The September 7 release of a new video statement by Osama bin Laden puts to rest, at least for now, widespread speculation that he is dead, retired, or has been pushed aside by his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri . With a newly trimmed and dyed beard, comfortable robes rather than a camouflage jacket, and a clear and patient speaking style, bin Laden achieved a major purpose of his speech before he said a word: he clearly showed Muslims and Americans that he was still alive, that he was healthy and not at death's door, that he spoke from secure surroundings unthreatened by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, and that he, al-Qaeda and their allies were ready to continue the war. As usual, this message was wrapped in an as-Sahab Productions video displaying high level production values .
Some of the substance of bin Laden's speech was partially new to him specifically, but the West's failure to analyze what he and his lieutenants have been talking about for the past few years was repeatedly displayed by such foreign policy experts as a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and New York Times journalist David Brooks, both of whom suggested that bin Laden sounded like a left-wing, 1960s Marxist blogger. The Islamist expert Walid Phares even described him as "Trotskyite" (Family Security Matters, September 10). Speeches by bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda leaders are intended to have an accumulating impact; that is, most of their major speeches and statements build on those that have preceded them over the past decade. Bin Laden and his associates assume, perhaps incorrectly, that their Western foes will not treat each statement, speech and interview as an isolated and unconnected event.
The commentators mentioned above and many other pundits—both right and left on the political spectrum—have described bin Laden's speech as something new and a blatant attempt to remain relevant in the contemporary world. That is incorrect. Bin Laden has talked previously on numerous occasions about the negative factors of capitalism and the inequities and fragility of the U.S. economy; many of his post-9/11 speeches featured his bleed-America-to-bankruptcy scheme, as did several of his interviews before 9/11.
In addition, al-Zawahiri and Azzam al-Amriki (the U.S. citizen Adam Gadahn) have repeatedly spoken in detail about these themes . Indeed, al-Zawahiri's extensive February 2005 essay, entitled "The Freeing of Humanity and Homelands Under the Banner of the Quran," marked the start of al-Qaeda's now well-developed campaign of trying to support and deepen already existing anti-Americanism among non-Muslim groups—such as anti-Globalists, environmentalists, nuclear disarmament activists, anti-U.S. Europeans and other "oppressed people." These two men also have focused on the imperfect state of black-white race relations in the United States and championed the Islamic ideas of Malcolm X, and bin Laden—possibly for the first time—hit on this theme in his September 7 statement. "It is severer than what the slaves used to suffer at your hands centuries ago," bin Laden said in regard to conditions for white and especially black U.S. soldiers in Iraq, "and it is as if some of them have gone from one slavery to another more severe and harmful, even if it be in the fancy dress of the Defense Department's financial enticements" .
Western officials and journalists have also concluded that there is no "overt threat" in bin Laden's new message. Unless these experts truly believe that at some point in time bin Laden is going to explicitly state the time and location of an attack, it is hard to understand how they came to that conclusion. If Americans do not convert to Islam, said bin Laden—and he probably is not expecting many takers—our duty "is to continue to escalate the killing and fighting against you." That seems a clear threat. Moreover, bin Laden's prolonged discussion of his conversion offer is also clearly threatening in that it is an action demanded by the Prophet Muhammad of Muslims before they attack their enemy. As for another pre-attack requirement—multiple warnings—al-Zawahiri and Gadahn have fired a great number of warnings at the United States this year.
Finally, the new message's text and bin Laden's dyed beard seems to have persuaded some Western commentators to superimpose their fascination with celebrities and egos onto bin Laden. Since September 7, for example, Harvard's Dr. Noah Feldman—among others—described bin Laden's cleaned-up personal appearance and the text of his statement as an effort by the al-Qaeda chief to put himself in a position to claim that "I was responsible for the American disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan," attributing a huge dose of egotism to bin Laden's performance (CNN, September 7). In reviewing the tape, such egotism is hard to find. The first person "I" is used by bin Laden as a necessary part of his offer to Americans to convert to Islam. He makes himself a central player only because he is volunteering to guide Americans to Allah. Asking Americans to "lend me your ears" to hear God's message and then saying "I invite you to embrace Islam" constitute the role bin Laden lays out for himself in this speech.
This point is made not to argue whether or not bin Laden is egotistical, but to suggest that it would be unwise to believe that our seemingly inevitable withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan will be seen by Muslims or identified by al-Qaeda's chief as victories for Osama bin Laden. Instead, they will be seen by Muslims and publicized by bin Laden—as he did after the Afghans' 1989 defeat of the Soviets—as victories for Allah and Islam; al-Qaeda will give the major portion of credit to Iraqi and Afghan mujahideen. It is imperative, from bin Laden's perspective, that Muslims worldwide see U.S. disaster in Iraq and Afghanistan as Allah-granted victories for Islam and faithful Muslims. This perspective of "God's victory" will further erode defeatism in the Muslim world and galvanize far more support for the jihad than any bin Laden claim of glory for al-Qaeda's efforts. Indeed, such a claim would undercut much of what bin Laden has accomplished, and he knows it.
1. Osama bin Laden, "The Solution," as-Sahab Productions, September 7, 2007. It is worth noting that bin Laden also spoke in the plain and direct manner of his pre-U.S.-presidential election speech of October 2004. The September 7 speech was without lengthy quotations from the Quran, stories from Islamic history, or quotations from the Hadith. Interestingly, at the end of the talk he drew the attention of Christians to the similar beliefs that they and Muslims share regarding Jesus and his mother Mary, and railed against what he called "the fabrications of the Jews" against Mary. Having previously railed against Christians as the "crusaders of the cross," this passage is something of an anomaly for bin Laden.
2. When bin Laden did speak, the substance of his talk demonstrated that he is still what Peter Bergen and Peter Arnett have described as a "news junkie," and that he is completely capable of sating his desire by following the adventures of U.S. interest rates and mortgage defaults while likely inhabiting the terrain of Pakistan's North-West Frontier.
3. Two of al-Qaeda's post-9/11 electronic journals—al-Nida and al-Ansar—also published several analytical essays on these issues.
4. It seems fair to conclude that the American citizen Adam Gadahn has contributed to broadening al-Qaeda commentary vis-à-vis U.S. economic and social affairs. Born and reared by parents who propounded the beliefs of the U.S. "hippy generation" that came of age in the 1960s, Gadahn may well have imbibed an animus against capitalism and a taste for analyzing U.S. history via the purported conspiracies of capitalists. These seem to have seeped into bin Laden's rather overdone criticism of capitalism. That said, the critique of capitalism in bin Laden's new message and other statements by al-Zawahiri and Gadahn have less to do with the traditional leftist-socialist description of capitalism's evils and inevitable demise, and more to do with emphasizing the ability of Islam to rectify societal evils, promote social and economic equality and even lower taxes to a limit "totaling 2.5 percent."