Saturday, October 30, 2004

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What to make of the bin Laden videotape?

It's understandable that most of the media reaction in this country to the bin Laden videotape is to engage in half-assed speculation on its electoral ramifications.

However, regardless of who wins, is there anything useful that can be garnered from the videotape to guide U.S. foreign policy for the future? Perusing the text, here's a possible list -- based on my half-assed speculations:

1) Osama bin Laden is alive -- this has been a matter of some dispute, but the references in the text make it clear that this was recorded recently;

2) He appears to have watched Fahrenheit 9/11. There are some really odd references in this message. Why, for example, would bin Laden care about the Patriot Act? The stupid goat story? Greg Djerejian has further thoughts on this.

3) He wants to bargain. One of the common post-9/11 assumptions was that Al Qaeda could not be deterred or reasoned with. Given what AQ wants, that's probably true, but it is interesting that bin Laden now seems to be trying to suggest that a bargain can be struck:

American people, I am speaking to tell you about the ideal way to avoid another Manhattan, about war and its causes and results.... Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands, and each state that does not harm our security will remain safe.

As Cam Simpson points out in the Chicago Tribune:

Although bin Laden mocked President Bush's response to the Sept. 11 attacks and compared the White House to corrupt Arab regimes, Al Qaeda's chief did not issue any explicit threats against American civilians or troops at home or abroad.

Nor did bin Laden lace his message, which was broadcast by the Qatar-based satellite network Al Jazeera, with the kind of religious imagery that has dominated previous addresses.

Instead, appearing in a white shirt draped in a gold robe and sitting or standing erect behind what appeared to be a tabletop set against a plain brown curtain, the militant leader issued a familiar condemnation of U.S. policy, speaking of what he called the "American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon."

U.S. intelligence officials said they had a "high degree of confidence" that the tape, which they received in advance of Friday's broadcast, was authentic. Its apparent lack of any explicit threats also meant the nation's color-coded, terrorism alert-level would probably remain unchanged, U.S. officials said.

Without the accoutrements of battle that he has surrounded himself with in previous messages--daggers, camouflage jackets, assault rifles--bin Laden seemed to be trying to convey the image of a world leader rather than of a terrorist hiding in a cave.

On the one hand, the sight of an apparently healthy bin Laden represents a blow to U.S. efforts against Al Qaeda. On the other hand, the difference between this message and previous ones from bin Laden suggest that he wants to cut a deal.

I categorically do not think that such a deal (we won't bomb you and you pull out of the Middle East) should be struck, but it is interesting that bin Laden is trying to put it on the table.

[But what about the electoral impact?--ed I'll leave that to the comments.]

UPDATE: Juan Cole makes an interesting point:

The talk about being "free persons" (ahrar) and fighting for "liberty" (hurriyyah) for the Muslim "nation" (ummah) seems to me a departure. The word "hurriyyah" or freedom has no classical Arabic or Koranic resonances and I don't think it has played a big role in his previous statements.

I wonder if Bin Laden has heard from the field that his association with the authoritarian Taliban has damaged recruitment in the Arab world and Iraq, where most people want an end to dictatorship and do not want to replace their secular despots with a religious one. The elections in Pakistan (fall 2002) and Afghanistan went better than he would have wanted, and may have put pressure on him. He may now be reconfiguring the rhetoric of al-Qaeda, at least, to represent it as on the side of political liberty. I am not saying this is sincere or might succeed; both seem to me highly unlikely. I am saying that it is interesting that Bin Laden now seems to feel the need to appeal to this language. In a way, it may be one of the few victories American neo-Wilsonianism has won, to push Bin Laden to use this kind of language. I doubt it amounts to much.

Naturally, I disagree with Juan -- this amounts to something. This New York Post story by Niles Lathem buttresses my hunch (link via Roger L. Simon):

Officials said that in the 18-minute long tape — of which only six minutes were aired on the al-Jazeera Arab television network in the Middle East on Friday — bin Laden bemoans the recent democratic elections in Afghanistan and the lack of violence involved with it.

