TCS Daily

The Lessons of That Bin Laden Tape

By Melana Zyla Vickers - November 16, 2004 12:00 AM

While soldiers at the front prosecute the war on terrorism in Fallujah, those of us in the comfort of our U.S. offices and homes would do well to take a second look at that pre-election Osama bin Laden tape. Its election value now gone and never realized, the tape remains important for what it says about counterterrorism strategy.

Bin Laden was aiming at a broader audience than American voters. He was addressing the wider Muslim world. Those who shape U.S. foreign policy should note how several of the points he's making with Muslims give insight into how the U.S. must proceed in the war against terror.

On the tape Bin Laden says: "Every state that doesn't play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security." With this, he's arguing that he and his fellow terrorists are freedom fighters who are striving to shake off the yoke of U.S. oppression in the Muslim world, and that his war is a defensive struggle against that oppression. Indeed he says the idea of striking the U.S. in an attack germinated back in 1982 "when America permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon and the American Sixth Fleet helped them with that."

There's no doubt bin Laden is trying to ward of criticism within the Muslim world that his terrorist movement is about repression and religiously unjustified violence. A quick look at discussions that Al Qaeda plotters were having over the Internet back in 1998 after the Africa bombings, and that a Wall Street Journal reporter pieced together from a computer he found in Afghanistan, shows that Al Qaeda sought religious guidance, and guidance from fellow terrorist groups, on how to justify the "killing of civilians, specifically when women and children are included" in terrorist attacks. An Al Qaeda letter writer on the subject also asked these religious leaders "according to your law, how can you justify the killing of innocent victims because of a claim of oppression?"

It follows rather naturally that in the October tape, the first point bin Laden addresses is that "contrary to Bush's claim that we hate freedom...we are free men who don't sleep under oppression. We want to restore freedom to our nation." In other words, he's telling Muslims that Al Qaeda is a group of men for whom the killing of innocents is justified, because they are fighting oppression. He's appealing to their religious duty to fight "defensive jihad."

At a philosophical level, bin Laden is defining freedom in a "negative" sense, as Isaiah Berlin defined it in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty. Bin Laden aspires to a "freedom from," not a "freedom to." Most certainly, he is not planning to ensure followers' freedom to think, speak, act, meet or pray according to one's will.

Bin Laden is also trying to ward off another kind of criticism: That by focusing on the U.S., Al Qaeda and its followers are neglecting the struggles against oppression within individual Muslim countries. This criticism has been swirling around Al Qaeda for years as well - the same computer hard drive reveals that Egyptians, eager to fight their own government first, and more distant targets later, were leveling it as far back as 2001, comparing the U.S. distraction to "fighting ghosts or windmills. Enough of pouring musk on barren land."

Bin Laden is countering with the argument that his group will tackle this larger oppressor, while smaller movements can deal with regional foes. By couching his argument philosophically, he is saying that God wants this kind of distribution of labor among jihadists.

What can the U.S. learn from this?

Lesson: Don't let bin Laden rally Muslims with false justifications of "defensive jihad." That discrediting Al Qaeda and its affiliates among Muslims is central to the fight against terrorism. The U.S. needs to discredit Al Qaeda's claim that its attacks on innocents, and its suicide bombings, are religiously justified. This can only be done through an aggressive hearts-and-minds campaign that is prosecuted over years and years, and that argues with Muslims in Muslim terms.

As importantly, the U.S. needs to be wary of becoming Al Qaeda's target not only in this larger international struggle, but in individual national struggles as well. In Iraq at this time, the U.S. risks being tarred as both: the global enemy and the local enemy. The faster the U.S. can let Iraqis fight their own battle in Iraq, the faster it can shed this double bullseye. And the faster it can do away with at least one rallying cry for Al Qaeda - that the U.S. is oppressing Muslims in Iraq.

On the tape Bin Laden says: Al Qaeda has a policy of "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy."

Bin Laden demonstrates a keen sense of the cost of the U.S. war on terror to Americans. "Al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the (9/11) event, while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost - according to the lowest estimate - more than $500 billion." The math is a little contentious, but the point is correct. The consequences of 9/11, in terms of poor economic performance, the cost of homeland security, the cost of military operations, is massive compared to the terrorists' expenditure. Bin Laden also notes how the mujahideen in Afghanistan "bled Russia for ten years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat." If he can continue this cost-imposing strategy on the U.S., he may indeed bleed this country into a painful position.

What can the U.S. learn?

Lesson: Bleed Al Qaeda dry first. In all possible ways, the U.S. must impose costs on Al Qaeda, redoubling efforts to freeze their finances, making travel, communications, recruiting expensive for them, preventing them from settling down and depleting the organization of its plotters and leaders through covert action and military campaigns. This isn't easy. The U.S. succeeded at cost-imposition in the Cold War, imposing a massive economic bill on the Soviet Union through the arms race and indeed assistance to the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

Such a campaign against a stateless terrorist group is much harder, because the targets are dispersed. But at the end of the day, there are weaknesses in being stateless, too. And Al Qaeda's pockets are not bottomless. It has a limit on its financial resources, its mobility, and its communications. And whereas its supply of ignorant, poor men eager to buy a dream of heaven by killing themselves may seem endless, its supply of intelligent leaders is far less so. Indeed, the U.S. has to keep Al Qaeda from merging with a state or attracting a state's support, because that will add to its resources.

Learning the lessons of the bin Laden tape and putting them into practice isn't easy, but it's vital: The more the U.S. can make Al Qaeda spend, the more the U.S. can discredit Al Qaeda in the eyes of Muslims, the safer the U.S. will be.


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