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Elusive bin Laden stirs followers

A tape released this week may burnish the reputation and influence of Al Qaeda's fugitive leader.

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Zaid Mohammed is a Yemeni student with a gift for languages and a keen interest in world affairs. Reached by telephone in Yemen, he says he had been worried in recent months that his hero, Osama bin Laden, had faded into obscurity. He couldn't explain the disturbing silence, and he had even started to believe those who said that the Al Qaeda chief had been killed in the US-led bombing of Afghanistan.

But the release of an audiotape this week - purportedly of the Al Qaeda chief threatening to take on most of the Western world - has him beaming. "We are happy because we know he is still alive and capable of carrying out attacks against Americans," Mr. Mohammed says about his circle of like-minded Yemeni male friends. "The tape shows that he has been victorious and will continue to defeat the Americans."

The unexpected playing of the tape seems to have revived the flagging legend of Osama bin Laden in the Middle East. For critics of the terrorist mastermind, it is grim confirmation of his ongoing influence. To bin Laden's most devoted followers, it is reason for revived hope.

A boosted reputation

Charles Heyman, editor of London-based Jane's World Armies, says that the commanders of the world's greatest military continue to make a grave mistake by making Osama bin Laden "target No. 1." Mr. Heyman, who travels extensively in the Arab world, worries that bin Laden's reputation has been enhanced considerably by the almost certain confirmation this week that he is alive and speaking.

"Every day bin Laden survives - or even appears to survive - is a victory for Al Qaeda," he says. "In this guerrilla war against the West, if you live to fight another day, it is a conquest of sorts. Just making it through the initial stages of the conflict shows that bin Laden has survived the world's most powerful military."

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