American Enterprise Online
November 3, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd
Late last week, in hopes of influencing the US presidential election, Osama bin Laden offered his own October Surprise. Whether or not his reappearance impacted the electorate is something that pollsters and historians will have to sort through. But what bin Laden said—and how he said it—speaks volumes about the well-being of al Qaeda. While the statement proves bin Laden is alive and well, it reveals the very opposite about his vaunted terror organization. Indeed, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the statement is how different it is in tone and rhetoric than his earlier video salvos.
Consider bin Laden’s first big media splash—his 1996 fatwa (or declaration of war) against the United States. In it, the terror master mocks the American people for being cowardly and soft, citing Beirut and Mogadishu. He rails against “the Zionist-Crusaders alliance.” He condemns the “occupation of the land of the two Holy Places” as the “latest and the greatest of…aggressions.” He warns of a “volcanic eruption emerging as a result of the severe oppression” carried out by the Saudi government and its US allies.
He promises to use “fast-moving light forces that work under complete secrecy…to initiate a guerrilla warfare” against the United States and its allies. (From the embassy bombings to the USS Cole to 9/11, he made good on that promise repeatedly.) “Your problem,” he rages to his infidel enemies in America, “will be how to convince your troops to fight, while our problem will be how to restrain our youths to wait for their turn in fighting.” He calls on those youths to focus their guerilla war “on destroying, fighting and killing the enemy until, by the grace of Allah, it is completely defeated.” And he vows to carry his “Jihad against the Kuffar (those who refuse to submit to Allah) in every part of the world.”
On October 7, 2001, with America striking back at al Qaeda in Afghanistan, he appears again, this time on Al Jazeera. "Every Muslim must rise to defend his religion,” he howls. “The wind of faith is blowing." According to bin Laden, "America will not live in peace."
A month later, Al Jazeera airs another bin Laden rant. “There is no way to forget the hostility between us and the infidels,” he yelps. “It is ideological, so Muslims have to ally themselves with Muslims."
Bin Laden’s war cries continue to pour in to Al Jazeera that fall and winter, and the Qatari-based propaganda piece dutifully beams them out: "We will work to continue this battle, God permitting, until victory or until we meet God," he promises. "We kill the kings of the infidels, kings of the crusaders and civilian infidels in exchange for those of our children they kill…We believe that the defeat of America is possible, with the help of God, and is even easier for us—God permitting—than the defeat of the Soviet Union was before."
Now, contrast these with his latest video, in which bin Laden seems to be looking for common ground with the American people: “Security is an important foundation of human life,” he explains, adding that, like Americans, he and his men are fighting because “we are free and we want freedom for our nation.”
He also offers some advice and an olive branch. “O American people, I am speaking to tell you the ideal way to avoid another Manhattan.” He then concludes with a proposition and an empowering promise: “Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda,” he observes in a stunning reversal of his earlier boasts. “Your security is in your own hands…each state which does not harm our security will remain safe.”
Some say this is evidence of bin Laden’s strength, others that it’s his way of activating some secret cell. But whatever you want to call it, it’s a far cry from “continuing the battle until victory or until we meet God.” Whatever happened to “There is no way to forget the hostility between us and the infidels”?
I would submit that it disappeared sometime between the fall of Kabul and the fall of Baghdad.
In a word, the heady days of 9/11/01 have past for al Qaeda and its monstrous founder. Yes, he is alive; and by surviving he can claim a kind of victory; but thanks to America’s counteroffensive, it’s a pyrrhic victory at best.
When US forces closed in on his Afghan base camp in October 2001, bin Laden escaped to the mountains, leaving his organization and its foot soldiers behind to be systematically dismembered. In a matter of five weeks, the Americans erased what it took the Taliban and al Qaeda five years to build.
Of course, the Afghan campaign was only the beginning. In the 35 months since the liberation of Afghanistan, US intelligence and military forces have carried out a truly global campaign against al Qaeda, transforming it from a terror superpower able to strike America virtually at will into a disjointed organization barely able to produce a video tape to rally the faithful:
-When President George W. Bush said America would track down the country’s terrorist enemies, no matter where they try to hide, he meant it. Any doubt of that was put to rest when US Green Berets arrived in Timbuktu (seriously) to train and equip the armed forces of Mali as they battle an obscure Islamic terrorist group known as the Salafists. By deploying to the uncharted deserts of northwest Africa, the Pentagon hopes to prevent the region from becoming like prewar Afghanistan.
-Earlier, in 2002, Washington sent a 1600-man contingent of Americans to the Philippines to conduct what the diplomats call “counterterrorism training missions” in areas where al-Qaeda offshoots operate. But if it’s training, it’s on-the-job training. As in Afghanistan, the US-backed force has smashed and scattered the enemy.
-Likewise, in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet republics, US Special Ops teams are training local forces to clean out al Qaeda and its partners, while constructing “lily pad” bases that will extend America’s reach in this new century.
-From their perch in Djibouti, task forces comprised of US intelligence agents, conventional military units, and some 500 Special Ops personnel are conducting operations in and around Yemen, monitoring terrorist activity in the lawless lands of eastern Africa, and intercepting suspicious ships transiting the vital waterways around the Horn of Africa.
-All told, US forces have killed the USS Cole bombers in Yemen; captured the chief 9/11 planner in Pakistan; rolled back the terror regime of Saddam Hussein, complete with its leadership; stood up friendly governments in Iraq and Afghanistan; captured or killed 3,000 al-Qaeda operatives; eliminated 70 percent of al-Qaeda’s leadership; and perhaps most remarkably (but not coincidentally), blocked or deterred any follow-on terror attacks inside the US homeland.
While it would be foolish to claim that al Qaeda has been vanquished, bin Laden’s latest message hints that we may have endured the organization’s high-water mark. When juxtaposed with his earlier screeds, this one has the sound of a wounded enemy seeking peace terms.
Our response should be unmistakable and easily translated, perhaps something that bin Laden would understand: "There is no way to forget the hostility between us. You will not live in peace. And we will continue this battle until victory is won."