June 14, 2011 | The Weekly Standard
Bin Laden Unplugged
Analyzing the latest video
Osama bin Laden's strength as an orator has always been his ethos. He is an eloquent and seemingly honest speaker, proud of his role in the attacks of 9/11, a principled spokesman for radical Islam's war against the West. Though bin Laden may not have penned all his words personally, the force of his ideas always shines through. As Bruce Lawrence notes in Messages to the World, “these messages are not ghostwritten tracts of the kind supplied by professional speechwriters to many politicians in the West, whether American Presidents, European Prime Ministers, or their Middle-Eastern counterparts.”
In bin Laden's last video — released on October 29, 2004, on the eve of America's presidential election — bin Laden mocked President Bush: “Free men do not forfeit their security, contrary to Bush's claim that we hate freedom. If so, then let him explain to us why we don't strike — for example — Sweden?” But even while skewering President Bush for his simplistic framing of the conflict, bin Laden has been hesitant to explain the roots of the struggle to a Western audience. (His rhetoric differs when the target audience is Western rather than Muslim.) The closest he has come was the October 2004 video, where bin Laden outlined his grievances at length and urged his audience to look for 9/11's “causes in order to prevent it from happening again.”
This vagueness has led some commentators to conclude that bin Laden is fundamentally a political terrorist rather than a religious one. The sociologist Michael Mann wrote, “There is a simple reason why he attacked the United States: American imperialism. As long as America seeks to control the Middle East, he and people like him will be its enemy.” Doug Bandow of the American Conservative Defense Alliance — after quoting bin Laden's quip about Sweden — declared that al-Qaeda's attacks are “in pursuit of specific geopolitical objectives. The evidence is overwhelming that they attack Americans because they believe Americans are at war with them.”
A number of commentators have described bin Laden's latest video, released yesterday, as breaking new ground — and it does.
One way the tape does not break new ground is through the breadth of topics covered. The video is somewhat of a tour de force. Bin Laden's complaints run the gamut from the invasion of Iraq to Hollywood, global warming, and interest-bearing loans. The authorities he cites to bolster his case include Noam Chomsky, Michael Scheuer, and a soldier he calls only “Joshua” (presumably from a mid-summer ABC News report). But broad lists of grievances and a complex narrative have always been signatures of bin Laden's rhetoric. This is not the first time he mentioned the Kyoto Protocol, nor is it the first time he cited leftist intellectuals.
One discernable shift in this speech is that bin Laden is far friendlier to the Jews than ever before. He declares that if the Nazi holocaust had occurred closer to Muslim countries, “most of the Jews would have been saved by taking refuge with us.” Bin Laden also recalls how Jews found shelter in Muslim countries during the Spanish Inquisition.
A second discernible shift is that the speech is more anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist than past work. Bruce Lawrence writes in Messages to the World, “The word 'imperialism' does not occur once in any of the messages he has sent out. He defines the enemy differently. For him, jihad is aimed not at an imperium, but at 'global unbelief'.” But this speech is more explicit. Bin Laden describes the media as “a tool of the colonialist empires,” and refers to America as an empire twice, predicting its collapse. More to the point, he says that capitalism lies at the heart of the current struggle. In the West, bin Laden says, “those with real power and influence are those with the most capital.” He continues:
And since the democratic system permits major corporations to back candidates, be they presidential or congressional, there shouldn't be any cause for astonishment…in the Democrats' failure to stop the war….As you liberated yourselves before from the slavery of monks, kings, and feudalism, you should liberate yourselves from the deception, shackles and attrition of the capitalist system.
The video's emphasis on the evils of empire and capital make its third rhetorical shift all the more odd. Up through bin Laden's denunciation of capitalism and plea that his audience should “search for an alternative, upright methodology,” it seemed that his speech would successfully appeal to a certain audience. Those who believe that curtailing American power is critical to solving the terrorist threat could find bin Laden's words at least somewhat reassuring: there was enough meat to suggest that the root cause of al Qaeda's grievance is an aggressive American foreign policy. I have previously noted that, after the Madrid train bombings swung the Spanish elections to the Socialist Party, al Qaeda's rhetoric seemingly attempted to better appeal to some segments of Westerners.
Though they emphasize grievances, past al Qaeda videos have provided Westerners little idea of how to avoid the terror group's wrath. In addition to bin Laden's October 2004 video, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri released videos in November 2004 and February 2005 speaking platitudinously of dealing with al Qaeda “on the basis of respect and mutual interests” and of “mutual cooperation with the Islamic nation.” The third rhetorical shift in the new video is that it is markedly more concrete: he actually names the “alternative, upright methodology” that should replace capitalism.
Those familiar with bin Laden's ideology may not be surprised that he declares: “The infallible methodology is the methodology of Allah.” But when he pronounces this alternative, the speech takes a drastic turn: in that moment he is transformed from anti-imperialist rebel to an imperialist of another flavor. Bin Laden makes clear that his is a theological imperium. His problem is not just capitalism, but lawmaking that is not derived from the sharia. “What you have done is clear loss and manifest polytheism,” he claims. “You believe that Allah is your Lord and your Creator and the Creator of this earth and that it is His property, then you work on His earth and property without His orders and without obeying Him, and you legislate in contradiction to His Law and methodology.”
Bin Laden continues to make dawah (Islamic evangelism) for much of the latter half of his speech. The dawah's blandness stands in contrast to his thundering condemnations of America and the West. “And did you know,” bin Laden asks, “that the name of the prophet of Allah Jesus and his mother . . . are mentioned in the Noble Qur'an dozens of times, and that in the Qur'an there is a chapter whose name is 'Maryam,' i.e. Mary, daughter of 'Imran and mother of Jesus?”
This Last twist in bin Laden's speech makes it a confused work, an unworthy sequel to his last video for an American audience. The fact that the speech's only proffered alternative to capitalism is Islamic rule means that bin Laden is unlikely to truly reach the “people of America” whom he purports to address.
At least bin Laden is honest about what he stands for. He has made his uncompromising theological vision clear to his Muslim audience since releasing his first public statement designed for a wide audience: a theological critique of Saudi Arabia's Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz released in late 1994. The new video should leave his Western audience, too, with little confusion.
In evaluating what al Qaeda represents, it is unwise to simply discard large portions of bin Laden's public statements in an attempt to see him as something that he is not: a political rather than a religious terrorist. The fact that bin Laden's largely (though not entirely) secularized analysis of the ills plaguing the West transitions so smoothly into his theological solution makes it more difficult for those who would like to superimpose their own ideological gripes onto him. In that way, the speech is not effective: rather than bolstering bin Laden's standing with the target audience, it will likely make parts of his worldview more menacing, more difficult to apologize for.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam.