by Raymond Ibrahim
Full of the same old complaints, threats of retaliation, and victim status role that have become mainstays of al Qaeda propaganda, Osama bin Laden’s latest release would seem to offer nothing new. It dwells on the many “crimes” the West insists on visiting upon the Muslim world, simply because “their only sin is that they are Muslim.” It, once again, tries to justify the 9/11 strikes as acts of “reciprocation, and it again informs the West that it has “no religion, morals, humanity or shame.” When analyzed properly, however, this audio-taped communiqué also contains something of an encouraging revelation.
It first bears mentioning that this last message — like all of bin Laden’s missives directed at the West — contains his duplicitous opening and closing sentence, “Peace to whoever follows guidance.” Constant usage of this simple statement exemplifies bin Laden’s ever shifting duality well, his unique ability to simultaneously touch upon the sentiments of two diametrically opposed audiences through one selfsame sentence. On the one hand, he evokes the word “peace,” which he knows the West will assume can be achieved should they follow his supposed “guidance” (i.e., leaving the Islamic world alone). On the other hand, it is the same exact sentence that the Muslim prophet Muhammad always initiated his messages with when addressing the (mostly Christian) kings and rulers of the non-Muslim nations around Arabia.
Master manipulator bin Laden, however, wisely leaves out his prophet’s follow-up sentence, which makes clear that the peace and guidance that Islam offers infidels has little to do with the notion of “live and let live.” Said Muhammad: “Peace to whoever follows guidance. To the point, submit [to Islam] and have peace.” So while the West assumes it’s being offered an olive-branch, many Muslims the world over see in bin Laden only a bold and pious Muslim walking, quite literally, even in speech, in their prophet’s path — his “Sunna,” which all faithful Muslims must emulate.
The two particular Western crimes occasioning this last message are 1) that the occupation of Afghanistan is a terrible travesty, since, according to bin Laden, “none” of the Afghani people had anything to do with 9/11; and 2) that, while occupying Afghanistan, the Western powers have “not observed the ethics and protocol of warfare. Most of your victims — as a result of the bombing — are women and children, and intentionally so.”
As to bin Laden’s second point — that the West does not observe “the ethics and protocol of warfare” — this is amazing coming from the man who often boasts of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, which killed thousands of innocents, including women and children. It is even more astounding to anyone acquainted with al Qaeda’s legalistic writings and treatises. In these writings, al Qaeda goes to great lengths to justify the killing of women and children; and they do a good job — all while, unfortunately, relying on the strict guidelines of Islamic jurisprudence. Aymin Zawahiri, often described as the “brains” behind bin Laden, has even produced a lengthy theological treatise (“Jihad, Martyrdom, and the Killing of Innocents”) dedicated in part to justifying the killing of women and children, so long as doing so empowers Islam.
More revealing is the fact that Muhammad himself is on record justifying the killing of women and children during the jihad. When a concerned Muslim questioned the legality of setting fire to the fortifications of the infidels at night, fearing that women and children might also perish, Muhammad assured him that “they [women and children] are from among them [infidels].” Moreover, Muhammad permitted the use of catapults — which do not differentiate women and children from males — in his siege of the town of Ta’if (setting a precedent for the indiscriminate use of WMDs). The inhabitants of Ta’if’s only crime was that they refused to submit to Islam — that they refused to make “peace” with Muhammad by adhering to his “guidance.”
As for bin Laden’s main gripe (this time around), since when has the occupation of Afghanistan been at the center of the West’s many crimes against Islam, requiring its very own communiqué? Here is where bin Laden belies his own precarious situation, revealing that the war in Afghanistan is not for naught. Usually, when Muslims, including al Qaeda, evoke the West’s worst “crimes” vis-à-vis Islam, they point to Palestine and Iraq, the former considered the third holiest site in Islam, the latter a major oil producer, and home to the last Arab caliphate, Baghdad being the historic “seat of the caliphate,” as bin Laden often observes. Both are much more critical occupations in comparison to Afghanistan, from religious, symbolic, and strategic points of view.
