As October surprises go, Osama Bin Laden's video appearance must rank as the least surprising one imaginable. With the world riveted by the American presidential election, Bin Laden was sure to grab the spotlight to remind us what a pivotal figure he is on the global stage.
By putting his bloody fingerprints on the election, Bin Laden has positioned himself for some bold post-Nov. 2 propaganda. If John Kerry wins, the Saudi will surely claim credit for regime change in the United States, much as jihadists have gloated about the fall of the Spanish government after the Madrid train bombings in March. If George W. Bush is re-elected, Bin Laden will crow to the Muslim world that the electoral results confirm what he has been saying all along: The American people are determined to inflict harm on Muslims, occupy their lands, and destroy Islam. They've reaffirmed it, he will say, by re-electing the man who invaded Iraq.
No doubt Bin Laden enjoyed brandishing the threat of another "Manhattan," as he calls 9/11, in our faces, but Americans aren't the primary audience for this tape, however instinctively we imagine that we are. For Bin Laden right now, Muslim viewers are the key targets. He aims to persuade them to recognize his role in the election as a way of bolstering his claim to be the true leader of the umma, the global community of believers. (That helps explain why he showed up in robes instead of fatigues and behind a podium instead of on a desolate mountainside. It's hard to play the role of caliph of 1.2 billion people if everyone knows you're stuck in a cave in Waziristan.)
Bin Laden is also using the video to justify his brand of terror and win over more Muslims to the jihadist cause. Linking the United States to the despots of the Arab world and denouncing "the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon" is a necessary part of this. Bin Laden continues to emphasize the plight of the Palestinians, as he has since the second intifada broke out in 2000, because he knows that is a bigger winner for him with ordinary Muslims than the corruption of the Saudi monarchy, his old hobbyhorse.
More important, when he tells Americans that "Your security is in your own hands and each state which does not harm our security will remain safe," his real goal is to convince Muslims that he has put the infidels on notice, as most traditional interpretations of Islamic law require before an attack. Bin Laden believes that we "Crusaders and Jews" are metaphysically bound to try to harm Muslims. But many Muslims—including some who could hardly be called sympathetic to the United States—believe there is still a requirement to warn the enemy before he is taken hostage or blown up. When Bin Laden says that our security is in our hands, he is underscoring a point he has made before: By voting for the governments of the last few decades or paying taxes, American citizens are complicit in the offenses of their government and can fairly be targeted for attack. Now, he will say, we're on notice, and he has done all that any sheik could ask of him.
Casuistry in the service of barbarity? Yes, but it is a serious matter. There is evidence that Muslim acceptance of mass casualty terrorist attacks and the targeting of civilians is growing. As the researchers at MEMRI have noted, Yousef al Qaradhawi, one of the star preachers of the Islamic world—and someone who has been called a moderate in the past—recently issued an opinion allowing the kidnapping and killing of American civilians in Iraq as a way of pressuring the United States to leave. Clerics at al Azhar, the Cairo institution considered the greatest seat of Islamic learning, also endorsed killing Americans in Iraq. This may not sound as ominous as the loss of several hundred tons of explosives, but over the long term, the disintegration of religious checks on violence may wind up harming us more.
Does Bin Laden care about the outcome of the election? It has become a commonplace—certainly among Republican politicians and conservative commentators—to say that Bin Laden wants Bush to lose. Charles Krauthammer, characteristically, suggested that only a moron could fail to understand that the terrorists' "obvious objective is to drive from power those governments most deeply involved in the war against them—in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else." Citing the example of Spain and the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta shortly before that country's election, he wrote, "The real prize is America. An electoral repudiation of President Bush would be seen by the world as a repudiation of Bush's foreign policy, specifically his aggressive, preemptive and often unilateral prosecution of the war on terrorism, most especially Iraq."
Well, sure. But it's worth asking whether Krauthammer doesn't underestimate the intelligence and cunning of Bin Laden and al-Qaida, an organization dominated by engineers and doctors, and overestimate the effectiveness of the U.S.-led war on terror. I recently co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that noted, based on Internet material, the jihadists see themselves as being on a roll, especially in Iraq.
Experts on al-Qaida have also made the opposite point to Krauthammer's: The jihadists know that the United States is not going to capitulate in the war on terror, so the terrorists are better served by having a polarizing figure such as Bush in office. His actions, such as the invasion of Iraq, the argument runs, have aided the jihadist movement because they confirm its view that America is the ineluctable enemy of the Muslim world. The idea that by taunting Bush days before the election, Bin Laden would actually pump up his support appears widely accepted among foreign commentators, as a Google search of foreign stories on the videotape will show. Why is it inconceivable that the al-Qaida leadership couldn't also see it this way? They do, after all, study us closely. (As someone who has found his articles from scholarly journals analyzed on jihadist Web sites, I'm all too aware of this.)
The argument has the virtue of being consistent with other aspects of al-Qaida thinking. Fittingly for a group that seeks global revolution, al-Qaida has a Leninist streak: That is, they seek to maximize the tensions between the revolutionary force and the existing power structure. (Odd, isn't it, how Cold Warrior types like Krauthammer resist this notion, insisting instead on seeing the terrorists as "medieval primitives"? Both Abu al-Ala Maududi, founder of modern Islamism in South Asia, and Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian theorist who is a central inspiration for Bin Laden, were deeply influenced by Leninism.)