They said he was dead, or so debilitated and “on the run” that we would never hear from him again: they said he was cowering in a cave somewhere, without operational control of al-Qaeda and with no hope of ever affecting the world in the way he did on 9/11 and its immediate aftermath. All of this, however, turned out to be wishful thinking the main content of U.S. policymakers’ pronouncements, these days in view of Osama bin Laden’s latest audiotape, released by al-Jazeera on Tuesday.
Several English versions of the text are floating around see here, here, and here but I’m going to go with the BBC version, if only because it flows more easily. In any case, the big news is that bin Laden is offering the West a truce and if you think that is good news, then think again. For this can only mean he is preparing a new blow against us and is close to delivering it. Standing just behind this peace offer is an explicit threat, one that he clearly intends to follow through on.
As usual, the al-Qaeda leader doesn’t pussyfoot around, and instead comes right to the point:
“My message to you is about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the way to end it. I had not intended to speak to you about this issue, because, for us, this issue is already decided: diamonds cut diamonds.
“Praise be to God, our conditions are always improving, becoming better, while yours are the opposite.
“However, what prompted me to speak are the repeated fallacies of your President Bush in his comment on the outcome of U.S. opinion polls, which indicated that the overwhelming majority of you want the withdrawal of the forces from Iraq, but he objected to this desire and said that the withdrawal of troops would send the wrong message to the enemy. Bush said: It is better to fight them on their ground than they fighting us on our ground.
“In my response to these fallacies, I say: The war in Iraq is raging and operations in Afghanistan are on the rise in our favor, praise be to God. The Pentagon figures indicate the rise in the number of your dead and wounded, let alone the huge material losses.”
The War Party must be jumping out of their socks with joy: at last they have seeming confirmation that, as President Bush put it the other day, critics of the Iraq war are giving “comfort to our adversaries.” Yet this means much less than they imagine. Bush’s entire Iraq project has brought so much comfort to our enemies that it has led anti-terrorist expert Michael Scheuer to describe the U.S. as bin Laden’s “indispensable ally.” The al-Qaeda leader is here indulging in a round of gloating, and in view of the deterioration of the American occupation into a welter of internecine violence veering into civil war he has ample reason to.
But gloating is not the primary purpose for breaking his year-long silence. It is, instead, to deliver a warning:
“To go back to where I started, I say that the results of the poll satisfy sane people and that Bush’s objection to them is false.
“Reality testifies that the war against America and its allies has not remained confined to Iraq, as he claims. In fact, Iraq has become a point of attraction and recruitment. On the other hand, the mujahideen, praise be to God, have managed to breach all the security measures adopted by the unjust nations of the coalition time and again. The evidence for this are the bombings you have seen in the capitals of the most important European countries of this aggressive coalition.
“As for the delay in carrying out similar operations in America, this was not due to the failure to breach your security measures. Operations are in preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once the preparations are finished, God willing.”
Bin Laden is right: instead of being pinned down in Iraq, the worldwide Islamic insurgency, of which al-Qaeda is the spearhead, has spread far and wide: to Europe, to South Asia, and he says has even infiltrated the American homeland. Given the utterly abysmal state of our defenses against another terrorist strike as evidenced by the recent fulminations of the 9/11 Commission is there anyone who really doubts OBL is telling the truth about this? We had better believe that “operations are in preparation.” In the absence of such elementary precautions as inspecting all cargo coming into the U.S., we can’t afford to assume this is an idle boast.
Bin Laden mocks the clueless Bush, who believes that “we’re fighting them in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them over here,” by clearly implying that they are already over here and have been for some time. That ought to send a chill down your spine. The “preparations” he talks about may be just about finished: at least, that is how it seems to me. If you examine bin Laden’s past pronouncements, and the public statements of al-Qaeda, a clear pattern emerges: there is a warning, followed by an attack and a claim of responsibility. Bin Laden’s public persona is very consistent: he says what he intends to do, then he does it. We have no reason to disbelieve him, or to assume he’ll break the pattern this time.
Another pattern of behavior is that he always offers his enemies a way out: in the past, he has said that a change in U.S. foreign policy would have to mean a corresponding change on his part. His spokesman, Zawahiri, offered the Europeans a truce after the Madrid and London bombings; this was treated with contempt by every Western government and virtually everyone else, yet there is no reason to disbelieve him on this point, either. Indeed, he is quite explicit about what a truce would mean in a section of his message that was not broadcast by al-Jazeera, but was included in the Arabic transcription posted on their Web site:
“If I were president, I would stop the attacks on the United States: First, I would apologize to all the widows and orphans and those who were tortured. Then I would announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended.”
While this may not be enough to spark a “bin Laden for president” boom in the U.S., it confirms what analysts such as Scheuer have long said: that al-Qaeda launched its global insurgency in order to secure certain specific and strictly limited goals, the primary one of which is to rid the Middle East of Western military and political dominance. By announcing that the U.S. would henceforth not be interfering in the affairs of other nations, we would effectively bring the insurgency to an end and the threat of terrorism against the U.S. homeland would cease. This bin Laden pledges, on his word as a Muslim. It would be foolish to believe he doesn’t take such a vow seriously, or utter it in all sincerity just as it would be equally foolish to disdain his threats as baseless boasting.
