The Irrelevance of Bin Ladin
By Juan R. Cole
An audio message allegedly from Usamah Bin Laden was released Sunday, claiming that the attempted Christmas day airline attack over Detroit was his work.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assert two things about the audio. First, I do not think it is genuine. Second, I think it demonstrates that Bin Laden, whether he is dead or alive, is now irrelevant.
Nothing about this ‘message’ smells right.
The audio’s claim that Bin Laden was behind the Christmas day bombing is dubious. The modus operandi of Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bore no resemblance to that of Bin Ladin’s al-Qaeda. Bin Laden plans operations for years beforehand; attempts to arrange for simultaneous large attacks or attacks on symbolic targets; and uses teams. One guy hastily recruited in an amateurish attempt that only blows up his own crotch? That isn’t al-Qaeda.
All the police work so far in the public record points to Yemen as the place Abdulmutallab was radicalized, trained and equipped for this mission. Bin Laden has no command and control capabilities in Yemen, and that his father hailed from there before moving to Saudi Arabia in the early 20th century is irrelevant. “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” is 300 guys holed up in isolated Maarib in Yemen. Bin Laden has no means to communicate with them (he no longer uses cell or satellite phones because the US can trace them). AQAP already announced that it was behind the Christmas bomb plot, and it wouldn’t be like the real Bin Laden to upstage them.
Then there is the mystery that the USG Open Source Center, which monitors radical Muslim web sites, reported that there was no sign of the Bin Laden audio being posted to them on Sunday:
‘FYI — Bin Ladin Audio Statement Not Observed on Jihadist Websites on 24 January
Jihadist Websites — OSC Summary
Sunday, January 24, 2010 . . .
As of 1200 GMT on 24 January, jihadist websites monitored by OSC have not been observed to post the Bin Ladin audio statement released on an Arab media website and filed as GMP20100124635002.’
I think even the jihadis know that this thing is likely a fraud, and that in any case it adds nothing to the significance of Mutallab’s operation (already claimed by others) or to the debate over the plight of the Palestinians. If it is Bin Laden, it is a pitiful Bin Laden trying to stay relevant by grandstanding and stealing others’ thunder.
Aljazeera Arabic also demoted it. The channel aired part of it in conjunction with an interview with former US ambassador Edward P. Djerejian, now head of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. I can’t remember another instance where Aljazeera gave a prominent US voice a real-time opportunity to rebut a Bin Laden tape. Djerejian sensibly pointed out that the Obama administration is trying hard for a two-state solution that would in fact ameliorate the conditions of the Gazans, so that Bin Laden’s ire seemed misdirected. Aljazeera’s editorial board clearly considered the audio not very newsworthy and moreover they like the Obama administration enough to give a US former diplomat the opportunity to refute it.
By the way, Obama’s argument that his election and his approach to Middle East issues would in itself put al-Qaeda in a difficult position is borne out by Aljazeera’s approach to this Bin Laden audio. Aljazeera is aware that Obama is pressuring the Israelis to halt settlements in the West Bank and that he is trying to close Guantanamo (where one innocent Aljazeera correspondent was imprisoned on false charges for some years).
Another clue: the alleged Usamah listed only one grievance, that of Palestine, and he framed it in terms of the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Wouldn’t he have some concerns about the US drone strikes on the positions of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the northwest of Pakistan and in Afghanistan? About Obama’s escalation of the Afghanistan war? If this is a recent audio, as shown by the reference to the December 25 attack, why not gloat about the attack on the CIA forward operating base by an al-Qaeda double agent only a few days afterward?
It is not like him to attempt to steal the thunder of Hamas in Gaza, and Hamas has already told al-Qaeda to butt out. Moreover, if all he has to offer is a lament about Gaza, then there is nothing distinctive about that. It makes him seem as though he is hitching his wagon to someone else’s star. Bin Laden comes from a business background, and one of his principles was always to seek leverage. When a Muslim radical group already has a lively insurgency going, he feels, there is little point in his putting money and resources into it. That is one reason he never focused on Palestine. He is about encouraging operations that would not otherwise be undertaken, as against US embassies in East Africa, the USS Cole at Aden, and New York and Washington.
