CAIRO – In a recording made shortly before his death, Osama bin Laden praised the mass protests that have toppled and shaken longtime rulers across the Arab world while trying to cast a role for al-Qaida in the region's future.
Bin Laden's message, released on militant websites Thursday and addressed to "the Muslim nation," represents an attempt by the terror leader to remain relevant following sweeping changes in which al-Qaida and militant Islam have played almost no role.
"The winds of change will spread through the entire Islamic world, God willing," bin Laden said in the 12-minute audio message. "The youth need to make necessary preparations and not act without consulting the experience of the honest ones and those who are far from half solutions and compromises with the oppressors."
Bin Laden said it was a "religious obligation" to form a council that would provide guidance for all Muslims on important issues — apparently a way for al-Qaida to play a role in the protests' future. He said the council could open an "operations room" and rely on "qualified research centers" to guide "those peoples whose revolution has not yet begun."
While not mentioning al-Qaida by name, he advised people struggling against their governments to remember "those who advised early on the necessity of uprooting these oppressive regimes, for they have great trust among all Muslims" — a clear reference to the militant group.
President Barack Obama, in his Thursday speech on American policy in the Arab world, called bin Laden's death this month at the hands of Navy SEALs a "huge blow" to al-Qaida, which he said was "losing its struggle for relevance."
"By the time we found bin Laden, al-Qaida's agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands," Obama said.
Though both bin Laden and the West have generally supported protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, their goals differ. The West hopes the protests will bring democratic reform. Bin Laden and his followers saw many Middle East leaders as corrupt and hoped their collapse would lead to governments based on the strict interpretation of Islamic law — a hope repeated in Thursday's message.
"Bin Laden's message indicates that the group sees an opportunity in the fall of these dictators, who have brutally repressed any jihadist elements in their countries," said Rita Katz, head of the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group that monitors militant websites.
"With their absence, al-Qaida could operate more freely and attempt to spread its influence in the countries where the uprisings are occurring."
It remained unclear when the recording was made, though bin Laden's mention of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt indicate it was no more than a few months old.
"The sun of revolution shined from the west and lit up the revolution in Tunis," bin Laden said of the uprising there that ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January. "The winds of change blew, desiring liberation."
It then moved "with the speed of lighting" to Egypt, bin Laden said, where "a great revolution was launched — and what a revolution! — a crucial revolution for all Egypt that united the entire nation under God."
The message was released as a video, but it contains only an audio track and a photo of the terrorist leader.
In the recording, bin Laden accused rulers of building themselves into idols and manipulating the media to stay in power.
"So, what are you waiting for?" he implored listeners. "Save yourselves and your children, because the opportunity is here."
Militant Islam played no role in the early protests in Egypt and Tunisia, which were mostly led by youth fed up with government corruption, unemployment, lack of basic freedoms and abuse by security forces. The spread of anti-government uprisings to Libya, Syria and other countries has sparked fears that Islamist groups will take advantage up the upheaval to grab control — a worry protest leaders dismiss.
Mohammed Abbas, a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the coalition that lead the country's uprising, said many groups, including al-Qaida, have sought to "lay their hands on the Arab revolutions."
"But the revolutions have proven to be pure, peaceful and civilized," he said. "I don't think they had a hand in this revolution, and they will not have a hand."
Bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in a daring May 2 raid in Pakistan. U.S. intelligence officials said they were aware that the recording was in the pipeline.
Bin Laden was known to record many of his thoughts, and intelligence officials are poring over the recordings discovered in his Pakistani compound. But it's unclear whether he released any other recordings prior to his death or whether this is the final sermon from the terrorist mastermind.