On the tape, bin Laden also says his terror organization has been hurt by the U.S. military's unrelenting manhunt for him and his cohorts on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

posted by Dan on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM


Was it just me, or did OBL look pretty ill ? From the few minutes I watched, it seems that the previous videos of him were shot from closer and seemed quite a bit sharper. This one seemed grainier and more distant, as if the cameraman were trying to avoid focusing in on his face too much. There have been rumors going around that he has kidney problems, was wounded at Tora Bora etc. He does not look a well man... Dan, maybe he's concentrating on his "legacy" now... ?

posted by: fingerowner on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

He's not making a deal, he's taunting us with worthless offers so as to bolster his reputation in the mid-east and separate us further from our allies who might see us as unreasonable for not addressing the offers.

If we did deal with bin Laden, would we have any way of guaranteeing his side of the bargain? No.

What's more, we do have the ability to find him and take it out. All we lack is the will.

As to effects on the election, bin Laden will look like a winner either way.

If he is seen, however, as healthy, unpreasured and taunting America, that could hurt Bush.

posted by: Boronx on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Look, the deal is not a serious one. It's an attempt to fuck with us, and to justify his actions to the world.

posted by: pr' on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

I agree with Dan that the speculation over which candidate will be helped by Osama's broadcast or even which candididate Osama "prefers" is kinda weird. It might even be offensive by being so divisive in the face of a real threat.

We should vote for the candidate/administration we feel will be more compotent (and clearly the Bush administration has made too many egregious mistakes and must be held accountable). But I don't think Osama really cares who's in the white house. He engaged in his crusade under Clinton, under Bush, and will probably continue under the next administration.

The significance of the tape it seems is that Osama presented himself as more of a statesman than a guerilla fighter either as an appeal to middle easterners or foreign powers.

posted by: Lez on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

If there's one thing that I've come to resent about this election and national security, it's the series of claims that UBL or Saddam or some other terrorist or dictator wants one person to win over he other person. Enganging in that type of thinking seems to be little more than an exercise in voicing your biases and things like that. That's fine, I guess, but it doesn't add anything constructive to the debate, among other things.

This is not really a slam against you, Dan, but people in general.


posted by: Brian on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

I think you're right, Boronx. It may be somewhat of a taunt to the US, but it's more likely a message to the global Muslim population that the US is impotent at dealing with terrorism other than destroying existing infrastructure in the process of nailing a few specific individuals.

We're in a no-win situation - as was the British during the War for Independence two centuries ago. Our current administration didn't learn in history class. We're standing in rows in the fields with our muskets and cannons while they are shooting at us from behind the trees.

I'm all for killing terrorists, but it should be done covertly against specific targets, not pre-emptively against whole populations. With our current approach spawning more discontent than it alleviates, the only way we can "win the war on terrorism" will end up being called genocide.

That's where "staying the course" with nothing new is heading. We need some different approaches; not "cut and run", but certainly not "head in the sand," as we are now.

posted by: regm on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

GOP spinmeisters are quoted as being "gleeful" over the OBL tape, because they believe it will frighten people into supporting Bush.

You know what would make me "gleeful"?

5 minutes in a room with those jackals. With a baseball bat.

posted by: Palladin on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

It's the job of electioneering hands to jump on anything that might aid the campaign they are working for. They are not always good judges of which things these might be. This tape isn't one of them. No American voters are going into the voting booth with their decision resting on the taped statement of some damned dirty Arab.

As to the statement itself, it looks to me more an effort by bin Laden to reposition himself and perhaps maintain his relevance to Islamist militancy. Most of the comment I've read on the dispersal of al Qaeda after the Afghan campaign and the anti-American feeling since the Iraq invasion has focused on how support for terrorism has grown in the Muslim countries. This may be so, but it does not follow from this that bin Laden is in a stronger position.

