His latest appeal
Nov 4th 2004 | CAIRO
From The Economist print edition
Is the latest video performance likely to help or hinder recruitment for terror?
THE sudden five-minute appearance of the world's most wanted man on the al-Jazeera satellite channel—Osama bin Laden's first televised performance for two years, and the first in which he has worn civilian garb and refrained from obscuring his meaning with pious rhetoric—sparked wide interest among Arabs and Muslims. Reactions were sharply divided.
There was much cheering on the internet chat sites favoured by fellow-travellers in the global Salafi jihadist movement (Salafism being a puritanical call for dogged emulation of Islam's 7th-century founding fathers). One enthusiast declared that the speech proved the genius of the man he described as “our sheikh, our prince, our leader and spiritual guide of the age, and destroyer of America, and reviver of the tradition of jihad, and the source of affection and honour for Islam”. Like the great early caliphs, Mr bin Laden sought to show, by choosing this moment to address the enemy America, that he was a statesman as well as a warrior.
To Hamed al-Ali, a Salafist preacher in Kuwait who has his own website, Mr bin Laden's appearance is a timely reminder of the choice Muslims face. Just as Mr Bush says that people must be for or against his war on terror, Muslims must be for the jihad or for the “Zionist-crusader enemies of Islam”, asserts Mr al-Ali. Mr bin Laden's claim that he had first decided to hit America during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon showed—said Mr al-Ali—that, even as a youth, the fugitive terrorist understood the real nature of the threat to Islam.
The Salafi jihadist movement is the main recruit-pool for al-Qaeda-style terrorist groups. Yet, though its views represent a tiny, if growing, minority of Muslims, many ordinary Arabs expressed satisfaction at seeing Mr bin Laden perform, imagining with relish the embarrassment of Mr Bush and his administration.
But Mr bin Laden's appearance also provoked anger and outrage. To claim that he stood for Muslim liberty was preposterous, wrote Mishari Zaydi, a liberal Islamist columnist in Saudi Arabia, since it was well known that al-Qaeda and its emulators denounce democracy as heresy and seek to replace current Muslim governments with a global caliphate imposing by force its extreme version of the faith.
More damaging, perhaps, to Mr bin Laden's reputation among the jihad-minded was a posting on another Islamist website, noting that the al-Qaeda chief had committed a blatant sin. Shortly after September 11th, the writer recalled, Mr bin Laden bluntly denied that he had anything to do with the attacks. But in the latest tape he explicitly takes credit for killing nearly 3,000 Americans. So he lied.
The gloating admission, in which Mr bin Laden taunted Mr Bush for putting the “butting of goats” above the “butting of aircraft into skyscrapers”—a reference to the fact that the president continued to read a children's book about a goat when told of the attack on New York—gave more fuel to critics of the global jihad. “I hope this will shut up the conspiracy theorists for good,” says the head of a Cairo cultural centre, pointing to claims, widely believed in the Arab world, that Mossad or the CIA was responsible for the attacks. Others charged Mr bin Laden with hypocrisy for invoking Israel's war on Lebanon given that he himself was then collecting CIA money to fight Russians in Afghanistan.
Some of Mr bin Laden's Arab detractors worry that his decision to adopt the guise of a politician, rather than a fighter, is designed to win over potential recruits whose zeal for jihad has been dimmed by evidence of the indiscriminate brutality of groups claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda. But if Mr bin Laden looked sage and statesmanlike, his gruesome suggestion that people leaping from the flaming twin towers were expressing remorse at their country's misdeeds proved otherwise.
Such cruelty is shown yet more starkly on the jihadist websites that celebrate such horrors as hostage beheadings. On one, the slaughter of 49 Iraqi army recruits is proclaimed as a great victory against Shia apostates. That massacre's perpetrator, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who heads Iraq's nastiest jihad outfit, has just declared his allegiance to Sheikh Osama. It is doubtful, however, whether such an endorsement will help the jihadist cause.
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