Even before the full text of Osama bin Laden’s 29 November 2007 statement “To the European Peoples”  was available, Western officials and pundits were dismissing it as an “old tactic,” “ridiculous,” and as “Osama’s new nonsense” . While such conclusions probably are comforting to those making them, they are wrong. Bin Laden’s message sounded a pitch-perfect note to the Europeans he addressed, was clearly and ominously threatening to those listeners and fortuitously coincided with a fresh reminder that Europe and America are vulnerable to radiological attacks by non-nation-state actors.
As always, bin Laden’s statement cannot be understood and assessed unless examined in the light of earlier statements and their impact. In this case, bin Laden’s November 29 statement is part of the media-operations doctrine al-Qaeda put in place after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and augmented after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The doctrine has multiple goals, but the goal bin Laden was aiming for on November 29 is that of stripping away allies from the United States, particularly the nations involved in the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan.
On November 21, 2002, bin Laden launched al-Qaeda’s ally-stripping campaign by starkly telling “countries allied to the U.S.” that “reciprocity [in war] is only fair.” Appealing then, as now, over the heads of governments allied to the United States, bin Laden asked, “Why do your governments ally themselves to the criminal gang in the White House against the Muslims? Why did your governments ally themselves to the United States in this attack on Afghanistan, and I mention in particular Britain, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, and Australia?” Ending his message, bin Laden stressed to the “allied peoples” that their fate was in their own hands, “Just as you kill you are killed. Just as you bombard you are bombarded. Rejoice at the harm that is coming to you” ( www.alneda.com, November 21, 2002).
Then, in April 2004, bin Laden narrowed this message to “our neighbors, north of the Mediterranean,” offering the Europeans “a reconciliation initiative” because of “their positive reactions” – bin Laden was referring here to the Spanish voters’ defeat of Prime Minister José Maria Aznar’s government after the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid. In the 2004 statement, bin Laden offered the European people a truce, saying that “it is in both sides’ interest to check the plans of those [European political leaders] who shed the blood of peoples for their narrow personal interest and subservience to the White House gang.” Bin Laden told the Europeans:
I also offer a peace initiative … whose essence is our commitment to stopping operations against every country that commits itself to not attacking Muslims or interfering in their affairs – including the U.S. conspiracy on the greater Islamic world. This peace can be renewed once the period signed by the first government expires, and a second government is formed, with the consent of both parties. The peace will start with the departure of its last soldier from our country. The door of peace is open for three months [from] the date of announcing this statement (al-Arabiyah Television, April 14, 2004).
Not surprisingly, bin Laden’s offer was denounced by the United States and harshly rejected by all European governments. The rejection was followed by two attacks on the London transportation system; the disruption of a plot in the UK to destroy ten passenger airliners over the Atlantic; the dismantling of al Qaeda related or inspired cells in Spain, Italy, the UK, Germany, and Denmark; the so-called “Doctors’ plot” attacks against a popular London nightclub and Glasgow airport; and remarks by senior government officials in Britain, Germany, and Denmark that al-Qaeda is related in one way or another to Islamist terrorist networks and operational activities in their countries .
Against this background, bin Laden’s new message is another appeal “to the peoples of the states allied to America in the invasion of Afghanistan, and I mention specifically Europe.” He again asks why European citizens have allowed Afghanistan to be “invaded without right by your unjust governments,” who joined the U.S. led invasion and occupation. Bin Laden lays great stress on the number of Afghan civilians who have been killed by NATO and U.S. forces, thereby underscoring a growing criticism of the Afghan war by the European public, media and some politicians. He also mocks the Europeans as “vassals” of the United States, noting that their politicians are lackeys who “are thronging the steps of the White House” and preventing U.S. soldiers from “being held to account by European courts.” Whatever the West thinks about bin Laden’s words – especially his pot-calling-the-kettle-black condemnation of civilian casualties – there is no doubt that he has made a finely gauged assessment of Europe’s rampant anti-American sentiment, as well as its decreasing official support for U.S. policies in the Muslim world.
