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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.