Osama bin Laden’s latest message is one of the richest, most comprehensive and starkly realistic he has issued since the start of the Iraq war. The following essay is the first of two that will analyze the message and offer an assessment of its importance. This essay considers al-Qaeda’s dour recognition of its inability to control post-occupation events in Iraq as a small vanguard organization and a non-Iraqi presence in the country. The second part of this article will examine bin Laden’s confidence that al-Qaeda has accomplished its main goal in Iraq: establishing a base from which to project its influence and military power into the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula.
On December 29, 2007, Osama bin Laden issued a 56-minute statement that addressed Muslim insurgents in Iraq  and built on his earlier message from October 22 . The new statement was issued via al-Qaeda’s media arm, al-Sahab, and appeared on several internet sites without pre-publication excerpts on al-Jazeera television. Al-Jazeera’s editing of the October 22 audiotape distorted bin Laden’s message, incorrectly giving the implication that he was saying “all is lost” for the mujahideen in Iraq . Al-Jazeera customarily deletes anything critical of the Saudi regime from bin Laden’s messages. This occurred in the case of the October 22 tape and al-Qaeda apparently did not want to take a chance on al-Jazeera’s penchant for politically correct editing with its most recent message .
Focus on Iraq
The latest bin Laden tape is—like its October 22 predecessor—preeminently a post-Iraq war tape. In both tapes, bin Laden declares that the United States recognizes that its Coalition has been militarily defeated in Iraq and predicts that U.S. and other foreign forces will leave. Bin Laden does not provide the date U.S.-led forces will withdraw; he focuses his attention on working with Islamist insurgents in Iraq to ensure the Americans and their Arab-government allies cannot build a national unity government that is an “agent to America,” dominated by non-Islamists and ready to permit the United States basing rights and access to Iraqi oil. Because U.S.-led forces have accepted military defeat, bin Laden argues, Washington and its allies must look for other means to prevent the consolidation of an Islamic state in Iraq. “My talk to you,” bin Laden explained, “is about the plots that are being hatched by the Zionist-Crusader alliance, led by America, in cooperation with its agents in the region, to steal the fruit of the blessed jihad in the land of the two rivers, and what we should do to foil these plots.”
As always, bin Laden speaks as a product and close observer of the Afghans’ jihad against the Soviet Union. In appealing for unity among the Iraqi mujahideen, he makes no demand that they join al-Qaeda and follow its instructions. He points rather to the failure of the Afghan insurgents to consolidate victory after the Red Army’s 1989 withdrawal: “It would be useful here to recall an effort in the past to unify the leaders of the Afghan mujahideen, which includes important lessons that are related to our topic,” bin Laden tells the Iraqi fighters in an almost avuncular tone.
We had made these efforts with Sheikh Abdullah Azzam [bin Laden’s late Palestinian mentor in Afghanistan], may God have mercy on him. After months of seeking to achieve unity among [the Afghan leaders] and removing the obstacles that some of them used to claim that they obstruct unity, [but then] after removing these obstacles … they [would] claim that there was another obstacle [preventing unity], and so on and so forth …One of the mujahideen had a strong opinion about these [obstructing] leaders. He was an old wise person who had long experience in life with people. At the time we used to reject his strong-worded statement about them. I will try to convey to you some of what he said. The conclusion is that those leaders are tradesmen who care more about their leadership and give priority to their personal interests over the cause. We used not to believe what he said about them. This has delayed our realization of the sound conception of persons and events [presented by this mujahid]. The harmful consequences of this are no secret … In fact, developments have come to confirm things that we had never expected due to the fact that we were young and lacked experience at the time.
In Iraq, Riyadh is the Main Enemy
Bin Laden urges the Iraqi fighters to heed the lesson of the Afghans’ historic post-Soviet debacle because “the same thing applies to Iraq today”; leaders are more interested in their own power and status than in making Islam and the ummah (Islamic community) victorious. And while bin Laden warns that Washington is using promises of money, military training and arms to entice the “Islamic Party and some fighting groups [to] support America against Muslims,” he leaves no doubt that the Islamists’ main enemy in Iraq is now Saudi Arabia, not the supposedly militarily defeated United States. After the Soviets’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, bin Laden reminded the Iraqi fighters that “America exerted great efforts … to convince the Afghan leaders through the governments of Riyadh and Islamabad to join a national unity government with communists and secularists from the West.” Bin Laden explained that the Saudi regime was then—and is again today in Iraq—the main enemy of the mujahideen:
[In post-Soviet Afghanistan] the government of Riyadh sought the help of its unofficial scholars to infiltrate the ranks of the mujahideen. These were influential speakers who incited the people to perform jihad and collect huge funds for the leaders of the mujahideen. At the set time, [the Saudi regime] asked the Afghan leaders to unite with the communists and secularists under the so-called national unity state. [The Saudis] obstructed the plan to achieve unity among the leaders of the mujahideen when they tempted one of them with a big amount of money and promised him to be the president of Afghanistan … We do not have much time here for more details. So the current situation [in Iraq] is similar to the past one [in Afghanistan]. The government of Riyadh continues to this day to carry out the same malicious roles with many Islamic action leaders and commanders of the mujahideen in our nation .
