Bin Laden: A new wrinkle in the old rhetoric

“Another 9/11 anniversary, another al Qaida commemorative special,” said James Robbins in National Review Online. Osama bin Laden emerged last week from his hideout in a Pakistani cave or safe-house basement with two new videos, and they made for startling viewing. With his once-gray beard suddenly a youthful black, bin Laden recited his standard denunciations of President Bush, the U.S., and the apostates who rule Muslim countries, inviting Americans to convert to Islam before it’s too late. The wretched old fanatic then unveiled a new strain of “pseudo-Marxist” thinking, telling Americans that we must liberate ourselves from “the shackles” of capitalism, “warmongering corporations,” “insane taxes,” and burdensome credit card debt and mortgages.

Osama’s rant—his first video since 2004—was a “genuinely bizarre, almost ridiculous document,” said Anne Applebaum in Slate.com. You expect him to invite Muslim men to join the glorious cavalcade of martyrs, but bin Laden also spoke warmly of leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky, tossed out references to Vietnam, and warned that mankind may perish because of America’s indifference to global warming. “Before you fall over laughing,” do not dismiss the rambling message as meaningless. Bin Laden was clearly telling us where al Qaida is heading: toward creating an overarching, anti-American narrative designed to appeal to angry, alienated men and women in Africa, Europe, the Arab world, and even America.

Actually, the tape’s taunting message can be summed up in three words: “We have survived,” said Craig Whitlock in The Washington Post. Six years after it ordered the attacks that murdered 3,000 Americans, al Qaida’s “core leadership” has successfully reconstituted itself despite all efforts to destroy it. Counterterrorism officials agree that the organization’s “ability to launch operations around the globe” has not been crippled as badly as was once thought. They also believe it has directed a number of bombings in the Middle East and Europe that had previously been blamed on independent, “homegrown” terror cells. “Today, al Qaida operates much the way it did before 2001.”

That fact is utterly “infuriating,” said Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, in the New York Daily News. The Bush administration should have devoted all its energies long ago to destroying al Qaida. Instead, Bush fobbed off that responsibility on our unreliable ally President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. Consequently, “bin Laden and his boys sit unmolested on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.” Last week’s blithe assurances from Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend that bin Laden is “virtually impotent” and “a man on the run” are of small comfort. No matter how you spin it, “bin Laden is winning.”

Not necessarily, said former Homeland Security official Clark Kent Ervin in the San Francisco Chronicle. As the Bush administration often points out, we haven’t been attacked since 2001; our increased vigilance has foiled many al Qaida plots. But it’s clear that “al Qaida is absolutely determined to strike us again,” and its own rhetoric promises that the next attack will surpass the horrors of 9/11. It’s equally clear that our counterterrorism strategy still has vulnerabilities. “Huge gaps remain in aviation security, and far too little has been done to shore up our land borders, seaports, mass-transit system, intelligence networks, and preparedness efforts.” Bin Laden’s fondest dream is that he’ll acquire a nuclear weapon, so he can kill millions next time, said USA Today in an editorial. That’s why this tape—and Pakistan’s complicity in bin Laden’s continued freedom—is of such concern. “No matter how distracted with Iraq, the United States cannot tolerate a sheltered al Qaida indefinitely.” Unless bin Laden and his top leadership are hunted down, his next tape may contain a gloating, poetry-filled tribute to another horrific attack.