“Your security does not lie in the hands of Kerry, Bush or al-Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Each and every state that does not tamper with our security will have automatically assured its own security.”
– Osama bin Laden, October 30
Osama bin Laden’s alleged cave in Afghanistan comes complete with room service, dry cleaning, a desk and satellite TV. But despite the massive White House-spun version, this is not a caveman on the run. The latest deluge of polls is virtually unanimous in registering that bin Laden’s Afghan Oval Office cave address to America may not have swung the election toward Bush – although it certainly helped Machiavelli-in-charge Karl Rove’s campaign by burying “inconvenient” stories like the scandal over missing explosives in Iraq and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s investigation into Halliburton, not to mention distracting public opinion from key issues such as jobs, education, health care, women’s rights and of course the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians, as reported by the British medical paper The Lancet.
The timing of bin Laden’s address was more effective than a thousand bombs – especially because this is a reconfigured al-Qaeda discourse, certainly under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s right-hand man. No more window-dressing with Islamic phraseology: this is the sheikh as statesman, way above the terrorist fray – that would be the territory of “Azzam the American”, his tape threatening new attacks in the United States released only a few days before after being handed in to the US ABC network in Pakistan. Bin Laden instead has decided to assume the persona of a benevolent Abrahamic prophet trying to patiently open the eyes of the 1.3-billion-strong Islamic ummah (community).
It may or may not be true – because at the time bin Laden was deeply involved in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad – but to credit the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 1982 as the source of his anger against the West plays extremely well all over the Middle East, and draws a steely link between al-Qaeda and the Palestine liberation struggle. When bin Laden was in Peshawar in Pakistan in the early 1980s – way before the birth of al-Qaeda in 1988 – establishing the first local guesthouse for Arab jihadis, his partner, former professor and mentor was Palestinian Abdullah Azzam. At the time the jihadis were fighting the “Evil Empire” in Afghanistan. It was Azzam the Palestinian who taught bin Laden that jihad is everyone’s obligation when Muslim lands are occupied.
Al-Qaeda has stated that it is formally at war with the “Crusader and Zionist West” because Islam has been humiliated for centuries: the latest manifestation is Israel’s policy on Palestine. Now bin laden is saying this is not a religious war, it is political. George W Bush and John Kerry may justifiably have qualified bin Laden as a barbarian during the campaign trail’s home stretch, but that’s not the point: the point is his specific political grievances – the occupation of the three holy cities (Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), the war in Palestine, and the repression of Muslims in Kashmir and Chechnya. Much more than political repression by local governments and relative poverty in relation to the West, this perception of being repeatedly humiliated is the key cause of political Islam resorting to violence.
By re-establishing his preeminence, and changing his rhetoric, bin Laden makes it clear that the target is not the US election per se, but recruiting the Muslim masses. No more talk of a caliphate: now the theme is political freedom from Western-imposed or Western-sanctioned dictatorships or puppet governments. Intellectual jihadis like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are going one step ahead in appealing as much to young jihadis – for whom jihad is a state of mind – as to moderate Muslims. So nothing more sensible than toning down the fiery rhetoric of cosmic struggle between good and evil, believers and infidels, to the benefit of a broader theme – legitimizing the fight against injustice, everywhere.
Bin Laden’s relevance will be felt by minute shifts of the independent, undecided vote on election day. Millions of Americans are severely annoyed that he is still alive more than three years after September 11, 2001, and are more than ready to make the connection between the image of bin Laden the statesman and the fact that George W Bush took his eye off the ball while the Afghan war was still developing to engage in his disastrous adventure in Iraq.
Why Bush is viewed by at least half of Americans as “strong and resolute” may be baffling to people in other parts of the world. But not when we consider the armies of American Christian fundamentalists in the red (Republican) states – with their non-stop litany of bloody apocalyptic tales of revenge. This is Bushland, and bin Laden’s message will only re-energize them even more. So who profits from his address?
Without bin Laden, there is no “war on terror” – which to begin with is a misguided tactic (war) against a concept (terrorism). With no endless “war on terror”, there is no justification for Patriot Act/homeland security/infringement of civil liberties, a central theme on the election platforms of both Bush and Kerry.
Bin Laden’s address is suspicious in many ways – raising the possibility that it could be a psy-ops. The speech was carefully scripted as an “Osama address to the American people”. For the first time it is awash in references to September 11, including such US-style catch phrases as “striking the towers” and “another Manhattan”. Another al-Qaeda first, sources in Peshawar confirm, is that the video was delivered to the al-Jazeera television channel complete with an English-language translation and a transcript.
For the first time ever, bin Laden admits that he personally ordered September 11. For the Bush administration this is a windfall: more than three years later, the man they have hastily tried in absentia is entering a guilty plea. The windfall includes the very handy theme of increased fear, as the tape reminds Americans of the preeminent human face of terror.
Bin Laden officially has not been located, and this fact also defies any reasonable explanation. Either US intelligence knows it but it won’t act on it – because that would undermine the whole long-term “war on terror” setup – or US intelligence is a joke. Once again US corporate media are not asking these questions.
Bush and Kerry, same-same
No matter who wins on Tuesday, the inexorable and worrying tendency in the US is toward even further militarization of civilian life, and a sustained atmosphere of fear. There’s no evidence that the grievances affecting the Muslim world will be addressed. Meanwhile, in his speech bin Laden has completed the transition of al-Qaeda from a vanguard to a network and then a franchising of ideas and methods. It’s as if bin Laden was saying, “Go ahead, spread the word, work for change any way you can.”
On the surface, bin Laden may have endorsed Bush. But most of all he seems to know that four more years – or four more wars – fueled by arrogance will be much more hurtful to the United States and the West than “another Manhattan”. Much in the same way as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld mixes bin Laden with Saddam Hussein, “George Kerry” or “John Bush”, it doesn’t matter: Osama bin Laden, the bogeyman, will still be there on the other side – as well as millions of energized jihadis.