CAIRO, Egypt (AP)- Al-Qaeda sympathizers have unleashed a torrent of anger against Al-Jazeera television, accusing it of misrepresenting Osama bin Laden’s latest audiotape by airing excerpts in which he criticizes mistakes by insurgents in Iraq.
Users of a leading Islamic militant Web forum posted thousands of insults against the pan-Arab station for focusing on excerpts in which bin Laden criticizes insurgents, including his followers.
Analysts said the reaction highlighted militants’ surprise at bin Laden’s words, and their dismay at the deep divisions among al-Qaeda and other Iraqi militants that he appeared to be trying to heal.
“It’s not about Al-Jazeera, it’s about their shock from bin Laden,” said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on Islamic militant groups. “For the first time, bin Laden, who used to be the spiritual leader who gives guidance, became a critic of al-Qaeda and is confessing mistakes. This is unusual.”
“God fight Al-Jazeera,” railed one militant Web poster, calling the station a “collaborator with the Crusaders” for suggesting the tape showed weakness in al-Qaeda and featuring discussions of how the tape reflected weaknesses and divisions among insurgents in Iraq.
The recording aired Monday contained unusually strong criticism of insurgents in Iraq from bin Laden, who urges them to admit mistakes and unify. Bin Laden even acknowledges that he advises himself not to be “fanatical” in his stances.
“Some of you have been lax in one duty, which is to unite your ranks,” bin Laden said. “Beware of division … Muslims are waiting for you to gather under a single banner to champion righteousness. Be keen to oblige with this duty.”
“I advise myself, Muslims in general and brothers in al-Qaeda everywhere to avoid extremism among men and groups,” he said.
The tape was met with a cautiously positive response from at least one insurgent coalition that has been opposed to al-Qaeda.
But the Al-Fajr Media Center, which usually posts al-Qaeda video and audio tapes on the Web, accused Al-Jazeera of “counterfeiting the facts” by making the speech appear as exclusively critical of insurgents.
“Al-Jazeera directors have shamefully chosen to back the Crusaders’ side, and the defenders of hypocrites and the thugs and traitors of Iraq,” Al-Fajr said in a statement posted on several Islamic Web sites.
Another Web contributor even rattled off a five-stanza poem of rhymed couplets, comparing the station to a “miserable fly in the garbage” and concluding, “Your day will come, vile one. As long as we live, you won’t be safe, Jazeera.”
Few of the thousands of messages posted by contributors on the Web sites — who are only identified by usernames — called for direct violence against Al-Jazeera. Most instead urged that the full bin Laden tape be distributed as widely as possible on the Web to show its true message.
The full 30-minute audio was posted on Islamic Web sites the day after excerpts were aired by Al-Jazeera. It features long sections praising insurgents for their “holy war” against U.S. and Iraqi troops and urging Iraqis to join them.
The editor-in-chief of the Qatar-based station, Ahmed Sheik, refused to comment on the criticism but said the tape had not been misrepresented.
“Every time, we deal with their tapes same way we did last time,” he told The Associated Press.
Bin Laden’s message came at a time of deepening splits in the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq. Some insurgent groups have formed a coalition rivaling one set up by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Other factions have broken away and joined U.S. troops in fighting al-Qaeda. A group of Sunni Arab tribes in the western province of Anbar also have campaigned against al-Qaeda.
The splits are believed to have been caused by anger over al-Qaeda attempts to dominate the insurgency as well as by its killings of Sunni tribal leaders and its attempts to impose Taliban-like rules.
The spokesman of one coalition of insurgents opposed to al-Qaeda welcomed bin Laden’s call and even left open the possibility of working with al-Qaeda if its mistakes were corrected.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves … but the subject is put forward before the council,” Khattab Abdul-Rahman al-Jabbouri, spokesman of the Political Council of the Iraqi Resistance, told Al-Jazeera in an interview.
He said al-Qaeda in Iraq’s actions “damaged the social fabric of the Iraqi people.” But “if someone corrects their mistake, no matter who they are, then that is a good thing. That’s what we hope for today, so that we can end the mistakes and unify our ranks so we can be a single line against the aggressor,” he said.
Kara Driggers, Mideast analyst for the Terrorism Research Center, said bin Laden’s criticisms of al-Qaeda in Iraq and his rhetoric addressing all Iraqis — including tribal leaders — “seems to have brought more authority to the request (for unity) and the groups are taking it more seriously.”
But Eric Rosenbach, a terror expert and executive director of research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said the splits will be difficult to mend, pointing out that Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq view bin Laden as being as foreign as the Americans.