What the tape reveals about bin Laden

The Globe and Mail/November 14, 2002
By Doug Saunders

After a day of fine-grained analysis, intelligence experts say the audio tape broadcast yesterday is almost certainly the defiant voice of Osama bin Laden, that he is likely ill but secure in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that he is executing a carefully timed interjection into the Iraq conflict.

"It's very much in keeping with the general bin Laden and al-Qaeda themes that the Muslim world is facing a crisis today similar to that faced in the 13th century, and that devout Muslims should turn to violence in response," Daniel Benjamin, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council and an expert on al-Qaeda's communications, said in an interview yesterday.

"If it is him, it is brilliantly timed to put him at the top of the international agenda just as the world's attention is focused on Iraq, which is a country he has never made one of his concerns before."

What is different about the tape is that it contains direct messages to Western nations and their allies. Past messages from Mr. bin Laden have spoken mostly to Muslims in the Arab world. "I can't offhand think of any messages that started off as being addressed to other Western nations; that's a departure," Mr. Benjamin said.

Iraq is also a new subject. Mr. bin Laden's adherence to the Wahabist sect of Sunni Islam has led him to oppose the comparatively secular regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He has in the past called for uprisings against Mr. Hussein. Similarly, the Palestinian cause did not become part of al-Qaeda's message until quite recently.

Larry Johnson, deputy chief of counterterrorism in the first Bush administration, said the tape suggests Mr. bin Laden's al-Qaeda operation remains in business "as a heretical branch of Islam combined with the criminal instincts of the Mafia. It also may signal another major attack coming up."

Most listeners agreed that Mr. bin Laden sounded ill, which may be a reason why audio was used rather than video. There have long been reports that he suffers from kidney failure, and he could have been injured in last year's attacks on Afghanistan's Tora Bora caves.

Mr. bin Laden sounded "more tired and aged," said George Michael, an Arabic-language specialist who has translated previous bin Laden tapes for the U.S. military. "There's a very faint beeping noise like it's coming from a medical machine. It continues regularly; then there's a long beep, and an abrupt stop. Perhaps his health condition is bad."

The tape contains a number of phrases that draw upon Islamic and Western history, often in oblique ways.

". . . Bush, the pharaoh of the century . . ." In the language of the Koran, "pharaoh" is a phrase often used to refer to all infidel rulers, not just of Egypt. It has been adopted by radical Islamists to describe non-Islamic rulers of Muslim nations, and as a term of derision for Western leaders.

When Khaled al-Istambuli assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat in 1981, the 24-year-old military leader shouted to the crowd: "I am Khaled al-Istambuli. I have killed Pharaoh, and I do not fear death."

In his message to the United Nations yesterday, Mr. Hussein opened with a Koranic quotation: "Go thou to Pharaoh, for he has indeed transgressed all bounds. But speak to him mildly; perchance he may take warning or fear." Mr. Hussein's use of the term was almost certainly not an echo of Mr. bin Laden's.

"Cheney and Powell have murdered and destroyed in Baghdad more than did Houlagou." Houlagou, the grandson of Genghis Khan, led the Tartar hordes that overran Damascus in 1260 and Baghdad in 1262, and oversaw a devastating but short-lived occupation of those cities.

"That's putting America in the position of the Moguls and the damage they did to the [Arab] Caliphate in the 13th century, which was one of the great defeats of Arab history," Mr. Benjamin said.

"Rumsfeld is the butcher of Vietnam who has killed more than two million people." The two-million figure refers to the number of North Vietnamese who died in the war, from 1963 to 1974. But the reference to U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld is less clear, since Mr. Rumsfeld had little or no involvement with Vietnam. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was a member of president Richard Nixon's cabinet and an adviser to him, but only on domestic matters such as the war on drugs, the inflation crisis and labour relations.

In the Ford administration, he became a chief of staff and likely had some involvement in military conflicts with Cambodia, but his involvement with the Vietnam conflict was marginal at most.

Mr. bin Laden has used Vietnam as a rhetorical tool in the past, drawing attention to the sometimes violent opposition to the war among the U.S. public.

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