In the first place, he has probably lost most of his ability to oversee specific terrorist actions, the ability he exercised up to 9/11. Secondly, with his organization badly damaged after the Afghan campaign (and, perhaps, by diminished cooperation from officials within the Pakistani and Saudi governments) the willingness of Islamist groups around the world to engage in terrorism may have increased -- but their ability to strike at American targets, especially within the United States, hasn't. Such strikes require detailed planning and coordination over many months, as 9/11 did. Without a sanctuary in Afghanistan and with communications much more aggresively monitored than they were before 9/11 such operations must be much harder to pull off, and nearly impossible for bin Laden.

On the other hand, there is Iraq. Even here, though, we need to consider bin Laden's position and his understanding of Muslim and especially Arab politics. He knows that Islamist Sunnis have struck at occupation forces; they have also struck, to overall deadlier effect, at Iraq's majority Shiites and secular Iraqi Sunnis, people bin Laden regards as apostates but probably does not want to fight at the same time he is trying to mobilize Muslims against us. This may account for his somewhat less bloodthirsty rhetoric and apparent efforts to appear as the victim of an aggressive war. It is this image of a wronged victim that he wants all Muslims to adopt; only violence by people backed into a corner can now be easily justified.

posted by: Zathras on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Why does anyone believe that OBL *cares* who wins? I
don't get that. The message is sufficiently cryptic that he couldn't be sure whether it would help or hurt his preferred candidate, anyway. (I mean, just look at the arguments going on about this on the left and right blogs.) He's not stupid; he must know that.

Why not take the simplest explanation? Now, *no matter
who wins*, he gets to claim that he affected the election.
That will undoubtedly be the spin in the U.S., for either a
Bush or Kerry victory.

posted by: Matt Newman on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

OBL is alive but don't believe that he had contacts in Iraq ... we all know that there was no relationship between Saddam and OBL ... those who beleive that line also believed that the Mafia did exist ...

posted by: p on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

"5 minutes in a room with those jackals. With a baseball bat."

Geez, Palladin, please don't dishonor a baseball bat this glorious year of all years. Can't you find something more suitable? How about using a shard of metal from the World Trade Center against these people who are gleeful Osama is not caught but is up and running again? Beat them until they say, "I know it was bin Laden who attacked us. I know that."

posted by: roger on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

I don't know that OBL necessarily wanted to help Bush or Kerry, but merely wanted to create the impression that he influenced the election, thereby enhancing his status no matter who actually wins.

posted by: fling93 on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Oh, and this impression would also undermine the leadership of the winner, whomever that is.

posted by: fling93 on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]


Roger, you're right.

Baseball bats're too good for them.

And so is calling them 'jackals.' Jackals are decent, hardworking animals.

Being PC: it's hell on the rage-violence reflex :)

posted by: Palladin on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Pallidan, I thought those who disagreed
with shrub were all peaceful folk who
abhored violence.

Didn't you get that email?

And you forgot to specify WHO was to have
the baseball bat. You or the other guys.
That might have an effect on what the
outcome of such a meeting would be.

posted by: pramatist on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

This guy isnt dumb. The negotiations angle is right out of the North Vietnamese playbook. He has no intention of honoring a deal, or probably even striking one. However Bin Laden believes there is a powerful segment of world opinion that worships at the altar of negotiation and that they can be, if not won over, at least humored to some extent. He is correct. He is planting a seed in a crack he sees in Western politics. Its truly astounding, this entire message was aimed directly at the Michael Moore crowd, particularly in Europe. He may be right, I dont doubt there are those who see OBL as more reasonable than Bush. Clever.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

I see 2 options:

1-Like you said he´s asking for the Hudna (temporary ceasefire).

2-Or he wants to support Kerry but in the way that makes the less damage to Kerry: using a Michael Moorish rethoric without any of his trademark blood speech, which could have led many voters directly to Bush. Like saying: Bush is stiring up things ,USA isnt evil it's just badly guided.

He changed PR tactics and that´s really interesting because there is something USA must have done that forced him to do that.

posted by: lucklucky on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

"What's more, we do have the ability to find him and take it out. All we lack is the will."

