Bin Laden Speaks

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I’ve
never believed the nonsense that Osama Bin Laden — and the Islamic
Revolutionaries who make up Al-Qaeda — cares much who wins this
presidential election.

When
I was an aspiring, wanna-be jihadi a dozen years ago during my undergraduate
days at Ohio State, I and my compatriots didn’t care who won that
election either. As we studied the writing and thoughts of Sayyed
Qutb and Maulana Alaa Maududi — the "intellectual giants"
of 20th century Revolutionary Islam — to learn why we
should and what that struggle ought to accomplish, the idea that
somehow a vote for Bill Clinton would lead to a better deal for
Muslims across the world was obviously nonsense.

And
we derided — maybe not openly, not to their faces — anyone who came
to our masjid and advocated that position.

At
the same time, the notion held by many Bush supporters that Bin
Laden clearly favors a Kerry victory because Kerry is weak is idiocy.
It assumes — wrongly — that our "weakness" and lack of
resolve encouraged the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Muslim
Revolutionaries are not terribly impressed nor frightened by superior
firepower. They do not have the same ideas of our weaknesses and
our strengths that many of us do.

(And
more to the point, they simply do not care about our strength or
weakness. Islamic Revolutionaries, as part of a nearly century-old
revivalist movement attempting to cope with the European conquest
of the Muslim world, have an agenda entirely of their own, things
they want to accomplish that have absolutely nothing to do with
us.)

In
his "Message to America" broadcast on Qatar-based Al-Jazeera
on Friday, Bin Laden certainly failed to clearly come out for or
against either major party candidate, though each side is trying
to spin it their way as loudly as possible.

What
is clear, however, that Al-Qaeda’s chief Rolodex man gets no small
amount of pleasure out of taunting and belittling George W. Bush.
He may not care who wins, but he probably won’t be too unhappy if
Bush loses.

The
very fact that Bin Laden is alive and well somewhere (deepest darkest
Waziristan or Nuristan, a comfy but nondescript villa in Karachi,
or somewhere entirely more exotic — Dubai? Yemen? Singapore? Ulaan
Baator? Brooklyn? Santa Monica?) is itself a taunt. That the man
blamed for directing the September 11 attacks is still alive, healthy,
confident, and at liberty is galling enough in and of itself. A
reminder that, no matter how much he boasts during campaign rallies
and at press conferences, Bush has failed utterly in bringing Bin
Laden to justice.

Bin
Laden cleverly impugns Bush’s manhood by saying he was more concerned
with the story of a small goat than he was with the attack that
was under way that very morning. He is a bad protector, a lousy
patriarch, Bin Laden said, one who cannot keep us safe, because
(as the BBC transcript says), "It never occurred to us that
the supreme commander of the US armed forces would leave 50,000
of his citizens in the two towers to face those great horrors alone,
at a time when they needed him badly."

More
importantly, Bin Laden argued that rather than us influence the
Middle East, our leaders have become like the corrupt and unelected
leaders of the Islamic world. Rather than spread our values to that
part of the world, it is we who have been seduced by the
lure of money, autocracy, and dynasty.

In
fact, Bin Laden compares the Bush family to the Al Sauds, further
poking Bush the Younger in the eye by saying he owes his position
and his power to his father, noting (again, referring to the BBC
transcript):

Bush
Senior deemed it appropriate to assign his sons to states [as
state governors, according to the Al-Jazeera translation].
He also did not forget to convey the [election] rigging experience
from the leaders of the [Arab] region to Florida to benefit from
it at critical times.

In
Saudi Arabia, the governors of all the important provinces are either
senior sons of Abd Al-Aziz — the founder of the modern Saudi state
— or his grandsons, the sons of King Fahad and his brothers — Crown
Prince Abd Allah, Defense Minister Prince Sultan, and Interior Minister
Prince Nayef. It’s clever, comparing George H.W. and his sons John
Elias ("Jeb") and George W. to the Al Sauds, and one I’d
keep in mind for future use if its author weren’t such a repugnant
character to begin with.