The continuing threat present in bin Laden’s 29 November statement seems obvious, but, as noted above, several Western commentators have argued the message contains no threat. Bin Laden told Europeans “it is better for you to restrain your politicians” from supporting the United States and to instead have them “work diligently to remove oppression from the oppressed.” The un-ally-yourselves-from-the-U.S.-or-else nature of these words is apparent, especially given the rising tide of Islamism – rhetorical, politically active, and violent – that has occurred in Europe since bin Laden’s 2004 truce offer was rejected. Indeed, bin Laden’s November 29 statement is also meant to inform Muslims that he is – as per the Prophet Muhammad’s directions – giving the Europeans a second chance to avoid being attacked. Professor John Kelsay has recently written that according to Sharia law, one warning to an enemy is sufficient, but the “renewal of the invitation would be a good thing but is not required. Commanders in the field have discretion in this matter.” For his Muslim audience, bin Laden chose to do the “good thing” (Arguing the Just War in Islam, p. 105).
The unease in Europe caused by bin Laden’s clear threat was augmented by last week’s fortuitous – for al-Qaeda and its allies – reminder to Europeans that they live under a terrorist radiological/nuclear threat, primarily because nuclear materials and weapons in the Former Soviet Union have not been fully secured. On November 29, 2007, Slovak authorities arrested a Slovak, two Hungarians, and a Ukrainian for attempting to sell about a pound of uranium that apparently was acquired in Russia and which had been enriched sufficiently to be considered “weapons grade.” While there was not enough material to make a nuclear device, there was plenty to build a radiological or “dirty” bomb (AP, November 29).
Doing the Math
When all is said and done, are Western politicians and commentators correct in suggesting bin Laden’s most recent statement is really just “nonsense” and “ridiculous”? Looked at as an isolated statement this conclusion might be plausible. But in the overall context of the ally-stripping thrust of al-Qaeda’s media doctrine, one must imagine that bin Laden and his lieutenants are well pleased with matters as they stand today, especially in Europe. Since 2002, President Bush’s circle of foreign-leader supporters has thinned considerably; the UK’s Blair, Italy’s Berlusconi, Italy’s Aznar, and, most recently, Australia’s Howard have left the scene via election defeats or party leadership changes, all of which had much to do with the support of those gentlemen for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. More troubling for the United States, the list of either long-gone or bound-for-home coalition members departing from Iraq and Afghanistan is even lengthier: Italy, Spain, South Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Australia, Poland, Thailand, Portugal, Norway, Singapore, Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova, Ukraine, and New Zealand (https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/Iraq_obat_coalition.htm). Given this withering of the U.S.-led coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq – an obvious success for al-Qaeda’s ally-stripping campaign (even if that effort is only one of several causative factors) – one wonders how a senior U.S. official could have said last week that: “I think our NATO allies understand quite clearly what is at stake in Afghanistan as well as elsewhere around the world in fighting terrorism… and I see no diminution in that level of commitment” (U.S. State Department Press Briefing, November 30). Clearly, bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and their allies have seen what the senior U.S. official missed.
1. All quotes from bin Laden’s November 29 statement in this article are from: “Osama bin Laden: ‘To the European Peoples: A message from Sheikh Osama bin Laden’,” IntelCenter, Threat and Claim Monitor, November 30, 2007. The statement first appeared on al-Jazeera, November 29.
2. “Bin Laden’s call ‘ridiculous’: Afghan president,” AFP, November 30, 2007; “Osama’s new nonsense,” New York Post, November 30, 2007; U.S. State Department Press Briefing, November 30, 2007, https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2007/nov/95899.htm
3. For a discussion of the terrorist situation in the UK and Europe see “Full text of the speech of MI-5 Director Jonathan Evans to the Society of Editors in Manchester,” Daily Telegraph Online, November 6, 2007.