October 31, 2004 | Arizona Republic

Bin Laden’s Beef with America

Osama bin Laden's striking new videotape, in which he addresses the American people on the eve of our elections, is as much about his own campaign for power and influence in the Muslim world as it is about the Bush and Kerry campaigns for the presidency of the United States.

In the videotape, bin Laden tells Americans they will be safe if they change their foreign policies. Bin Laden says in the videotape that “Bush says and claims that we hate freedom – let him tell us then why we did not attack Sweden.”  Bin Laden's attempt to stake out a position on the side of freedom, and his implication that we will be safe if we act like Sweden internationally, are moderate poses driven by recent events.  These poses are, however, belied by al-Qaida's past acts and bin Laden's own writings, which make it clear that bin Laden seeks to destroy the United States not only because of its foreign policies — what we do overseas — but also because of its domestic policies — who we are at home.

Bin Laden's new videotape is best understood in light of three things. The first is al-Qaida's Madrid train bombings a few days before the May 2004 Spanish elections.

The second is bin Laden's previous major address to the American people. The third is recent events including the election victory in Afghanistan by the pro-Western Hamid Karzai.

The Madrid train bombings contributed to the surprise election of a socialist Prime Minister who proceeded to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq. Bin Laden's success in changing the government of a leading Western democracy has raised expectations among bin Laden's supporters that he will try to change the government of the leading Western democracy. Bin Laden's videotape was designed in part to assure his supporters that he is alive and kicking – looking healthy and comfortable enough to order an attack if he wanted to – without tilting the election in favor of either of two candidates who, unlike in the Spanish situation, are both distasteful to him.

Bin Laden's previous major address to the American people, the less situationally-driven “Letter to the American People” of November 2002, makes clear that bin Laden's moderate pose of the moment is simply tactical. That “Letter” also sheds more light on why bin Laden's own campaign for leadership of the Muslim world needed an injection of “campaign advertising” at this time.

Bin Laden's November 2002 “Letter” is clearly written with two audiences in mind: the people of the United States and bin Laden's supporters and potential supporters in the Muslim world. The “Letter” is explicitly written as an answer to the question of “why are we fighting and opposing you … and what do we want from you?”

It is striking to note how many of the justifications which bin Laden gave in that “Letter” for his war against the United States have been rendered untenable – to both Americans and thoughtful Muslims – in the two short years since that “Letter” was issued.

The “Letter” begins with the answer “because you attacked us and continue to attack us.” It goes on to complain of how the United States “supported the atrocities against us in Chechnya.” Aside from being false – the United States has often criticized Russian tactics in Chechnya – this point is unlikely to carry much weight following the bloody attack in September by bin Laden's own Chechnyan allies on a school in Beslan, Russia.

Bin Laden's complaint that “you steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices” also resonates less now that oil is over $50 a barrel. Similarly, bin Laden's allegation in the 2002 letter that “1.5 million Iraqi children have died as a result of your sanctions” has been undermined by new information about Saddam Hussein's abuses of the oil-for-food program.

Finally, bin Laden's complaints about the U.S. destruction of the Taliban regime – his protector which he praised as the model Islamic state – ring hollow in the face of the recent elections in which a majority of the Afghan people chose as their president the pro-Western Hamid Karzai. So most of bin Laden's justifications for war based on U.S. foreign policy have been undercut by recent events.

But bin Laden's November 2002 “Letter” makes clear that his attacks on the United States are motivated not just by our foreign policy but also by our domestic policy. After telling us that we “are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind,” his letter explains in anger that “you are the nation who rather than ruling by the Shariah [divine law] of Allah in its constitution and laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire.”

No matter what we do internationally, bin Laden hates America because our democratic system represents a clear rejection of the authority of Allah. Even worse from bin Ladin's perspective, people all over the world – including in Afghanistan and Iraq – are choosing to emulate our godless system rather than Islam as a system of governance.

Bin Laden's November 2002 letter provides a list of “conditions” with respect to which he says that “If you fail to respond to all these conditions, then prepare for a fight with the Islamic Nation.”

The first condition is that the American people must convert to Islam. The second condition bin Laden says Americans must fulfill if they are to be spared a fight with the Islamic nation is “to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling and trading with interest.”

So bin Laden will fight us on behalf of the Islamic Nation unless we shut down a lot of things here in the United States that neither a President Bush nor a President Kerry is likely to shut down: premarital sex, homosexuality, the drinking of alcohol, casinos, and credit cards.

Bin Laden closes his November 2002 “Letter” by saying that “if the Americans refuse to listen to our advice and the goodness, guidance and righteousness that we call them to,” then “their fate will be that of the Soviets.” By that, says bin Laden, he means “military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and economic bankruptcy.”

So despite whatever moderate pose bin Laden might strike on occasions it suits his purposes, compromise with him and his supporters is impossible. Impossible for us. Impossible even for the Swedes. An al-Qaida journal in June published an interview with the commander of the al-Qaida terrorist squad which killed 22 people in Khobar, Saudi Arabia in May.

In the interview, the al-Qaida commander gleefully reports that they found at Khobar “a Swedish infidel. Brother Nimr cut off his head, and put it at the gate so that it would be seen by all those entering and exiting.”

Whatever the results of the U.S. elections this coming Tuesday, Osama bin Laden's campaign to lead the Islamic world and destroy America will continue. Our next president – whether Bush or Kerry – will have no choice but to remain on the offensive against al-Qaida.

– Orde F. Kittrie, a professor of international and homeland security law at Arizona State University, served until June 2004 as director of international anti-crime programs at the United States Department of State. In that and previous capacities, he played a key role in the U.S. response to Sept. 11, including America's counter-terrorism efforts, war against the Taliban, and public diplomacy efforts in the broader Muslim world.