What does Osama bin Laden want? The vexing question emerged again last week with the release of an audiotape on which a man believed to be the al-Qaida leader applauds the Dec...
LONDON What does Osama bin Laden want?
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The vexing question emerged again last week with the release of an audiotape on which a man believed to be the al-Qaida leader applauds the Dec. 6 attack against the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and urges the toppling of the Saudi royal family.
The tape indicated that bin Laden has apparently moved the fomenting of a revolution in his Saudi homeland toward the top of his lengthy and ambitious wish list, which also includes the reversal of American foreign policy in the Middle East, the retreat of the American military from the Arabian Peninsula and the creation of a Palestinian homeland.
Bin Laden has advocated these changes before. What intelligence officials and terrorism experts find particularly remarkable in this and other recent statements is a shift from the raw anger and dark imagery of the post-9/11 days.
They say he has subtly tempered his message, tone and even persona, presenting himself almost as an ambassador, as if he sees himself as an elder statesman for a borderless Muslim nation.
He offered a truce this year to European governments that withdraw their troops from Iraq. In a message released just before the U.S. presidential election, he gloated that the war in Iraq and the “war against terror” were primarily responsible for record American budget deficits. Instead of talking about exacting blood from his enemies, he offered a sober discussion of the bleeding of the U.S. economy.
In last week’s message, he discusses the price of oil, accusing the U.S. of seeking to control the region’s vast supplies and keeping petroleum prices depressed.
Perhaps most striking is bin Laden’s expression of frustration. Speaking directly to Americans in the pre-election address, he complained that his rationale for waging war against the United States was repeatedly mischaracterized by President Bush and consequently misunderstood by most Americans.
To change this, bin Laden is testing what he apparently believes are more mainstream themes, while trying to dislodge the entrenched American view of him as a terrorist hell-bent on destroying America and all it stands for. In the pre-election address, bin Laden said Bush was wrong to “claim that we hate freedom.” He added: “If so, then let him explain to us why we don’t strike, for example, Sweden.”
That remark surprised some counterterrorism officials and terrorist experts, who said the al-Qaida leader rarely injects sarcasm into his pronouncements. They took it as a signal that he was trying to broaden his appeal, particularly to moderate Muslims and possibly even Americans.
What they cannot say is whether the less strident approach means that he has changed his goals and is less of a danger or that he is just laying the groundwork to justify a new attack against the United States.
But they are listening closely and debating an important question: Is bin Laden committed to destroying America, or has he become more pragmatic, trying to begin a rational foreign policy debate about its presence in the Middle East and even appealing to Americans’ pocketbooks?
“Osama is not a man given to humor, but when he told this joke about Sweden, I think it showed his frustration that Americans are not listening to him,” said Michael Scheuer, a former senior CIA official who tracked bin Laden for years and is the author of “Imperial Hubris.”
“We are being told by the president and others that al-Qaida attacked us because they despise who we are and what we think and how we live. But Osama’s point is, it’s not that at all. They don’t like what we do. And until we come to understand that, we are not going to defeat the enemy.”
Bin Laden’s attempt to engage Americans is occurring while his message to drive the United States out of the Muslim world is resonating with those among the 1.2 billion Muslims who believe he eloquently expresses their anger over the foreign policies of the United States and Israel.
But bin Laden also wants Americans and Europeans to heed his messages and urge their leaders to change their Middle East policies. This has not happened and probably will not happen. “He is tuned out by most Americans and Europeans, and it’s begun to really annoy him,” said a senior counterterrorism official based in Europe.
In his pre-election address, bin Laden seemed irritated that interviews he gave to Western journalists in the 1990s went largely unheard by most Americans. He appeared to suggest that if U.S. leaders had listened to his warnings, the Sept. 11 attacks could have been avoided.
Analysts say bin Laden’s repeated refrain is that al-Qaida’s strikes are retribution for U.S. and Israeli killings of Muslim women and children. “Reciprocity is a very important principle in the Islamic way of the world,” Scheuer said. “They judge how far they can go by how far their enemy has gone.”
What stood out in the pre-election message was bin Laden’s bid to reinvent himself. He traded his battle fatigues, his AK-47 and a rough-terrain backdrop for a sensible sheik’s garb, an anchor desk and a script without a single phrase portending a clash of civilizations. No longer was he reflecting on his own possible martyred death as he did in 2002, nor did he threaten another spectacular attack on America.
Instead, he said the United States could avoid another attack if it stopped threatening the security of Muslims. He spoke at length about what he sees as the true motive for the Iraq war to enrich American corporations with ties to the Bush administration. (He cited Halliburton.) And he spoke of bloodshed, but this time metaphorically, about the American economy.
He mocked the United States’ budget and trade deficits, saying that al-Qaida is committed “to continuing this policy in bleeding American to the point of bankruptcy.” And he said that the 9/11 attacks, which cost al-Qaida $500,000, have cost the United States more than $500 billion, “according to the lowest estimate” by a research organization in London that he cited by name.
“It all shows that the real loser is you,” he told Americans, according to a transcript by Al-Jazeera, the satellite network.
Peter Bergen, a CNN analyst who interviewed bin Laden in 1997, said, “The talk revealed bin Laden to be sort of a policy wonk, talking about supplemental emergency funding by Congress for the Afghan and Iraq wars, and how it was evidence that al-Qaida’s bleed-until-bankruptcy plan was working.”
“His message on this tape is not nearly as offensive,” said Jessica Stern, a Harvard professor who lectures on terrorism. “He talks about Americans having a choice it is up to us to decide whether we will support a foreign policy that he says is bad for our economy and bad for the Islamic world.”
Does bin Laden’s more moderate style mean there is less risk of a terrorist strike on American soil? Intelligence analysts are unsure. More than one analyst discerned an ominous warning in his milder pre-election address.
“In Islamic jurisprudence, the warning is important,” Bergen said. “And if we don’t respond, it’s our problem and our fault. He’s putting the ball back in our court.
“Maybe this is all rhetorical and they don’t have the ability to launch another big attack. But he intended to tell us that if we choose to completely ignore him, which is a very viable option for us, then we are going to get hit again.”