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Bin Laden's Rhetorical Gambit By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Most of the attention that has been devoted to the videotape that Osama bin Laden released to al-Jazeera on October 29 centered around its potential impact on the election and bin Laden’s enthusiastic endorsement of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.  More significant than that, however, is the al-Qaeda leader’s increasing strategic sophistication, as he has adopted a rhetorical strategy designed to appeal to factions in the West who might favor an accommodationist approach to al-Qaeda.  Unfortunately, some Westerners in positions of influence seem ready to fall for bin Laden’s trick.

Back in April, bin Laden first injected the possibility of peace with the West into his rhetoric by offering a truce to European countries who withdrew their forces from Iraq.  His most recent videotape extends that rhetorical strategy by attempting to win sympathy for the perceived suffering and humiliation that the West has inflicted upon the Muslim world, and by trying to make al-Qaeda’s agenda appear palatable.

In the tape, bin Laden narrowly frames the conflict between Islamist terrorists and the West as rooted in a desire for self-determination:  “We fight you because we are free men who don’t sleep under oppression.  We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.”


According to bin Laden’s new rhetoric, the way out of this protracted conflict is for Westerners to “look for its causes in order to prevent it from happening again.”  In pointing to these alleged causes, bin Laden places his finger on issues that have some traction in the West.  In particular, some factions in the West are attracted to the idea that – as bin Laden suggests – selling Israel up the river and adopting a policy of non-intervention in the Middle East would guarantee us security.


Such a strategy would not, in fact, guarantee us security because it conflates bin Laden’s short-term grievances with his long-term goals.  Al-Qaeda was founded with the explicit goal of re-establishing the caliphate, a Muslim super-state encompassing the entire Islamic world that would be primed for perpetual conflict with the West.


Bin Laden’s caliphate would be ruled according to the strict version of shariah law typified by the Taliban, where homosexuals and those preaching non-Islamic faiths were executed, women were kept in burkas, and men were imprisoned if their beards were not long enough. Accommodation is a trap because withdrawing from the Middle East would make the attainment of such an Islamist super-state – and the greater danger it would pose – more likely.


Despite this, some influential Westerners seem ready to fall for this rhetorical gambit.  Indeed, even prior to the October 29 videotape, some Western politicians and other noteworthies were already clamoring for negotiation with al-Qaeda and accommodation to their demands.


For example, Britain’s former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam called on Western powers to open talks with Osama bin Laden, arguing that the current approach to the war on terror is “completely counter-productive.”  When asked if she could imagine “al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden arriving at the negotiating table,” Mowlam responded, “You have to do that.  If you do not you condemn large parts of the world to war forever.”


Former Illinois Senator Paul Findley – a stalwart of the anti-Israel lecture circuit – has recently argued that we would win the war on terror without firing a single missile if the White House simply suspends all aid to Israel (a country that Findley calls an “outlaw state”).  In an early October speech at Northwestern University, Findley claimed that “Sept. 11 would have never occurred if any president in the last 35 years had had the courage and the wisdom to suspend all U.S. aid to Israel.”  He blamed “Jews, mainly Jews” for setting into motion the events that had been so “calamitous in the Middle East and later in America.”


Another example is John Arquilla, a professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, who wrote a column this summer which argued for negotiation with our terrorist enemies.  Arquilla claims that bin Laden’s goals are limited and a worthy subject of negotiation, stating that bin Laden “and his followers are fighting, as they have often said, to see the removal of U.S. troops from Muslim countries and for an end to unstinting American support for Israel.  After Hussein’s fall from power and the toppling of the Taliban, there seems little need to keep American forces in these countries for the long haul – or in places like Saudi Arabia.”


Those who favor negotiation and appeasement err in believing that mollifying bin Laden’s immediate grievances will bring us peace.  It is one thing to attempt to address perceived injustices that might be used by the terrorists to drum up recruits, but quite another to pretend that the terrorist kingpins plotting our deaths will lay their schemes aside if we just alter a handful of policies.  Ultimately, a strategy of accommodation and negotiation with al-Qaeda is the road to national suicide.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based terrorism research center.

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