Pakistan today dismissed Osama bin Laden as a terrorist whose “ridiculous” call for holy war against its US-allied leader will find little echo, despite growing concern that al-Qaida is regrouping near the Afghan border.
In a recording released Thursday, bin Laden urged Pakistanis to wage jihad against President Gen Pervez Musharraf because of his alliance with the US against Islamic militants.
The al Qaida chief’s message received wide but short-lived media coverage in Pakistan. Attention quickly returned to Musharraf’s disputed re-election bid and fast-rising food prices.
But it could feed into a growing debate here about whether Pakistan is sacrificing its own stability by playing such a prominent and prolonged role in a US-led campaign against terrorism.
Officials today played down the possible impact of the al-Qaida leader’s call.
“If Osama bin Laden has spoken to the people and urged them to rise, and the people were really following him, they would have done so much earlier,” said army spokesman Maj Gen Waheed Arshad. “He doesn’t have much following here.”
Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi said the government wanted to avoid giving bin Laden any more publicity.
“I think a response to such ridiculous rhetoric is just dignifying it. We don’t want to do that,” Qureshi said.
Bin Laden’s message was the third this month after a long lull and came in a flurry of al-Qaida propaganda marking the sixth anniversary of the Sept 11 attacks on the United States.
Talat Masood, a retired Pakistan army general turned security analyst, said bin Laden may have singled out Pakistan in order to associate himself with rising anti-Musharraf and anti-American sentiment here.
Bin Laden, whose voice was heard on a video tape showing previously released footage of the al-Qaida leader, branded Musharraf an infidel for attacking Islamabad’s Red Mosque, a militant stronghold in the Pakistani capital overrun by commandos in July.
The battle killed more than 100 people, including Abdul Rashid Ghazi, one of the militants’ leaders.
The siege “demonstrated Musharraf’s insistence on continuing his loyalty, submissiveness and aid to America against the Muslims,” bin Laden said. “It is obligatory on the Muslims in Pakistan to carry out jihad and fighting to remove Pervez, his government, his army and those who help him.”
The mosque siege also brought a wave of violence and suicide attacks in Pakistan blamed on Taliban and al-Qaida militants, intensifying the discontent of religious conservatives over Musharraf’s alliance with the United States.
Bin Laden “wants to capitalise on that and put his shoulder behind the movement and try to say that he in a way is representing and echoing the feelings of the people,” Masood said.
While many Pakistanis admire bin Laden for standing up the United States, “the common people and the majority of the people do not approve” of al-Qaida’s violent methods, he said.