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.

CP:Getting back to what you said a moment ago about the importance to bin Laden of offering the U.S. a warning, didn't he in fact get in trouble in a lot of Islamic circles after 9/11 for failing to provide a warning?

Scheuer: Yes—that is, for failing to provide enough of a warning. The prophet's guidance is that you go the extra mile to warn your enemy. Bin Laden was called on the carpet by his peers in the Islamic militant movement for three things. One was that he didn't give us enough warning. He's now addressed the American people on five separate occasions since 2002. So he's taken care of that one. He was also called on the carpet for not offering us a chance to convert to Islam. He's now done that three separate times, and Zawahiri has done it once. So they've covered that angle. The other thing they were taken to task for was that they didn't have the religious authority to kill as many Americans as they did. In the summer of 2003, he got a religious judgment from a very reputable Saudi cleric that he could use weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons, to kill up to 10 million Americans.

After 9/11, he had several very important loose ends to tie up, in religious terms, before he could attack us again. He's done all of those things. It's interesting, because he spoke on the eve of our presidential election, and he said, This is the last time I'm going to warn you. In his speech last week, he said, I was not going to talk to you again, but your president is lying to you. I wanted to give you one more opportunity to hear the truth. He again warned us about the impact of our policies, and then offered us the truce. But you were right at the beginning. He's very much speaking to an Islamic audience as much as to an American [one].

CP:How do you read the offer of truce, that being the unique element in this communiqué?

Scheuer: I think he's very serious about it. I don't think for a second he believes we'll take him up on it. But he's kind of done as much as he can do to make sure there's no further bloodshed between us and the forces he represents. It was very common, you know, in the era of the prophet—truces came about fairly regularly. There were truces between Saladin and Richard the Lionhearted in the Third Crusade. One of them was as specific as three years and some odd months before the fighting was to resume. From his culture, from his history, this is a very serious offer. I think he expected the kind of curt response he got from Scott McClellan and then from the president and vice president.

This is a very difficult problem for a world that's run on the basis of nation-states. How do you respond to something like this?

CP:The competing popular images of bin Laden in the U.S. seem to run to opposite extremes—he's either the supreme commander of anti-U.S. forces or an isolated, mostly ceremonial figure. Can you describe his place in the firmament of radical Muslim forces aligning against the U.S.?

Scheuer: I think he is the hero and the leader in the Islamic world. But that's not to say that he controls very much beyond his own group. The two things I would point out are that, one, for a man of his stature in the world, he probably has as little ego as I've ever seen in a leader. He's a man who clearly wants to control his own organization, but outside of that he's never really shown much interest in controlling other groups.

The other thing people tend to forget, or to lose in the rhetoric, is that when he outlined his aims in 1996, the first one—and it still is the first one—was to incite jihad around the world. He regarded al Qaeda and his role not as an instrument of American defeat, but as an instrument that would incite the jihad that would spur America's defeat. He saw his job as encouraging other groups to join in. Picking a number is kind of a mug's game, but now we have 40 or 50 groups around the world that fight, sometimes locally, but also have an intention of attacking the United States. So in his main goal, of incitement, he's been singularly successful.

CP:Can you talk about the role that the Iraq war has played in his recruiting successes?

Scheuer: I have to tell you, Sir, I'm not an expert on Iraq. I don't know what the threat was from Saddam. My own judgment is, as a nation-state [Saddam's Iraq] was probably containable. But our invasion of Iraq broke the back of our counter-terrorism policy, because it validated in the Islamic mind so much of what bin Laden had said through the past decade. He said, Americans will do anything to defeat a strong Muslim government. We took Saddam out. He said we would take on and defeat any Muslim state that threatened Israel. I think Iraq is an indication of that being true, from their perspective. He said we would occupy their sanctities and try to destroy their religion. From the Islamist's perspective, we occupy all three of their sanctities now—the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Jerusalem. The Israelis hold Jerusalem, but increasingly in the Islamic world, Americans and Israelis are viewed interchangeably. He said we were going to try to take all the oil from the Muslim world. And certainly the view predominates that one of the reasons we went to Iraq was oil.

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