The release of a new tape by Osama bin Laden is always an important event - and the most recent on Janaury 5 is particularly so. Its tone is far from resigned, but it is a gloomy analysis of al Qaeda's situation. Among the things bin Laden says: "O Muslims, the situation is serious and the misfortune is momentous. By God, I am keen on safeguarding your religion and your worldly life. So, lend me your ears and open up your hearts to me so that we may examine these pitch-black misfortunes and so that we may consider how we can find a way out of these adversities and calamities...."
In other words, a serious misfortune has befallen the Islamic world. And the responsibility rests with Arab rulers in general and with Saudi Arabia in particular. It was their collaboration with the United States that created these "pitch-black misfortunes."
Bin Laden's message is far from a declaration of surrender, but it is also far from the defiant triumphalism of earlier statements.
After several months of indecisive and ineffective action, the United States has mounted a counteroffensive against Iraqi insurgents that has resulted in a substantial decline in guerrilla operations and a much less intense tempo of operations in Baghdad and to the west.
Iraq's internal politics also have moved in an unsatisfactory direction for al Qaeda. The majority Shia, in a vague alliance with the Kurds, have no use for the foreign jihadists moving into Iraq and are prepared to cooperate with the Americans, exchanging support now for control of the government later.
The Sunni sheikhs, observing the deterioration of the guerrillas' military situation, are also making deals with the Americans. To them, the prospect of Shiite domination without any U.S. goodwill cushioning that process is more frightening than the guerrilla movement. Al Qaeda's hope of bogging down the U.S. in Iraq as it bogged down the Soviets in Afghanistan is disappearing.
Whatever the feelings of the Islamic masses, the invasion of Iraq has not translated into a massive political movement in the Islamic world. Quite the contrary. The movement in the Islamic world has been toward collaboration with the United States.
The most important case is Iran, which has been moving toward such an alignment since September, in a process that broke into public view after the earthquake in Bam.
The United States, seeking a solution to the Iraqi guerrilla war, induced Iranian Shiite cooperation by promising a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq that certainly would be, if not an Iranian satellite, then a buffer on Iran's western flank. Saudi Arabia's nightmare is Iran as the dominant regional power.
As the guerrilla movement intensified in Iraq and the United States turned to Iran, the Saudis had to move against al Qaeda in the kingdom to guarantee security from the United States.
For al Qaeda, the avalanche of bad news didn't stop there. Libya, fully aware of trends in the region, decided this was a propitious time to move closer to the U.S. and denounce terrorism. In the Arab world, only Syria remains outside the process.
The Syrians bet the United States would get bogged down in Iraq. Suddenly, as December wore on, they realized they had not only guessed wrong but had become completely isolated in the Arab world. Damascus began to make accommodating gestures as the new year began, inviting Likud Knesset members to Damascus and sending President Bashar al-Assad off to Turkey.
In Pakistan, jihadists tried, and failed twice, to kill Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. The danger to Musharraf's life did not prevent him from reaching out to India in a peace process. Nor did the attempts trigger a military or popular rising against him.
Al Qaeda knows that the culminating battle of the war will be waged in northwestern Pakistan when U.S. forces go after Osama bin Laden and his command cells. Al Qaeda must topple Musharraf to generate a major obstacle to U.S. plans, and is clearly readying for the next round.
This round appears to consist of two parts. One has been clearly defined: to bring down the Saudi government. Whether al Qaeda can overthrow the regime is unclear, but bin Laden's statements make it clear that this is where his focus will be.
There is then the question of an attack on the United States. Bin Laden concedes that September 11, rather than triggering massive anti-American resistance, has resulted in broad-based collaboration.
Another attack on the United States on the same order as 9/11 is not likely to succeed either, since collaboration has intensified. At the same time, al Qaeda must demonstrate that it has a way out of the "pitch-black misfortunes'.' It must do something and do it quickly.
One solution would be what we would call a trans-September 11 attack - a nuclear, biological or chemical attack designed to cause enormous casualties and potentially reinvigorate al Qaeda in the Islamic world by reinforcing (respect for) its capabilities and competence. Neither is highly regarded at the moment. The straight line the organization drew from September 11 to the Caliphate has hit a wall. Bin Laden knows it.
Excerpted from Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (www.stratfor.com), a leading global intelligence firm.