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.