January 20, 2006,
He’s still got it! With the release of his latest audiotape, Osama bin Laden took complete control of the news cycle. He was the top story on every news channel, front-page headline in print. His words seized the world’s attention, and demonstrated that the public fascination with him remains his greatest power. His terrorist armies are scattered, his state sponsors overthrown, his safe havens reduced to a slowly diminishing cluster of temporary sanctuaries on the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. But with ten minutes of rambling into a tape recorder he can take over the airwaves. Only Elvis Presley could command more airtime with a new recording.
His topic is the war and how to end it. It is a familiar topic for him. He has spent a good deal of time explaining his view of the conflict, both before and after the 9/11 attacks. The November 2002 “Letter to the American People” was his most detailed exegesis, a lengthy, wide-ranging, and detailed justification of the war, its causes, and consequences. Back then, his suggestion for ending the violence was simple: Everyone should convert to Islam. But in the new tape he says he would be happy if both sides simply took a breather. He proposes a truce, by way of a play on words based on a familiar statement from President Bush “it is better not to fight the Muslims on their land and for them not to fight us on our land.” Very clever. Nevertheless, what is this if not an admission of weakness? Yes, he also says that things are going great for the terrorists, that they grow stronger while we grow weaker, that Coalition troops are in a suicidal frame of mind, and so forth. But the fact remains that you generally don’t call for a truce when you are winning. The coincidence of timing with the strike against al Qaeda in Pakistan if it is a coincidence drives home the impression that bin Laden is running scared, no matter how brave a face he wants to put on it. His poetic quote towards the end, “I fear to be humiliated or betrayed,” makes one wonder just how close we are getting.
As an intellectual piece, this tape is not his best work. The narrative is choppy, and the logic somewhat strained. Parts of the tape are a tad pathetic, such as his attempts to invoke American public-opinion polls to say the administration has no support, and that the war is being promoted by a small group of ideologues to inflate corporate profits. Hey, if I want to hear that kind of stuff I will read the mainstream media here at home any old day. He repeats his assertion that he brought down the Soviet Union, and claims that the media is being prevented from reporting what is really going on in Iraq. That last bit is ironic, as is any such claim by radicals that they are being gagged, especially when relayed by global media in societies enjoying the kind of press freedom that would be the first thing to be banned in Osama’s ideal state.
The threats against the United States are nothing new; in almost every tape he has given a warning of some kind, and other al Qaeda statements over the years have suggested imminent attacks that never materialized. Osama has an explanation for that it wasn’t that the terrorists cannot penetrate our security systems, they can if they want to, they are just taking their time getting ready. Shades of Pee Wee Herman flipping off his bike and saying, snottily, “I meant to do that.” Osama’s not in a hurry, he says. He reiterates that he and his followers are in this for the long haul, that patience is better than high-tech weaponry, and other standards of terrorist rhetoric that are good talking points for a movement that cannot achieve anything that could be described as victory, or even small-scale progress. Osama says he will not rest until all of our lives become miserable, but the real reason he cannot rest is that he is being hunted day and night.
It is easy to see why Osama would want a truce. His movement is losing the battle of hearts and minds. A recent opinion poll in Afghanistan showed that despite Osama’s offer to help rebuild the country, 83 percent of Afghans already say their country is moving in the right direction. 81 percent of Afghans view the U.S. favorably, with 83 percent approving of U.S. troop presence in-country. Meanwhile 88 percent have an unfavorable view of the Taliban, 82 percent think overthrowing them was a good thing, and 90 percent view Osama bin Laden unfavorably, with 75 percent of that total being "very unfavorable." In Iraq, there are increasing signs of strain between the indigenous resistance forces and the foreign fighters led by Osama’s puppet sorry, I mean local emir Zarqawi, and al Qaeda threats against the December parliamentary elections turned out to be hollow.
But still, when Osama talks, people listen. Some say he is irrelevant, that he is not in command, that his movement has moved on without him. But he does matter. He probably has more control over his network that many recognize why else would every statement from his subordinates praise him? Why would they consent to be subordinates in the first place? Furthermore, while Osama lives he is a symbol, an inspiration. Every day he survives is confirmation that it is possible to get away with mass murder on American soil. Taking him down might not end his movement, though I think it will do a great deal more damage than many appreciate. But if nothing else it will demonstrate that in fact it is not possible to escape the consequences of crimes of this magnitude. The terrorists may claim to be patient, long-term fighters, but so are we. The hunt for bin Laden will only end in his capture or demise. Osama says, “I swear not to die but a free man even if I taste the bitterness of death,” and we are more than willing to help him.
James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.