By Jason Keyser
Monday, January 25, 2010; A04
Osama bin Laden endorsed the failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner Christmas Day and threatened new attacks against the United States in an audio message released Sunday that appeared aimed at asserting that he maintains some direct command over al-Qaeda-inspired offshoots.
U.S. officials and several researchers who track terrorist groups, however, said there is no indication that bin Laden or any of his top lieutenants had anything to do with or even knew in advance of the plot by a Yemen-based group that is one of several largely independent al-Qaeda franchises.
A State Department spokesman said al-Qaeda's core leadership offers such groups strategic guidance but depends on them to carry out missions.
"He's trying to continue to appear relevant" by talking up the attempted attack by an affiliate, P. J. Crowley said.
The one-minute message was explicit in its threat of new attacks. Bin Laden said such attacks, like the airline plot, would come in response to U.S. support for Israel.
"God willing, our raids on you will continue as long as your support for the Israelis continues," bin Laden said in the recording, which was released to the al-Jazeera news channel.
"The message delivered to you through the plane of the heroic warrior Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a confirmation of the previous messages sent by the heroes of the September 11," attacks, he said of the Nigerian suspect in the Dec. 25 botched bombing.
"If our messages had been able to reach you through words, we wouldn't have been delivering them through planes."
Directing his statements at President Obama -- "from Osama to Obama," he said -- bin Laden added: "America will never dream of security unless we will have it in reality in Palestine."
The message, which White House officials said could not immediately be authenticated, raised again the question of how much of a link exists between al-Qaeda's top leadership along the Afghan-Pakistani border and the handful of loosely affiliated groups operating in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Iraq.
The al-Qaeda leader, who was last heard from in September, seemed intent on showing that he remains more than an ideological figurehead, as most analysts have suggested he has become during the terrorist network's evolution into decentralized offshoots. But some questioned whether al-Qaeda's core leadership was involved.
"They weren't putting the final touches on this operation," said Evan F. Kohlmann, a senior investigator for the New York-based NEFA Foundation, which researches Islamic militants.
Still, the Saudi and Yemeni leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which formed in Yemen a year ago, have a long history of direct personal contact with bin Laden. It is plausible that, if they were able to, they would have informed bin Laden of the airliner plot and sought his approval, Kohlmann said.
The Yemen-based group's leader, Nasir al-Wahishi, was once bin Laden's personal secretary. The group's top military commander, Qassim al-Raimi, trained in bin Laden's main camp in Afghanistan, Kohlmann said.
Two of the group's top members were detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and were released in November 2007.
The Yemen offshoot is largely self-sustaining, with its own theological figures, bomb-makers and a network for funneling in recruits.
"The training and the definition of the attack was by the local leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," said Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror."
"So, in many ways you can say bin Laden is exploiting for his benefit this particular attack. Bin Laden still wants to claim leadership for the global jihad movement."
U.S. investigators say the Nigerian suspect in the Dec. 25 attempted bombing told them he had been trained in Yemen and given the explosives there by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Bin Laden's message came four weeks after the Yemen-based group made its own claim of responsibility for the bomb plot with a different justification: linking it to Yemeni military attacks on al-Qaeda targets with the help of U.S. intelligence.
-- Associated Press