January 24, 2006 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Deconstructing Bin Laden's Latest Propaganda

Osama bin Laden's latest audiotape message, broadcast by Al Jazeera on January 19, is ostensibly aimed at the American people but also addresses important audiences in the Muslim world. Bin Laden's message is multifaceted: He is still alive and still in charge of al-Qaeda despite his long absence from public sight; he is a rational leader who claims to speak for all Muslims; and he is willing and capable of delivering a truce, if Americans will only stop their "aggression."

 

Bin Laden's message continued some of the themes of his October 29, 2004, videotape message, which broached the possibility of a truce, sought to undercut support for the policies of the Bush Administration, and threatened to inflict future terrorist catastrophes. Once again, bin Laden has sought to strike a statesmanlike pose, offering a nebulous "long term truce with you on the basis of fair conditions that we respect." Bin Laden also offered a truce to European countries shortly after the Madrid bombings in an April 15, 2004, audiotape message. That offer was spurned by the Europeans, just as the Bush Administration has rejected his latest offer, with Vice President Richard Cheney saying flatly, "We don't negotiate with terrorists."

 

But bin Laden addresses his boastful propaganda not to the U.S. government, but to the American people. As part of his continuing psychological war, he again is attempting to drive a wedge between Americans and their government. He took note of public opinion polls that show a growing number of Americans favor a withdrawal from Iraq and sought to undermine President Bush's often-stated rationale that it is better to fight terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan than at home.

 

Bin Laden crowed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going "in our favor," and that "our conditions are always improving, becoming better, while yours are the opposite." This is a vain effort to make the offer of a truce, after the murder of thousands of Americans, sound like a magnanimous gesture. He cited the bombings in the capitals of the "most important European countries of this aggressive coalition" (London and Madrid) and warned that his terrorists would soon attack inside the United States again: "Operations are in preparation and you will see them on your own ground…"

 

Bin Laden's more important audiences are his own followers and the broader Muslim world, which he sought to assure that he is still alive, still relevant, and still a leader of an organization capable of killing Americans on their own soil. Bin Laden had not been heard from for thirteen months, the longest gap between messages since the 9/11 attacks, fueling rumors that he was dead. He has had to distance himself from many of his followers for security reasons and undoubtedly sought to reassure them that he is still in the fight and that they should fight on also despite recent losses, such as the January 13th airstrike in Pakistan that reportedly killed four or five of al-Qaeda's operational leaders.

 

Bin Laden's last message had come in an audiotape released on December 27, 2004, in which he had named Abu Musab Zarqawi as his deputy in charge of al-Qaeda operations in Iraq. Zarqawi, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, met bin Laden during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but had retained his independence, in part because he believed bin Laden was too soft. Although they shared the same long-term goal of building a global Muslim state under a new caliphate, Zarqawi held a fierce hostility to Shiite Muslims, whom he regarded as heretics who should be converted or slaughtered, while bin Laden was willing to paper over sectarian differences until the "far enemy," the United States, was defeated.

 

As a former prison enforcer, Zarqawi also displayed a ruthless streak that shocked even some of bin Laden's supporters. He deployed truck bombs against Shiite mosques and religious ceremonies in Iraq in an attempt to provoke a civil war that would make Iraq ungovernable. Zarqawi also made extensive use of videotaped beheadings of hostages in Iraq, which became a kind of popular jihadist pornography on extremist Islamic websites. As Zarqawi became increasingly visible due to his highly publicized atrocities, while al-Qaeda's leaders hunkered down in the Pakistan/Afghanistan/Kashmir region, there was a real danger that al-Qaeda would be eclipsed by Zarqawi's Tawhid (Monotheism) group. Bin Laden essentially decided to anoint Zarqawi as his deputy in Iraq, despite their ideological differences, in order to extend the al-Qaeda "brand" to the Iraqi front, which had become an increasingly important theater in the global terrorist war.

 

Although absorbing Zarqawi's predominantly Jordanian, Palestinian, and Syrian supporters gave al-Qaeda a stronger presence in Iraq and in Europe, where Zarqawi had developed an independent network, it led to ideological tensions within al-Qaeda. In July 2005, bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri sent a letter to Zarqawi, subsequently intercepted, that urged Zarqawi to avoid making the same mistake that the Taliban had in Afghanistan-ignoring the importance of popular support.[1]

 

But Zarqawi apparently has spurned this advice and continued to massacre Iraqi civilians indiscriminately, which has led to a backlash by Sunni Arabs who form the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency. Zarqawi's al-Qaeda has clashed violently with other insurgent groups who believe his nihilistic terrorism is undermining the insurgency. On November 9, 2005, Zarqawi's group launched suicide bombings at three hotels in Amman, Jordan, slaughtering scores of Jordanian and Palestinian civilians, including some attending a wedding party.[2] The subsequent backlash against al-Qaeda in Jordan has been accompanied by criticism of al-Qaeda's tactics by many Muslims, even some radical Islamists who share its long-term goals.

 

Bin Laden's latest message also was aimed at reasserting his leadership and placating some of these critics by presenting a more reasonable, politically sensitive approach to the long-term goal of Islamic revolution. He seeks to distract Muslims from al-Qaeda's slaughter of Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere by refocusing them on war against the United States, in which he poses as their champion.

 

The truce offer is not only meant to drive a wedge between Americans and their government, but also to shore up al-Qaeda's crumbling support among Iraqis. By offering a truce to "build Iraq and Afghanistan" rather than continue Zarqawi's counterproductive approach, he puts the onus on the United States for continuing the war.

 

The truce offer also reinforces bin Laden's longtime contention that he is fighting a defensive jihad against an implacable enemy. In such circumstances, he has argued in the past, he is justified in taking the most extreme measures to defend the Muslim community. By offering a truce that he knew would be rejected, he strengthens his case for another horrific attack on American territory.

 

Unfortunately, one element of truth in his audiotape is that al-Qaeda is making preparations for the next mega-terrorist attack. Bin Laden undoubtedly could have launched car bomb or suicide bomb attacks inside the United States before now. But such attacks would have been a sign of growing weakness after 9/11. Bin Laden seeks to launch a follow-on attack that would have as large a psychological, economic, and propaganda impact as the 9/11 attacks, perhaps at some of the same targets. A repeated theme in bin Laden's past messages has been the need to attack economic targets, particularly oil facilities. Bin Laden also has made references to Hiroshima, which could foreshadow an attack involving a radiological "dirty bomb" or some kind of a nuclear device. Despite improvements in U.S. homeland security, al-Qaeda is a patient, resourceful, and relentless foe that is sure to strike again.

 

The Bush Administration correctly has rejected bin Laden's bogus "truce offer." It also should take a page out of bin Laden's playbook and offer a truce to some of bin Laden's wavering allies, such as some of the more pragmatic Taliban leaders who were ousted from power in Afghanistan and forced into exile in Pakistan. If they are willing to provide useful intelligence against al-Qaeda and pledge loyalty to Afghanistan's democratic government, they should be allowed to return to Afghanistan but not engage in politics. After four years of living as fugitives in exile, some former Taliban figures may be tempted to return home and willing to trade valuable information to do so.

 

James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.



[1] See Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D., "Al-Qaeda Agonistes," Heritage Foundation Webmemo No. 882, October 13, 2005, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/MiddleEast/wm882.cfm.

[2] See James Phillips, "Zarqawi's Amman Bombings: Jordan's 9/11," Heritage Foundation Webmemo No. 919, November 18, 2005, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/MiddleEast/wm919.cfm.

About the Author

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