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Their Master’s Voice

When Osama bin Laden speaks, people listen. They tend, however, to hear different things. Take the coverage of his latest voice-from-the-mountain tape, released in mid-January. The New York Times and The Washington Post both headlined with the words “Bin Laden Warns of Attacks.” The equivalent two highbrow Arabic-language newspapers, al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat, led instead with the news that the al-Qaeda leader had offered a truce.

Neither version was wrong. As all four papers went on to explain, bin Laden had done both things: threatened to strike America again, and proposed a hudna, or cease-fire. Yet the difference in emphasis pointed to the roots of deeper misapprehensions. How, more than four years after September 11, and after so much subsequent bloodshed, can this fugitive terrorist still command the respect and admiration of a good number of his fellow Muslims? And why, after the mobilization of so many resources, has America’s campaign against him produced such unsatisfactory results?

One simple answer is that neither most Americans nor many Muslims have been listening closely enough. As a result, neither has fully understood the man, his motivations, or his aims. Whereas bin Laden continues to manipulate and mislead his Muslim audience, America has failed either to undermine him effectively or to speak persuasively to the Muslim public.

Consider the offer of a truce. This offer is not really serious.1 Bin Laden is well aware that America cannot meet his demands anytime soon. The superpower cannot simply abandon Afghanistan and Iraq, or bases in the Gulf, or alliances with most Muslim governments, or longstanding support for Israel. Even if such policy reversals were wise, which they might be, their sudden application would be hugely destabilizing. Conversely, bin Laden is also hardly in a position to enforce a truce. He never did control much of an army, and certainly does not now, having long since lost his Afghan redoubt and seen dozens of other al-Qaeda cells smashed. It is highly questionable whether he could even call off the more radical parts of the Iraqi resistance that have pledged allegiance to him: their “war” is now as much against Iraqi Shias and Sunni dissenters as against foreign occupiers.

Yet proposing a truce served important political goals. Aside from reminding the world that he is still out there, it helped to deflect, in advance, criticism of whatever brutal act al-Qaeda might next carry out, and to refocus minds on Muslim grievances. More importantly, it cast bin Laden in the role of a statesman who speaks for a wide following. It suggested that he has powers that he does not have, and reinforced the basic narrative, so successfully etched in the minds of all too many Muslims, that America is the recalcitrant leader of a war against Islam itself. It was, in effect, a campaign speech.

The White House summarily dismissed the truce offer, as well it might. But the ground for refusal was that America “does not deal with terrorists.” A fine sentiment, but by neglecting to note that bin Laden simply is not the commander or even a legitimate representative of the Muslim side in some sort of millennial clash of civilizations, the brusque response actually bolstered his posture as a defender of the faith.

From the beginning, America’s responses to bin Laden have shown a similar lack of subtlety. Recall, for instance, the cruise missiles which destroyed a pharmaceuticals plant in Khartoum, in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s twin bombings of US embassies in Africa. Remember George Bush’s inept uses of the word “crusade,” and of the phrase “you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” at precisely the juncture when al-Qaeda was raising alarms of an all-out “Zionist Crusader” assault against Islam. And then, of course, the invasion of Iraq made this alarm sound prophetic rather than ridiculous.

In fact, instead of listening, and then calibrating a response, the Bush administration has, on occasion, shut its ears deliberately. On October 10, 2001, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, summoned the heads of America’s five biggest television networks to ask them not to broadcast in full any statements from al-Qaeda. A day later, the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told journalists that transmitting bin Laden’s words was dangerous. They might contain coded messages to operatives, he said, or “incite people to kill Americans.”

Bin Laden’s immediate response was gleeful. He called the notion of hidden messages farcical: “as if we are living in an age of carrier pigeons.” Censorship made a mockery of such Western values as freedom and human rights, he said, meaning America had struck a blow against itself that was “bigger, greater and more dangerous than the collapse of the towers.” This, of course, was long before the further disgraces of Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, eavesdropping scandals, and the like. These were to become fodder for later tirades, including bin Laden’s most recent, in which his endorsement of an earnest but obscure critique of American policy, Rogue State by William Blum, made the book an instant best seller.

Whether because of the Bush administration’s advisory or not, it has long been surprisingly hard to find authoritative, complete versions of the al-Qaeda leader’s varied missives, even in their original Arabic. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Four years after September 11, several new books now present well-annotated, chronologically organized collections of bin Laden’s words.2

They do not, by and large, make for fascinating reading. As Bruce Lawrence, a Duke University religion professor, notes in the concise and illuminating introduction to his well-edited collection Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, the arch terrorist is, above all, a polemicist. He is a soapbox orator, scoring unsubtle points in an imaginary debate by drawing on a mix of Islamic scripture, faddish political constructs, and gross exaggeration, as well as real historical grievances. His surprisingly limited number of recorded speeches, delivered sometimes on audio, sometimes videotape, or in the form of Internet screeds and occasionally Q & A sessions with journalists, are repetitive. For all his aura of religious punctiliousness, bin Laden twists Islamic texts to his purposes. He seems happy to engage in factual distortion and, occasionally, the politician’s bald-faced lie.

