Osama bin Laden appears to be trying to transform himself from terrorist to political leader, concluded some Middle Eastern experts after watching recent messages attributed to the al-Qaeda leader.
But at least one of those experts questions whether bin Laden has anything to offer his followers beyond a call to arms, saying he does not have solutions to the economic and social issues facing young Muslims.
Abdel Rahim Ali, an Egyptian expert who studies Islamic movements, said many Islamic fundamentalist or radical groups turned into political movements after their violent campaigns lost steam. For example, Egypt's Islamic Group denounced terrorism and revised its holy war strategy after its attempt to topple Egypt's regime by force was met with a fierce crackdown.
"This is only natural for any radical movement. First they start as militant and secretive and then they try to get credibility from the public before they turn into a political movement," said Ali, author of Alliance of Terror: al-Qaida Organization.
Ali said the cease-fire that bin Laden offered the Europeans in April in exchange for their withdrawal from Iraq was a political message that differed markedly from his usual uncompromising posture.
Also, in a video aired on the satellite station Al-Jazeera days before last month's presidential election in the US, bin Laden made an unusual overture to the US people, telling them they could avoid another Sept. 11 attack if they chose leaders who did not threaten Muslims.
"Even Spartacus turned his revolt into a political movement," Ali said. "So why not bin Laden?"
Ali said bin Laden might want to transform al-Qaeda into an organization with both military and political wings, mirroring paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland or the Palestinian movement.
While some analysts say al-Qaeda has been forced to change course because it has been weakened and possibly shattered by a US crackdown, others believe that any shifting by bin Laden is only temporary and tactical.
"His goal is to build an Islamic state and his means will remain holy war," said Saudi writer Mshari al-Thaydi, who has been monitoring Islamic radical groups for years. "He does not know any other means to make his point."