By Henry Schuster
Adjust font size:
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 them.
(CNN) -- It's quiet. Almost too quiet.
That's what you get in a horror movie, just before something bad happens. But does the same cliché hold true in the world of al Qaeda, whose leaders have gone very quiet?
We had a flurry of messages from al Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, around the time of the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. There was an al Qaeda propaganda video about the 9/11 plot, a message to Americans urging them to convert and another message bemoaning the fate of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad who was captured in 2003. There was even an al Qaeda-conducted interview with al-Zawahiri.
We seemed to be getting a little bit of everything, except for a message from bin Laden himself. But since September there has been nothing at all.
CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen points out that it's not unusual for bin Laden to go long periods of time without talking publicly. It had been more than a year from the previous message when he put out an audiotape in January and there hasn't been a video of him since his election-eve message of October 2004.
But January's tape was followed by four more audio messages and Bergen says he was a little surprised that bin Laden -- who was rumored to have become ill -- had nothing to say on the fifth anniversary of 9/11.
Rapid response tactic
More surprising, perhaps, is that al-Zawahiri has gone quiet in the last 10 weeks.
Nothing about Iraq. Nothing about Afghanistan. Nothing about al-Zawahiri's frequent target, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and his book tour of the United States. Nothing about the pope's visit to Turkey -- though al Qaeda in Iraq took the opportunity to denounce that.
Nothing, most strikingly, about the attack on a madrassa in Pakistan's tribal areas on October 30 that killed some 80 people.
Al-Zawahiri was quick to respond after a U.S. missile attack in January narrowly missed killing him.
In a video that appeared little more than two weeks later, he taunted President Bush: "I will meet my death when God wishes ... but if my time hasn't come, you and all the Earth's forces can't change it, not even by a second. Bush, do you know where I am? I am among the Muslim masses enjoying their care with God's blessings and sharing with them their holy war against you until we defeat you."
Until the sudden silence, the tapes had been coming in at an unprecedented rate. And not just messages from al Qaeda's leaders. There also was a series of battlefield tapes from As Sahab, al Qaeda's production company.
"Al-Zawahiri is feeling the heat," says Bergen, adding that it is possible that a tape was made after July but lost before it could be delivered and aired.
He points to a recent report by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times that the January attempt on al-Zawahiri's life missed him only by a few hours.
It isn't clear whether al-Zawahiri was anywhere near the madrassa in Bajaur hit by missiles in late October -- an attack announced by the Pakistani military which said it was being used as a training base for militants on the Afghan border.
Nevertheless, Bergen sees it as "message received."
Perhaps, he believes, the latest missile attack convinced al-Zawahiri it was time to go quiet.
As for bin Laden, Bergen believes we will hear from him when he has something to say. That may be a week from now or it may be a year from now.
Not everyone thinks the recent attacks or even security concerns are why al Qaeda's leaders have gone quiet.
"I would not infer anything from it," says New York University Professor Barnett Rubin, an expert on the Taliban, who just returned from Pakistan and Afghanistan. "I have seen nothing to suggest they [al Qaeda] conform to the expectations of the Western media."
Bin Laden in the archives
Perhaps because of the video void, a different picture of bin Laden appeared on the Internet this week, one that shows him before the founding of al Qaeda.
One of the many Web sites where insurgents and their sympathizers post messages is now carrying a 49-minute film from the late 1980s.
You have undoubtedly seen clips from it before on CNN. It shows a very young bin Laden during the war to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. You see him in a cave with some of his fellow Arabs, as well as sitting with a microphone.
His message then had not yet evolved into full-scale hatred of the West; instead he was trying to rally Arab support for the jihad against the Soviets.
This came at a time when bin Laden was morphing from a fundraiser for the cause to a military leader of Arabs aiding the Afghans.
He was comfortable in front of the camera and, in hindsight of course, it is worth paying attention to what he said.
"I advise my Muslim brothers to put wrong things right, since there is no means to hoist the banner of jihad and Islam better, quicker, and stronger than the cause of jihad.
"Deterring the flow of infidels can only take place in the manner by which God has taught us in his direct and clear Koranic verses," he said.
"It is high time to stop turning backs on and disappointing Muslims after the banner has been hoisted, by God's blessing ... Those who missed the chance should seize the opportunity now."
Nearly 20 years later, while the words may have changed, his conviction of the rightness of his actions hasn't. Nor has his desire to get the message out, even if he's gone silent recently.
Osama bin Laden photographed in 1998, when he had already been blamed for terror attacks.
Quick Job Search