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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Bin Laden's Phony Peace Offer: Europe Blunders 

I've been working long hours this week, but also thinking about Usama bin Laden's recent tape. Here are my thoughts, some of them in response to Bjørn Stærk's post on the tape:

Is it really bin Laden?

I heard an excerpt played on the radio, and it sounds like his voice, which is quite distinctive.

The CIA also seems to think it's him.

Brilliant Propaganda

Personally, I thought Usama bin Laden's tape was a brilliant political ploy, and the European leaders fell right into it. That's not surprising though, because any response to this tape would constitute the error of confirming the consequent. In other words, it's a bit like answering the question "do you still beat your wife?" Any incautious answer will confirm the assumption in the statement, which is that one is, or has been, beating one's wife. Politicians use this trick all the time.

Bin Laden is cynically positioning al-Qaeda as the hapless victim here, as he often does. His tape essentially says "If you stop assisting the American-Jewish alliance against Muslims, we will stop defending ourselves (by killing you) - because after all, ours is the camp of peace, and we are responding against the camp of war". This statement is packed with lies and deceptive assumptions, all integrated into the ultimatum.

Any response that does not identify and refute the underlying assumptions will deliver a strategic propaganda advantage to al-Qaeda. The tape is an ultimatum (accept our peace offer or we'll attack you), so Europe can answer in two obvious ways:

(1) Yes [... we will stop the murderous campaign against Muslims that we have been waging at America and Israel's instigation.]
(2) No [... we will continue killing Muslims and committing all the barbarous acts you accuse us of because we do not care for your peace.]

Either answer confirms a falsehood.

The first answer would of course be a tremendous victory for bin Laden. Note that his tape does not call for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but for a withdrawal of all personnel from all "Muslim countries". Of course bin Laden did not believe the Europeans would agree to this - that was not the purpose of the tape.

The second answer is still a victory for bin Laden, of course. The Europeans have confirmed the underlying assumption that al-Qaeda is the camp of peace, whereas America-Israel-Europe is the camp of war. This is entirely unrealistic, but European governments will now be more likely to distance themselves even further from Israel and America. By confirming al-Qaeda's claim that Europe is waging a war against Islam by daring to set foot in Muslim countries (who exactly appointed bin Laden the arbiter of what was a Muslim country or who was allowed into it?), the Europeans are placing themselves in an unenviable position. This tape restricts Europe's actions not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even in Kosovo and Bosnia! This tape is a brilliant wedge.

No negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues

Several leaders declared that it is impossible to negotiate with al-Qaeda. For example, Colin Powell said, "You can't make a deal with somebody like bin Laden. How can you make a deal with a terrorist?" The problem with this approach is that it implies that we in the West refuse to negotiate because we don't like terrorists, preferring relentless war. It is as if we are closing the door. Of course, the real reason one can't negotiate with these terrorists is that they themselves rule out the possibility of negotiation in good faith!

One of the key principles in al-Qaeda's ideology is that compromise or negotiation with the 'enemy' is pointless and sinful. The motto of Abdullah Azzam, the late mentor of Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, was "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues." In the unlikely event that Europe did withdraw all personnel from all Muslim countries, they would enjoy but a brief reprieve. One must naturally assume that bin Laden would consider the arrest of his agents in Europe to be a breach of the truce; in other words, such a truce would turn Europe into an organisational centre for anti-American terrorist attacks. Bin Laden would also presumably regard trade with America and its allies to be a breach of the truce, as he frequently justifies attacks on civilians on the basis that they form part of the American war machine because they pay taxes. Al-Qaeda treats non-Muslim aid workers and businesses in the Middle East as invaders. What is being offered is not a treaty, but a siege.

Jihadi Salafis such as bin Laden are attempting to emulate al-salaf al-salih (the 'pious predecessors' of early Islam), particularly the first Muslim community at Yathrib (Medina). According to the story, after the hijra (migration) to Yathrib, Muhammad and his Sahaba (companions) established a 'perfect community', with the co-operation of the Ansar (helpers) - the citizens of Yathrib. Although they had a ten year hudna (truce) with Mecca, they carried out ghazwah (raids) against Meccan merchants, wearing Mecca down. Eight years into the truce, Muhammad determined that the Meccans had broken the treaty through their own actions, and marched triumphantly into Mecca, establishing the first Caliphate.