Such is the case, for instance, when he bluntly denies that American arms and money (which included Stinger ground-to-air missiles, among other goodies worth some $3 billion, delivered between 1981 and 1989) had anything to do with the success of the Afghan Mujahideen in expelling Soviet invaders. After repeatedly railing against America’s “occupation” of holy soil—i.e., the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the kingdom’s rulers, to protect it from the “Muslim” army of Saddam Hussein—the absence of any mention of those troops’ subsequent withdrawal, in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, smells of self-serving rhetorical omission.

Bin Laden excels at hyperbole. The idea that America “robs” Arabs of their oil will certainly be news to American consumers, as much as to the very wealthy citizens of, say, Kuwait. Non-Muslim forces do indeed have troubles in various parts of the Muslim world, but they are not “attacking Muslims like people fight over a plate of food.” It takes a degree of ignorance or fanaticism to believe that America wants to “enslave” Muslims or to “annihilate” Islam. Surely, if that were the case, America would have started by attacking Mecca.

Bin Laden’s sense of history is equally skewed. He repeatedly declares that the Christian West has warred on Islam “for 80 years.”3 In fact, Western incursions into the Muslim world were far more penetrating and brutal before then; consider the Dutch conquest of the East Indies, the French invasion of Algeria in the 1830s, or Britain’s crushing of the 1854 Indian Mutiny. Western political control over Muslims has actually receded steadily since the 1920s, as shown by the fact that four in five Muslims live in countries that gained independence after World War II or that Bosnia, Albania, Azerbaijan, and the Stans of Central Asia have all won freedom from atheist communism in the past fifteen years. Nowhere does bin Laden credit American policy for any of this. Likewise, the generally untroubled presence of millions of recent Muslim immigrants in Western countries goes completely unremarked.

Western support for the creation of Israel may, in fairness, be seen as having caused considerable suffering. The Zionist enterprise does look, to many Muslims as well as to others, like an anachronistic extension of European colonization into the modern age. But for all the turmoil, the number killed in six decades of conflict over Palestine amounts to a fraction of the “hundreds of thousands” reported by bin Laden, with a majority of those victims having been Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian soldiers, or Lebanese civilians, rather than Israelis or Palestinians. The plight of Palestinian refugees is tragic and a stain on the world’s conscience. But Israel did not “create five million refugees.” It created just under a million. Population growth turned them into five million, most of whom are fairly well integrated into other societies. Meanwhile, some 700,000 Jews left predominantly Muslim countries to settle in Israel.

There are obvious contradictions in bin Laden’s logic, too. For instance, he despises democracy as a “religion of ignorance,” because it issues man-made laws. He then defends attacks on American civilians on the grounds that they are responsible for electing their governments. Yet he remarks elsewhere that Spain has a bigger economy than that of all Arab countries combined because “the ruler there is accountable.” Evidently, he has never heard theological justifications for democracy, based on the notion that the will of the people must necessarily reflect the will of an all-knowing God.

So misplaced are many of his citations from Islamic scripture that in all likelihood, one of the best ways to diminish the al-Qaeda leader’s stature would be to publish his words more widely in the Muslim world. He frequently quotes the more aggressive passages from the Koran regarding dealings with infidels, for instance, concluding with an exhortation not to ignore such passages by reading selectively. Yet he himself reads selectively by ignoring Koranic injunctions for mercy and pacifism. In one bizarre interpretation, he says that the famous verse “If anyone kills another person…it is as if he has killed all mankind” means that Israel, backed by America, has killed all the children in the world.

More disturbingly, for a Muslim audience, bin Laden arrogates to himself and to his movement a right to speak for the Islamic umma, or nation. Every Muslim, he confidently asserts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians as a matter of religious conviction. The dynamiting of the colossal third-century-AD Buddhas of Bamian by the Taliban in March 2001, an act decried by Muslim religious leaders everywhere, he describes as a great Islamic decision. He uses parables about those in the Prophet’s time who failed to rally to Muhammad’s battle cry as relating to himself. He and his Mujahideen, he declares, are the living conscience of the umma, and anyone who does not join their jihad suffers from a “disease.”

