Bin Laden has clearly used the time since his last appearance to think long and hard about such classic American political pastimes as the importance of targeting niche voters, sound-biting the issues, issuing accusatory confessions, spanning the partisan divide, and projecting a youthful image.
In theory, it's a novel tack for a terrorist. In practice, bin Laden's quest has led him to the political opposite of the Holy Grail -- a hash of left and right that couldn't beg, borrow, or steal the sympathies of a single American.
In the videotape, bin Laden begins his foray into American politics with a backhanded, belated, yet nonetheless recognizable recognition of the holocaust. Addressing Americans, he says: "The holocaust of the Jews was committed by your brothers in the middle of Europe, and if it had been close, most of the Jews could have saved themselves by fleeing to us."
Perhaps that is true, but the assertion is less than convincing when the source is the founder of the Global Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.
Next comes the sideways admission. Bin Laden tells Americans: "You claim that you are innocent, but your innocence is like my innocence of the blood of your sons on September 11, if I were to claim it." Bracingly direct; still, it's hard to see how even the most open-minded listeners would be willing to accept this strained, accusatory mea culpa in exchange for no less than the "blood of [their] sons."
Three Main Talking Points
But it's the issues bin Laden uses to span the partisan divide, and how he uses them, that get him into real trouble. His three main talking points are global warming, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and the Democratic Party's failure to present a coherent, united stance in opposition to the Iraq war. Here's what we hear on each:
"The entire human race is in danger because of global warming caused in large part by emissions from the factories of large corporations."
"Many of you are buckling beneath high-interest debts, insane taxes, and mortgages...."
"As for why the Democrats have failed to stop the war, I state that it is the same reason former President [John F.] Kennedy was unable to end the war in Vietnam -- those with real power and influence are the capitalists...."
The who? Yes, the capitalists. Osama bin Laden, the man who gained fame as the world's leading advocate of violent religious fanaticism, turns out to be an old-fashioned, 20th-century aging leftist.
An address that contains less than 2,500 words mentions "large corporations" eight times, and blames all the ills of the world on them and the "capitalist system" they represent. The warmongers killed Kennedy for trying to end Vietnam and they're keeping America in Iraq, he claims. Capitalists are melting the polar ice caps, miring hard-working Americans in debt, and have even got the Democratic Party in their deep pockets, he suggests. And the only one who's crying wolf in America is, according to bin Laden, American linguist and left-wing political activist Noam Chomsky.
Swings For The Stands
At this point -- with 95 percent of the American public hopelessly lost in his video address -- bin Laden the anticapitalist unveils the only solution that could possibly alienate the remaining 5 percent: religion. Your mistake, he tells Americans, is that "you have separated church and state." The way out of this problem is conversion to Islam.
Here, bin Laden swings for the stands of transpartisan weirdness and connects, combining in a single sentence religious fundamentalism, anticapitalism, and a nontax flat tax: "Islam will deprive [the war profiteers and owners of large corporations] of the chance to swindle the people out of their money through arms deals and such, for Islam has no taxes and only limited alms that stand at 2.5 percent."
Perched atop this hilarious hybrid of the Koran and the "Communist Manifesto," bin Laden has at least made an effort to fashion a new look. The famous beard was gray. Now, it's definitely black.
Strange as it may seem, there is nothing particularly new in all this. The religious aspects of Al-Qaeda's political thought -- and the group is, when push comes to shove, a revolutionary movement with a penchant for extreme violence -- have received the lion's share of attention.
But longtime readers of Al-Qaeda ideologue Ayman al-Zawahri will instantly recognize the distinctive mix of vulgar Marxism and fanatic faith. Al-Zawahri came of age in Egypt in the 1960s and '70s when Third World leftist diatribes were at the height of their popularity, and his writings exhibit a marked tendency to blame problems on such bugbears as "capitalists" and "large corporations" while looking to divine revelation for a comprehensive solution.
But if al-Zawahri's influence accounts for much of the content in bin Laden's latest pronouncement, the likely source of the form is closer to home. Twenty-eight-year-old California native Adam Gadahn, better known as "Azzam the American," was described in a January 22, 2007, "New Yorker" profile as "a member of Al-Qaeda's "media committee [whose] responsibilities are thought to include those of translator, video producer, and cultural interpreter."
Gadahn was home-schooled by parents who had traded in the California counterculture for a peculiar offshoot of Christian fundamentalism laced with a left-leaning social conscience and environmental consciousness. As a socially awkward teenager, he embraced death-metal music. In the mid-1990s, despondent at the big-hair commercialization of metal music and eager for a worldview to replace fading teen angst, Gadahn turned to Islam. His path eventually led him to Pakistan, training camps, and finally to Al-Qaeda.
You can almost picture the three of them hard at work together: the Saudi multimillionaire carefully rehearsing phrases conceived in English by the lost Californian and crafted into Arabic by the hardened Egyptian. The result is the distilled lunacy of two cultures, melding what novelist Phillip Roth has called "the indigenous American berserk" with Al-Qaeda's Arab version of the madness that lurks in every attempt to put forward a single solution to all problems and force it on the world with violence.
AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI is regarded as Al-Qaeda's No. 2 authority. Although al-Zawahri is lesser known than Osama bin Laden, some observers say the deputy is just as powerful as the chief....(more)