Osama bin Laden’s statement broadcast by al-Jazeera television on April 23 shows the al-Qaeda chief on top of his rhetorical game . Examined in the proper context—that is, in the context of al-Qaeda’s self-defined, primary mission as the vanguard and inciter of jihad—bin Laden’s speech is a synthesis of the factors that yield his conclusion that the “Zionist-Crusader war” against Islam is more savage than ever, and therefore requires “every Muslim” to lend their support to a jihad in defense of the faith.
The statement also places a greater than usual stress on what bin Laden terms the West’s assumed racial superiority, as well as an unusual number of allusions to the continuity between contemporary events and Europe’s record of imperialism in the 19th and 20th century Muslim world. Taken as a whole, the statement seeks to draw the sharpest possible case for the existence of a “clash of civilizations…[that] has been carried out by their civilization [the West] against our civilization,” and seems to augur near-term attacks against the United States, its allies and their publics.
Bin Laden began with a lengthy discussion of the recent publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, first in Denmark and then in other Western states. He quotes passages from the Quran and the Hadith that forbid any kind of abuse of “God’s messenger,” and notes that throughout Islamic history Muslim jurists have “unanimously viewed those who insult or vilify the Prophet as renegades who deserve the death sentence.” Bin Laden calls particular attention to the words of the jihadists’ most revered Islamic scholar, the Sheikh of Islam Ibn Taymiyah, who said that “insulting the prophets and discrediting their integrity is the source of all infidelity and epitomizes disbelief and atheism.” He urges all Muslims to: “Follow the orders of Almighty God and his messenger and kill those people…making a mockery of our religion.”
Using the limited subject of the caricatures as a starting point, bin Laden swings into a more encompassing discussion of all the attacks he claims are being carried out against Muslims by the United States and the West. “The crime [of the caricatures],” bin Laden argued, “should be placed within the framework of the general aggressive trend [of America and the West] against our nation [ummah] for the past several years and decades.” According to bin Laden,
“Dealing with this crime as a separate incident that is isolated from the general framework will only harm the correct view to understand the extent of the rancor harbored by the West against us and the true nature of the Crusader war against our nation…These events [printing the caricatures], and the earlier events that have taken place since the Manhattan raid [Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, desecration of the Quran, invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.] have confirmed some previous facts. However, this time, the matter was very clear and obvious. Despite the media clamor and huge propaganda about human rights, justice, and freedom, it is now clear from the past events that these beautiful ideas have very shallow roots in the West; indeed, they have no roots at all if the matter concerns the Muslims…The West still breathes the complexity of racial supremacy and views others with contempt and believes it is superior to others. This view of superiority to others still dominates their thinking.”
To substantiate this point, bin Laden describes this “aggressive trend” as comprising the “Zionist-Crusader war” and says that it is really three wars, “one military, the second economic, and [the] third cultural and moral.” Much of the remainder of the statement is composed of delineating examples of the wars. As published by al-Jazeera:
“The West’s rejection of the fairly-elected Hamas government is a reaffirmation of the ‘injustice, aggression, and rancor’ against Palestinians that has been evident ‘for nine decades’ since ‘the Zionist-Crusader coalition took the decision of handing Palestine to the Zionists to turn it into theirs after having committed massacres there and displaced many of its residents.’ (NB: Bin Laden is dating from the WWI-era Sykes-Picot Treaty and the Balfour Declaration.)
“The proposed UN humanitarian mission to Sudan in the fall of 2006 is meant to ensure the break-up of the Sudanese state, with the southern region going to Christians and the West holding the western region of Darfur to ‘steal its oil under the cover of keeping peace there.’ Bin Laden urges the ‘mujahideen and their supporters…to prepare for managing a long-term war against thieves and Crusaders in western Sudan.’ Because the UN mission will wait until the end of the rainy season, ‘we should hurry to benefit from the element of time as soon as possible and at the same time give much attention to providing large amounts of mines, snipers, and anti-tank fire like RPGs.’ (NB: For a decade, bin Laden has argued that the U.S. and the UK would eventually invade Sudan under the cover of a UN intervention. He ascribes three motivations for such an action: to limit the spread of Islam in the Horn of Africa, to control Sudanese oil and to base forces at positions on the Sudanese coast that are in striking distance of Muslim oil resources in Yemen and Saudi Arabia and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Al-Qaeda probably has forces either in place or nearby to use to harass any UN-led intervention in western Sudan.)
“The conflicts in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Chechnya, and the Pakistani tribal regions are all examples of ‘rancorous Crusader war.’ These struggles prove that ‘war is continuing against the messenger of God, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, and his religion and nation.’ These wars are part of an unchanging pattern, bin Laden argues: ‘The residues of past centuries when the sun never set on their [the West’s] so-called colonies where their occupying, greedy armies were sucking the blood and wealth of subjugated peoples—still dominate their thinking. In their view, people are whites and masters, or colored and slaves.’ Of all these fights, bin Laden claims that the war in Iraq is going ‘from good to better’ and is the most important struggle because Iraq is the historical ‘seat of the caliphate.’ ‘Their [the Crusaders’] failure there will be failure for all their wars and attacks, God willing,’ bin Laden says, ‘and the beginning of the recession of the Zionist-Crusader wave against us.'” (NB: In this statement bin Laden offers a subtle salute to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for publicly stepping back to allow Iraqis to take the leadership of the resistance, a move which seems to be promoting greater unity. The growing strength of the Iraqi mujahideen, bin Laden said, is signaled by “their [insurgent groups in Iraq] steps toward unification of efforts under the banner of monotheism.”)
Bin Laden concludes his statement with some ominous remarks. In the publication of the caricatures, the other cultural indignities inflicted on Islam and Muslims, and the Western-initiated battles occurring in the “arenas of Jihad,” bin Laden maintains that the U.S. and Western governments have been fully supported by their electorates and civilians are thus legitimate targets for attack. “War is a common responsibility among people and governments,” he said. “The war is continuing and the people are renewing their loyalty to their rulers and politicians and sending their sons to the armies to fight us. They also continue their material and moral support, while our countries are burning, our homes are being bombed, and our people are being killed.”
Bin Laden also notes that the people of the United States and their government have rejected the truce al-Qaeda offered to them on January 19. He told al-Jazeera viewers about the “opinion polls conducted in their [the Americans’] territories regarding the truce between us and them after the withdrawal of their armies and the end of their mischief against us. They rejected all of this. They are determined to continue with their Crusader campaigns against our nation, to occupy our countries, to plunder our resources, and to enslave us.” Islam’s only recourse, bin Laden concludes, is for each Muslim join the jihad. “The happy person,” bin Laden assured his audience, “is the one who defends the banner of monotheism, and the happy person is the one who devotes himself and his dagger to defending the religion of Almighty God. So, be eager to please God.”
1. All quotes in the text are drawn from the extended excerpts that al-Jazeera posted on its website. That posting obviously has been edited by al-Jazeera, probably to avoid giving excessive offense to one or another of Qatar’s neighbors. If the unedited version of bin Laden’s statement becomes available, and if that version changes any of the judgments above, we will readdress the issue.