Bin Laden and His Special Effects


Feb 4, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in Chicago Tribune on February 4, 2005.

His words still have the power

Forced out of his sanctuary in Afghanistan and without a standing army at his command, the world's most hunted man must spend his life in hardship and hiding. But despite his lack of military power, Osama bin Laden remains a deadly threat because he has the awesome power of inspiring words and ideas at his command. Delivering a message of endless holy war against a demonized enemy, he remains a frequent and fervent communicator with the power to motivate his followers to willingly sacrifice their lives to wage holy war.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, bin Laden made bellicose pronouncements, issued declarations of war and conducted interviews with reporters. He used these opportunities to list the grievances of those he appointed himself to represent, and outlined the course of action he claimed God commanded. Since Sept. 11, bin Laden has recorded 22 statements that have been carried around the world via TV and radio networks, the Internet, newspapers and magazines.

His statements show that bin Laden, despite the intense high-tech manhunt, remains at large and in touch. He is still able to observe events. He remains able to communicate publicly with growing frequency, confident that his communications will not compromise his own security. He demonstrates his continued relevance by provoking reactions—public commentary, threat alerts, and condemnations from world leaders, including President Bush. Bin Laden's followers see his mere survival as proof of his divine protection.

All wartime communications are aimed primarily at the home front. And like any politician on the campaign trail, bin Laden presents several personas—warrior, statesman and missionary. A skilled propagandist, bin Laden segments his audience: fighters, potential recruits, sympathetic Muslims, the broader Arab and Muslim communities, those of any faith opposed to American policy, and others dismayed by the continued fighting in Iraq.

For each group, bin Laden offers specific messages: Violence is justified because Muslims are persecuted everywhere and must defend themselves. Corrupt Muslim tyrants allied with the infidels are apostate and must be overthrown. Muslims must not wait until the infidels' inexorable aggression destroys their faith—now is the time to join jihad.

Bin Laden extols those who die for the cause as heroes and asks God to accept them as martyrs. He excoriates those of substandard zeal. He denounces the U.S. aggressors as infidel conquerors interested only in stealing Arab oil, and as war profiteers seeking corporate dividends in bloody conflict. And bin Laden argues that the U.S. can be brought down by destroying its economy.

It is a powerful polemic of a never-ending conflict that began centuries ago, filled with references to humiliation, shame, God, and honor. As such messages always do, it appeals to the young and restless filled with natural rage, and evokes sympathy among broader audiences.

Historically, bin Laden's themes are the traditional summons of those seeking revival, revolution and revenge: The situation is desperate … we are the victims … surrounded by enemies … our backs to the wall … our people persecuted … entitled to revenge … war is the only alternative to annihilation … providence commands us … history propels us … heroism is demanded … sacrifices are necessary.

Bin Laden's messages also serve to confirm his leadership. He does not merely communicate, he hands down judgments, he summons, he lays out strategy, he asserts his authority even over attacks in which Al Qaeda plays no role, he congratulates, he hands out promotions.

Do bin Laden's statements contain hidden instructions to his followers to carry out attacks like the coded BBC broadcasts of World War II? The evidence is not convincing. With so many messages and so many attacks, inevitably some will be in close proximity, but the time lags vary from two to 90 days, hardly a reliable indicator.

Is bin Laden more than a voice? Some analysts believe that his current role is limited to exhortation and that he no longer participates in management. His recent focus on broader political issues and what some analysts interpret as his aspiration to elder statesman status could reflect his isolation from operational management.

All this leads to the belief that bin Laden remains chairman, but no longer is CEO of Al Qaeda. Always a loosely run enterprise, since Sept. 11, Al Qaeda is of necessity even more decentralized. Local jihadists operate more autonomously.

But it may be premature to write off the center altogether. Bin Laden still commands considerable authority and his ability to communicate publicly suggests an ability to also communicate clandestinely. This was confirmed in an earlier communication when Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group in Iraq spoke of eight months of clandestine negotiations with bin Laden that led to its pledge of loyalty to Al Qaeda.

Charismatic communicators have long exploited the media available to them to spread their message. Hitler used live radio and filmed spectacles. Fidel Castro still delivers marathon speeches on television. Tape cassettes with messages from the Ayatollah Khomeini circulated in Tehran before the Iranian revolution.

Though he lives in hiding, bin Laden's voice is out in the open, traveling to just about every country on the planet thanks to today's communications technology. As long as he can command global attention for his pronouncements, he will continue to attract recruits, to motivate those already enlisted to his cause, and to use his words to lead a jihad against his enemies.

© 2005 Chicago Tribune

Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert with the non-profit RAND Corporation, which seeks solutions to problems worldwide.

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