Raffi Khatchadourian / The Nation – 2006-05-16 08:33:07
The function of propaganda, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “is not to make an objective study of the truth” but to incite. Bin Laden regards himself as an instigator. To build an effective case for his jihad, bin Laden distorts figures and facts, commits errors of omission and builds arguments upon theological logic that is widely repudiated.
He is contradictory. In one breath, he is able to claim: “Many people in the West are good and gentle people. I have already said that we are not hostile to the United States. We are against the system which makes nations slaves of the United States.” In another, he says that “the American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their government,” and therefore, “the American people are not innocent.”
As he tells it, the jihadi movement brought down the Soviet Union entirely on its own in the mountains of Afghanistan (apparently without any lift from the $3 billion in US aid provided through Pakistan and other countries). He overlooks the nationalist dimension of certain conflicts, like the one in Chechnya, which he maintains are primarily about Islam. He ignores regions where America has sided with Muslims, such as Kosovo. When all but 500 US troops finally left Saudi Arabia in 2003, he quietly dropped this grievance from his rhetoric.
Still, despite these knots and inconsistencies, bin Laden’s message resonates with millions of Muslims, because the larger threads of his narrative are spun from reality. Lawrence reminds us of Madeleine Albright’s 1996 exchange with Lesley Stahl on the human toll of sanctions against Iraq. (Stahl: “We have heard that a half-million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima.” Albright: “We think the price is worth it.”)
More broadly, Lawrence notes, the umma has been attacked by Western countries in one form or another for two centuries, “from the first French invasion of Egypt in the last years of the 18th century and the seizure of the Maghreb in the 19th century, the British grab for Egypt and the Italian for Libya, the carve-up of the whole Middle East by Britain and France at the end of World War One” and so on to the present. “All the lines of intrusion and violence historically run in one direction.”
This is partly why, in a study conducted last October across the Arab world by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, more than half the respondents said they found some form of legitimacy in bin Laden’s pronouncements. (Thirty-five percent said they sympathized with him for “standing up” to the United States; 19 percent said they sympathized with his position on various Muslim causes.) Very few Arabs said they wanted to live in an authoritarian theocracy like the Taliban’s Afghanistan, and few agreed with Al Qaeda’s methods.
But tellingly, bin Laden rarely says much about the society he wishes to construct, and he is always careful to describe Al Qaeda’s violence as “a reaction to events in our land.” If anything, he is a canny politician who knows his audience.
In fact, those who have spent the most time studying bin Laden appear to nurture a cautious respect for what he has been able to achieve. “Not since Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser galvanized the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s with his vision of Arab nationalism married to socialism has an Arab political figure had as much impact on the world,” writes Peter Bergen in The Osama bin Laden I Know, an “oral history” of bin Laden’s life. The book is a prismatic biography of Al Qaeda’s leader assembled from jihadi documents — some never before quoted in English — and from the testimony of militants, journalists, relatives and teachers who knew him personally.
Bergen, a former CNN producer, conducted more than fifty of the interviews, and his story unfolds with the ease and vividness of a TV documentary. After several pages, the book’s myriad accounts–not all of them in agreement, and many deeply biased–begin to form a composite portrait that is among the most honest we have.
Bergen is explicit about his project: to peer behind the multiple layers of propaganda that have obscured bin Laden’s actions. He hopes, among other things, to get a fix on the development of bin Laden’s worldview, the depth of his influence, the precise nature of his demands and, perhaps most interesting, how he has been living these many years.
What Bergen’s book makes clear is that Al Qaeda’s soft-spoken leader possesses a magnetic aura. Bin Laden exhibits a combination of piety, discipline, self-reliance and sincerity that give his words the imprimatur of authority for many Muslims. When, for instance, Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former bodyguard, describes their time in Afghanistan, he sounds as though he were recounting a parable:
We never really felt afraid as long as we were with that man…. He was consistently very generous with others. No one ever came to ask for financial assistance and was rebuffed. An Arab brother who wished to travel abroad came and explained his difficult circumstances to him. Sheikh Osama went into the house, came out with whatever money his family had, which was around $100, and gave it to the man. I was aware of the Sheikh’s financial situation and said: “Why did you not leave a part of that money for us.
