|Bin Laden Tape -- A Discussion|
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.
By MARGOT PATTERSON
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 Ladens remarks, though CNN, BBC News, Sky News and other television stations ran short clips of the videotape.
While some argue that publishing Mr. bin Ladens 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 its 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 dont think they have any more of that capacity, Mr. Khan said.
In the tape, Mr. bin Laden responded to President Bushs 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 Ladens part.
Hes alive and healthy and articulate and aware of public events. Hes seeking to have a voice on the world state and hes achieved having it. Hes 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 didnt 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 Ladens 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 Ladens criticisms, its 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 its changed the United States, said Mr. Smyth. Its changed the way we look at the world. Its 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 CIAs Osama bin Laden unit and the author of a recent book critical of the Bush administrations 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 its still unknown how big al-Qaeda is.
He said that Mr. bin Laden is inspiring Islamic extremists far beyond al-Qaedas 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004
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