Why, then, would bin Laden take it upon himself to release a special message about the relatively quiet situation in Afghanistan (“quiet” in comparison to the daily bloody headlines of Iraq and Palestine)? Obviously because it affects him, directly. In comparison to the Palestinian situation and the Iraqi occupation, non-Arab Afghanistan, situated on the periphery of the Islamic world, is hardly a rallying point for Muslims. This message would therefore seem to indicate that: 1) bin Laden or at least a significant portion of the al Qaeda infrastructure is, in fact, still hiding somewhere in the badlands of Afghanistan; 2) Their position is becoming increasingly precarious most likely due to the military inroads made by the allied Western forces, and from disaffected Afghanis who are weary of sheltering the trouble-making Arabs, receiving only grief for compensation.
And so, despite bin Laden’s “confessions” — “It was I who was responsible for 9/11, and I stress that all Afghanis, both government [Taliban] and people, had no knowledge of those events” — it is clear that bin Laden, for whatever reason, is beginning to feel his own security threatened. Hence, the new message, the “advice” for Europeans to withdraw their forces.
Further supportive of this view is the cloying encomium to the Afghani people recited by bin Laden near the end of his message: “And for your information, the Afghani people are a courageous, defiant, zealous, honorable, and pious Muslim people who refuse humiliation and submission to invaders. Their history is replete with resolve and victories: they fought Britain in its glory days and defeated it — by the grace of Allah; they fought the Russians in their glory days and also defeated them — all grace to Allah….”
True to bin Laden’s duplicitous nature, this obsequious tirade praising the steadfastness and eventual triumph of the Afghanis is meant to, not only defy the West but, more importantly, placate his hosts — a fawning attempt on bin Laden’s part to magnify and ennoble the “courageous, defiant, zealous, honorable, and pious” Afghanis, lest, perhaps, they eject him from their midst?
At any rate, if bin Laden truly cared for the plight of the Afghani people, then perhaps he should’ve thought twice about bringing the wrath of the U.S. upon them when he orchestrated 9/11 — all while, incidentally, enjoying Afghani hospitality, shelter, and logistical aid. Were bin Laden truly the “altruistic” Muslim he always tries to appear — “It was I who was responsible for 9/11” — he, like the Afghanis he praises, could’ve also done the “courageous” and “honorable” thing: thank them for their hospitality and quit their land, rather than remain like a parasite, proving to be Afghanistan’s bane. Instead, in the weeks following the strikes of 9/11, bin Laden dissembled his role behind the operations, and the Taliban fiercely protected him. So his supposed “self-sacrificing” honesty now — after his lies caused Afghanistan to be invaded — is too little too late to be of use to anyone, especially the Afghani people.
The ultimate lesson to be learned from al Qaeda communiqués, then, is that, whenever they “advise” the peoples of the West against any particular course of action (“or else”), it is usually a sure sign that that course of action is, in fact, detrimental to al Qaeda and its goals and if anything should be further supported by the West. An obvious example is al Qaeda’s constant attempts to demonize President Bush in an effort to sway U.S. public opinion against him: could there be any better proof that Bush’s policies against al Qaeda are, in fact, effective? It is the U.S. president that Islamists never complain about that should be a cause for concern.
Such a cynical Western stance to all Islamist overtures would be justified by the fact that, to al Qaeda type Muslims, the West is damned either way. According to sharia law, nothing short of total submission to Islam can ever reconcile the West to Islam — as was foretold by the Islamic prophet. In a recently translated essay that was meant for Muslim eyes only, bin Laden makes this clear: “There are only three choices in Islam: either submit [i.e., convert to Islam], or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die. Such, then, is the basis and foundation of the relationship between the infidel and Muslim. Battle, animosity, and hatred — directed from the Muslim to the infidel — is the foundation of our religion.” This three-fold approach to infidels is in fact well grounded in sharia law and is not a “misinterpretation” on the part of al Qaeda.
Thus the West should be ever cognizant that the ultimate requirement that can ever guarantee peace with “radical” Muslims is submission to Islam — not concessions to their ever morphing list of complaints. This is also why bin Laden’s “subtle” threat concluding his message to the European nations in Afghanistan — “soon they [Americans] will return to their homeland beyond the Atlantic, leaving the neighbors to settle accounts with each other” — is idle. Terrorist attacks from al Qaeda type groups are totally predicated on theircapacity to realize them — not, as they would have the world think, the latter’scompliancy to their political demands.
Raymond Ibrahim is the editor of the Al-Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda.