“There is no reason, based on the information at hand, to believe bin Laden is anything other what he appears: a pious, charismatic, gentle, generous, talented, and personally courageous Muslim. As a historical figure viewed from any angle, Osama bin Laden is a great man, one who has smashed the expected unfolding of universal post-cold war peace.”
This encomium to Osama bin Laden emanates from an unlikely source; Michael Scheuer head of the CIA unit charged with hunting him. After seemingly orchestrating the destruction of the Twin Towers, bin Laden has generated an era of uncertainty, the ‘propaganda of the deed’ mesmerising television viewers across the globe.
Above all, bin Laden has achieved his infamy through mastery of the new media of satellite and internet, indeed a Google search throws up over eleven million responses (a similar search for Nelson Mandela offers a mere four million). Therefore, it is long overdue that bin Laden’s writings and broadcasts should be accessible to the English reader, instead of their being presented in distilled sound bites.
Messages To The World. The Statements of Osama Bin Laden translated by James Howarth, and edited by Bruce Lawrence contains twenty-four statements attributed to bin Laden, and what is revealed is a polemicist of skill, though prone to exaggeration, who projects a message of implacable hostility to the current world order.
America, as the upholder of this order is the target-in-chief. Already by 1998 he says: ‘For as long as I can remember I have felt tormented and at war, and have felt hatred and animosity for Americans.’ He also states in the same year: ‘To kill the Americans and their allies – civilian and military – is an individual duty incumbent upon every Muslim in all countries, in order to liberate the al-Asqa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, so that their armies leave all the territories of Islam.’
Bin Laden’s message to the American people is simple; as you voted for the US government you share responsibility. In 1997 he warns ‘A reaction might take place as a result of the US government’s targeting of Muslim civilians… the American people they are not exonerated from responsibility, because they chose the government and voted for it despite their knowledge of its crimes in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and other places.’ Bin Laden thus characterizes Islamic terrorism as merely a response to the aggression of the US and its allies. He draws particular attention to the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and the situation in Iraq where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children are thought to have died under UN sanctions.
In one of his last broadsides in 2004 bin Laden seems to confess to perpetrating the September 11 attacks. He states that the idea of attacking the World Trade Centre ‘came to me when things went just too far with the American-Israeli alliance’s oppression and atrocities against our people in Lebanon.’ He continues ‘As I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America, so that it would have a taste of its own medicine.’ However, given that the attack on Lebanon occurred in 1982 when bin Laden and his fellow jihadists were in the pay of the CIA fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, this is not entirely credible, but the memory seemed to leave a lasting impression.
Bin Laden revels in the deployment of Islamic sources hostile to those of other religions and creeds. In so doing he occludes the peaceful elements to Islam. He cites the Qu’ran; “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as friends.” (Qur’an 5:51) but disregards specific Qu’ranic injunctions against the taking of innocent lives. In October 2001 he states: ‘so we kill the innocents – this is valid both religiously and logically, this forbidding of killing children and innocents is not set in stone, and there are other writings that uphold it.’
Bin Laden capably rebuts much of the simplistic propaganda that has emerged from the White House since the ‘War on Terror’ began. In response to Bush’s claim that bin Laden and his acolytes hate freedom he responds: ‘Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden for example.’ He also makes light of Bush’s description of Ariel Sharon as a ‘man of peace;’ ‘If Sharon is a man of peace in the eyes of Bush, then we are also men of peace,’ and given Sharon’s background as architect of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it is difficult to dispute this assertion.
Bush’s most seismic gaffe was to utter the phrase ‘crusade against terror’ on the White House lawn after the September 11 attacks. This was an error of staggering proportions given the resonance of that word in the Islamic world. Bin Laden states ‘So Bush has declared in his own words: “Crusade attack.” The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouth.’
Bin Laden’s awareness of the extent to which combating terrorism can be achieved through the application of ‘soft power’ is revealed; ‘it has become clear to us during our defensive jihad against the American enemy and its enormous propaganda machine that it depends for the most part on psychological warfare.’ The message seems to be; invading countries won’t combat us. He also advocates that ‘the youth should strive to find the weak points of the American economy and strike them there.’
Bin Laden’s greatest failing in confronting his foe was over-confidence; having witnessed the defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan he felt sure that American wings could be similarly clipped. Drawing on the experiences of jihadists in Somalia he repeatedly portrays the American soldier as weak and cowardly, but failed to anticipate the extent to which the national calamity of September 11 inured the American population to the loss of service men and women on foreign campaigns. He also ignores the extent to which mujahadin in Afghanistan were reliant on foreign patrons especially the United States.
On a conciliatory note bin Laden in an address to the people of Europe commits ‘to cease operations against any state that pledges not to attack Muslims or to intervene in their affairs, including the American conspiracy against the entire Islamic world.’ Quite where this leaves Ireland, which allows US military flights to pass through Shannon, is unclear. Moreover, given bin Laden’s disregard for innocent civilians it would be difficult to take him at his word.
Overall, the impression that emerges of bin Laden from his statements is that of a character lacking in compassion and entirely dogmatic in his views. Bin Laden’s world-view is one-dimensional, involving a crude demarcation between East and West which fails to take account of the millions of Muslims and Christians living on either side, and the extent to which the histories of East and West have always been intertwined, a process accelerated in an age of globalisation.
Nevertheless, it is clear that in order to counter bin Laden’s rhetoric which serves as a clarion call to would-be-terrorists, more careful language and tactics are required. It is also appropriate to concede that he often makes valid criticisms of US foreign policy especially that of the Bush administration.
The last statement of Bin Laden was broadcast at the end of 2004, it may be that a rumoured kidney complaint has led to his death or infirmity, but there is no doubt that his words and deeds continue to influence the world.