31 October 2004
Bin Laden Speaks (But Not The Truth)
By Gwynne Dyer
Osama bin Laden is a master of the art of public relations, and his videotaped message on Friday, 29 October, was a little masterpiece of spin and misdirection. All that nonsense about how he decided to attack the “towers” of New York when he saw the “towers” of Beirut under attack by the Israelis and the US Sixth Fleet in 1982, for example.
When Israel invaded Lebanon and the US sent troops to help, Osama probably didn’t like what he saw, but he hadn’t even gone to Afghanistan and become a mujahedin yet. He didn’t spend nineteen years planning the 9/11 attacks. And as for telling Americans that they will be safe if only they stop attacking Arab and Muslim countries — “Your security does not lie in the hands of Kerry, Bush, or al-Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Each and every state that does not tamper with our security will have automatically assured its own security” — it is a cynical lie.
True, it was America’s deep military involvement in the Arab world and its support for tyrannical Arab regimes that made it a target for the extremists in the first place, but that is thirty years of history that cannot be undone. The United States has become a tool in the Islamists’ struggle to overthrow those regimes, and there is little it can now do to escape that role.
The main purpose of the 9/11 attacks was to lure the United States into military intervention in the Muslim world, in the belief that that would outrage Muslims and drive them into the arms of the Islamists. Within the Arab world (where the vast majority of the Islamists live), their attempted revolutions against regimes they condemn as secular and/or sold out to the West — in Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Algeria — had been stalled for 25 years because they were unable to win enough popular support. So maybe they could sucker the Americans into creating it for them.
Mere terrorism never overthrows governments. Terrorism is a useful device for getting your name and programme before the public in a dictatorship where you cannot openly advocate your political ideas, but the end-game of revolution usually requires a million people in the street, willing to risk their lives to bring the target regime down and put you in its place. For the Islamists, the million people just won’t come out.
Relatively few Arabs are willing to risk death to overthrow the corrupt, worn-out, sold-out regimes they live under, if what they are going to get instead is rule by a band of violent religious fanatics who will just ruin their lives and their economies in a different way. Support for the Islamists is higher in the Arab world than in other Muslim countries because the Arabs have had a hard time at the hands of the West (including Israel) in recent decades, but it probably doesn’t get above five or ten percent even in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
For a quarter-century, the Islamists have been stuck in a bloody stalemate with the various regimes they seek to overthrow. Osama bin Laden’s claim to fame was his insight that popular support for the Islamists might finally be boosted up to the level needed for successful revolutions if they could lure the United States into even deeper military involvement in the Muslim world — full-scale invasions, if possible — that would drive millions of Arabs into the Islamists’s arms.
That was what 9/11 was about, and it failed. The United States immediately invaded Afghanistan, as bin Laden doubtless intended — but without the consequences he hoped for. The US invasion was swift, efficient and cost relatively few lives: probably under 4,000 Afghans killed, and only a dozen Americans. Nothing like the ten-year guerilla war generating thousands of images of innocent Muslims suffering under American firepower that he had hoped for, working from the precedent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-89 where he had made his reputation.
If the United States had not invaded Iraq last year (which bin Laden could not have foreseen), 9/11 would have been a complete failure. Even with the horrifying images that Iraq generates and the fury and hatred that they engender among Muslims elsewhere, there has still not been a single revolution anywhere in the Arab world: the Islamists still cannot get the masses out in the streets to overthrow Arab regimes.
That speaks volumes for the moderation and basic common-sense of the Arab people, and it argues that the Islamists are doomed to remain a marginal force in Arab politics no matter how many people (local and foreign) they manage to kill. But they have not given up on their strategy, which means that bin Laden’s promise was a lie. He NEEDS America to remain militarily entangled in Muslim countries, so he will go on ordering the attacks that he thinks will produce that result — insofar as he is capable of ordering anything at all.
He is probably not able to order very much. Al-Qaeda was never a real organisation in the traditional sense, more an idea and a blueprint, and now it scarcely exists at all (though its clones and emulators have proliferated). All bin Laden can do is go on making his videos and hope that his ideas and his example will take root in many parts of the Muslim world. So far, it isn’t working.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“True…role”; and “Relatively…Arabia”)