worth knowing and understanding the mindset that led the man thought to be Khan to make the tape.

Yet the whole propaganda exercise seems pitiful next to the real-life destruction and tragedy spawned by Hurricane Katrina. We're simply too busy to pay attention to al Qaeda's provocation.

Of course, that doesn't mean they will go away. And having seen the devastation that the breached levees have wrought in New Orleans, and the inept response to it, it may give them ideas.

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