Bin Laden’s October Surprise

There’s been a lot of chatter about Osama bin Laden’s newest tape, released just days before the U.S. presidential election. Depressingly, I’m beginning to think that just about all of that chatter completely misses the point of bin Laden’s message.

Most of the talking heads have focused their commentary on what impact bin Laden intended to have on the election — whether the tape means he “endorses Bush” or “endorses Kerry”. This is utterly beside the point. I’ve been reading the excellent book Imperial Hubris, written by the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit — a book that I expect most of the commentariat has read as well, though they show no sign of it — and it explains the meaning of the tape much more clearly, even though it was published months before the tape ever came to light.

In Chapter Five, the book discusses how bin Laden has been rising to two challenges — reacting to Islamic criticism of the September 11 attacks (on the basis that it is un-Islamic to kill mass numbers of uninvolved civilians), and dealing with the potential for even more such criticism should he and al Qaeda ever detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States. Part of his response to both these challenges, the author writes, has been to build the rationale that his actions were a last resort, that he had exhausted every reasonable alternative to bring the United States around to the word of Allah before turning to violence. Thus, in his writings, tapes, and so on, he repeatedly makes gestures like offering to be a spiritual teacher of Islam to the American people; he doesn’t believe that America will actually take him up on the offer, but by making it he bolsters his case in the Islamic world.

With that in mind, I want to excerpt a bit from the section in that chapter entitled “Target America: Justifying Mass Casualties” that speaks pretty clearly to the meaning of the latest tape:

While keeping the United States on the rhetorical bull’s-eye since September 2001, bin Laden has focused equally on making sure that the Muslim world is ready to accept an attack that causes mass American casualties. The effort directed at the Muslim world, in fact, may be the reason there has not been a major attack in the United States since 2001. Toward the goal of preparing Muslims, bin Laden has repeatedly warned Americans that another al Qaeda attack on the United States is in the offing and that it will be worse than that of 11 September. He has also offered U.S. leaders and the American people the chance to convert to Islam, volunteering himself to be their teacher and guide on the path to God’s truth. It appears, moreover, that al Qaeda prompted a well-known and respected Saudi Islamic scholar to write and publish a treatise that, in religious terms, justifies the use of weapons of mass destruction in the United States. Finally, bin Laden has appealed directly to the American people to use their democratic system of government to force U.S. leaders to abrogate policies that are harming the Muslim world, in essence saying that U.S. citizens have it in their power to end the war between America and Islam and if they do not use it, they merit any tragedy that befalls them. At the end of the day, these actions are made more to address and satisfy the concerns of Muslim critics of the 11 September attacks than with any expectation that America will change its policies and end the war…
bin Laden went the extra mile in preparing Muslims for a WMD attack on the United States by turning America’s democracy back on its own citizenry. “Many people in the West are good and gentle people,” bin Laden said. “I have already said that we are not hostile to the United States. We are against the system [i.e., U.S. foreign policy] which makes nations slaves of the United States, or forces them to mortgage their political and economic freedom.” Turning the absurd personalized war-making formula so beloved in the West — “We are at war with bin Laden not Muslims,” for example, or, “We are at war with Saddam not Iraqis” — against the United States, bin Laden assures Americans that Islam is at war against their government and not them, and he explains that because he understands that America is a democracy, he also understands that Americans have the electoral power to change the leaders who are prosecuting an anti-Islam foreign policy. U.S. citizens, he argues, have the ability to end those policies, remove the cause of the U.S. war with Islam, and end the risk of a WMD attack causing mass American casualties…
While bin Laden would welcome the end of these policies, and any dissent his words might provoke in the United States, he probably expects neither. Rather, he has employed this argument as yet another way of proving to Muslims that he has exhausted every available means to prevent the necessity of using a weapon of mass destruction against Americans. He had warned, offered conversion, sought religious guidance, and — as a last ditch effort — tried to persuade Americans to protect themselves in the best American tradition of using the ballot box. Nothing has worked for bin Laden, Muslims are still being attacked and killed, and so, as Shaykh al-Fahd [the author of the religious treatise justifying WMD use] wrote, “If people of authority engaged in jihad determine that the evil of the infidels can only be repelled by their means [i.e. by weapons of mass destruction], they may be used.” …
It is clear that bin Laden is one of those “in authority over the jihad” who has decided the “jihad requires” the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States and believes that their use is religiously “legitimate”. No one should be surprised when bin Laden and al Qaeda detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States.

(Emphasis above is mine.)

Notice how this describes bin Laden’s most recent message perfectly, even though it was written long before that message ever surfaced and was based on the content of messages from 2003 and before. So this latest tape shouldn’t be viewed as an attempt to tilt the election at all, but rather the latest salvo in a campaign of justification that has been underway for years. And it’s not even really meant for us — it’s meant for consumption by the Muslim world, which watches and listens to everything bin Laden says very carefully. (Remember that the tape was released by giving it to al-Jazeera.)

But why now? Why should bin Laden pick this moment to surface again, after spending so many months in hiding in the mountains?

I can think of two scenarios off the top of my head that would make sense:

  • A media-savvy bin Laden wanted to take advantage of the U.S.’s current preoccupation with its elections to allow his message to reach a far larger audience than it otherwise would. His timing therefore can be seen as simply the work of a good PR man.
  • Or, more frighteningly, perhaps bin Laden and al Qaeda have finally gotten their hands on the WMD that they have been seeking for so long, and this message represents the final warning to the American people before they unleash it. In other words, it’s bin Laden giving those stubborn Americans one last chance to turn back before he punches them again. If this is the case, it wouldn’t make much sense for the attack to come before the election, since that would put the lie to bin Laden’s “you can stop this” message; instead, look for the strike sometime soon afterwards. It probably doesn’t much matter whether Bush or Kerry wins in this scenario, since it’s not like either one is going to give bin Laden what he claims to want, so in either case bin Laden would have an excuse to claim that his warning went unheeded. The only difference would probably be in timing — if Kerry wins, the attack would have to wait until he took office so that it could plausibly be claimed that the “outrage” against Muslims that bin Laden will say prompted him to strike can honestly be laid at Kerry’s door and not Bush’s.

I’m sure there are other interpretations as well. The point is that we need to stop looking at this problem from an American perspective and start seeing it as our enemies do, or we are going to suffer for our inability to do so. The national reaction to this latest tape (for a sample, see the screaming headline on today’s New York Post — “BIN LOSER: Bid to sway voters backfires on Osama”) don’t give me a lot of encouragement that we’re there yet.