BY NOW, there can be no doubt that al Qaeda's message to the West has been distilled down to two simple concepts. The first is that the terrorist group can be appeased. The second is that, if they aren't appeased, Westerners face grave consequences. The latest Osama bin Laden audiotape, released on January 19, makes these points explicit and shows how bin Laden intends to fashion his message for Western ears.
In the tape, bin Laden offers a truce in return for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. "We have no objection to responding to a long term truce according to equitable conditions which we would honor," bin Laden says, "so that the two sides could enjoy security and stability under this truce, and so that we could rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan which the war has destroyed." Of course this isn't al Qaeda's first offer of a truce.
It shouldn't be surprising that fashioning an appeal to the American public, and thus attempting to sow discord, is part of bin Laden's strategy. As bin Laden bragged to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn after the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, "Hardly eighteen of them were killed, when they fled in the dark of the night, despite the uproar that was created worldwide about the New World Order."
BIN LADEN is a savvy consumer of the U.S. media. His October 2004 videotape carefully echoed themes already familiar to Americans because of Fahrenheit 9/11. Four hallmarks of bin Laden's appeals to Westerners are tailoring his rhetoric to the leftist factions that he'd like to sway; bolstering his arguments with references to U.S. opinion polls and political developments; mocking the pronouncements of the White House; and attempting to address what he believes to be burning questions in American minds. All four characteristics are present in the new audiotape.
In the tape, bin Laden strikes a populist tone when announcing his latest offer of truce: "There are no flaws in this solution, which would prevent the flow of billions of dollars to the people of influence and the warmongers in America, those who supported the Bush electoral campaign with billions of dollars." This statement draws a divide between common Americans and the bloodthirsty war profiteers who bin Laden casts as President Bush's base. Again, bin Laden's message doesn't deviate too much from Michael Moore's.
Bin Laden displays his knowledge of U.S. current events by citing the latest opinion polls which, he says, "alluded to the fact that the overwhelming majority amongst you are in favor of withdrawing the troops from Iraq."
In addressing these polls, bin Laden uses another of his trademarks: mockery of the White House. Referring to President Bush's argument that withdrawing U.S. troops would send the wrong signal to our enemies, bin Laden replies:
And in my response to these deceptions I say: Indeed the war in Iraq is ablaze relentlessly and the operations in Afghanistan are on constant escalation in our favor, with the grace of Allah. The figures released by the Pentagon indicate an increase in the number of your dead and injured, in addition to the tremendous material losses. Just to reiterate, I say: the result of the survey does satisfy the wise people; and the objection of Bush to them is wrong.
This response is weak for a skilled orator such as bin Laden, since it's logically unconnected to anything President Bush has actually said. Compare it to the line in his October 2004 video when he addressed President Bush's claim that terrorists hate our freedom: "If so," bin Laden said then, "then let him explain to us why we didn't strike--for example--Sweden."
The final trait that has typified bin Laden's recent pronouncements, his attempt to address burning questions, was also on display yesterday. He addressed the reason that there hasn't been another al Qaeda attack in the U.S. since 9/11: "As for the delay in carrying out similar operations in America, this was not because of a failure in breaking through your security measures. The operations are being prepared and you will see them in your own backyard as soon as they are ready with the leave of Allah." While bin Laden has a history of making threats, this is one of his strongest statements to date.
THE BOTTOM LINE IS that bin Laden has selected a rhetorical strategy that he believes to be most advantageous to al Qaeda: one that attempts to turn public opinion against the war on terror. Americans can appreciate the skill of his rhetoric, even while understanding that to take it seriously would spell disaster.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Washington, D.C.-based counterterrorism consultant and attorney.