The Middle East Media Research Institute has an excellent (as always) translation of Bin Ladin’s most recent statement. The conventional wisdom is that this statement is an attempt to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, encouraging a withdrawal by European states of their troops from the Middle East, betraying whatever residual trust may have existed between them and America.
This may be, though Al Qaeda can’t have been surprised that European leaders spent a good deal of time today rejecting Usama’s olive branch. However much disdain they have for the United States, Chirac et al realize — particularly in the post-Madrid world — that terrorism is a more immediate threat to their security than American hegemony.
But this wasn’t Bin Ladin’s real agenda.
As significant as every such statement is (reminding us, as if we’d forgotten, that he is still at large and reading newspapers), this pronouncement was particularly important because represents a move by Al Qaeda towards self-legitimization. And though we are loathe to admit it, Usama and Al-Zawahiri have had some success, both within the Arab world (to a great extent) and elsewhere in transmogrifying a group of hapless murderers into a quasi-accepted “resistance movement.”
By boldly speaking directly to the European public and by extension European leaders, Bin Ladin is taking his first shaky steps in the direction of transforming Al Qaeda from a fringe terrorist group into a para-statal entity, with the apparent legitimacy that such a status would bring.
Bin Ladin’s gratuitous and disingenuous condemnation of the killing of Sheik Yassin, and his singling out of Halliburton as “merchants of war” and “bloodsuckers” are calculated ploys — as calculated as any politician ever spoke — and his ever-improving mastery of dime store populism leaves one wondering whether he has engaged an advertising agency to keep him “on message.”
Al Qaeda has been fragmented by operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but the result may be a new, focused and distilled version of the old. Bin Ladin is trying to teach himself statecraft, consensus building, and communication skills in order to project his particular variety of nihilism far beyond merely guns and bombs; and that should give us pause.
Marc C. Johnson
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