Bin Laden Tape -- A Discussion
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Issue Date:  November 26, 2004

Analysis -- Interpreting bin Laden

Experts see America's No. 1 enemy as adopting a new stance

We have printed the words of Osama bin Laden below because we believe we need to know what this man thinks and how he feels about America. He is our declared enemy -- and we believe it prudent and judicious to know our enemy and what he has to say, however frightening his words may be.


The release of a videotape of Osama bin Laden shortly before the Nov. 2 election was a late surprise in the presidential campaign. Delivered to the Pakistan bureau of the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, the videotape confirmed that Osama bin Laden was alive and underscored the evolving and elusive role he and his al-Qaeda terrorists play.

CNN reported that the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, attempted to stop the release of the videotape on the grounds that Al-Jazeera should not provide a platform for terrorists. For similar reasons, many U.S. newspapers chose not to publish the text of bin Laden’s remarks, though CNN, BBC News, Sky News and other television stations ran short clips of the videotape.

While some argue that publishing Mr. bin Laden’s words amounts to giving a terrorist a forum, valuable insights can be gleaned from the videotape and its transcript. Mideast analysts who were interviewed drew a variety of inferences from the tape about the goals of Mr. bin Laden and the strength of al-Qaeda. The latter, say some analysts, is increasingly a movement attracting freelancers sympathetic to its goals rather than a centralized terrorist organization.

“Al-Qaeda has now sufficiently regrouped that they feel safe enough to shoot a video with bin Laden on it,” said M.A. Muqtedar Khan, chair of the political science department at Adrian College in Michigan and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute.

The fact that the videotape was delivered in Pakistan suggests that it’s likely an al-Qaeda infrastructure has developed in Pakistan, said Mr. Khan. He saw the video as evidence that al-Qaeda is no longer capable of delivering the kind of massive assault launched on 9/11.

“The fact that they used a media attack shows that they do not have any capacity to attack the United States in the United States, which kind of debunks the thesis that there are sleeper agents in the United States ready to attack at any moment. I don’t think they have any more of that capacity,” Mr. Khan said.

In the tape, Mr. bin Laden responded to President Bush’s charge that al-Qaeda hates freedom and said that he and his associates were seeking to free others from oppression. He compared President Bush with autocratic military rulers in the Muslim world, criticized the Patriot Act, and detailed a list of abuses he said the Bush administration was guilty of, including the slaughter of innocent people in Iraq, election fraud and war profiteering.

Frank Smyth, a journalist who has reported on Mr. bin Laden since 1998 when he and coauthor Peter Bergen wrote in the Aug. 31, 1998, issue of The New Republic that bin Laden was the most likely suspect behind the East African bombings, said the tape demonstrates a new level of political sophistication on Mr. bin Laden’s part.

“He’s alive and healthy and articulate and aware of public events. He’s seeking to have a voice on the world state and he’s achieved having it. He’s always been a political animal. Even as his terrorism activities are decreasing, his level of political sophistication is increasing,” said Mr. Smyth.

Mr. Smyth said the timing of the release of the tape, on the eve of the U.S. elections, shows Mr. bin Laden seeking to engage with American voters, though not necessarily to shape the election in any particular way. Mr. Smyth said Mr. bin Laden was impressing upon Americans and other viewers of the videotape that he is directing al-Qaeda to attack the United States because of specific policies, particularly U.S. support for Israel.

“He has moderated his demands. He is no longer seeking the destruction of the United States,” Mr. Smyth said. “But he is now directly seeking to influence U.S. policy. He has adopted the Palestinian movement as a cause.”

Mr. Smyth noted originally the Palestinian situation didn’t necessarily get any more attention from al-Qaeda than any other situation around the world where different Muslim populations were oppressed by their own governments or by occupying powers.

That has now changed -- perhaps, Mr. Khan suggests, because bombings in Muslim countries have sapped support for it there.

“Al-Qaeda is trying to reconnect to its supporters by emphasizing core Muslim issues such as the Palestinian issue,” Mr. Khan said.

Indeed, some analysts say the tape is probably intended as much or more for Muslim audiences as it for Americans.

Christopher Preble, director for foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, said Mr. bin Laden seems to be trying to solidify his credentials as a Muslim religious leader and using the United States to do that. Mr. bin Laden’s rejection of modernity and his effort to return Islam to the eighth century are part of what Mr. Preble called a “profound debate within the Muslim world.”

“The debate is whether to modernize Islam or to return it to its roots,” Mr. Preble said. “In this case, there are some striking parallels to reform movements within Christianity centuries ago. That is, do you reform the faith? Do you accept certain modernizing movements that include, say, tolerance for nonbelievers or rights for women? In the Second Vatican Council, there were some pretty dramatic changes embodied in that process. Do you embrace those modernizing principles or do you reject them?”

To win adherents, Mr. bin Laden is tapping into widespread Muslim grievances, which include not only what is perceived as uncritical U.S. support of Israel but also U.S. support for autocratic governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and what some Muslims see as a U.S. war on Islam.

While many Americans may find themselves agreeing with some of Mr. bin Laden’s criticisms, it’s unlikely that his critique will change U.S. policies, analysts say.

“You never want to change policy under pressure from terrorists. On the other hand, you may want to change policy for your own reasons. That may be what makes it a dangerous dynamic. It may ironically make it harder,” said Mr. Smyth.

“The danger of bin Laden and the danger of 9/11 is that it’s changed the United States,” said Mr. Smyth. “It’s changed the way we look at the world. It’s changed the way we make decisions both in terms of making us more aggressive overseas of and curtailing civil liberties at home. We tend to increasingly see this ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Instead of seeing each one of our enemies for who they are, we lump them together and that I think is a grave danger. And I say that as someone who had advocated hawkish actions against both bin Laden and Saddam Hussein for years.”