One wonders for how many Muslims bin Laden speaks when he says, “Being killed for God’s cause is a great honor achieved by only those who are the elite of the nation. We love this kind of death…as much as you like to live.” Even more chillingly, when asked if his presence in Afghanistan has not brought suffering to ordinary people, he replies that jihad is a duty, “So if I, or some of my brothers…have acted upon this duty to bring victory to our brothers in Palestine, it does not mean that bin Laden alone must endure this, but that it is a duty on all our umma to do so.” This blithe justification for collateral damage obviously extends to infidels as well. Comfortingly, however, bin Laden repeatedly explains that the September 11 attacks did not actually target people, but rather “symbols,” “idols,” and “global unbelief.”

As Bruce Lawrence notes, a striking aspect of bin Laden’s message is its failure to elaborate any sort of social or political program. His notion of an Islamic state sounds as barren and paranoid as Enver Hoxha’s Albania. In one of the few passages where he hints at any sort of political structure, he suggests vaguely the creation of a ruling council, whose top priority would be “uniting opinions under the word of monotheism and defending Islam.” There would also be a general distribution of arms to the public (here he gets specific: rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank mines) so as to “prepare for repulsing the raid of the Romans, which started in Iraq.”

But this reticence to expound a program is perhaps not as surprising as Lawrence suggests. To the radical, atavistically utopian school of Islamism from which bin Laden springs there is no need for further explanation. The faith itself is a cure for all ills; its imperfect application is the source of all Muslim woes. Lawrence is wrong, therefore, to reject parallels with radical leftist movements such as the Italian Red Brigades, with their prescriptive programs. Al-Qaeda also sees itself as a revolutionary vanguard, with the difference that its post-victory blueprints, or so it assumes, need only to be retrieved from the drawer of the early Islamic caliphate.

2.

If much of what bin Laden says is so weak and frankly unappealing to Muslims and others alike, what of the things he does? On this score, another new book is highly illuminating, and makes an excellent companion to bin Laden’s speeches.

Peter Bergen, an experienced reporter as well as an academic, stands out among terrorism “experts” for his breadth of experience and clear-headedness. In The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader, Bergen has done a fine job of researching and compiling a very wide range of oral testimony, tracing al-Qaeda’s path from the Afghan war to the present. Some of these sources are well known. Many are relatively obscure, from an interview with an al-Qaeda graduate in a Portuguese newspaper, to the private testimony of fellow journalists, to Bergen’s own recordings of meetings with numerous principals, including bin Laden himself. What emerges is a fascinating sequence of oblique-angled perspectives, casting light on the underlying motives of bin Laden and his companions and revealing some of his less-remarked but significant adventures.

Many biographers have underplayed, for example, the importance of his experience in the Afghan war. Yet these testimonies make clear how crucial this was, both to forming bin Laden’s character and to the construction of the man as a myth. An interview with Abdullah Anas, an Algerian fighter who was one of bin Laden’s early comrades, reveals how infectious for these Arab volunteers the drama of playing jihad in a foreign land was:

When we used to cross the villages, the people would come from everywhere and they used to ask us to give speech in the mosques. When we would speak, people just crying, “Allahu Akbar!” [God is Great!] Hundreds of people would come, some of them from three hours away, bringing their grandson or granddaughter. The feeling which I used to touch, up to now I can’t find it anywhere. I used to feel that I am an angel. I am walking in the air.

Many Arab volunteers stayed on the margins of the Afghan conflict, but some, bin Laden among them, became enmeshed in the Afghan Mujahideen’s own internal struggles. It is often supposed, for example, that al-Qaeda’s founder only turned to international terrorism in the late 1990s, and that his “operations” have always aimed at liberating Muslim lands. But his first known long-distance attack appears to have been carried out at the behest of the hard-line Afghan warlord Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, who sought, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, to eliminate rivals in a bid to capture Kabul. In 1991, bin Laden dispatched an assassin, disguised as a reporter, to Rome to murder Zahir Shah, the seventy-seven-year-old deposed king of Afghanistan. That attempt failed, but a similar ruse succeeded ten years later, when Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir and commander of the Northern Alliance, was killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as a television crew.

By all accounts Massoud was the most brilliant and charismatic of Afghan guerrilla leaders. Bin Laden’s exact animus against him is hard to discern. He may have killed him simply as a favor to the Taliban, whose harsh rule Massoud successfully resisted, and whose favor bin Laden desperately needed. Yet Bergen’s witnesses show that as far back as the late 1980s, bin Laden expressed resentment and mistrust of Massoud, perhaps because he was a pure Afghan nationalist with little liking for Arab interlocutors and little time for al-Qaeda’s romantic notions of forging a puritan pan-Islamic state. In fact, a prime reason for bin Laden’s drift away from the orbit of Abdullah Azzam, his longtime mentor and the original recruiter of Arab volunteers to Afghanistan, was Azzam’s outspoken admiration for Massoud. (Azzam was also assassinated, most likely by agents of Hekmatyar, though some whisperers pointed at men in bin Laden’s own circle, including his later deputy, the leader of Egypt’s jihad group, Ayman al-Zawahiri.)

