November 4, 2004 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security

Bin Laden's October Surmise

It is not surprising that Osama bin Laden tried to seize the spotlight by injecting himself into the U.S. presidential campaign four days before the election, when he knew the world's media would be focused on the final days of the contest. His latest videotaped message was a cheap and effective means of showing the world that his Al Qaeda terrorist network still exists and remains a force to be reckoned with.


What is surprising is the pains that bin Laden took to tailor his message to an American audience in an apparent effort to influence the outcome of the elections and future U.S. policy. Bin Laden's videotape, broadcast by Al Jazeera on October 29th, featured him sitting demurely behind a desk, without his customary assault weapon near at hand. He was dressed in a traditional white Arab thobe garment and a golden robe reminiscent of the Caliphs, not his usual camouflage battle fatigues. And he moderated his past apocalyptic language, replete with calls for jihad and martyrdom, to offer Americans a questionable truce: "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands, and any state that does not belittle our security automatically guarantees its own security." 


Even more surprising, bin Laden may have intended to influence the vote in individual states within the United States. The independent Middle East Media Research Institute, which translates and analyzes media statements made by Middle Eastern newsmakers, maintains that that bin Laden was talking about U.S. states, not nation states.[1] Such a granular focus, while unexpected, jibes with the custom-tailored political message that bin Laden sought to broadcast to Americans.


Someone within the Al Qaeda network, if not bin Laden himself, clearly was following the American political campaign. Bin Laden echoed many of the anti-Bush partisan themes of this political season. He charged that President Bush was lying to Americans, that the Bush family was close to corrupt Arab royal families, that Bush had been elected by "falsifying" the Florida election, that the Patriot Act needlessly suppressed liberties, that the Bush Administration had stumbled into a quagmire in Iraq, that the government budget deficit is ballooning, that the war against terrorism will bankrupt the United States, and that the war in Iraq only benefited companies "like Halliburton and its kind" (a gratuitous swipe at Vice President Cheney).


In addition to attacking President Bush, bin Laden added to the insult by attacking his father, President George H.W. Bush. According to bin Laden, the former President imported election-rigging techniques from his Middle Eastern cronies to rig the 2000 Florida vote count.


Bin Laden even suggested that the fact that President Bush remained for several minutes in a Florida classroom after learning of the attacks on September 11, 2001, enabled the 19 terrorists to somehow complete their mission. While this crude propaganda resembled the caricature of U.S. policy regurgitated by Michael Moore, bin Laden may have believed that it had resonance inside the United States in view of the popularity of Moore's most recent documentary film.


By stressing the alleged similarities between the Middle Eastern regimes that he seeks to overthrow and the Bush Administration, bin Laden sought to incite Americans against Bush, just as he has sought to incite Muslims against their own rulers. He undoubtedly hoped to defeat Bush politically and may have surmised that a video message would contribute to Bush's electoral defeat, while another terrorist attack would backfire by helping Bush on November 2. Al Qaeda also may not be in a position to launch an attack inside the United States on the same scale as 9/11.


Bin Laden's attack ad was a crude attempt to drive a wedge between Americans on the issue of how to conduct the war against terrorism. Bin Laden tried a similar tactic last April in offering a truce to European states that withdrew from the war on terror. Although both Bush and Kerry quickly dismissed any possibility of relenting on the war against Al Qaeda, bin Laden positioned himself for future propaganda gains.


If President Bush had lost the election, it would have strengthened bin Laden's aura of power and helped attract more Al Qaeda recruits. And now that Bush has won, bin Laden can claim that Bush will provoke future attacks by failing to follow his advice for "avoiding another Manhattan." Moreover, Bush's electoral victory strengthens bin Laden's previously stated rationalization that all Americans are permissible targets for murder because they support the U.S. government with their votes and taxes.


Although bin Laden did not issue his usual blood curdling threats, he has given notice of a possible attack, which is required by many traditional interpretations of Islamic law. This helps him broaden his base of support among traditional Muslims who reject his radical interpretation of Islam, but nevertheless support his attacks on America. By sitting behind a desk and posing as a statesman, the terrorist leader also sought to fill a vacuum of leadership in the Arab world. He undoubtedly hopes that "Bin Ladenism" becomes a potent political movement that can achieve his radical goals through mass action, not just revolutionary terrorism.


While bin Laden sought to play the role of a statesmanlike Holy Man, Al Qaeda earlier had released another videotape featuring "Azzam the American," who warned that America's streets would "run red with blood." Although it was not able or willing to launch a terrorist attack before the elections, Al Qaeda probably already has another attack planned inside the United States. Having failed to influence the outcome of the presidential election as desired through his last minute political attack ad, bin Laden is sure to renew his terrorist campaign.


James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Yigal Carmon, "Osama Bin Laden Tape Threatens U.S. States Not to Vote for Bush," Middle East Media Research Institute, November 1, 2004, at

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy