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Published: Tuesday, 9/11/2007

Tale of the tape

THE first video of al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden in three years appeared Friday, four days before today's anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and three days before the beginning of two days of testimony on Iraq before the Congress by U.S. military commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Although bin Laden made reference to the continuing "war between us," his new message constituted nothing remarkable, with no specific threats against the United States nor overt directions to his followers for attacks against America or Americans.

It was, in fact, a rather chatty, sometimes religious tour d'horizon, which included citations of Christian responsibility for the Holocaust, global warming, the problems of the U.S. mortgage market, the ineffectiveness of the Democratic Congress in ending the Iraq war, and the infamy of corporate America. He pointed out that Muslims living under a strict Islamic system are subject to only a 2.5 percent tax.

Two aspects of his talk at this time were less quirky. One was that he is alive and at liberty to make such statements six years after 9/11, after the bold threats of President Bush and other American leaders to get him, and the major unsuccessful efforts the United States has deployed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere to kill him.

The other grim aspect of such a message from an al-Qaeda leader at this point was its coincidence with the unmasking in Germany last week of an elaborate plot, involving native Germans and other Muslims, some apparently trained in Pakistan, to mount attacks on a major airport and U.S. bases in the Federal Republic.

Reports of what has been unearthed so far show the teeth behind bin Laden's dyed and trimmed beard, cap, and robes.

The Bush Administration apparently made a decision to take a public position of contempt toward bin Laden and his latest statement. White House Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend got on the Sunday talk shows and called the al-Qaeda leader "virtually impotent," a stinging personal insult to an Arab Muslim male apparently intended to provoke al-Qaeda and him. Ms. Townsend made additional contradictory statements expressing concern about possible al-Qaeda cells in the United States but also claimed that America is now safer than it was after 9/11.

All of this - the foiled attacks in Germany, the bin Laden video, and Ms. Townsend's tasteless riposte - formed the prelude to this week's testimony by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker before the Congress, perhaps leading to coherent decisions on the future of America's role in Iraq. Or maybe not.

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