Osama bin Laden’s videotaped address to the American people, originally broadcast on the al-Jazeera satellite network on October 29, incorporates both new ideas and familiar themes in perhaps his most lucid explanation of the case for jihad thus far.  Eschewing the fatigues of a guerilla commander for the robes of a spiritual leader, he is largely successful in coming across as a sincere man anxious to defend the ummah from a vicious aggressor rather than the leader of an amorphous group of militants.
A significant aspect of this speech is that it is the first time bin Laden overtly reveals his role in the attacks of 9/11. This comes in the passage detailing “the moments this decision [to carry out the September 11th attacks] was taken.” While considered a foregone conclusion in the West, many in the Middle East and beyond have continued to express doubt that al-Qaeda was behind the events of 2001. This distinction is very important in the Arab world. As long as many in the streets and coffee shops were able to continue asserting that Muslims were probably not behind 9/11, this point of contention delayed the discussion as to what 9/11 means to the ummah.
Given his long history of successfully manipulating the media, Bin Laden is almost certainly aware that this rhetorical shift undercuts many who have acted as his apologists. The gamble he takes is that openly assuming responsibility for 9/11 may end up working against him if the so-called “Arab street” is truly unable to accept the massacre of innocents that took place in the attacks. On the other hand, if the passage of time and events since 2001 – particularly the invasion of Iraq – have served to inure the Arab world to the human tragedy of that Tuesday morning and convince it of malice on the part of America, Bin Laden may be more successful at winning support by coming out now than if he had done so in the immediate aftermath of the strikes.
Not that the speech is without flaws, particularly when viewed from the American perspective. For example, the conspiracies he alleges strike the Western mind as dubious at best. On Arabic-language message boards and in some publications, however, conspiracies involving Israel, America, Haliburton, and so on get much more serious attention than they do in mainstream Western discourse. This kind of talk from him is nothing new, either, and can be found in nearly every lengthy public statement he has made, stretching back to at least the 1998 pseudo-fatwa to which he was a signatory. However, the oil conspiracy is the springboard for a novel statement by Bin Laden:
“As previously mentioned, it was easy for us to provoke this administration and to drag it [after us]. It was enough for us to send two Jihad fighters to the farthest east to hoist a rag on which ‘Al-Qa’ida’ was written – that was enough to cause generals to rush off to this place, thereby causing America human and financial and political losses, without it accomplishing anything worthy of mention, apart from giving business to [the generals’] private corporations.”
There are several aspects to this statement worth examining, chief among them the fact that Bin Laden is clearly conscious of the fact that America reacts strongly to allegations of an al-Qaeda presence in a particular location. While this may sound obvious, it is an exploitable aspect of American foreign policy and America’s most prominent adversary is asserting that he has already made use of it. He states that “we are continuing in the same policy – to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy.”
Also making use of dubious figures to highlight al-Qaeda’s high rate of return on its investment for 9/11, bin Laden is clearly underlining the continued policy of sabotaging American economic interests. This policy, most clearly underscored in the attack on the World Trade Center, has been successful not only in Iraq but also in the realm of domestic anti-terrorism measures taken in the United States. Given the movement’s tremendous success in using spectacular attacks to damage American economic interests both directly and indirectly, the policy statement suggests that more such attacks are still to come.
Is there truth to his claim that al-Qaeda was not active in Iraq before the invasion, other than in a deception operation? Maybe, but unfortunately the veracity of this claim cannot be determined from the statements of Bin Laden. For one thing, a claim that he tricked America into war is consistent with his rhetorical tactic of using hindsight to claim foresight, as in the case of his claim that planning for 9/11 was inspired by the bombing of civilian high rises in Lebanon in 1982. In addition, al-Qaeda has a strong interest in convincing the world that they were not actually operating in Iraq before the invasion, as there is strategic advantage to discrediting the Bush administration and American intelligence. This advantage is best embodied by taking the example of the Arabic saying that “the fox has changed his ways,” which refers to the story of a fox that convinces his prey that he has reformed and no longer wants to devour them. If an American Secretary of State were to go before the United Nations and lay out a case for invading another country based on American intelligence information, the “fox” would be unbelievable. As such, anything Bin Laden can do to add fuel to the fire of American ineptitude and intelligence shortcomings helps ensure that his actual strongholds are secure from American military intervention.
