December 20, 2004

December 20, 2004 | Commentary on Europe

Osama's Plan B

Whatever you do, don't dismiss Osama bin Laden's newest audio message. Sure, it's just the latest of 17 cameos by the terrorist thug since 9/11. But it may be his scariest yet.

Why? Because Osama's latest appearance shows he's changing tactics, and he's onto something that just might work this time.

Everyone - most of all Osama - knows that his al Qaeda movement is losing steam. Today, major al Qaeda terrorism is confined to Iraq, where Abu Musab al Zarqawi, not bin Laden, holds center stage.

Cowering in a cold, dank cave for the last three years is causing Osama's stock to fall precipitously among the terrorist faithful. His campaign of global death, destruction and despair isn't leading al Qaeda to world domination as he had promised.

In fact, by terrorizing Muslims and Muslim governments, he's actually signing al Qaeda's death warrant. Realizing that he's no longer the king of the terrorist universe, Osama has embarked on a new campaign - a terrorist makeover of sorts.

Now, instead of calling exclusively for the violent overthrow of governments on historically Muslim lands, he's downsized his global ambitions to a chunk of Middle Eastern sand - and tempered his message. Masquerading as a terrorist statesman of sorts, he's pushing for a peaceful revolution (yes, peaceful change) in Saudi Arabia as a parallel path to a violent overthrow.

Osama has decided that world Muslim domination just isn't in the cards for al Qaeda at the moment. But getting a fundamentalist foothold in the holiest Islamic land (anyway he can) just might be the key to overthrowing neighboring Muslim governments.

Think of it as al Qaeda's domino theory. First, Saudi Arabia falls, then Yemen, Oman, the Gulf States and so on.

So why should we be alarmed by this? Because Osama's new strategy, announced on the same day as planned anti-regime protests in Saudi Arabia, smacks of the plot that successfully brought down the Shah of Iran 25 years ago at the hands of Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Exiled for opposing the Shah's reforms in 1963, Khomeini settled in the southern Iraqi Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, where he called for religious rule in Iran.

Under pressure from the Shah, Saddam Hussein expelled Khomeini in '78. Moving to Paris, he called for the Shah's overthrow, communicating through radio broadcasts, written statements and taped sermons that were smuggled into Iran.

Unhappiness with the Shah's repressive policies and Khomeini's mythical stature (supported by local clerics) instigated widespread riots in Iran in late 1978. Reading the handwriting on the wall, the Shah left the country in January 1979 on a "vacation" and never returned.

Without firing a single shot, Khomeini, now a veritable Muslim rock star, returned to Iran, establishing the first Islamic fundamentalist state. The aftermath of Khomeini's "peaceful revolution" was anything but peaceful.

Twenty-five years later, revolutionary Iran stands as: a) the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism; b) a highly repressive regime, and c) a near nuclear weapons state.

Could this happen in Saudi Arabia? Sure. The Iranian revolution caught us by surprise in 1979 and so could a Saudi Arabian uprising now. And Osama may be betting on it.

Think about it: What better place to start a Sunni fundamentalist revolution than Islam's holiest land - Saudi Arabia? And even better, doing so by fomenting peaceful revolution from within instead of killing (and alienating) brother Muslims.

If successful, the world's largest known oil reserves (25 percent) would come under al Qaeda's control, threatening the industrialized world's economies - another Osama scheme. And, worse yet, Saudi Arabia could become an Afghanistan-like terrorist sanctuary for destabilizing other regional Muslim states, undoubtedly including Iraq.

Once a snake pit for radicalism, Riyadh has done a lot to crack down on terrorism. It needs to do more. Saudi Arabia could certainly help defend itself by easing up on repression, reining in security forces and opening the political system to wider participation.

Of course, there are differences between 1979 Iran (and Khomeini) and 2004 Saudi Arabia (and Osama) for sure. This is a cautionary tale. |

It's by no means inevitable that Saudi Arabia will suffer the same fate as Iran. But it's possible.

The Iranian revolution caught the world unawares - and look at the consequences of our lack of vigilance today. It's easy to ignore Osama's seemingly endless slew of threats, especially since they're becoming more frequent.

But he's taking a new tack, and reaching out to motivate old - and new - potential followers, like Khomeini did. And despite growing "Osama fatigue," we turn a blind eye to his new game at great peril.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. E-mail: peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post