- Saturday, October 18, another Bin Laden tape was aired
on Arabic Al Jazeera television. According to the Associated Press, CIA
analysts who have evaluated the tape report that references in the tape
to recent events suggest that Bin Laden is still alive, and the official
betting still is that he remains holed up somewhere along the Afghanistan/Pakistan
frontier. Bin Laden used this tape to condemn the government of Palestinian
Prime Minister Mohammed Abbas as a "collaborator government with the
United States." He also taunted President George W. Bush for running
the largest Federal deficit in history and for being reduced to scrounging
for help and "begging for mercenary soldiers from everywhere, according
to the CIA translation of this tape.
- This tape, the most recent of at least three that have
appeared since 9-11, is said to be proof that Osama retains command of
Al Qaida, even though other reports suggest command may have passed to
younger lieutenants. It follows a video of a few weeks ago that showed
Bin Laden climbing a steep hill. Conventional wisdom is that those images
were an obvious effort to show that he is still active and capable of command.
- In the terrorism universe the tapes represent a unique
Al Qaida device, perhaps matched in impact only by the cassette tape campaign
mounted by the Ayatollah Khomeini to overthrow the Shah of Iran. US official
analysts, at least publicly, use the appearance of each tape to demonstrate
that Osama is still alive and that Al Qaida continues to represent a global
threat, but what is Bin Laden's objective in using them?
- There is little doubt that he uses the tapes to cajole,
sometimes threaten Muslims, to ridicule, as in the case of Mohammed Abbas,
apparent alliances with the United States, to unify and expand support
for his campaign across Islam, and to undermine secular governments in
Islamic countries. Those efforts are not received with enthusiasm by the
leadership of any Muslim country, but they have particular appeal to fundamentalists,
especially among Sunni Muslims. Sunnis comprise about one billion of the
estimated 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. While there are no statistics,
fundamentalists appear to make up only a small portion of Sunni Islam,
but Bin Laden's ambition is to make that number grow.
- The larger and more important question for American policy
makers, however, should be: What is Bin Laden's goal in targeting the
tapes on the United States? To answer that question, one only has to look
at results. Each tape is a media event. It gets worldwide coverage in mainstream
media, despite the fact that initial releases occur through Al Jazeera
television. At the end of each tape cycle of publication and analysis,
the global focus on Al Qaida as the prime world terrorism threat has been
- That publicity has been virtually cost free to Bin Laden.
While again there are no statistics, the continuing focus on Al Qaida
appears to enhance recruitment. The number of Al Qaida affiliates tends
to grow despite reported losses even of some key players. But the bottom
line of the tapes is that the world superpower and its allies have failed
to capture or contain Al Qaida. Bin Laden surely is not untouchable, but
he has yet to be touched.
- For the United States, what has Bin Laden publicity done?
Principally it has served to underpin the War on Terrorism. Given the
long term downtrend of international terrorism as reported by the State
Department, without periodic refurbishing the global terrorism threat will
not sustain the rationale for War. If the threat is not a constant or
growing feature of the American outlook, the War itself cannot be justified.
The tapes receive considerable public attention from officials because
they serve to renew that justification. Transferring the War on Terrorism
to Iraq has not really served this function; rather it has raised questions
about the seriousness of the Administration in pursuing Al Qaida and searching
for Bin Laden. But it appears that so long as Bin Laden and Al Qaida are
out there somewhere safe, the War on Terrorism itself is safe.
- Bin Laden is playing a calculated game with American
policymakers. He has the resources to follow our doings more closely than
we can follow his. He knows therefore that the Bush Administration has
put most of its chestnuts into the War on Terrorism and politically could
back away from it only with difficulty. He knows that the neo-conservative
hawks around the President have focused American policy narrowly to the
violent end of the response to terrorism. Those same hawks have led the
United States into a needless war in Iraq that is a powerful incentive
to Muslims to be at odds with the United States and for fundamentalists
to support Al Qaida. And these hawks have led the White House on a radical
departure from more than half a century of positive achievement in the
promotion of human rights and international cooperation. All Bin Laden
has to do is exploit the weaknesses exposed by these warps in American
- Bin Laden tapes are a carefully metered version of the
25 cent telephone terrorist attack of the 1980s. Such attacks consisted
simply in making a phone call and delivering a threat, say, to blow up
some public building. Anyone with any official or personal interest in
that target had to react. All that was required was the threat. Bin Laden
tapes are threat sustaining because our officials deal with them that way.
Continued viability of Bin Laden and Al Qaida provide a continuing basis
for American belligerence. That state of mind coupled with an ideological
bent toward reducing taxes, spending money on military power and running
large spending deficits to carry out those aims already pushes the United
States toward bankruptcy financially.
- By keeping the United States embroiled in a pointless
War on Terrorism Bin Laden hopes to reinforce the negatives of present
American foreign policies and help to drive the United States into international
political bankruptcy as well. In his tape campaign Bin Laden is using the
asymmetry of terrorism warfare to remarkable effect, applying the media
skills of a wealthy non-state actor to beat a superpower. His tapes have
made effective non-violent warfare ever since 9-11.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the US Department of State. He will welcome comments at firstname.lastname@example.org