The release of the videotape coincides with congressional efforts to reform the intelligence services in the wake of 9/11 and the war in Iraq and an ongoing debate about the readiness of U.S. intelligence.

Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit and the author of a recent book critical of the Bush administration’s war on terror, Imperial Hubris, said in an interview with The New York Times published Nov. 8 that al-Qaeda has become a global Islamic insurgency rather than a traditional terrorist organization.

“The amount of punishment the CIA has delivered to al-Qaeda since 9/11 would have wiped out any other terrorist organization,” Mr. Scheuer said in the Times. “But this is an insurgent organization.”

Mr. Scheuer called the difference between fighting an insurgency and a terrorist organization one of size and said it’s still unknown how big al-Qaeda is.

He said that Mr. bin Laden is inspiring Islamic extremists far beyond al-Qaeda’s membership. In addition to running its own terrorist network, al-Qaeda is providing support for regional Muslim movements, he said.

Mr. Scheuer announced his resignation from the CIA four days after the interview in the Times. In a statement, Mr. Scheuer said he had not been asked to leave the agency but was resigning so as to be able to continue speaking publicly about the threat posed by al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

“I have concluded that there has not been adequate national debate over the nature of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and the forces he leads and inspires, and the nature and dimensions of intelligence reform needed to address that threat,” the longtime CIA analyst said.

Margot Patterson is an NCR writer and editor. Her e-mail address is

Osama bin laden talks to America

Editor’s note: Below are excerpts from a transcript of Osama bin Laden’s recent videotape. The full text is available on the NCR Web site,, in the special documents section.

… Before I begin, I say to you that security is an indispensable pillar of human life and that free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. If so, then let him explain to us why we don’t strike, for example, Sweden? And we know that freedom-haters don’t possess defiant spirits like those of the 19. May Allah have mercy on them.

No, we fight because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our nation, just as you lay waste to our nation. So shall we lay waste to yours.

No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure. Whereas thinking people, when disaster strikes, make it their priority to look for its causes, in order to prevent it happening again.

But I am amazed at you. Even though we are in the fourth year after the events of September 11th, Bush is still engaged in distortion, deception and hiding from you the real causes. And thus, the reasons are still there for a repeat of what occurred.

So I shall talk to you about the story behind those events and shall tell you truthfully about the moments in which the decision was taken, for you to consider.

I say to you, Allah knows that it had never occurred to us to strike the towers. But after it became unbearable and we witnessed the oppression and tyranny of the American/Israeli coalition against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, it came to my mind.

The events that affected my soul in a direct way started in 1982 when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them in that. This bombardment began and many were killed and injured and others were terrorized and displaced.

I couldn’t forget those moving scenes, blood and severed limbs, women and children sprawled everywhere. Houses destroyed along with their occupants and high rises demolished over their residents, rockets raining down on our home without mercy.

The situation was like a crocodile meeting a helpless child, powerless except for his screams. Does the crocodile understand a conversation that doesn’t include a weapon? And the whole world saw and heard but it didn’t respond.

In those difficult moments, many hard-to-describe ideas bubbled in my soul, but in the end they produced an intense feeling of rejection of tyranny, and gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors.

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

And that day, it was confirmed to me that oppression and the intentional killing of innocent women and children is a deliberate American policy. Destruction is freedom and democracy, while resistance is terrorism and intolerance.

This means the oppressing and embargoing to death of millions as Bush Sr. did in Iraq in the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known, and it means the throwing of millions of pounds of bombs and explosives at millions of children -- also in Iraq -- as Bush Jr. did, in order to remove an old agent and replace him with a new puppet to assist in the pilfering of Iraq’s oil and other outrages.

… We have found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents. Our experience with them is lengthy, and both types are replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and misappropriation of wealth. This resemblance began after the visits of Bush Sr. to the region.

At a time when some of our compatriots were dazzled by America and hoping that these visits would have an effect on our countries, all of a sudden he was affected by those monarchies and military regimes and became envious of their remaining decades in their positions, to embezzle the public wealth of the nation without supervision or accounting.

So he took dictatorship and suppression of freedoms to his son and they named it the Patriot Act, under the pretense of fighting terrorism. In addition, Bush sanctioned the installing of sons as state governors and didn’t forget to import expertise in election fraud from the region’s presidents to Florida to be made use of in moments of difficulty.

So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah. That being said, those who say that al-Qaeda has won against the administration in the White House or that the administration has lost in this war have not been precise because when one scrutinizes the results, one cannot say that al-Qaeda is the sole factor in achieving those spectacular gains.

Rather, the policy of the White House that demands the opening of war fronts to keep busy their various corporations -- whether they be working in the field of arms or oil or reconstruction -- has helped al-Qaeda to achieve these enormous results.

… The war went ahead, the death toll rose, the American economy bled, and Bush became embroiled in the swamps of Iraq that threaten his future. He fits the saying, “Like the naughty she-goat who used her hoof to dig up a knife from under the earth.”

So I say to you, over 15,000 of our people have been killed and tens of thousands injured, while more than a thousand of you have been killed and more than 10,000 injured. And Bush’s hands are stained with the blood of all those killed from both sides, all for the sake of oil and keeping their private companies in business.

Be aware that it is the nation who punishes the weak man when he causes the killing of one of its citizens for money, while letting the powerful one get off, when he causes the killing of more than 1,000 of its sons, also for money.

And the same goes for your allies in Palestine. They terrorize the women and children, and kill and capture the men as they lie sleeping with their families on the mattresses, that you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.

… In conclusion, I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaeda. No. Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn’t play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security.

And Allah is our guardian and helper, while you have no guardian or helper. All peace be upon he who follows the guidance.

-- Osama bin Laden
17 Ramadhan 1425

National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004

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