The Other Shoe Drops: bin Laden Weighs in

It is interesting that Osama bin Laden explicitly said that it doesn't matter to al Qaeda whether Bush or Kerry is president. Only the degree to which the U.S. gives "liberty" to the Muslim world matters to al Qaeda, he says. (I'll have things to say about this diction below, but it is bizarre that a mass murderer who helped run the Taliban state is talking about "liberty.)

Does the appearance of the video help or hurt Bush? It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a painful reminder that Bush dropped the ball, left the fight against al Qaeda half-finished, and ran off to the Iraq quagmire, so that bin Laden is still at large three years after he killed 3,000 Americans and hit the Pentagon itself. That can't be good for Bush. On the other hand, because so many Americans confuse Bush's swagger and aggressive instincts with being "strong on terrorism," any big reminder that al Qaeda is out there could actually help W. It shouldn't, but it may well.

He begins by addressing the U.S. public directly (this passage is translated by J. Cole):

On the reason for the war, addressing the U.S. public, bin Laden says, "I say to you that security is an important pillar of human life, and that free persons do not neglect their own security, contrary to the allegations of Bush that we despise liberty. He should let us know why we did not strike at Sweden, for instance (if that were true). It is well know that those who despise liberty do not possess lofty-minded souls like the 19, God bless them. We only waged battle with you because we are free persons, and we cannot sleep knowing that injustice is being done. We want to regain freedom for our nation. As you damage our security, we will damage yours."

Some of the rest of the statement is given by The Associated Press:

He said he was first inspired to attack the United States by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon in which towers and buildings in Beirut were destroyed in the siege of the capital.

"While I was looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our children and women,'' he said.

"God knows that it had not occurred to our mind to attack the towers, but after our patience ran out and we saw the injustice and inflexibility of the American-Israeli alliance toward our people in Palestine and Lebanon, this came to my mind,'' he said.

bin Laden suggested Bush was slow to react to the Sept. 11 attacks, giving the hijackers more time than they expected. At the time of the attacks, the president was listening to schoolchildren in Florida reading a book.

"It never occurred to us that the commander in chief of the American armed forces would leave 50,000 of his citizens in the two towers to face these horrors alone,'' he said, referring to the number of people who worked at the World Trade Center.

"It appeared to him (Bush) that a little girl's talk about her goat and its butting was more important than the planes and their butting of the skyscrapers. That gave us three times the required time to carry out the operations, thank God,'' he said.

In planning the attacks, bin Laden said he told Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers, that the strikes had to be carried out "within 20 minutes before Bush and his administration noticed."

bin Laden has repeatedly said that one of the reasons he hit the U.S. was over the Israeli attacks on the Palestinians. bin Laden has cared deeply about Palestine since his youth. His partner in Peshawar at the Office of Services for six years when he was funding the Mujahidin was Abdullah Azzam, a prominent Palestinian Muslim fundamentalist. When he came back to Jiddah from Pakistan after the Soviets withdrew, bin Laden gave a guest sermon at the local mosque in which he bitterly criticized Israeli actions during the first Intifadah. He declared war on the Zionists and the Crusaders, and has constantly complained about the Occupation of the Three Holy Cities, which are Mecca, Medinah and Jerusalem. Because he did not use traditional Palestianian nationalist language, it has been possible for some to miss his commitment to the Palestine issue. The 9/11 Commission report notes that he wanted to move the attack up from September to April of 2001 to punish the Israelis for actions against Palestinians. He thought of himself as attacking the U.S. for backing Israel and Israeli aggression and seems to be annoyed at the success of the Bush administration in painting him as a nihilist.

The talk about being "free persons" (ahrar) and fighting for "liberty" (hurriyyah) for the Muslim "nation" (ummah) seems to me a departure. The word hurriyyah or freedom has no classical Arabic or Koranic resonances and I don't think it has played a big role in his previous statements.

I wonder if bin Laden has heard from the field that his association with the authoritarian Taliban has damaged recruitment in the Arab world and Iraq, where most people want an end to dictatorship and do not want to replace their secular despots with a religious one. The elections in Pakistan (fall 2002) and Afghanistan went better than he would have wanted, and may have put pressure on him. He may now be reconfiguring the rhetoric of al Qaeda, at least, to represent it as on the side of political liberty. I am not saying this is sincere or might succeed; both seem to me highly unlikely. I am saying that it is interesting that bin Laden now seems to feel the need to appeal to this language. In a way, it may be one of the few victories American neo-Wilsonianism has won, to push bin Laden to use this kind of language. I doubt it amounts to much.


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