Bin Laden goes on to claim that the Saudis are trying to co-opt some of the Sunni mujahideen in Iraq by allowing “some groups to confidently move in the Gulf to receive [financial] support.” Riyadh is careful to avoid officially funding its Iraqi insurgent favorites, so its support “is channeled under the banner of raising donations by some unofficial scholars and preachers.” Bin Laden warns that “many of them … are loyal to the state and seek to implement [Riyadh’s] policy by pulling the rug from under the honest mujahideen’s feet” and forcing them to support a national-unity government that is designed to be the agent of the United States and Saudi Arabia. He asks the Iraqi mujahideen how they can trust Saudi King Abdullah, who is the “malignant foe” of Islam, the “main U.S. agent in the region” and a man who took it upon himself “to tempt and tame every free, virtuous, and honest person with the aim of dragging him to the path of temptation and misguidance … [and] the path of betraying the religion and nation and submitting to the will of the Crusader-Zionist alliance.” The Americans are defeated, bin Laden concludes, but to assure God’s victory the Iraqi mujahideen must reject Saudi overtures and direction if they are “not to waste the fruit of this chaste and pure blood that was shed for the sake of consolidating religion and entrenching the state of Muslims.”
A way out?
Bin Laden and his senior lieutenants are reliving what for them is a familiar nightmare. In one of the greatest ironies of the post-1945 era, Islamist fighters have proven that with great, prolonged and bloody effort they can claim the military defeat of superpowers—the USSR and the United States—but cannot consolidate victory when confronted by the wiles, funds and religious establishment of the Saudi leadership. While it is clear in the December 29 tape that bin Laden rates the Saudis as the main obstacle to God’s victory in Iraq, there is little indication of what he intends to do to destroy Riyadh’s ability to stymie the mujahideen there as it did in Afghanistan.
One possibility—though bin Laden did not allude to this—would require a rethinking of al-Qaeda’s grand strategy. Although bin Laden and al-Qaeda have been consistent in their three-fold grand strategy—to drive the United States from the Muslim world, destroy Israel and incumbent Muslim regimes and settle scores with the Shiites—they now face a situation where the Saudi regime has not only so far prevented the unification of Islamist leaders, but is allegedly preparing the Sunni Iraqi insurgents it supports for a civil war with Iraq’s Iranian-backed Shiites. Bin Laden, of course, is correct in arguing that Riyadh wants no genuine national-unity government; the Saudis may be intending to fund and equip a Sunni insurgent force that could join forces with the U.S.-armed and trained Sunni Awakening Councils to battle for control of post-U.S. Iraq against the Shiites and seek the establishment of a Saudi-like Sunni theocracy in Baghdad. If this occurs, the third step of bin Laden’s grand strategy—settling scores with the Shiites—will immediately become the top priority of the Islamic world, as both Sunnis and Shiites focus on assisting their brethren in the Iraqi civil war. This scenario would severely erode bin Laden’s ability to keep Sunni militants focused on the “far” U.S. enemy.
If bin Laden’s assertions are true, and Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan-like intervention in Iraq continues to prevent the mujahideen unity bin Laden advocates, the al-Qaeda chief and his Shura (consultative) council may soon confront the very unpalatable necessity of having to break with their traditional grand strategy and move to try to destroy the Saudi regime. In such a scenario, al-Qaeda would abandon the pinprick insurgency-and-terrorism campaign it has conducted in the kingdom since 9/11, and employ all the force it commands and can incite there—and bring in from Iraq—to take on the well-infiltrated Saudi military and security services. Such a campaign probably would combine attempts to assassinate the king, the interior minister and senior intelligence and military officials with attacks to disrupt Saudi oil production. The latter operations would be staged in the hope of forcing Washington to a Hobson’s choice between standing back and allowing havoc to reign in the world’s oil market—with the immense damage it would entail for the U.S. economy—and ordering U.S. military forces into action against Muslims in order to restore oil production on the sacred soil of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace and what bin Laden refers to as “the land of the two holy mosques.”
The foregoing clearly is not an option that al-Qaeda is eager to undertake; it is an option that amounts to an almost desperate gamble. But that said, if such a campaign successfully triggered a U.S. military response in the kingdom, the focus and militancy of the entire Muslim world—both Sunni and Shiite—would be switched from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, and the enmity and weapons of all Muslims would, at least temporarily, be refocused on the “far enemy” in North America.
1. Osama bin Laden, “The Way to Foil Plots,” al-Sahab Media Production Organization, December 29, 2007. All quotes from bin Laden in the text are from this statement unless otherwise noted.
2. Osama bin Laden, “A Message to Our People in Iraq,” Threat and Claim Monitor, IntelCenter.com, October 22, 2007.
3. Al-Jazeera, October 23, 2007. By censoring bin Laden’s statement, al-Jazeera unwittingly seems to have done al-Qaeda a great service. The “all-is-lost” message yielded by al-Jazeera’s editors has become the common wisdom among Western media and governments, thereby obscuring for those entities the fact that bin Laden was discussing how all Iraqi insurgents should proceed to consolidate Islam’s victory over the United States and its allies in Iraq.
4. Al-Jazeera’s editing earned it some outrage and condemnation from Islamists. See, for example, Bilal al-Khaldi, “And thus Usama’s message has gone to waste. An invitation to a proactive response.” Islamic al-Fallujah Forums (internet), November 16, 2007.
5. Bin Laden says that the Saudi effort to prevent post-Soviet Afghan unity was led and managed by “the Riyadh intelligence chief,” who was at the time Prince Turki al-Faisal. This is the same Prince Turki who—while serving as the Saudi ambassador to the United States—unexpectedly and hurriedly departed Washington in early 2007 when a Sunni-Shiite civil war seemed imminent in Iraq. Not much has been heard from Prince Turki since his departure, but if bin Laden’s claims about the current Saudi campaign to co-opt Iraq’s Sunni mujahideen are true, it is hard to imagine anyone more qualified by past experience to lead the effort than Prince Turki.