by Jalal Ghazi
Sept. 11, 2001, the Arab television network Al Jazeera has aired seven audiotapes, sometimes with accompanying video, containing the words of Osama bin Laden. At first, U.S. media was primarily interested in whether the tapes proved the Al Qaeda leader was still alive. Later, bin Laden's words were studied to gauge the likelihood of another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Receiving less attention is the fact that bin Laden hopes his audiotapes can transform him into an Islamic visionary. His remarks have followed a clear and conscious pattern, twice repeated. Now, his latest tape, aired Jan. 4, 2004, demonstrates an important strategic shift: a focus on getting rid of "unfit" Arab regimes.
In the first tape, released Oct. 7, 2001, shortly before the war in Afghanistan, bin Laden calls on Muslims to defend that country. In the next tape, aired on the first anniversary of Sept. 11, he gives the American people an ultimatum: stop attacking Muslims or face more attacks. A month later, a new bin Laden tape announced that Al Qaeda would attack the United States and its allies in the Afghanistan war.
The next three tapes follow the same pattern, only with regard to Iraq, not Afghanistan: a call for defense, an ultimatum, and a call for attacks. In the tape aired Feb. 11, 2003, shortly before the U.S. and British invasion, bin Laden asks Muslims to defend Iraq. The next tape, aired on the second anniversary of Sept. 11, was a set of two tapes, one of bin Laden's words and another those of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, second in command in Al Qaeda. Zawahiri gives the American people an ultimatum: stop the U.S. government from attacking Muslims, or face more attacks. A month later, Al Jazeera aired a virtual declaration of war from bin Laden; he vows to "continue martyrdom operations inside and outside the U.S."
These were not idle words. Ten days later, on Oct. 27, 2003, the first day of Ramadan, 35 people were killed four separate car bombings in Baghdad. On Nov. 14, two synagogues in Istanbul were targeted by dual car bombs that killed 25 and injured 450. Six days latter, the British consulate and bank headquarters in Istanbul were attacked in the same fashion. Hundreds were injured and 27 people were killed, including the U.K. Consul General. Al Qaeda is believed to be behind these attacks.
In Iraq, November was an especially bloody month for the U.S. and its allies; 79 American soldiers and at least 25 from other coalition forces were killed.
But in his seventh and most recent tape, aired Jan. 4, bin Laden breaks with the pattern of the first six. He gives no ultimatums to the American people and makes no call for attacks against Americans inside or outside the United States.
Instead, he focuses attention on what he views as corrupt Arab regimes. Bin Laden argues at length that Muslim regimes, and Gulf monarchies in particular, are unfit to govern and incapable of defending the Muslim world. He calls them Saddam's "friends in the pathway of betrayal," criticizing them for siding with Saddam Hussein and the United States during the Iran-Iraq war. He says that if Arab governments allied themselves with the United States against Iraq out of fear of U.S. aggression, they may turn against other Muslim countries for the same reason.
"The honest and concerned religious clergies," bin Laden says, "respected leaders, prominent figures and commercial traders must meet in a safe place, away from the influence of these brutal regimes, and form a council to dissolve these religiously unqualified regimes and form new ones to counter the Roman attack that started in Iraq."
Why the change? Bin Laden is likely responding to new developments in Bush administration policy, which now engages countries labeled a year ago as "evil." Today, James Baker is doing damage control, trying to improve relations with old Europe and Russia and taking a multilateral approach. U.S. aid planes land in Iran to bring relief to a quake-ravaged city. A deal is made with Libya over banned weapons of mass destruction. A U.S.-brokered peace deal in Sudan ends decades of civil war between Muslims and Christians.
These successes threaten bin Laden's vision for the Arab world. He devotes a large part of his recent tape to convincing Muslims and Arabs to not be fooled by U.S. deal-making. He specifically refers to the U.S.-backed "road map" for peace in the Middle East and the Geneva Accords, calling them tricks to destroy the Palestinian armed resistance and take control of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. "Today Baghdad, and tomorrow Riyadh," the Saudi capital, he says of U.S. ambitions.
To achieve his goal of dissolving Arab regimes and uniting Muslims under one Islamic rule based on Sharia law, bin Laden must ultimately engage in nation building. He has shown he can cause destruction and disorder against Westerners in the United States and elsewhere. His focus for attacks now will likely be limited to coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, attacks that most in the Arab world do not consider terrorism, but rather resistance to occupation. It is these strikes that can generate tremendous support for bin Laden -- not the killing of American, Western or Jewish civilians, especially in Muslim countries, where Muslims can be hurt.
The Bush administration must pay close attention to bin Laden's words, not just to determine how the enemy thinks, but to develop counter-arguments and articulate a different vision for the Middle East. Bin Laden, after all, is not the first to use tapes to promote an ideological movement. The late Ayatollah Khomeini successfully used audiotapes to plant the seeds of the Islamic revolution in Iran.
January 12, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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