In order to recreate the Caliphate, al-Qaeda and its precursor groups have attempted to interpret that story for contemporary conditions. The base (al-qaeda al-sulbah - the solid base) of operations in Afghanistan is considered to be the location of al-Qaeda's hijra - both in the anti-Soviet Jihad and in the current one. Al-Qaeda almost always refers to attacks such as September 11 and March 11 as ghazwah, raids. It is natural for al-Qaeda to offer Europe a hudna, as a precursor to its conquest. Al-Qaeda's treaty offer should be placed in the same category as Hitler's Munich Agreement - a political instrument designed to soften up a target. The treaty would end at bin Laden's convenience.

This was not a treaty offered in good faith, and therefore it was not negotiation at all. That is why one can not negotiate with al-Qaeda.

A New bin Laden?

Someone at the BBC described this tape as the first example of Usama bin Laden striking a clever political blow. That is completely false - the tape is entirely in keeping with every other publication by al-Qaeda and every major political action the group has taken. What exactly happened in Madrid in March? Did Spain/Europe/The West ACT against Muslims, who then RESPONDED to their action with a bombing? Or did Islamists ATTACK Spain, at which point Spain RESPONDED by panicking? Who is pulling whose strings? Think of the tape. Bin Laden has the arrogance to address Europe - and Europe quickly stammers out a response! When al-Qaeda acts, it is with an eye to making its enemies react in a particular way, although in the tape bin Laden carefully positions the West as the active aggressor and the Muslims as the victim responding. Al-Qaeda has proven to be very successful in pushing us just where they want us, because they know us. On the other hand, we in the West know very little about al-Qaeda. Most of us don't understand what they want, how they think, what their plans are. So we can only act in the dark. Al-Qaeda watches and waits, and chooses its moment to dig the needle directly into the nerve. The West, stabbed in the dark, leaps away, or throws blind punches.

Other reactions to the tape

Scott Martens has his finger on the pulse with his response to the tape, although I fail to see why he thinks that Usama bin Laden was not intentionally splitting the Europeans from the Americans. From my experience, most effective politicians choose a course of action that achieves several objectives. Al-Qaeda is fighting an asymmetric war against a vastly more powerful opponent - naturally bin Laden is attempting to 'wedge' components of the West apart. That doesn't mean that he believed they might actually accept the offer; the very act of re-affirming that Europe is in America's camp will place pressure on European leaders on an issue where they have proven themselves vulnerable to pressure. I also don't quite agree that "There is no risk whatsoever in refusing, and nothing to gain from accepting." - there is risk in both paths.

Jan Haugland also picks up on the fact that this tape manoeuvres European countries into turning down "Bin Laden's honest and generous offer of a truce". Haugland sees the tape as an attempt by bin Laden to appeal to moderate Muslims by himself appearing to be moderate.

Dominic Cummings, in an astute article in the Telegraph, observes that "If we are to defeat bin Laden, we must not fall for his tricks." He places the tape in the perspective of bin Laden's previous words and actions, and also looks at the historical crisis of the Middle East that is a principal reason for al-Qaeda's emergence; "Particularly since Napoleon's landing in Egypt and Nelson's ejection of him, Muslims have been asking: what went wrong?" Spot on. The one reservation I have is Cummings' claim that bin Laden has "reinvented himself as the rational terrorist". If Cummings means that this rational, politician's point of view is a new thing for bin Laden, then he is mistaken. If he means that from a public relations point of view, bin Laden has appeared politically rational to the West for the first time, I can see the point.

More links (18/04/2004)

The BBC has a more comprehensive translation than the MEMRI selected excerpt translation I linked to above. I obtained the BBC link from Non Tibi Spiro's entry on this topic. Non Tibi Spiro underlines the fact that bin Laden's tape is phrased in a way that is clearly directed at European citizens, something he has done in the past.

The BBC also has an analysis of the tape that points to the important fact that "The craftily worded broadcast contained a classical left-wing analysis" of America and multinationals. The focus on Palestine also indicates bin Laden's wily use of wedge politics.
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