The real message of Bin Laden's bizarre video rant.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 10 2007 8:05 PM

Osama's Vision of the Future

The real message of Bin Laden's bizarre video rant.

Osama bin Laden. Click image to expand.
Osama Bin Laden in a recently released video

And now, ladies and gentlemen, time for a quiz. Three guesses as to who said this:

And Iraq and Afghanistan and their tragedies; and the reeling of many of you under the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes and real estate mortgages; global warming and its woes; and the abject poverty and tragic hunger in Africa; all of this is but one side of the grim face of this global system.

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Dennis Kucinich? Naomi "No Logo" Klein? Daniel "Dany the Red" Cohn-Bendit? If you guessed "none of the above," you are either an astute observer of the anti-globalization movement, or you have already read a transcript of Osama Bin Laden's latest video production. If so, you will also know that Bin Laden, after denouncing the "capitalist system," which "seeks to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations," calls for Americans to convert to Islam because, among other things, taxes are lower in Islamic states. It's a genuinely bizarre, almost ridiculous document—and before it is forgotten in the coming debate on Gen. David Petraeus' Iraq report, it's worth spending a few minutes, on the sixth anniversary of Sept. 11, trying to understand what it might mean.

I am not alone, I should note, in wondering whether a man who is supposedly hiding in the Hindu Kush could possibly care about the "insane taxes and real estate mortgages" endured by Americans. A number of commentators are suspicious about the video, in which Bin Laden has dyed his beard jet black—either a sign he intends to renew his jihad or evidence that the tape, though authenticated by the CIA, is fake. Others wonder whether the speech, which makes approving references to the wisdom of Noam Chomsky yet garbles the chronology of the Vietnam War, might actually have been written by Adam Gadahn, an American who does English-language propaganda for al-Qaida, has been indicted for treason, and now features on a Department of Justice "wanted" Web site, along with Bin Laden himself.

Real or fake, the message might still hint at the direction in which al-Qaida propaganda, or at least al-Qaida propaganda designed for the Western market, is now heading. In a recent Slate piece, Reza Aslan eloquently described how the organization's list of alleged "grievances"—which now include global warming, corporate capitalism, and African poverty, as well as the American bases in Saudi Arabia—weave "local and global resentments into a single anti-American narrative, the overarching aim of which is to form a collective identity across borders and nationalities." But the narrative clearly isn't meant for only the Arab world. On the contrary, perhaps it's time to take the main message seriously: Clearly, al-Qaida's long-term goal is to convert Americans and other Westerners to its extreme version of Islam.

Before you fall over laughing, think again. It would only take a very few such converts to do a lot of damage. The results of the Soviet Union's massive propaganda campaign on behalf of world Marxist revolution were also numerically small, but at the time, they were considered very effective: the Baader-Meinhof gang, the Italian Red Brigades, the Weather Underground. There are always disaffected young people—Gadahn is a former fan of "death metal" rock bands—and they're always looking for a cause. Conversion in general is increasingly common across Europe. Some 4,000 Germans were found to convert annually in a recent study, and if only 0.1 percent of them choose the jihadist version of Islam, that's enough to cause trouble.

For, as news from Germany well illustrates, there is nothing quite so passionate as a recent convert. At least two of the men recently arrested and accused of plotting to bomb American interests in Germany were converts. So were Richard Reid, the failed shoe-bomber, and Jose Padilla, the U.S. citizen who was suspected of constructing a dirty bomb, though not convicted for that crime. (Daniel Benjamin provides an even more extensive list of jihadist converts.)

It is legitimate, of course, to ask whether it matters what is said by a man who is no longer thought to be in control of his organization, even if he still has access to a video camera inside his cave. But that's precisely the point. Osama will sooner or later die or be captured. But he, or someone close to him, is now trying to ensure that his ideology lives on. And he, or someone, wants it to survive in a form that will appeal to Americans and other Westerners disillusioned with their own political system. To put it bluntly, someone with an Irish or Hispanic name could have a better chance of slipping past the FBI, or through airport security, than someone named Mohammed. In a world in which counterintelligence and security procedures will slowly, slowly improve—that's the future.