Those who are staying here are more deserving than those who are leaving.” He replied: “Our situation is not hard. God will send us money.” For five days after this incident we had nothing to eat except pomegranates that grew around his house although they were not yet ripe. We ate raw pomegranates with bread, three times a day.
I believe that God raised Osama bin Laden to a high status because despite his great wealth, he was very modest, and attached only to what rewards God would give him.
Underestimating bin Laden’s Message
The Bush Administration appears to underestimate the importance of this type of imagery. In terms of “message,” Washington’s answer to Al Qaeda’s leader–a man who relinquishes vast wealth to subsist on unripe pomegranates and bread on the frigid Afghan terrain; who speaks of universal issues like faith, justice and retribution; who vows to bring down the world’s Goliath and has already dramatically struck at it — was to create a bureaucratic office within the State Department called the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and to send former White House counselor Karen Hughes as its first officer on “listening tours” to tell the world that yes, she is a mother, and yes, there are many mothers in America.
Upon reaching Jakarta this past October, Hughes breezily told an audience of Indonesians: “My state of Texas is very big. So you can imagine my surprise to learn that your country, Indonesia, is three times bigger than my big state of Texas.” Now, imagine for a moment: You’re an Indonesian and you’re confused about the United States. Whose message do you take seriously?
As it happens, the Bush Administration’s worst response to bin Laden wasn’t to unleash Karen Hughes but to invade and occupy Iraq in what the Pentagon might call the War Within the Long War. Whereas the invasion of Afghanistan greatly weakened Al Qaeda, removing from it an important stronghold, killing or capturing its top leaders and forcing operatives into hiding, the war in Iraq diverted American military resources away from the pursuit of bin Laden, gave Al Qaeda a point of focus, an opportunity to engage the enemy in conditions favorable to it and a chance to train new recruits — basically, a means to regain its strength. “Islamist militants are happy that the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq,” Bergen writes. “Without the Iraq War, their movement, under assault externally and fragmented internally, would have imploded a year or so after September 11.”
Bin Laden, who loathed Saddam Hussein and his secular regime, has called the Iraq War a “golden and unique opportunity.” With Iraqi civilian casualties in the tens of thousands and the White House’s justification for the war a figment, it only helps bin Laden make his case to the world. (Perhaps one of the most surreal moments during the Long War occurred last October, when Bush said of bin Laden, without any irony, “Our new enemy teaches that innocent individuals can be sacrificed to serve a political vision.”) In May Sayf al-Adl, an Al Qaeda military commander, said that prompting the United States “to come out of its hole” was one of the 9/11 plot’s “ultimate objectives.”
By drawing America into the Middle East, he explained, Al Qaeda knew it could easily fight Americans and that it would gain “credibility” among Muslims and “the beleaguered people of the world.”
There is a hint of hindsight to these pronouncements, and while Congressional researchers in their recent government study “Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology” are willing to take Adl at his word, Bergen seems more skeptical. He points out that another aspect of bin Laden’s persona is his impulsiveness, a trait he has demonstrated throughout his career as a militant. “September 11 showed that al Qaeda could attack the United States itself,” Bergen writes, “but it turned out to be something of a kamikaze mission for bin Laden’s organization, as the American response to the attacks was to decimate al Qaeda and destroy its Taliban partners.”
As a result, bin Laden’s organization was forced to adapt. In November 2002, Al Qaeda’s top leadership reportedly convened a meeting in northern Iran, where members recognized that they could no longer function within their existing hierarchy. After much discussion, they decided to become even more decentralized, according to a team of West Point scholars in their paper “Harmony and Disharmony,” an analysis of the Defense Department’s massive database of primary Al Qaeda documents.
Meanwhile, as the organization shifted in structure, Abu Jandal explains, a much more profound development occurred. “Al Qaeda became an ideology,” he says, and “what effected this transformation from an armed group into an ideology is the United States.”
