Bin Laden's Game

Most officials thought last month's Osama bin Laden tape was no big deal— maybe even a gesture of weakness. Author and ex-CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who founded the Agency's bin Laden unit 10 years ago, thinks they're dead wrong.

When the latest Osama bin Laden tape aired on al Jazeera last month, Michael Scheuer's phone was one of the first to start ringing off the hook with calls from journalists seeking a quick soundbite for that day's news cycle. Scheuer has credentials on the subject that few can match: By the time September 11 happened, he had been studying and trailing bin Laden for five years, as the creator and chief analyst of the CIA's bin Laden unit. Later on, writing as "Anonymous," Scheuer put out two books about bin Laden and his group, Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam and the Future of America (published in 2002, but largely written in 1999 as an unclassified manual for CIA personnel joining the bin Laden unit) and the bestseller Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, which appeared in 2004 shortly before Scheuer resigned the CIA to go public about his views.

Appearing on CBS Evening News the day the tape surfaced, January 19, Scheuer told anchor Bob Schieffer that "it would be foolish not to take this very seriously as a threat to the United States." He discussed the Islamic custom of offering one's enemies an out before attacking them, and made reference to bin Laden's long-standing wish to obtain a nuclear weapon, and to the still-unsecured stockpile of nukes in the former Soviet Union. "It sounds pretty scary, what you're saying here," Schieffer offered near the end of the two-minute segment. "This is not a threat that should be defined as criminals, gangsters, and deviants," Scheuer replied. "These are very serious people, they are our deadly enemies, and they are extraordinarily talented. We can worry about Saddam and we can worry about the Iranians," Scheuer answered, "but the only people capable of attacking us inside the United States in the world today is al Qaeda."

Scheuer's sense of alarm was soon forgotten, swallowed up by the official line about the bin Laden tape, which also became the conventional media wisdom: As ex-FBI terrorism hand Christopher Whitcomb put it to a different CBS anchor the next morning, "I don't think there's very much significance in this tape at all. And the reason is, we've seen so many of these in the past four-and-a-half years. Osama bin Laden is trying to show the world he's still relevant. I think he's not still relevant, and I think he is trying just to say, 'I'm out here, look at me.'"

Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

I phoned Scheuer recently to ask him more about his views of the tape and the status of the U.S.'s anti-terror efforts.

City Pages: You've dissented strongly from the Bush administration line that says bin Laden and other Islamic radicals "hate us for our freedoms." What's the real root of their opposition?

Michael Scheuer: The real root of their opposition is what we do in the Islamic world. If they were hating us because we had elections, or gender equality, or liberty, they would be a lethal nuisance,

but they wouldn't be a threat to our security. If you remember, the Ayatollah tried waging a jihad against Americans because we were degenerate—we had X-rated movies, we drank liquor, women were in workplaces. Very, very few people were willing to die for that kind of thing. Bin Laden, I think, took a lesson from that and instead focused on the impact of our policies in the Islamic world—our support for the Arab tyrannies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, our presence in the holy lands on the Arabian Peninsula, our invasion of Iraq, our support for countries like Russia that are deemed to repress Islamic people. He's focused on things that are visible to the Islamic world every day, and quite frankly there's a direct correlation between what he says and what all the Western polling firms are finding, that there is a huge majority in Islamic countries that hate our foreign policy. And yet generally, every one of the same countries has a majority, sometimes a large one, that admires the way Americans live, the basic equity of our society.

We should be so lucky as to have him hate us only for our freedoms. He's never even discussed that kind of thing.

CP:After the latest bin Laden tape aired, the official spin was to call it a political bluff, or even a call for truce out of weakness on his part. But you've written and spoken about seeing a different aim behind these bin Laden warnings, one that has more to do with meeting the expectations of a Muslim audience than a Western one.

Scheuer: I think that's very much the case. He's very conscious of the tradition from which he comes and how that history works. It's the tradition of the prophet that you warn your enemy and you offer a truce before the fighting starts. Saladin followed the same tradition against the Crusaders in medieval times, and bin Laden has been very careful to follow that in his time. He's offered us warnings numerous times, but this is the first time he's offered a truce in addition. In the early summer of 2004, he offered the Europeans an almost identical truce or cease-fire. They refused him much like we did, and he attacked them in July of '05 in London.

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