Of course, according to the demonological view of bin Laden, which depicts him as an irrational monster entirely without any strategic sense or even any genuinely religious conviction he is not capable of sincerity. The offer of a truce had barely been uttered before it was rejected by the U.S. government, which announced that it doesn’t “negotiate with terrorists.” We negotiated with Stalin, with Hitler, with despots of every size, shape, and hue and yet to do so with bin Laden, even if indirectly, is impermissible.
However, bin Laden is not asking to negotiate: what he wants is a change a turnabout in U.S. policy in the Middle East. This, in his view, is not negotiable: it is the whole rationale behind his jihad. The jihad will end, he says, if and when Americans realize
“That it is better not to fight the Muslims on their land and for them not to fight us on our land. We do not object to a long-term truce with you on the basis of fair conditions that we respect. We are a nation to which God has disallowed treachery and lying. In this truce, both parties will enjoy security and stability, and we will build Iraq and Afghanistan which were destroyed by the war. There is no defect in this solution other than preventing the flow of hundreds of billions to the influential people and war merchants in America, who supported Bush’s election campaign with billions of dollars.”
Nice of him to pledge to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, especially since the Bush administration has recently announced that no more reconstruction funds for the former will be forthcoming. While limousine liberals of the Arianna Huffington variety may lament that we are not following though on our alleged “responsibility” to lavish the Iraqis with a chicken in every pot and free medical care for all, it’s odd that these very same people decry the multi-trillion-dollar bill we are in the process of running up. As for me a penny-pinching libertarian I’m all too glad to take Osama up on his generous offer: better him than the long-suffering American taxpayers, who have already had it up to here with Dubya’s abortive efforts at “nation-building.”
How can we win the “war on terrorism”? It is the task of Sisyphus, in the context of current American foreign policy: in short, it cannot be done. If we define “victory” as the cessation of enemy activities aimed at the West, however, it is clearly within reach, but only if we venture outside the narrow parameters set by American policymakers, who somehow believe that global hegemony is a legitimate goal except when it is pursued by someone else.
No, they don’t hate us on account of our much-vaunted modernity: neither Madonna nor Sex and the City has set this jihad in motion. It isn’t Brokeback Mountain that enrages or concerns them: it’s all about our foreign policy of untrammeled aggression, our unconditional support for Israel, our support for tyrants from the Saudis to the butchers of North Africa, and our policy of enforcing a regime of low-priced oil on our regional satraps. As long as our rulers persist in this course, they endanger us all and what is clear beyond any doubt is that we have no reason to believe they can protect us from the consequences of their folly.
I have long believed (and said) that another terrorist attack is in the cards, and, with the release of this audiotape, this has hardened into a near certainty. If and when it occurs, the idea that it will redound to the benefit of the War Party and this administration is an assumption that no one can make any longer. The exposure [.pdf] by the members of the 9/11 Commission of our woeful state of unpreparedness, combined with the simple fact that we have been duly warned, could create a boomerang effect. Instead of marking the beginning of a new era of repression, it would more likely spark a popular upsurge bordering on open revolt.
We are hurtling so quickly toward a cliff that few can see, let alone try to prevent our eventual collision, that it’s almost too late to turn away from the abyss and take another road. Yet we can still change course and call a truce in our relentless war against the rest of the world and our own tradition if only we have the leadership and the will.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I see that yet another version of bin Laden’s audiotape has surfaced since the completion of this column, and here we see an even more embittered and determined enemy than we ever imagined, one who is willing to bide his time and take the long view:
“Finally, I say that war will go either in our favor or yours. If it is the former, it means your loss and your shame forever, and it is headed in this course. If it is the latter, read history! We are people who do not stand for injustice, and we will seek revenge all our lives. The nights and days will not pass without us taking vengeance like on Sept. 11, God permitting. Your minds will be troubled and your lives embittered. As for us, we have nothing to lose. A swimmer in the ocean does not fear the rain. You have occupied our lands, offended our honor and dignity, and let out our blood and stolen our money and destroyed our houses and played with our security, and we will give you the same treatment.
Here is the strength of the weak: their complete willingness to go to any lengths to deny their tormentors victory. We are seeing it in Iraq: bin Laden is determined to export it worldwide, even into the midst of the Anglo-American metropolis. Bin Laden draws on history to drive his point home:
“You have tried to prevent us from leading a dignified life, but you will not be able to prevent us from a dignified death. Failing to carry out jihad, which is called for in our religion, is a sin. The best death to us is under the shadows of swords. Don’t let your strength and modern arms fool you. They win a few battles but lose the war. Patience and steadfastness are much better. We were patient in fighting the Soviet Union with simple weapons for 10 years, and we bled their economy and now they are nothing.
“In that there is a lesson for you.”
It is a lesson the American people will one day learn. The problem is that, by then, it may well be too late.