The Al Qaeda leader set aside his usual religious rhetoric in favor of phrases from the Marxist revolutionary lexicon.
In his latest audiotaped message, Osama bin Laden has offered immunity from further terrorist attacks to "our neighbors north of the Mediterranean" that "do not attack Muslim nations." In other words, Bin Laden is telling European nations that if they pull their troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Qaeda will put them on its temporary "do not disturb" list.
Is this a serious offer, or something else?
European governments quickly denounced the Bin Laden bargain, saying they would not make deals with terrorists. No 21st century Neville Chamberlain stepped forward to proclaim "peace in our time" with the leader of Al Qaeda. Bin Laden most likely expected such rejection. So why did he make the offer?
Let's start with the least likely explanation of the tape: A war-weary Bin Laden wants to give peace a chance. Truces do have precedent in the military history of the Arabs as well as in the annals of terrorism, but they are considered to be tactical and temporary and may be unilaterally revoked when no longer advantageous. Even if Bin Laden does live up to his promise to suspend violence in Europe to give countries there time to consider his offer, he limited the cease-fire to three months.
And like all terrorists, Bin Laden disavows culpability. If further violence happens, "do not blame us," he says. "Blame yourselves."
Another possible explanation — perhaps the one most widely accepted — was that the offer represented a clever effort by the terrorist leader to divide Europe from the United States and divide antiwar European citizens from their governments. Or, as some have suggested, the tape may have been a secret signal to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda followers and an indication that attacks were imminent.
But here's another possible explanation: Perhaps the main purpose of the tape was to entice non-Muslim European radicals to join Islamic jihadists in attacking the U.S. and its allies.
Terrorism, like war, makes for strange alliances. In recent times, Palestinian terrorists recruited allies among European and Japanese revolutionaries, who flocked to training camps in Jordan and Lebanon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The non-Arabs allied with the Palestinians to demonstrate solidarity and acquire practical skills required for the global revolution they hoped to foster — all under a secular, non-Muslim banner.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, with which members of Germany's Red Army Faction and Japan's Red Army shared a common Marxist ideology, was the most successful Arab group at recruiting foreign talent. For the Popular Front, European and Japanese operatives aroused less suspicion than Arabs. More recently, Italy's new generation of Red Brigades applauded the 9/11 attacks and called for an alliance between European and Middle Eastern terrorists.
Is Bin Laden's message a call to action for non-Muslims? His past tapes have been calls to action directed at Muslims alone. He has stressed the aggressive schemes of the "infidels" and lamented the "black misfortunes" of Islam, berating Muslims for their substandard zeal in joining jihad, and attempting to inspire young men to emulate the "heroes" of 9/11 and reap the rewards of martyrdom.
But Bin Laden's language on his most recent tape may well indicate he is fishing in different waters this time — not in the usual pools of alienated Muslim youth, but in the growing tide of anti-American, anti-globalization sentiments.
Except for a few formulaic phrases, the latest message is significantly free of religious rhetoric. Instead it employs terms like "bloodsuckers" and "merchants of war."
Bin Laden says on the new tape that "this war brings billions of dollars in profit to the major companies … such as the Halliburton company." He rails against the "Zionist lobby," the "White House gang," and those "who are steering the world policy from behind a curtain." These are expressions more commonly found in the rhetoric of the far left.
Non-Muslim youths seeking spiritual fulfillment or adventure in Afghanistan have been swept into Al Qaeda's orbit in the past. But their journey usually began with conversion to Islam. Bin Laden may now be encouraging a mutant form of jihad that jumps its religious borders to become a broader ideology of anti-Western protest.
Contemporary jihadists and leftist extremists find common cause in their opposition to globalization. To the jihadists, the World Trade Center was not just a pair of tall buildings. It was a bold architectural assertion of American-driven globalization even before that term was invented, reflecting both the ambition and the destructiveness of Western economic might as it confronted and crushed traditional societies.
In deciding to go to war with Iraq, the administration conflated the threat posed by Al Qaeda with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein — considering actions against both to be part of the "global war on terror." Bin Laden has cleverly done something quite similar. The terrorist leader has conflated the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, which was supported in Europe, with the war in Iraq, which is unpopular.
The goal is to portray America and those who remain in its orbit as the real axis of evil. In response, the United States has to be careful not to fall into Bin Laden's trap by portraying European skepticism about the war in Iraq as capitulation to terrorism. Linking the two risks losing support on both fronts.
Because the Iraq war has sparked such resentment both among the European left and many Muslims, Bin Laden might see the war as a great unifying gift from Allah. The war has facilitated Al Qaeda recruitment, created a new battle front for jihad and exposed American soldiers to precisely the kind of war the jihadists are best at waging.
The jihadists' broad themes — whether addressing Muslims or European radicals — are the same. The terrorists cast themselves as selfless heroes out to end the suffering of the innocent, as unceasing warriors against Western imperialists, as champions of the downtrodden and as undying opponents of an evil Israel. The selection of specific issues remains opportunistic.
Bin Laden's recent message to Europeans is this: Don't shed European blood for the gang in the White House. The message conveniently ignores the fact that it is the terrorists themselves who have done the killing in Europe. A talented communicator, Bin Laden has this time crafted his words to sell his product — violent opposition to America and the West — to the widest possible audience.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on April 25, 2004.