Osama bin Laden is back on the air with a reminder that terror is not yet a thing of the past. In a yet-to-be authenticated audio tape released on Sunday, the man most remembered as the figure responsible for the deadliest terrorist strike in history endorsed the failed attempt of a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to blow up a jet over Detroit on Christmas Day. He hailed this as evidence of the continuing resistance against American evil.
"America will never dream of security unless we will have it in reality in Palestine," he warned. "God willing, our raids on you will continue as long as your support to the Israelis will continue." Bin Laden's standing has declined markedly since he planned and rejoiced over the attacks of September 11, 2001. It is not surprising that he sought to link this last attack to the plight of the Palestinian people, since it is a cause that attracts the attention of many people of goodwill.
But bin Laden is not one of them. After sinking into irrelevance when outrage in the Muslim world at al Qaeda's killing of innocents in the US, UK, Spain, and Iraq discredited his ideology, bin Laden is wretchedly trying to re-engage with Middle East politics. The Palestinian struggle provides him with a pretext for his hatred. But Palestinians don't count bin Laden as a friend, as evidenced by his failure to recruit and operate a branch of al Qa'eda in the Palestinian territories.
The real challenge is that al Qa'eda has evolved from an organisation into a franchise, making it a rather peculiar terrorist movement. In fact, al Qaeda's branch in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the failed Detroit attack, but it is entirely possible that bin Laden was not involved or had no knowledge of the operation. The man is still hiding, probably in the rugged mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and his organisation has suffered serious ideological and operational setbacks in recent years. Where it appears to thrive, in Yemen or Somalia, it piggybacks on the efforts of local Islamist militias in need of publicity, recruits and money.
Still, bin Laden's murderous deeds and calls for martyrdom may well have inspired Mr Abdulmutallab and others. Many plans for attacks have failed recently, but it would only require al Qa'eda to deliver one catastrophic attack to revive the mix of fervour and fear that descended after September 11. Bin Laden has lost many battles, including one over propaganda, but that has never deterred him before.