Osama Bin Laden's
Cunning Tape Terrorism

By Terrell E. Arnold

Saturday, October 18, another Bin Laden tape was aired on Arabic Al Jazeera television. According to the Associated Press, CIA analysts who have evaluated the tape report that references in the tape to recent events suggest that Bin Laden is still alive, and the official betting still is that he remains holed up somewhere along the Afghanistan/Pakistan frontier. Bin Laden used this tape to condemn the government of Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Abbas as a "collaborator government with the United States." He also taunted President George W. Bush for running the largest Federal deficit in history and for being reduced to scrounging for help and "begging for mercenary soldiers from everywhere, according to the CIA translation of this tape.
This tape, the most recent of at least three that have appeared since 9-11, is said to be proof that Osama retains command of Al Qaida, even though other reports suggest command may have passed to younger lieutenants. It follows a video of a few weeks ago that showed Bin Laden climbing a steep hill. Conventional wisdom is that those images were an obvious effort to show that he is still active and capable of command.
In the terrorism universe the tapes represent a unique Al Qaida device, perhaps matched in impact only by the cassette tape campaign mounted by the Ayatollah Khomeini to overthrow the Shah of Iran. US official analysts, at least publicly, use the appearance of each tape to demonstrate that Osama is still alive and that Al Qaida continues to represent a global threat, but what is Bin Laden's objective in using them?
There is little doubt that he uses the tapes to cajole, sometimes threaten Muslims, to ridicule, as in the case of Mohammed Abbas, apparent alliances with the United States, to unify and expand support for his campaign across Islam, and to undermine secular governments in Islamic countries. Those efforts are not received with enthusiasm by the leadership of any Muslim country, but they have particular appeal to fundamentalists, especially among Sunni Muslims. Sunnis comprise about one billion of the estimated 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. While there are no statistics, fundamentalists appear to make up only a small portion of Sunni Islam, but Bin Laden's ambition is to make that number grow.
The larger and more important question for American policy makers, however, should be: What is Bin Laden's goal in targeting the tapes on the United States? To answer that question, one only has to look at results. Each tape is a media event. It gets worldwide coverage in mainstream media, despite the fact that initial releases occur through Al Jazeera television. At the end of each tape cycle of publication and analysis, the global focus on Al Qaida as the prime world terrorism threat has been renewed.
That publicity has been virtually cost free to Bin Laden. While again there are no statistics, the continuing focus on Al Qaida appears to enhance recruitment. The number of Al Qaida affiliates tends to grow despite reported losses even of some key players. But the bottom line of the tapes is that the world superpower and its allies have failed to capture or contain Al Qaida. Bin Laden surely is not untouchable, but he has yet to be touched.
For the United States, what has Bin Laden publicity done? Principally it has served to underpin the War on Terrorism. Given the long term downtrend of international terrorism as reported by the State Department, without periodic refurbishing the global terrorism threat will not sustain the rationale for War. If the threat is not a constant or growing feature of the American outlook, the War itself cannot be justified. The tapes receive considerable public attention from officials because they serve to renew that justification. Transferring the War on Terrorism to Iraq has not really served this function; rather it has raised questions about the seriousness of the Administration in pursuing Al Qaida and searching for Bin Laden. But it appears that so long as Bin Laden and Al Qaida are out there somewhere safe, the War on Terrorism itself is safe.
Bin Laden is playing a calculated game with American policymakers. He has the resources to follow our doings more closely than we can follow his. He knows therefore that the Bush Administration has put most of its chestnuts into the War on Terrorism and politically could back away from it only with difficulty. He knows that the neo-conservative hawks around the President have focused American policy narrowly to the violent end of the response to terrorism. Those same hawks have led the United States into a needless war in Iraq that is a powerful incentive to Muslims to be at odds with the United States and for fundamentalists to support Al Qaida. And these hawks have led the White House on a radical departure from more than half a century of positive achievement in the promotion of human rights and international cooperation. All Bin Laden has to do is exploit the weaknesses exposed by these warps in American policy.
Bin Laden tapes are a carefully metered version of the 25 cent telephone terrorist attack of the 1980s. Such attacks consisted simply in making a phone call and delivering a threat, say, to blow up some public building. Anyone with any official or personal interest in that target had to react. All that was required was the threat. Bin Laden tapes are threat sustaining because our officials deal with them that way. Continued viability of Bin Laden and Al Qaida provide a continuing basis for American belligerence. That state of mind coupled with an ideological bent toward reducing taxes, spending money on military power and running large spending deficits to carry out those aims already pushes the United States toward bankruptcy financially.
By keeping the United States embroiled in a pointless War on Terrorism Bin Laden hopes to reinforce the negatives of present American foreign policies and help to drive the United States into international political bankruptcy as well. In his tape campaign Bin Laden is using the asymmetry of terrorism warfare to remarkable effect, applying the media skills of a wealthy non-state actor to beat a superpower. His tapes have made effective non-violent warfare ever since 9-11.
The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the US Department of State. He will welcome comments at




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