There are also suggestions that bin Laden may simply have been jealous of Massoud’s status as the most authentic hero of the Afghan war. This, it is clear from bin Laden’s own accounts of the fighting, is a position he rather fancied for himself. But despite bin Laden’s well-documented courage in several engagements, his brigade of Arab recruits, as Bergen states with some authority, “had no meaningful impact on the conduct of the war.”

In fact, as numerous former followers attest, many of bin Laden’s wartime moves appear to have been reckless and ill considered. His most famous action, leading a small band of Arab fighters against a month-long siege by Soviet commandoes at a place called Jaji in 1987, drew praise for bravery, but criticism for the sacrifice of many men for little strategic advantage. Much later, even many Islamist admirers were to draw the same conclusion about his warring against America. As Bergen notes, the eldest three of his eleven known sons have left Afghanistan to live normal lives elsewhere. One of them, Omar, is quoted by a friend as saying September 11 was crazy and stupid.

What becomes clear, however, is that it is precisely bin Laden’s rash bravado that is the larger part of his appeal. While few who have known him express much respect for his intelligence, nearly all say he was loved by his men. Several speak of having been “seduced” by his simplicity, his sharing of hardships, and his evident religious fervor. The wife of one of the volunteers for the Massoud assassination describes her husband seeing bin Laden for the first time on television. “Look at that face, don’t you think it is beautiful,” he says. “He was alluding to the light of faith illuminating his face,” the wife’s memoir adds. “At that moment…I confused Osama and my husband in my head. Because the love I feel for my husband is one of a loving wife, but that of Osama as a great brother in Islam.”

It is this mystique, as much as bin Laden’s words, and certainly more than the fact that he is responsible for the death of perhaps five thousand innocents, that continues to attract admirers. Indeed, the plot line of his life story fits rather neatly into traditional constructs of the hero—from Horus to Odysseus, Jesus or Siegfried, let alone such Arab models as the Prophet himself, or the folktale warriors Antar and Abu Zeid:

—a princely birth (his father was a billionaire, who died in a plane crash after claiming to be the only Muslim ever to have prayed at Jerusalem, Medina, and Mecca on the same day);

—physical prowess (he is well over six feet tall);

—courage and cunning (he is still alive);

—sacrifice (of a large personal fortune for the cause of jihad);

—closeness to animals, and a taste for life in the wilderness (bin Laden is a great horseman, with a proclivity for caves);

—rise to a higher calling (jihad for the salvation of Islam);

—closeness to God (he is pious, and he is still alive);

—respect for ancestors (his puritan version of Islam draws sole inspiration from the semi-mythical first three generations of Muslims);

—experience of exile, and rejection by his own tribe (bin Laden was stripped of Saudi citizenship in 1994, has been disowned by his family, and has spent most of his life abroad, often as a fugitive);

—escape from great perils (Tora Bora);

—striking a blow to the eye, or Achilles’ heel, of his enemy (September 11);

—concluding, perhaps, with a lonely death on a distant mountain peak.

What lends this construction further strength is the fact that it arises in a Muslim landscape that is, in the modern world, singularly barren of heroes. It is hard, for example, to think of a modern Arab political figure with the stature of, say, Kemal Attaturk, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, or even Ariel Sharon. There have been no recent parallels even to such flawed Muslim statesmen as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, or Egypt’s Pan-Arabist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Since the deaths of Ayatollah Khomeini and Yasser Arafat, probably the only rival to bin Laden today, in heroic allure, is Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.

Yet even such semi-fictional status cannot fully explain the continued popularity of bin Laden.4 The simple fact is that even if the details of bin Laden’s messages are unconvincing, his core meaning still resounds in the Muslim world. One reason for this is that his status as a hunted fugitive amplifies the message, turning it into a powerful expression of freedom. Another reason is that many competing voices in the Muslim world have lost their legitimacy, such as unpopular regimes, intellectuals “tainted” with secular, Westernized worldviews, or government-salaried clerics. But the main reason, as both Lawrence and Bergen conclude, is that much of what he says fits into a coherent narrative that can be bolstered with real evidence.