And while not necessarily covering new ground in terms of his case for jihad, Bin Laden’s talk nevertheless explains his argument more cogently than his previous attempts. In careful reasoning early in the speech, Bin Laden goes to great lengths to argue that the United States is an aggressor attacking the ummah. According to Bin Laden:
“The events that had a direct influence on me occurred in 1982, and the subsequent events, when the U.S. permitted the Israelis to invade Lebanon with the aid of the American sixth fleet. They started shelling, and many were killed and wounded, while others were terrorized into fleeing. I still remember those moving scenes – blood, torn limbs, and dead women and children; ruined homes everywhere, and high-rises being demolished on top of their residents; bombs raining down mercilessly on our homes.”
He calls America “the oppressor” later on, and lays on America the blame for “mass slaughter of children, [the worst] that humanity has ever known.” He says, “As I was looking at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, I was struck by the idea of punishing the oppressor in the same manner and destroying towers in the U.S., to give it a taste of what we have tasted and to deter it from killing our children and women.” These lines quickly bring to mind the first passage in the Qur’an relating to jihad which instructs Muslims that “Allah loves not the aggressors…kill them wherever you find them…whoever then acts aggressively against you, inflict injury on him according to the injury he has inflicted on you and keep your duty to Allah, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty.”  This suggests that bin Laden is speaking not to America in these words, but rather to the ummah. Without directly quoting the Qur’an, he nevertheless evokes it to lay out the case that America is a justified target of jihad and that the attacks of 9/11 were not only permissible, but actually the most fitting recompense for the hostile actions America has taken against the ummah.
Bin Laden’s echoing of this passage is clearest in his reference to the Israeli military’s attacks on urban Beirut high rises in 1982, which enjoyed at least tacit American support. The admonition to “inflict injury on him according to the injury he has inflicted on you” is very obviously conjured in the juxtaposition of burning buildings in Beirut and the burning Twin Towers. As noted previously, this is probably a case of hindsight-as-foresight, as it is doubtful that bin Laden actually began formulating 9/11 some twenty years in advance. Nevertheless, the memory of Beirut in 1982 is a powerful motif and serves well to advance Bin Laden’s central argument to the Muslim world: the current jihad is a defensive action being carried out in line with the guidance laid out in the Qur’an. Al-Qaeda, and the wider movement of militant Sunni Islam, are founded on the premise of defensive action and cannot function properly apart from that concept. While much about the organization, motives and agenda of these jihadi movements is up for discussion, it is indisputable that they have succeeded in fundraising and recruiting to the extent that they have convinced many sincere and committed Muslims that their struggle is indeed a just jihad.
Bin Laden’s speech on October 29 is in many ways the ultimate display of his propaganda prowess. He manages to at once fulfill his Qur’anic obligation to offer the “aggressor” the chance to desist, mock the American government and intelligence services, chastise and cajole the ummah, and chart the future course of the global jihadi movement – all the while seeming more reasoned and purposeful than ever. Gone is the Kalashnikov and camouflage. Gone is the truculent tone of his 2002 “Letter to America.” Gone are the assertions that America cannot overcome the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Instead, Bin Laden seizes the opportunity of media obsession with a pending American election to metamorphose once again. Combining a deep understanding of the ummah’s frustrations with a practical grasp of the Western media cycle, Bin Laden has consolidated his position as the unchallenged speaker for the global jihadi movement.
Mr. Lyons has spent several years as a counterterrorism analyst advising the American government.
1. There are several translations of this speech available. Translation used here was done by MEMRI. (https://www.memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=subjects&Area=jihad&ID=SP81104)
2. Sura 2:190-5, M. H. Shakir translation.