Being the head of al-Qaeda is not that great. Sure, striking fear as the physical embodiment of a worldwide terror organization might be appealing in some sense, but Osama bin Laden lives in exile, anticipates death or capture daily, and never gets to compete in any reputable volleyball tournaments.
One thing he can do, however, is transmit his voice to the world via audio or video recordings to encourage his brand of jihad against the west. Since a month after the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden (or those claiming to be bin Laden) have been consistently issuing mandates and threats to the world at large, all without having to hold an official press conference. Historically, these recordings have been more inflammatory, speeches more akin to those made by a dictator calling for violence and expecting results. It is because of these portrayals that the newest dictums from bin Laden are being questioned.
Yesterday, a new audiotape was released purportedly from America's most wanted bad guy. In it, bin Laden criticizes Pakistani officials for their inability to provide for their citizens who are suffering from the massive floods in the region. He goes on to mention in detail the substandard conditions in the area, the hunger, and other serious health concerns of the flooded communities. The eleven-minute tape, devoid of any threats of violence, has a significantly different tone than the last tape from bin Laden, where he threatened to execute Americans if al-Qaeda's 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was executed.
Today, a second "threat-free" tape has already been released by bin Laden, as of yet unverified. In the recording, he continues his argument for better conditions for those affected by the flood. He criticizes Arab leaders and strangely gives props to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon:
"The (U.N.'s) secretary-general came to witness the catastrophe for himself, and yet no Arab leaders came to witness the disaster despite the short distances and claims of brotherhood."
What has everyone scratching their heads about today's and yesterday's messages is that bin Laden typically portrays himself as a strongman armed with inflammatory language to help prod Muslims into joining his fight. These newer messages encourage international cooperation to ease the suffering in Pakistan and even call for increased media coverage of the devastating effects of climate change.
That's right, climate change.
Experts believe that bin Laden (or those claiming to be him... haven't we invented voice recognition yet?) is trying to soften his image in order to appeal to a broader base of Muslims. To be clear, bin Laden still advocates the use of violence against innocent people as a tactic to spread terror, as the recently discovered al-Qaeda plot to enact shooting sprees across Europe suggests. But if he could rebrand himself as a humanitarian first and a warrior second, then there is good reason to believe that a larger number of moderate Muslims would be more sympathetic to al-Qaeda's goals, even if they were not willing to join in hostilities against the west.