How many years for Israelis to catch the Munich Olympic Games murders? last week Israelis forces killed a terrorist that was in hit list for 10 years in smallish place like Gaza. Catching a person is 70%luck 10%money 20%work.

posted by: lucklucky on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

I've been checking out various news sites to try to get a sense of how people are responding to this latest, and I have to say that this is (even more than usual) the most thoughtful and interesting commentary. Y'all are a smart bunch of people! But, Mark, I want to respond your comment about those who "worship at the altar of negotiation": from what I've seen, disputes, even brutal ones, are nearly always settled by negotiation eventually. The question is how big a stick or how juicy a carrot is necessary to reach an agreement. I don't dispute that a really big stick is needed to combat terrorism, but it needs to be combined with a bit of carrot as well to be effective in the long run. Some people are for all force, and others for all negotiation, but I think the most intelligent leaders are looking for the most effective combination of the two. What do you think is the right combination?

posted by: Jess on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Mark Buehner writes: "The negotiations angle is right out of the North Vietnamese playbook. "

No, he's clearly working out of the Al Sadr playbook.

Negotiate - fight - negotiate - fight - build a political movement - etc.

posted by: Jon H on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

I was shocked and disgusted to read the following about the Republican response to the Osama bin Laden tape:

""We want people to think 'terrorism' for the last four days," said a Bush-Cheney campaign official. "And anything that raises the issue in people's minds is good for us."

A senior GOP strategist added, "anything that makes people nervous about their personal safety helps Bush."

He called it "a little gift," saying it helps the President but doesn't guarantee his reelection."

While I was already disappointed, to say the least, about the Bush administration's poor handling of the war on terror, I was at least willing to believe that he and his team were serious about taking out our enemies. Now it seems clear that they are delighted to have this murderer, aka "little gift," out there to boost their own political power. This is really ugly. Hey, Bush supporters--are you sure you still want to be associated with this kind of crap?

posted by: Jess on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

As noted above, OBL will adapt and/or doesn't care who's in the WH. He and others are still going to try to attack. And, no matter who wins they're going to declare that the tape affected the election.

I haven't read the transcript, but even the mention of Kerry doesn't necessarily mean it was recorded recently. He could have recorded a version for Dean, Kucinich, Kerry, and Al Sharpton months ago, but the Kerry version is the one we're seeing now.

Is there anything he mentioned that couldn't have been foreseen in that same way?

Even if in the unlikely event there were a truce, and even if it lasted for ten years, the relentless march of Islamic expansionism will continue. The only way to defeat that is to counter extremist ideology and with military force when necessary.

Regarding the last comment, here's the link: "We want people to think 'terrorism' for the last four days," said a Bush-Cheney campaign official. "And anything that raises the issue in people's minds is good for us."

Also see this: "I want you to stand, raise your right hands," and recite "the Bush Pledge," said Florida state Sen. Ken Pruitt. The assembled mass of about 2,000 in this Treasure Coast town about an hour north of West Palm Beach dutifully rose, arms aloft, and repeated after Pruitt: "I care about freedom and liberty. I care about my family. I care about my country. Because I care, I promise to work hard to re-elect, re-elect George W. Bush as president of the United States."

And, "In final hours, Bush mailings display images of burning World Trade Center".

Now, what does all that remind you of?

posted by: The Lonewacko Blog on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

As long as this ridiculous Al Jazeera tape is still being talked about seriously, people should take the time to review the September 28, 2001, interview of Osama Bin Laden with Pakistan's daily Ummat.

This interview where he denies any role in 911 should carry more authenticity than one brought to you by Qatar, the mother of all US Army bases.

The latest Bin Laden tape is just a part of the gimmick of featuring standard criticisms of Bush in the mouth of a demonized Hollywood "Osama" which can then be used to discredit such criticisms. No wonder the FBI still uses an ancient picture of Osama that hasn't gone through any of the aging that began in 1998.

