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Analysis: A Strange Message From Osama Bin Laden

  • Roman Kupchinsky

After a year's silence, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden once again made his views known in a videotaped message, parts of which were aired on the Al-Jazeera satellite-television network on 29 October.

Speaking in front of a plain brown backdrop, bin Laden appeared fit and in better health than in the previous video aired on 10 September 2003, which showed him walking with difficulty on a mountain path holding a walking stick. The Arabic date superimposed on the video showed that it had been filmed on 24 October.

The message he conveyed was clearly meant for American audiences prior to the presidential elections. According to the translated text on cnn.com, bin Laden told the American people: "Your security is not in the hands of [Democratic Party challenger Senator John] Kerry or [President George W.] Bush or Al-Qaeda; your security is in your own hands." He added, "Any state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security."

The head of Al-Qaeda went on to warn the American public that "Despite entering the fourth year after 11 September, Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you, and therefore the reasons are still there to repeat what happened."

U.S. security officials told the press that they did not consider this phrase a threat and consequently did not increase the alert status in the United States.

For over a decade, bin Laden has given extensive interviews as well as video- and audiotaped messages that have been aired on various Arabic television and radio stations. According to Anonymous, the author of the book "Through Our Enemies' Eyes," the following motifs have predominated bin Laden's thinking.

First, the main enemy of Islam is the "Crusader West" and it's ally, Israel. This was the overriding theme of his declaration of jihad against the United States in 1996 when he wrote: "You are not unaware of the injustice, repression, and aggression that have befallen Muslims through the alliance of Jews, Christians, and their agents...." Bin Laden then goes on to list them: "the dreadful massacre in Qana, Lebanon...in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina...that alerted Muslims to the fact that they are the main target of the Jewish-crusade alliance aggression...."

Bin Laden returned to this motif in the 29 October statement: "we saw transgressions and the coalition between Americans and the Israelis against our people in Palestine and Lebanon...."
U.S. security officials told the press that they did not consider this phrase a threat and consequently did not increase the alert status in the United States.


Second, an important part of bin Laden's message is that his jihad is defensive in nature, acting to protect Muslims from "crusader" aggression. A reference to this also appeared in the latest videotape. "We fought with you because we are free, and we don't put up with transgressions. We want to reclaim our nation. As you spoil our security, we will do so to you."

Third, in many of his statements, bin Laden focuses on himself as the embodiment of the jihad and as the inspiration for Muslims. In "Through Our Enemies' Eyes" the author quotes a letter published in March 1998 where bin Laden wrote: "Come to me, O people of ours, I am your herald in this grievous catastrophe of the U.S. occupation of the Arabian Peninsula."

In the 29 October video bin Laden says: "During those crucial moments, my mind was thinking about many things that are hard to describe. But they produced a feeling to refuse and reject injustice, and I had determination to punish the transgressors."

Commenting on the 29 October tape, Bruce Hoffman, a RAND Corporation expert on terrorism, told "The Christian Science Monitor" on 1 November that "part of his [bin Laden's] game is to portray himself as a statesman."

In the 29 October message, however, there is an unusual deviation from the norm -- bin Laden makes a point of telling the American people that originally he had no intention of attacking the World Trade Center Towers in New York.

"I will talk to you about the reason for those events, and I will be honest with you about the moments the decision was made so that you can ponder. And I tell you, God only knows, that we never had the intentions to destroy the towers," bin Laden said.

The idea of attacking the World Trade Center, he says on the videotape, came to him during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon when he saw Israeli planes bombing tower blocks. This seemingly contradicts other evidence presented in the 9/11 Commission Report that points to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad as the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks. The Commission Report says: "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed acknowledges formally joining Al-Qaeda in late 1998 or 1999, and states that soon afterward, bin Laden also made the decision to support his proposal to attack the United States using commercial airplanes as weapons."

In his past interviews and messages on video and audio, bin Laden has never focused on the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel at any great length. For some reason in the 29 October message he goes out of his way to prominently mention Lebanon in such as way as to show his support for Muslims in that country and tell the world how much he was allegedly influenced by events there.

Another interesting aspect of the available excerpts from the 29 October videotape is bin Laden's failure to mention the insurgency in Iraq, an important part of the pre-election debate in the United States. Why Iraq was omitted from his commentary is not known, but given the upsurge of attacks during the month of Ramadan on U.S. forces there, it is a strange omission.

It is important to note that the full text of the latest bin Laden message has not been released. "The New York Times" reported on 30 October that the United States tried "unsuccessfully to persuade Al-Jazeera not to show the videotape, consistent with past efforts to deny a podium to terrorist threats. The channel rebuffed the American request, ...but a spokesman for Al-Jazeera said it had televised just one minute of a five-minute tape."

However, CIA spokesmen were cited by "The Christian Science Monitor" as saying they have only five minutes of an 18-minute tape.

[For the latest news on the U.S.-led War on Terror, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The War on Terror".]
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