Now,
Bin Laden may or may not believe the United States is governed like
the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It really doesn’t matter. As a rhetorical
point, he’s telling us — and the larger Muslim world — that we have
nothing to teach it about participatory self-government (that thing
some people call "democracy"). Because our leaders, in
reality, reign and rule no differently than theirs.

And
are, by consequence, no more legitimately.

Bin
Laden belittles Bush’s — and the True Believers — arguments that
we were attacked because Revolutionary Islam is comprised of "the
enemies of freedom" by turning that argument completely around
on us — we are the ones who are not free, who have surrendered both
our freedom and our security, while each jihadi is a free man fighting
for the freedom and security of his nation (an Islamic state yet
not in existence).

The
putative Al-Qaeda leader also address us — you and me — directly,
by noting that our security lies not with our presidential candidates
or even Al-Qaeda as an "organization." It is in our hands,
something we control, and something we are ultimately responsible
for.

But
what Bin Laden wants from us, given that he seems inclined to believe
the election won’t have an honest outcome and "our leaders"
are unlikely to either surrender completely or withdraw from the
Islamic world (neither outcome seems likely), is unclear. Given
that Revolutionary Islam’s eventual aims — the creation of a universal
Islamic state under the leadership of a single Khalifa, or
"vice-regent," governing as God’s authorized representative,
and the imposition of the divinely revealed sharia law as
the only law of that state — have almost no popular following anywhere
in the Muslim world, it would be unwise for us to surrender to the
Revolutionaries what they cannot win on their own.

Does
he want us to topple our own government? It’s my impression that
your average American is no more inclined to revolution than your
average Saudi — Hejazi, Nejdi, Asiri — is. His hope for popular
revolution here is as forlorn as wishing for an uprising in Saudi
Arabia. He’s going to be waiting for an awful long time for that.

Or
is he merely warning us, reminding us that no matter how much he
compares our leaders to the largely unelected kings and presidents
of the Middle East and North Africa, that ultimately we — you
and me — will be held responsible for their actions, for the
pain and death our leaders inflict across the Islamic world in our
name. We regularly inflict "collateral damage" upon people
as we hold their leaders "responsible" for whatever we
feel they need to be held responsible for. And we rarely give the
matter much thought. Perhaps Bin Laden intends to hold us accountable
in the same way. Maybe that’s what he meant when he said:

While
I was looking at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred
to me to punish the unjust one in a similar manner by destroying
towers in the United States so that it would feel some of what we
felt and to be deterred from killing our children and women.

How
much of this is threat and how much is promise I do not know. Until
now, Muslim Revolutionaries have seemed uninterested in killing
Americans simply for the sake of killing Americans. The September
11, 2001, attack was designed to send a message to the world, and
not to us — that America is vulnerable with weapons of its own making
at a time and place of the jihadis’ choosing. It was also designed,
I believe, to get us to overreact, to do something stupid like invade
and occupy Iraq, so we would create an environment that would allow
for continued recruiting, for training, for real life combat against
an enemy no one is really afraid of, so that the fight against the
occupation would create the links and connections that would fuel
another generation of mujahideen, the same way we continue
to fight a cadre of Revolutionaries who learned their skills and
built their networks fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan 20 years
ago.

There
simply has been no need to stage additional attacks. Because we’ve
eagerly and happily given the Revolutionaries just about everything
they could possibly want over the last three years.

But
if he really means it, and various associated and unassociated Islamic
Revolutionary groups have decided it is time to start inflicting
serious pain on us (and have acquired the means and ability to do
so — the message suggests to me that Bin Laden may have an American
advising him), then it simply doesn’t matter who wins — or loses
— this election.

November
1, 2004

Charles
H. Featherstone [send
him mail
] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing
in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer
in Alexandria, Virginia.

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