Geopolitical Diary: The Most Important Thing About Bin Laden's Message
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
Al Qaeda released a new audio tape by Osama bin Laden on the same day that U.S. President George W. Bush ended his visit to the Middle East. The tape had two themes. One was anti-Israeli, arguing that Israel's celebration of its 60th birthday demonstrated that it did not exist before 1948 and therefore represented an invasion of Muslim territory. The second aspect was an attack on Muslim regimes for protecting Israel. Bin Laden focused on the blockade imposed in Gaza by both Israelis and Egyptians. He said, "The duty to break this blockade falls upon our brothers in (Egypt) as they are the only ones that are on the border." In other words, since the blockade was partially imposed by Egypt, it is up to the Egyptian people to move against their government and break the embargo. As he put it, "There is no way to reach Palestine except by fighting the governments and parties that are close to the Jews and move between them and us." In other words, as it was from the beginning, bin Laden's first focus is on the Muslim regimes he sees as collaborating with Israel and the United States. Interestingly, bin Laden also focused criticism on Hezbollah. He blamed Hezbollah for accepting a truce with Israel in 2006 and allowing international peacekeepers to move into southern Lebanon. The criticism points out the tension between the Sunni al Qaeda and the Shiite Hezbollah — and the struggle between al Qaeda and Shiite (including Iranian) radicalism for the position of leadership in an Islamic rising against Israel and the United States. There is no doubt that this tape was recently made, and barring disproval by voice analysts in the intelligence community and elsewhere, the default assumption is that the voice not only sounds like bin Laden's but is bin Laden's. If that's so, then he is still alive. That used to be an extraordinarily important bit of information. What is most interesting at this point is the relative unimportance of it. We used to hang on every word bin Laden uttered and every indication that he was still alive. It has now become of passing importance. That is the single most important thing about the tape and is a measure of how history has changed since 2001. Certainly the events that bin Laden put in motion continue to resonate — from the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq to expensive and intrusive efforts at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. and allied response that began on Sept. 11 goes on, but bin Laden himself has become essentially an onlooker and commentator. That was the result of a real success by U.S. and allied intelligence. Their ability to attack and destroy bin Laden's immediate network isolated him from new recruits, training and planning. Bin Laden and his immediate associates lost the ability, in three years or so after 9/11, to mount operations outside the Islamic world, and, to a great extent, operations inside the Islamic world might have been carried out in his name but not with his participation. There is a theory that holds that bin Laden is dead. If so, he is doing a pretty good imitation of a live man. There is a theory that says that he is being kept alive and free because U.S. intelligence prefers it that way. If he were dead, he would become a martyr. Captured, he would have to be put on trial. There might be some merit to that. Our suspicion is that he is in Pakistan and there is a rough idea where he is. But the level of effort needed to nail down his location and kill him is simply more trouble than it is worth. As STRATFOR once put it, Osama bin Laden once made history. He then made videos. He is down to audio tapes — a testimony to the one part of the war that worked for the United States.