Among the cache of documents that the SEALs captured during their raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound last year, one in particular should make many Republican foreign-policy advisers reassess their whole approach to the “war on terror.”
It’s the letter—No. 9 of the 17 missives that the administration released this week through West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center—in which Bin Laden discusses what he calls the “very important matter” of changing the name of al-Qaida.
Contrary to the tone of some news accounts, the letter is not some mildly amusing display of the former most-wanted terrorist engaging in Mad Men-style “branding.” Rather, it’s a fairly sophisticated analysis of how cultural co-optation helps build a political movement—and it’s a vindication of President Barack Obama’s approach to undermining that movement.
In this letter, Bin Laden regrets that his organization’s original name, “Qa’ida al-Jihad”, has come to be known as simply “al-Qa’ida.” The abridgement, he writes, “reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims.” Rather, the United States could claim that it was at war only with the al-Qaida organization, which it depicted as “an outside entity from the teachings of Islam.” Bin Laden complains that Obama has “repeatedly” made this argument. Therefore, he concluded, if al-Qaida adopted a new name, which included a reference to Islam, “it would be difficult for him to say” that he wasn’t at war with Islam.
He even makes “some suggestions” of possible new names, among them Muslim Unity Group, Islamic Nation Unification Party, and Restoration of the Caliphate Group.
Along the same lines, Bin Laden is upset that his enemies “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims, because they felt that saying the war on terror could appear to most people to be a war on Islam, especially after they unjustly spilled the blood of innocent Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
And so, there it is: confirmation of the critique that many Democrats (and foreign-policy specialists of various political stripes) have lodged against the Republicans’ approach toward the war on terror this past decade—that their pet phrases (“Islamo-fascism,” “Islamo-terrorism,” even “war on terror”) play into the hands of al-Qaida, reinforcing the rallying cry bellowed by Bin Laden and his successors that America is waging war on Islam.
To his credit, President George W. Bush took some steps to rebut this critique, saying in several speeches that al-Qaida was a perversion, not a reflection, of Islam. But he also indulged in the same “Islamo” vocabulary that—we now see—warmed Bin Laden’s heart. And the Republican activists who have most fervently touted his legacy in the war on terror—Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Rudolph Giuliani, to name a few—have often denounced those who decline to say “Islam” or “Islamist” in characterizing this post-9/11 face of terrorism.
Their line is that those who avoid the word are indulging in political correctness. But Bin Laden’s letter suggests that they’re engaging in political ju-jitsu. Bin Laden wanted the West to link Islam and al-Qaida because doing so would bolster both of his main messages: not only that the West is waging war on Islam (and therefore the West must be fought), but that Islam and al-Qaida are one (and therefore Muslims must join al-Qaida).
Obama entered the White House intent on isolating the two from each other as much as possible. Many gasped in horror that his first trip as president was to Egypt, where he gave a speech to students—most of them Muslim—at Cairo University. The cable pundits accused him of appeasement, of apologizing for America. They also raised a red flag when he dropped the phrase “war on terror.” Cheney in particular said it indicated that Obama lacked the right “mind-set” to confront threats in a dangerous world (even after Obama tripled the number of drone strikes on al-Qaida targets in Pakistan).
Now we see that Obama had the concept right, and that Bin Laden was horrified at his turn. Bin Laden understood that Obama’s rhetorical shift was subverting his strategy for spreading al-Qaida’s message throughout the Muslim world, a strategy that Cheney had unwittingly abetted in his eight years as vice president (six of which he basically ran U.S. foreign policy).
This is not to say that Obama’s policies in this realm have been a total success, or that al-Qaida and its affiliates have lost all their strength (though they have lost quite a bit). On this point, too, the Bin Laden file is revealing.
In the wake of last year’s Arab Spring, the conventional wisdom here, among Republicans and Democrats, was that the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East dealt a fatal blow to al-Qaida, because they revealed that popular revolts could succeed in the Arab world without resort to violence or sectarian appeal.
Bin Laden apparently thought otherwise. In a letter dated April 26, 2011 (Letter No. 10 in the West Point book), he heralded the Arab Spring as “a great and glorious event” that would allow Muslims across the region to get out from under “the control of America” and for al-Qaida’s agents to spread “The Word.” There is no doubt wishful thinking here. But Bin Laden seems to have understood that blowing the lid off an authoritarian regime opens paths to power for all sorts of elements—not just for the young democrats who blew it off in the first place—and that, in countries of Muslim majorities, these elements are likely to include well-organized Islamic organizations (as is apparent in Egypt’s current election campaigns).
Amid the festive cheer of the Arab Spring’s opening days, Obama and his advisers may have underrated this possibility (as did many of his critics). Still his general outlook—which, to Bin Laden’s dismay, draws distinctions among Muslims and doesn’t view them all as enemies in a seamless war on terror—seems better suited to dealing with relatively moderate Islamic parties, as they arise (as some seem to be doing in Egypt).
This makes sense in a world of 1.6 billion Muslims, of whom only a small fraction are al-Qaida sympathizers, much less active followers or fighters. A small fraction of 1.6 billion is nonetheless a large number. Bin Laden welcomed Bush’s rhetoric and policies for creating the conditions for swelling his ranks; he fretted that Obama’s rhetoric was diminishing them. Maybe, on this score, he knew what he was talking about.