The central message of Osama bin Laden’s latest audiotape heard ’round the world is that al-Qaida lives, he is in command, the jihadists are winning and victory is inevitable — the exact opposite of the message President George W. Bush delivers in speeches on the war on terrorism.
The tape is important above all because it confirms that bin Laden is alive and still at least claiming to be the commanding presence of al-Qaida. This is the message he most wants to convey to his followers and potential followers to keep them inspired to continue fighting.
Bin Laden’s silence for more than a year had fueled speculation that he was dead or gravely ill. In jihadist circles, the al-Qaida leader’s continued survival — despite an enormous effort by the United States to capture or kill him — is seen as evidence of divine protection validating their cause.
Bin Laden’s tape also signals to his followers that he is in a secure enough location to safely communicate to them. If bin Laden can get tapes to al-Jazeera, he must also be able to communicate privately with at least some terrorists in the field.
Significantly, bin Laden’s warning of upcoming attacks does not mean that the United States is in immediate danger. If a major terrorist strike were actually imminent, with operatives in place making their final preparations, it is unlikely that bin Laden would want to put authorities on the alert. But his message reminds us that the terrorist threat remains.
The general view in the West is that al-Qaida’s top leadership is on the run, isolated and out of touch. But bin Laden’s tape shows that he is aware of recent world events. He says he is busy preparing new operations - something we can’t verify. And, in an effort to inflate his importance, he even asserts his authority over attacks that, as best we know, were planned locally and not directed by al-Qaida central.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, jihadists loosely connected with al-Qaida or merely inspired by al-Qaida’s ideology have carried out major terrorist attacks around the world — in Bali, Jakarta, Delhi, Karachi, Riyadh, Istanbul, Mombasa, Taba, Sharm el-Sheik, Casablanca, Madrid and London. These have occurred on an average of one every two to three months, not counting attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Russia.
Why have there been no jihadist terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11? Bin Laden says it is not because America’s security measures prevent such attacks. Indeed, despite America’s intensified security measures, we have to concede that if fanatical, suicidal terrorists were determined to attack the same type of soft targets in the United States that they have struck abroad, they could do so.
Restaurants, nightclubs, hotel lobbies, commuter trains, subways and crowded city streets remain vulnerable because they are easily accessible. Bin Laden suggests that a far more spectacular attack may be in the works.
Never abandoning his presumption of strength, bin Laden says: “We do not mind offering you a truce.” A truce with infidels has ample precedent in Islamic tradition. Jihadists would see it as a temporary tactical maneuver, not a sign of weakness.
But bin Laden’s offer of a truce is not being taken seriously. Clearly, the real intent of the truce offer is not to negotiate but to further erode the authority of a president the terrorist leader sees as weakened, and to justify future attacks.
In al-Qaida’s worldview, if the infidel Americans reject bin Laden’s “generous” offer of a truce and persist in “aggression,” they bear full responsibility for the punishment they will receive in future terrorist attacks. As he did after Sept. 11, bin Laden blames his innocent victims for their own murders.
The bin Laden tape cannot, of course, tell us the outcome of the war on terror. Clearly, al-Qaida has been weakened and is far from the glorious victory bin Laden dreams about. But neither is the jihadist enterprise on its deathbed. All we can say for sure is that we are closer to the beginning than the end of the long and difficult struggle against terrorists who view themselves as virtuous soldiers in the service of God.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Newsday on January 25, 2006.