Many terrorism experts agree that this adaptability is a mark of Al Qaeda’s astounding resilience. But since 9/11 an alternate theory has emerged suggesting that Al Qaeda in its newly fractured form, beset by ideological rifts, may be its own worst enemy. Bergen, along with the team at West Point and Fawaz Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence who interviewed numerous Islamist militants for his excellent book The Far Enemy, point out that bin Laden’s strategy — attacking the “head of the snake” — was always a deeply controversial move within the jihadi community, and that the further the Long War progresses, the more controversial that move has become. Gerges makes this case persuasively, citing the testimony of disaffected militants such as Abu al-Walid al-Masri, who once worked closely with bin Laden but who now holds undisguised contempt for his “recklessness.”
(At one point, Walid angrily says that bin Laden “was not even aware of the scope of the battle in which he opted to fight, or was forced into fighting. Therefore, he lacked the correct perception and was not qualified to lead.”) The West Point analysts also note that Al Qaeda documents “reveal a surprising level of infighting and conflict,” creating many opportunities–some military but more, perhaps, ideological–that the United States can exploit to combat Al Qaeda.
Since 9/11 bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have released more than thirty audio- and videotapes, which averages about one communiqué every six weeks; lower-level functionaries have spoken more frequently. After combing through this extensive jihadist literature, Gerges concludes that “Al Qaeda’s reaction to its Muslim critics has become more volatile and abusive, a clear sign of desperation and escalation of the war within.”
In 2003, for instance, Zawahiri wrote a book titled Loyalty to Islam and Disavowal to Its Enemies, and he warned of “a misleading intellectual and moral campaign” that was threatening the movement. Zawahiri, much like bin Laden, is a man who seeks “revenge” and “retribution” for the suffering he finds in the Muslim world.
(Last year, after the London bombings, he warned Europe: “It appears that you want us to make you taste the horrors of death. So taste some of what you made us taste.”)
The object of that revenge, Zawahiri insists to wayward jihadists, must be the West. In fact, if Al Qaeda’s motivating logic can be reduced to any single principle, it is that ancient code of lex talionis, an eye for an eye, or “terror for terror,” as Bruce Lawrence titles one of bin Laden’s interviews. Bin Laden’s vanguard, at its core, weaves toxic religious commitments with political grievances to form a cult of vengeance.
Vengeance is both immediate and primordial, what Martha Nussbaum calls “the primitive sense of the just,” offering clarity of action when there is none, reducing complex situations to a simple and forceful binary struggle.
As the 9/11 attacks unfolded, an aide to bin Laden watched the coverage on an Arab news channel. He recalled: “The scene was showing an Egyptian family sitting in their living room, they exploded with joy.” When the aide looked to the bottom of the TV screen, he noticed a subtitle that read: “In revenge for the children of [Palestine], Osama bin Laden executes an operation against America.” He rushed to bin Laden, who was conferring with fifty people in a room nearby. “I tried to tell him about what I saw,” the aide said, “but he made a gesture with his hands, meaning: ‘I know, I know.'” What bin Laden did not know was the limitations of vengeance, the ephemeral nature of its satisfaction, the inherent bankruptcy of its form of redress.
Vengeance is an unstable foundation for a movement because, like a centrifuge, it propels the aggrieved to the furthest extremities of violence (a problem that Al Qaeda’s leadership began to recognize when it admonished Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq for his gruesome beheadings). Vengeance is shortsighted, blinding. It matches injustice with more injustice. And when vengeance is met with an opposite force of vengeance, as history and literature tell us, the result, inevitably, is tragedy.
• Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden
by Bruce Lawrence, ed.
• Osama Bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words
by Randall B. Hamud, ed.
• The World According to Al Qaeda
by Brad K. Berner, ed.
• What Does Al Qaeda Want? Unedited Communiqués
by Robert O. Marlin, ed.
• The al-Qaeda Documents, Vol. 1
by Ben N. Venzke, ed.
• Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America
by Michael Scheuer, ed.
• The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader
by Peter L. Bergen
• The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global
by Fawaz A. Gerges