Back in October Major General John Cooper, deputy commander and senior-most British officer in the Coalition forces in Afghanistan, stated that “From the Afghan point of view we don’t want to focus too much on bin Laden. He is not necessarily the major player.” At the time I posited that this demotion, from preeminent terrorist mastermind with global reach to secondary figure isolated in the Afghan theater, would be a serious disappointment to Osama. Since then he has been striving mightily to reclaim his relevance, or at least raise his profile. He made his big comeback on the week before the U.S, presidential election, a well-timed video that exploited the tensions of the race to ensure maximum coverage for his anti-Bush message. He popped up again two weeks later to caution opposition groups protesting for reform in Saudi Arabia that the real fight was in Iraq and they should not be wasting their time agitating for change that is not ripe. Now ten days after that he has issued a tape praising Abu-Mus’ab al-Zarqawi for his attacks against Coalition forces in Iraq. Every new release in Osama’s comeback tour makes front page news. He’s still got it.
The most prominent aspect of the most recent message is anointing Zarqawi as Osama’s emir, his main man, in Iraq. Ties between bin Laden and Zarqawi go way back to the pre-9/11 days, but at some point in early 2004 there was an interruption, perhaps a dispute of some kind. Zarqawi sought to mend fences last October by publicly pledging fealty to bin Laden. “If you plunge into the sea we will plunge with you,” he wrote, “If you order we will obey, if you forbid we will comply.” Now bin Laden is publicly recognizing the gesture by declaring Zaraqawi his primary representative in Iraq. Essentially he has given Zarqawi franchise rights, control of the al Qaeda brand name in the Iraq territory. Accept no substitutes, he seems to be saying, trust only al Qaeda brand terrorism. Things like this matter because in an environment with an estimated fifty insurgent and terrorist groups operating there is a desperate need to consolidate the market. Osama is seeking to recreate his decimated network by expanding his influence in Iraq, and to do so he needs a top salesman like Zarqawi back on the team. From Zarqawi’s point of view the transaction makes sense because he is running out of friends, at least in-country. In November he denounced the Iraqi clerics and others who did not rise to his defense, not even in sermons let alone in the streets, as Coalition forces dismantled his base of operations in Fallujah. It was a good time for the prodigal son to return to the fold.
The second purpose of the message was to reiterate al Qaeda’s message that the focal point of terrorist efforts must remain in Iraq. It is the same point Osama made two weeks ago when he called attacking U.S, forces in Iraq a “golden opportunity.” He seeks to use Iraq in the same way he had wanted to use Afghanistan, to bleed the U.S. military as a means of discouraging the American public and bringing about domestic political pressure for a withdrawal of Coalition forces. He also repeated his recommendation of hitting the Iraqi energy infrastructure, which would have the dual impact of destabilizing the country and injuring the U.S. economy by raising fuel costs. Bin Laden also seeks to damage the economy by raising the cost of the war, which currently runs about $4 billion per month. Osama said that terrorist operations are costing about $1.1 million per month, an excellent return on investment from his point of view at 4,000:1.
Finally, Osama’s communiqué showed his usual hostility towards democracy. The Iraqi election is about three weeks away and the terrorists are eager to derail it. Anti-democratic rhetoric is a staple of al Qaeda and the Islamist movement generally. Democracy is viewed as a system in which men make law, unlike Shariah, in which man follows the dictates of God. Political theory tells us that such notions of objective political-legal systems are impossible in practice. They invariably develop into a form of theocratic oligarchy in which a small ruling clique interprets and enforces the law as they see it–so rather than the man-made law of the masses, people live under the man-made law of the influential few, or sometimes of the imam-cum-dictator. But in addition to repeating the standard analysis of the faults of democracy from his perspective, bin Laden declared (by his own authority apparently) that those who participated in the elections were to be considered unbelievers. This is critical because it means that anyone, especially Muslims, who engage in democratic political activity are legitimate targets. Zarqawi had been criticized by some in Iraq (including other insurgents) for attacking civilians and killing other Muslims. Bin Laden has now handed Zarqawi a free pass for undertaking whatever attacks he wants against Muslims practicing Western-style politics because by his decree they are no longer Muslims. That is an amazing logical stretch, but I surmise Osama believes the Koran is a living document.
It is interesting to see bin Laden attempting to regain some operational control over his movement, particularly in such a public way. The more announcements he releases the better we are able to understand his methods. In addition there is an element of risk every time he gets a message out; he must feel more comfortable than he has in some time to be taking so many chances. Either that or he was fed up with being written off as a minor player and decided to take the chance. Hopefully the tapes will keep on coming regularly, because one of these days one of them is going to arrive with a return address.
–James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.