Not the first story Newsweek’s run this year about Zawahiri stepping on people’s toes. We’ll know it’s true when news breaks about him being killed in an airstrike thanks to a hot tip from sources in whom the U.S. has “unusual confidence.”

Lonely, marginalized and suddenly suspicious that he was losing his grip over the organization he helped create, Osama bin Laden finally decided that enough was enough. At least that’s the explanation sources close to him are giving for why, after three long years of silence, the Qaeda leader has released one video and two audiotapes in the past month, including last week’s audio message calling for a jihad against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. According to Omar Farooqi, a Taliban liaison officer with Al Qaeda, bin Laden recently learned that a faction within his own organization had been conspiring to sideline him, insisting—unnecessarily, bin Laden now believes—that he remain secluded for security reasons. CIA officials told NEWSWEEK they could neither confirm nor reject the theory.

Bin Laden had long been chafing at this imposed gag order, says Farooqi, who learned from Sheik Saeed, Al Qaeda’s senior leader in Afghanistan, and other top operatives that bin Laden became “extremely upset” earlier this year when he discovered that some of his lieutenants feared he was dead…

Farooqi refused to say which faction bin Laden believes is responsible for the so-called conspiracy, though several Taliban sources pointed to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, suggesting that he might have been trying to solidify his own authority.

Verrrry suspicious that Farooqi, who was also the source for the story about Zawahiri feuding with Al Qaeda lieutenant Abu Yahya al-Libi, keeps spilling these damaging stories of infighting to Newsweek. I can’t imagine what propaganda goal he hopes to accomplish by it; after the fiasco in Anbar province, AQ needs good PR right now among Muslims more than anything else and reports of dissension within the ranks do them no favors. The latest blow comes from Wahhabist cleric Salman al-Odeh, a Saudi fundamentalist whom Fawaz Gerges describes as Osama’s “mentor” and who’s now urging him publicly to rein it in before any more Muslims get killed.

Al-Oadah is a prominent Salafi preacher with a large following in Saudi Arabia and abroad. In the 1990s, he was imprisoned by the Saudi regime along with four leading clerics for criticizing the kingdom’s close relationship with the United States, particularly the stationing of American troops there after the 1991 Gulf war.

It is worth noting that the decision to post American forces in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, was the catalyst for bin Laden’s murderous journey. Throughout the 1990s, he frequently cited al-Oadah as a critic of the Saud royal family and fellow Salafi who shared his strict religious vision and world view…

[T]he attack on bin Laden and his group by a respected religious authority is lethal, especially coming at a critical juncture for Al Qaeda and like-minded militant factions worldwide.

Gerges says Odeh’s Salafist credentials are impeccable, which is why this might carry some weight. I’m skeptical that any fundie would turn against violence, at least without some strong “pressure” from the Saudi government, but here’s hoping. Click the image to watch.

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Update: Seriously, it’s time for Musharraf to go. If he’s too politically weak to hammer Al Qaeda then let’s make a deal with Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif that trades U.S. support for their leadership in return for sustained operations in the tribal areas. The question is, even if they’re more popular than Musharraf is, (a) will that popularity hold up if they go after the Taliban, and (b) will the Pakistani military follow orders? There’s reason to doubt.

Political turmoil and a spate of brazen attacks by Taliban fighters are forcing Pakistan’s president to scale back his government’s pursuit of Al Qaeda, according to U.S. intelligence officials who fear that the terrorist network will be able to accelerate its efforts to rebuild and plot new attacks…

“We are worried,” said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official who closely monitors Pakistan’s pursuit of Al Qaeda in the rugged frontier region. The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter…

“In the next few days, we’re probably going to see a withdrawal of forces that the Pakistanis put there,” the intelligence official said, adding that the move could solidify a “safe haven, where the [Al Qaeda] leadership is secure, operational planners can do their business, and foreigners can come in and be trained and redeploy to the West.”…

The unfolding situation has put Washington in the conflicted position of either pressing for democratic reforms in a nation where doing so is likely to undermine efforts to apprehend Bin Laden, or pushing to shut down terrorist camps linked to a series of plots against Western targets.

Polls in Pakistan suggest that Bin Laden is more popular than many of the Muslim nation’s politicians, and analysts say it is extremely difficult for the beleaguered Musharraf to remain aligned with the U.S.