There's nothing surprising about the fact that that the FBI would claim this latest tape to be "authentic," but any tape from Al Jazeera deserves strong skepticism. Al Jazeera is the Arab world's modern-day Congress of Cultural Freedom. It was set up in Qatar, the mother of all US Army bases, in the late 1990s when JINSA was planning a war against Iraq. The "aging" process which people sometimes note when they compare pre- Al Jazeera Osama pictures to post-Al Jazeera "Osamas" happened very quickly and has never been heeded by the FBI, which still uses an old mug-shot from 10 years ago. Also, the interviews where Osama went from his earlier line of telling the interviewer that the Mujahideen were seeking to target American soldiers in the Arab world to threatening random terrorist potshots against anyone happened at Al Jazeera. Now why would the FBI show so little interest in updating its mug-shot with an older, more recent "Osama," particularly when it was the older "Osama" who began threatening civilians directly? Because they know that Al Jazeera is just a propaganda agency set up by the same people who run the US Army base in Qatar.

posted by: Patrick McNally on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

OBL clearly states which candidate he finds preferable. The negative *emphasis* was on the Bush family, not Kerry. Simply count the references and add the Michael Moore angle. :)

posted by: Curtis on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Negociate -- what with who?

He is not a government.

posted by: spencer on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Patrick McNally draws attention to an interesting point, bin Laden's claiming of credit for the 9/11 attacks. His 2001 statements seemed to seek to obfuscate this issue, one reason why many people in the Muslim countries seemed to have found persuasive the most amazing conspiracy theories about 9/11 being the result of a plot by the Mossad or the CIA.

Had Muslim audiences already decided that these conspiracy theories were false, and that 9/11 for better or worse was a product of bin Laden's organization? Or will his claiming credit for this now cause a rethinking among Arabs particularly, who had used the familiar device of blaming wickedness on various non-Muslims to avoid thinking of bin Laden as a wanton murderer?

These are questions, not arguments; I really don't know what the answers to them are, and would welcome comment from anyone more familiar with published opinion in Muslim countries than I am.

posted by: Zathras on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Tape is a fake. If it came from A-Q, the dude talking is probably one of OBL's adult sons with some make up and computer voice processing to make him sound exactly like the old man and it was probably done in a studio in Iran. But it could very well be an Actor with a beard and a voice processor. The technology is all PC/Apple based and readily available to amateurs. You can do this at home. Its why Ashley Simpson has to lip synch everything.

The speech was written by a european bilingual leftist muslim with the intention of influencing the American election. OBL would not, could not write or say such things, his rhetorical patters are fixed in the mold of a muslim immam, not a european intellectual, who has watched Michael Moore.

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

"I categorically do not think that such a deal (we won't bomb you and you pull out of the Middle East) should be struck, but it is interesting that bin Laden is trying to put it on the table."

I think we should offer him a deal. Through the negoation process we should find out where he is then blow the general area to hell and back.

posted by: cubicle on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

I agree with some of what you say about the Bin Laden tape, but I think we Americans want it to be more about him than it is about us. Bin Laden appears to be very savvy of our culture (especially its history) and about our mass media's ability to inflate our gullibility. Bin Laden has played us like a well-schooled rapper in this tape. He knows we'll look for symbols and finger movements, when in fact it's all about him looking at us. It's very important to him that he be important to us. Al-Zarqawi was beginning to fog our memory of Bin Laden. The Tape serves as a reminder of Bin Laden and demonstrates how h eloves to dither with us.

posted by: Roger on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

MEMRI says that part of translation was erroneous or overlooked: They say that Binladen threatned every individual US state. Those that will vote for Bush could be attacked and those that will not vote for Bush will enjoy a truce.

posted by: lucklucky on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

Look, let's be honest.

The only think missing from Bin Laden's tape was a short blurb at hte end about how "I'm John Kerry and I approved of this message".

Also, I think it of note that the first thing John Kerry did was take a poll... Instead of leading, John Kerry stuck a finger into the wind like Bill Clinton did so many times.

That's no leadership. Which, it should be noted is no big shock, given John Kerry is no leader.

posted by: Bithead on 10.30.04 at 12:37 PM [permalink]

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