In recent months, 26-year-old Omar bin Laden—Osama bin Laden’s eldest son—has made headlines around the world for marrying a 51-year old British grandmother and sounding like a refugee from 1960s-era San Francisco, urging his father to give peace a chance. With his long braided hair, Omar has traveled across Europe and the United States dressed in a leather jacket and designer jeans, preaching reconciliation between Islam and the West. Generally, the media have treated him as a kind of eccentric—and he may well be. But given that in the Arab world blood is always far thicker than water, and that religion thickens blood ties even further, Omar bin Laden may well still be helping his father.
From the time of Sun Tzu’s 6th century B.C. treatise on “The Art of War” to the present, deception has been a major war-fighting tool. Naturally, then, the question arises: What if Omar bin Laden is working for al-Qaeda’s propaganda front? What if, rather than being a wealthy dilettante who wishes to be “an ambassador of peace for the UN,” he is still the son of his father, a young man who received six years of insurgent training in Afghanistan—while living in the house of Ayman al-Zawahiri—before leaving for Saudi Arabia in 2000? What if is he is lying about not having dealt with his father since that time ? What if Omar is playing the West—and especially the Europeans—for suckers?
This of course is speculation, but three factors beyond blood ties make it worth considering. First, al-Qaeda has an extremely sophisticated media organization and it would be both foolish and dangerous to think it does not use disinformation practices. Second, Omar has walked a very careful line in discussing his father and al-Qaeda’s activities, referring to his sorrow that blood had been spilled on both sides, but frequently referring to U.S. attacks on Muslims and the affection he holds for his father. Third, there is a market in some European countries and media for an individual who raises the hope that a peace settlement with al-Qaeda and its allies can be reached either by negotiations or appeasement.
One of al-Qaeda’s frankest statements on the use of information tailored for specific audiences was provided by an al-Qaeda essayist named Abu-Ubayd al-Qurashi. In January 2002, al-Qurashi explained that Osama bin Laden’s words in his audiotapes are shaped for several audiences. “The Shaykh was addressing various types of people,” he wrote:
“Some of them are among the ranks of the mujahideen, so he addressed them to lift their morale and urge them to act. Some others were reluctant or in doubt, so the Shaykh addressed them to end their doubts on the barbarity of America. Some others [of his words] were [addressed] to his direct enemy (in that case the United States). So he showed some signs of weakness in his address. He could have given a different impression if he wanted to. We could find an explanation for this in the book the ‘Art of War,’ whose author mentioned that when the number of enemy troops is too large and the battle’s outcome is uncertain it is important to ‘pretend modesty to lead the enemy to feel haughty.’ This haughtiness leads the enemy to be careless, hasty in action, and to fall into an unexpected trap” .
Whether or not it was because bin Laden “showed some signs of weakness in his address” after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, it is irrefutable that Washington and its allies were “hasty” in equating the capture of Afghan cities with winning the war and have now fallen into the “unexpected trap” of fighting a deepening insurgency.
In his non-threatening words and un-Islamic appearance, Omar bin Laden has tried to distance himself from his father’s actions and has called for negotiations—to appeal to the West—while keeping faith with dominant Muslim opinion by insisting U.S. and Western policy is an attack on Islam and that his father is fundamentally a good man. Regarding the 9/11 attacks, for example, Omar says his father “is connected to it” and so is responsible, and that he believes his father did wrong in ordering the strikes (ABC News, January 21). “The truth is,” Omar told Egyptian television in January, “that I condemn the killing of any civilian whatsoever … [but] if we assume, for the sake of argument, that my father is a terrorist, then we must assume that Bush and Sharon are terrorists too” . Omar has asked his father to stop attacks and “try to find another way to reach his goals,” adding that “these bombs, these weapons are not good for anyone” and that the West must also take this advice and follow its own precedent of negotiating with those it considers terrorists, as in the case of Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing. (Egypt Channel One TV; January 28; MENA, January 29). Omar consistently concludes his statements by expressing love for his father. “My father is a very kind man,” Omar said in late January, “I still love him so much, with all my heart … I would hide him [if necessary]” (ABC News, January 21).
Having protected both flanks, Omar appears to be concentrating on appealing to European public opinion in a manner that divides Europeans from the United States. He stresses that Washington is seeking to control Muslim oil, that American voters support Bush’s “oppressive policy,” and that negotiating with al-Qaeda is a “legitimate international issue” for the UN Security Council, if U.S. leaders would allow it to become involved. In the face of this U.S. aggressiveness, Omar reminds Europeans his father has already offered them two truces if they distance themselves from U.S. actions (Egypt Channel One TV, January 28; The Post, March 13).
If Omar bin Laden is fronting for al-Qaeda vis-à-vis European opinion—which is increasingly fearful of Islam and seeking ways to assuage extremists—he clearly has a field to operate in where the idea of negotiations with al-Qaeda, and perhaps even appeasement, will find an audience. In recent months, for example:
• British authorities have admitted that Islamist militancy is rising in major UK cities and there are now “no-go zones” in some that are beyond the writ of British police. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that it is time to begin integrating sharia law into the British justice system because “one law for everybody … [is] a bit of a danger,” and, in an effort to ease Muslim anger, Britain’s Home Office has forbidden the term “war on terrorism”—describing it as “aggressive rhetoric”—and replaced the term “Islamist terrorism” with the phrase “anti-Islamic activity” (Timesonline, March 16; BBC, February 8; Guardian, February 4; Daily Mail, January 17).
• German educational authorities have ordered the teaching of Islam as part of the country’s school curriculum for all students. This is being done in the hope of better integrating Muslims into German society, ensuring the teaching of a version of Islam that is approved by Berlin, and to provide competition to so-called “[Islamic] preachers of hate.” “In the not too distant future,” said Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, “we will have Islam religion classes in German schools” (Euronews, March 13; Deutsche Welle, March 13).
• Austrian officials are reported to be negotiating ransom demands directly with al-Qaeda fighters from Algeria who kidnapped two Austrian tourists in Tunisia in mid-March. The media claim that Vienna is “trying to pacify” the Islamists holding the tourists, and are using the good offices of Muslims resident in Austria to extend the negotiating deadline (elkhabar.com, March 16).
• In mid-March Jonathan Powell, a top aide to former UK Prime Minster Tony Blair, said it was “essential to keep the line of communications open with terror groups.” Citing London’s dealings with Gerry Adams and the IRA, Powell claimed that “at some stage you’re going to have to come to a political solution as well as a security solution.” Powell’s position was seconded by the Security Minister, Lord West, who said it would be “silly” not to have a “back route” into al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups (Daily Telegraph, March 15; BBC, March 17).
When all is said in done it is not yet possible to know whether Omar bin Laden is a Saudi ne’er-do-well or an al-Qaeda propagandist, and in some ways it does not matter. Whether working for al-Qaeda or simply pursuing his dream to “act as mediator” between his father and President Bush, Omar is expressing ideas that are already common themes in European public opinion while sharpening the fear of an endless war with Islam.
Omar’s presence and public words and activities in Europe—especially in the UK—will put additional public pressure on governments worried by rising domestic Islamic militancy and looking for a way out of the part they are playing abroad in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
1. “Interview with Omar bin Laden,” ABC News, January 21.
2. Abu-Ubayd al-Qurashi, “Al-Qaida and the Art of War,” al-Ansar Magazine, January 15, 2002.
3. “Interview with Omar bin Laden,” Egypt Channel 1 TV, January 28; “Omar’s Suggestion,” The Post [Lahore], March 13.