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Does bin Laden still matter?

By Henry Schuster
CNN

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Osama bin Laden in a still from a video broadcast in 2002.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- I'm the voice of Osama bin Laden.

When you listen and watch on CNN, that's me -- a good old Southern boy -- doing the English translation, saying things such as "Any war is the joint responsibility of the people and the government," which is bin Laden's way of saying -- as in this week's message -- that he's blaming the American and Western public for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My real job is trying to report on terrorism, which means I'm not just voicing bin Laden sound bites (which drives my mother crazy) but also trying to figure out the answer to questions such as: Is bin Laden still relevant? Does a new tape, such as this one, matter?

There's no easy answer. The day after the tape surfaced on Arabic-language TV network Al-Jazeera, there were explosions at an Egyptian resort in the Sinai Peninsula, the sort clearly modeled after al Qaeda, using three near-simultaneous bombs -- the third such attack in two years.

Also this week Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, released his own videotape in which he paid homage to bin Laden by including one of his speeches.

The Egypt terrorism and the al-Zarqawi reference seem to indicate bin Laden matters. Does that mean that this tape, or even earlier ones by bin Laden's top lieutenant, Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri, were orders for attacks?

Probably not, says Osama Rushdie, a former spokesman for al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, Egypt's largest militant group. Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya was responsible for a series of bloody terrorist attacks during the 1980s and 1990s before most of the group declared a cease-fire with the government.

Rushdie said he believes the Dahab attacks were not inspired by the tapes and that the group behind them does not consider itself under the control of al Qaeda.

Rather, he said, the group (which he doesn't name) is a local Sinai-based organization sympathetic to al Qaeda principles.

"I believe that these youngsters are aiming at two goals: one against the Egyptian government and one against the West based on the known principles of al Qaeda," Rushdie said.

Bin Laden represents 'underdog'

I was recently in Saudi Arabia. One of the reasons was to work on a documentary about bin Laden. The trip gave me a chance to talk with those who knew him as a teenager.

When Khalid al-Batarfi was a teenager in Jeddah, bin Laden was his neighbor. Now, al-Batarfi is one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent journalists and the editor of al-Medina newspaper.

He strongly disagrees with bin Laden's actions and with his interpretation of Islam, but he said he understands the al Qaeda leader's appeal as a symbol to many in the Muslim world.

start quoteTo kill innocent people, or to kill even Muslims sometimes in the process -- that almost nobody agrees with.end quote
-- Khalid al-Batarfi, contemporary of bin Laden

"It's because he's -- in his, in their minds, and their perception -- standing up to America on his own. He, this is a little guy who went and hit Mike Tyson and you know, injured him. And he's a little man who is the underdog," al-Batarfi said.

A poll in Saudi Arabia nearly three years ago asked about bin Laden after the first round of attacks by Saudi al Qaeda. Saudis had just gotten a taste of being targeted by suicide bombers.

The survey found nearly half the Saudi respondents agreed with bin Laden's sermons -- his rhetorical attacks on the United States for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But almost no one wanted to see bin Laden rule in Saudi Arabia, the poll found.

In other words, the Saudis liked the message but not the terror tactics, according to the man who conducted the poll. That first al Qaeda attack in Saudi Arabia was followed by others and an effective crackdown by the government's counterterrorism forces.

Al-Batarfi said he thinks bin Laden remains relevant as a symbol but believes most Saudis share his personal loathing of the al Qaeda leader's tactics. "To kill innocent people, or to kill even Muslims sometimes in the process -- that almost nobody agrees with," he said.

While al-Batarfi strongly disagrees with American foreign policy, he has a deep and abiding affection for the United States. He went to school in Oregon and, like many Saudis who studied in the States, looks forward to returning.

Symbol still potent

In Jeddah, we went to the mosque where bin Laden and al-Batarfi used to pray while they were teenagers.

Returning to Atlanta, the first international terror case in Georgia came as a shock. Two young men, Syed Haris Ahmed and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee, had met at a mosque here, according to their families and court documents.

They are both in U.S. custody -- Ahmed charged with material support for terror and Sadequee with making false statements. According to court documents, Ahmed said they met last year in Canada with three other men who were subjects of an FBI terrorism investigation.

"Ahmed told the FBI that the group discussed strategic locations in the United States suitable for a terrorist strike, including oil refineries and military bases," according to an affidavit from an FBI agent. They also allegedly discussed going to Pakistan to a terrorist-sponsored training camp, according to court documents.

Ahmed pleaded not guilty, and Sadequee hasn't yet been arraigned.

At the mosque, a neighbor of Ahmed's said he couldn't imagine the man being involved in terrorism. Ahmed's sister said her brother was targeted because of his religion.

The case remains under investigation, according to federal officials, and nothing has been revealed that points to a link to al Qaeda.

But as I voice those bin Laden sound bites and think about what he said and whether this tape is his bid to remain relevant, it is clear that bin Laden the symbol remains alive and powerful.

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