The diction about the suffering people in Gaza, moreover, is not Bin Laden’s style. Contrary to what is often alleged, his concerns with Palestine go back to at least the 1980s, and are real and central to his ideology. The al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan in the 1980s used to get together and give each other sermons on the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem on a frequent basis. Bin Laden’s partner until 1989, Abdullah Azzam, was a Palestinian activist who thought that fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan was more realistic than the PLO struggle against Israel at that point in time, and more likely to redound to the cause of political Islam; but Palestine was always on the agenda for the future.
But Bin Laden has never been interested in Palestinian nationalism, or, indeed, in nationalism of any sort. His devotion is to pan-Islam. His objection is the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. He has always been focused on Muslim control of Islamic sacred space. Jerusalem is the third holiest city in Islam, associated in Muslim lore with the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey and miraculous ascension into heaven, and a city that Muslims ruled longer than any other Power in its history (from the 7th to the early 20th century). Bin Laden’s objection to US troops being in Saudi Arabia was that they then represented an ‘occupation’ of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He invoked the same sort of trope with regard to Jerusalem.
Last winter during the Gaza War, an audio tape attributed to Bin Laden did not neglect to mention the need to recover al-Aqsa Mosque (the Muslim holy site in Jerusalem) for Islam. Before 9/11, in early 2001, Bin Laden was penning odes to the liberation of Jerusalem and reading them at his son’s wedding.
The new audio makes no reference to Jerusalem or al-Aqsa at all, just to Gaza. It would just be uncharacteristic for Bin Laden to neglect to mention them.
I am not arguing that the Israeli colonization of the West Bank and siege of poor little Gaza does not generate anti-Western sentiment or make for a set of recruiting tools for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Glenn Greenwald and Matthew Yglesias are right about that. I am arguing that in this audio, “Bin Laden” is not speaking as he usually would about the issue. For Arab nationalists, a Palestinian state that could accede to the Arab League is what they are fighting for. For pan-Islamists like Bin Laden, it is the holy city of Jerusalem to be returned to Muslim rule.
‘ “In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful
“Peace be upon those who follow the right path
“On behalf of Osama to Obama: if our message could be sent to you by the word, we should not have sent in by planes.
“The message we wanted to provide you with the aircraft of the hero Umar Farouk, May God lighten his sufferings confirms the previous messages transmitted by the heroes of September 11, which were repeated before and after that date.
“The message is that the United States can not aspire to security before it becomes a reality in Palestine. It is unfair that you have a quiet life while our brethren in Gaza live in bad conditions.”
“By the will of God, our attacks against you will continue as long as your support the Israelis.
“Peace be upon those who follow the right path.” ‘
I don’t know if the old monster is dead, and some clever young engineers just have a program to emulate his voice, or whether he is alive and horribly disfigured (we have not seen him in an authentic video since October 2004). But I do have the severest doubts that he issued this audio message. And the interesting thing is that even if he did, almost no one in the Muslim world seems to care.
Juan Cole is President of the Global Americana Institute . Juan R. I. Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, March, 2009) and he also recently authored Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). He has been a regular guest on PBS’s Lehrer News Hour, and has also appeared on ABC Nightly News, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Democracy Now! and many others. He has also given many radio and press interviews. He has written extensively about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the increasing conflict with Iran. He has a regular column at Salon.com. He continues to study and write about contemporary Islamic movements, whether mainstream or radical, whether Sunni and Salafi or Shi`ite. Cole commands Arabic, Persian and Urdu and reads some Turkish, knows both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam. He lived in various parts of the Muslim world for nearly 10 years, and continues to travel widely there. A bibliography of his writings may be found here.
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