I admit I was as surprised as anyone to see a demonstrably new video tape from Osama. For years my premise had been–and I wrote about it many times–that bin Laden had to be assumed to be out of commission unless he convincingly proved otherwise. The last confirmed tape was from late December 2001, and after that all the communiqués that emerged were strangely ambiguous. Nothing he allegedly said was specific enough to assign a date. There was video, but only reruns. There were big threats, but no big attacks. Osama was on the long slide to irrelevance, ignored by his cronies and downgraded by his enemies. He had to pop up if he was going to salvage what was left of his reputation. As it happened, his timing was flawless. The fact that the election is nigh alone gave his comeback all the impact he needed.
Nevertheless, the video, at least the portions Al Jazeera chose to run, was something of a letdown. If you read the transcript carefully you’ll notice that Osama really has nothing important to say. There are no significant revelations, no specific attack warnings, nothing to seize the imagination or inspire the fear that has been his stock in trade. The video is low key, visually spare. Osama looks placid and exhibits little of his customary panache. Surely, he is better off than he looked in his December 26, 2001 appearance, when he was fleeing for his life. But compare to the October 7, 2001 “eye of the tiger” video, when Osama believed he was on the verge of suckering the United States into an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and the Muslim masses were about to rise up in his defense. Now we see an older, wiser, more realistic al Qaeda leader. The “warrior in cammo” image is out; he now wears shaheed white, looking and sounding like an Islamist educator.
Unlike previous verified Osamagrams, this statement is light on specifics. There is not much to analyze. One nugget is his claim that U.S. support for the Israeli intervention in Lebanon in 1982 was what sent him over the edge, but this conflicts with his previous statements; he typically cited the U.S. deployment into Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield as the watershed event. More interesting is his analysis of the American political system. He compares the United States to the Middle Eastern regimes where sons take power after their fathers (recently Syria and Jordan, for example, with Libya and Egypt in the wings) and weaves an interesting theory that George H. W. Bush arranged for his sons’ respective governorships with a view towards the 2000 election. “Bush Sr. deemed it appropriate to assign his sons to [the governor ship of] states,” he said. “He also did not forget to convey the rigging experience from the leaders of the [Middle East] region to Florida to benefit from it at critical times.” By coincidence Hillary Clinton adopted a similar conspiratorial tone when she said at a Woman’s Early Vote Unity Rally at West Palm Beach, “If we were living in another country and we had the president of the country and his brother controlling one of the biggest provinces or states, we would … have some doubts about whether, given their track record, they really believe in democracy,” It’s just like if the wife of a sitting president were elected Senator in a state in which she had never lived. Conspiracy nuts just love things like that. Osama also mocks the president for reading “The Pet Goat” while the 9/11 attacks were developing, prompting my friend and Canadian radio luminary Charles Adler to observed that it “sounded amateur, as if Michael Moore was writing the script.” Maybe vice-versa.
The new video was addressed to the American people, but for sheer content Osama’s 2002 “Letter to America” is much more comprehensive. In it he spells out every grievance he has against us, not just that we have attacked the Muslim nation, but we steal oil (it was about $24/barrel back then, is it still theft today?), support Israel, invented AIDS, and indulge a culture of “fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.” To stop the war all we had to do was convert to Islam, reject our culture, end democracy, leave the Middle East, abandon Israel, and (no kidding) ratify the Kyoto agreement. There is nothing like that in the latest video, at least not in the excerpts aired by Al Jazeera.
The most significant feature of the video was not its content but that it showed bin Laden alive, coherent, and certainly was recorded recently. The release was timed for the election, but it is difficult to discern what impact al Qaeda expected it might have. Clearly, Osama is taunting President Bush. He blames the Bush family for creating the troubles in the Middle East and for corrupting U.S. democracy. And he suggests the way out of the current troubles is for the American people to somehow assume control of U.S. policy in the region and make peace. “Your security does not lie in the hands of Kerry, Bush, or al-Qaeda,” he said. “Your security is in your own hands. Each and every state that does not tamper with our security will have automatically assured its own security.”
As October surprises go, this one is enormous. It is certain to keep the focus of the campaigns on terrorism right up to the election. It will have much more impact than the pitiful “missing explosives” story, which has not had the trajectory its authors intended. Of course, it is also possible that a domestic-terror attack may materialize in the next few days. Compare Osama’s video to its recent companion from “Azzam the American” warning that the streets of America would soon run red with blood. The two make an interesting couple–bin Laden comes off as the wise and patient leader, Azzam as his determined and fiery instrument of vengeance. Perhaps soon we will witness a bombing that the terrorists will claim used explosives taken from the Al-Qaqaa depot. (They are already telling that story inside Iraq.) That would bring the various plot lines together nicely, though there would be no chance it could be true–why go to the trouble of smuggling RDX or HMX all the way from Iraq when you can find a way of obtaining these or other explosives domestically? Still, the story would be irresistible and the talking points would write themselves. Taken all together it adds up to a disquieting next few days.