It does not require too selective a reading of history to compile a long list of Muslim grievances against the West in general, and America in particular. Lawrence cites a few examples: Winston Churchill’s use of poison gas against Iraqi rebels in the 1920s; the million martyrs of Algeria’s war of independence against France; the ravages caused by sanctions against Iraq; the support for repressive Arab regimes; and of course the invasion of Iraq. Then there is the issue of double standards: invading Iraq but not North Korea in search of forbidden weapons; chastising Iran for its purported nukes but not Israel; blasting Sudan and Syria for oppressing minorities but staying silent over India’s repression in Muslim Kashmir, Russia’s war in Chechnya, or China’s harsh treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang. These are disparate policies, and have been partially compensated by more positive interventions, such as rescuing many Muslims in Darfur from starvation, or protecting the Muslim Albanians of Kosovo. But the balance is not in the West’s favor. As for Iraq, what happened there, in Bergen’s view,

is what bin Laden could not have imagined in his wildest dreams: The United States invaded an oil-rich Muslim nation in the heart of the Middle East, the very type of imperial adventure that bin Laden has long predicted is the “Crusaders’” long-term goal in the region.

Of all these themes, the notion of payback for injustices suffered by the Palestinians is perhaps the most powerfully recurrent in bin Laden’s speeches. It has become fashionable to assert that al-Qaeda’s attachment to the Palestinian cause is relatively recent, and has been cynical and deliberately manipulative. That is simply not true. As long ago as 1984, witnesses report bin Laden shunning American goods to protest American support of Israel. His fellow traveler Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of the first assault on the World Trade Center in 1993, testified that his sole motive was US backing of Israel.

Speaking just before the 2004 presidential elections, bin Laden himself voiced amazement that Americans, deceived, he supposed, by their government, had yet to understand that he had struck America because “things just went too far with the American-Israeli alliance’s oppression and atrocities against our people.” As he goes on to relate in some detail:

The events that made a direct impression on me were during and after 1982, when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon…. I still remember those distressing scenes: blood, torn limbs, women and children massacred…. The whole world heard and saw what happened, but did nothing. In those critical moments, many ideas raged inside me, ideas difficult to describe, but they unleashed a powerful urge to reject injustice and a strong determination to punish the aggressors.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of bin Laden’s emotions. They are no different from those felt by millions of other Arabs and Muslims, sitting quietly watching the traumas of Palestine and now Iraq unfold on television. The difference is that bin Laden decided to do something about it. The trouble is that the things he decided to do, and inspired others to do, have brought no relief to anyone, and much suffering to all.

Just how far bin Laden has strayed into the realm of nightmares may be judged from what Hamid Mir, a Pakistani reporter, tells Peter Bergen about an encounter with the fugitive sometime after September 11. Bin Laden tells Mir that he has recently become the father of a baby girl, and has called her Safia. “I said, ‘Why Safia?’ And he said, ‘I gave her the name of Safia who killed a Jew spy in the days of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, so that’s why.’ I said, ‘What is the age of your daughter?’ He said, ‘Just one month. She will kill the enemies of Islam like Safia of the Prophet’s time.’”

It is no wonder that, as bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has openly admitted, the Muslim masses have clearly failed to embrace al-Qaeda’s ideology. As Peter Bergen observes, without the boost to their reputation and morale from the Iraq war, bin Laden’s movement would probably have imploded soon after September 11. Another of his encounters suggests why. On a research visit to bin Laden’s ancestral village in Yemen, he chances to meet one of the man’s cousins, the owner of a food shop. The cousin avoids talk of his famous relative, but when asked his own view of jihad he points proudly at his three-year-old son, saying, “This is my jihad.”

  1. 1

    The warning of an attack against America, however, may well be serious. Al-Qaeda’s leaders have often telegraphed their intentions, for example by declaring jihad against America in February 1998, seven months before the attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

  2. 2

    A further comprehensive source of bin Laden texts is Osama bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words, edited by Randall B. Hamud (Nadeem, 2005).

  3. 3

    Perhaps he is thinking of the end of the Sunni Muslim caliphate, a title last held by the Ottoman sultans of Turkey until the secularist revolutionary Kemal Attaturk abolished it in 1924.

  4. 4

    Bergen cites polls taken in several Muslim countries since September 11 that show large pluralities having more confidence in bin Laden than in George Bush. One poll taken in Saudi Arabia in the fall of 2003 is perhaps more revealing. Close to half the respondents said they liked bin Laden’s rhetoric, but fewer than 5 percent supported him as a leader. There is some evidence that bin Laden’s popularity has slipped somewhat in many countries, largely as a response to indiscriminate attacks by al-Qaeda affiliates in such Muslim countries as Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Indonesia.

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