March 21, 2008
Bin Laden's Threat and the New Jihadist Message for EuropeBy Walid Phares
In an audiotape posted on Internet, Osama Bin Laden threatened Europe with punishment because of its "negligence in spite of the opportunity presented to take the necessary measures" to stop the publishing of the Danish cartoons. It also menaced the Vatican with retribution for an alleged role in incitement "against religion."
This al Qaeda warning would have been normal in Salafi Jihad logic. This radical movement obviously considers the drawings as an ultimate insult to Muslims and would unleash extreme violence in retaliation. Actually one would have expected al Qaeda to strike back "for the cartoons offense" a long time ago. In fact, this particular audio is intriguing precisely because it is too "political" (read too sophisticated). Bin Laden's school of Jihadism would have smitten first, explained later. So why is this message more peculiar than previous ones? What can we read into it?
In short, I see in it the imprint of Jihadi "politicians" and strategists in international relations deeply immersed in the diplomatic games across the Mediterranean. Even though it is indeed the voice of al Qaeda's master, one can see the increasing impact of political operatives on the movement's public statements. Here is why:
A raw al Qaeda reaction to the "infidel cartoons" would have been a strike back into the heart of the enemy with simple harshness and highly ideological brutality. But the audio tape has other points to make than just about the drawings. The message is heavily targeting Europe, while using the "cartoon Jihad" as a motive. Bin Laden and the war room behind him are concerned about the rise of tough national leaders on the continent: Sarkozy, Merkel, Brown and a possible reemergence of Berlusconi's party in Italy in power.
In many spots in Europe, citizens are rejecting the Jihadi intimidations and becoming vocal about it. France is going to Chad, Germany has ships in the Eastern Mediterranean and Spain is arresting more Salafists. But the traditional apologists toward the Islamist agenda in Europe, remains strong. Al Qaeda wants to use the apologists against the "resistance." What better means than threatening to strike at Europe's peace if its liberal values are not altered?
In essence this is Bin Laden's message:
Change your laws on liberties and freedom of expression or else. "If there is no check on the freedom of your words then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our hearts."
But a thorough investigation of the origin of this argument leads not to al Qaeda's traditional rhetoric -- the group isn't very concerned with the change of laws in infidel lands -- but to demands that have been made by "long-range" Jihadists on European Governments. A simple check of archives shows that it wasn't Bin laden or Zawahiri who have asked Europe to enact laws against "insult to religion" but more "mainstream" Islamist forces and intellectuals. Among them the Muslim Brotherhoods, the Union of Islamic Clerics (also influenced by the Brotherhoods and headed by Sheikh Yusuf al Qardawi the spiritual mentor of al Jazeera), a number of European-based academics and the bulk of Wahabi radical clerics. This revealing reality if anything shows one of the two trends: Either al Qaeda is using the argumentation of political Islamists to provoke a mass clash against Europe, or is it that the "political Jihadists" are now able to influence the war discourse of al Qaeda. In both cases, it deserves a closer analysis.
Bin laden's tape curiously repeats statements by commentators on al Jazeera who accuse Europe of being the "associate" of Washington in a "War on Islam." It also accuses the "continent" of being hypocritical by refusing to compromise on its "liberal" legal system while it makes "exceptions" when it comes to "exempt American soldiers" from its own laws: An argument simply too complicated to al Qaeda but often advanced by Islamist cadres on al Jazeera and online.
But the audio message nevertheless produces a classical series of threats à la Bin Laden by promising revenge to be "seen." It also goes on to indict the Pope for "inspiring" this "crusade" and doesn't miss a chance to incriminate the "apostate" Saudi monarch for not defending Islam. The tape covers many other issues such as the vital necessity of "Jihad" in Gaza an Iraq. With such a mixture of rhetoric, how to read the letter? I would recommend looking at a changing context in the Bin Ladenist messaging.
Few months ago, he sent out a piece with heavy Trotskyist overtones, using US domestic references: The impact of "American" speech writers was evident. In this audio message one can see the fingerprints of international (perhaps European) Jihadists who seem to be frustrated by demands they made but which have not met by the "renegade" European Governments. In the end, the message to the continent is clear: Either you follow our advice and change your laws and accommodate our ideological agenda or else, al Qaeda is unleashed on the continent.
The voice of these shadow "advisors" -- or at least their arguments -- have made their way to the heart of al Qaeda's messaging machine. From here on, it is up to the Europeans to decipher this enigmatic statement. They have an opportunity to breach a very powerful code which could answer loads of unresolved questions on the continent.
And last but not least, al Jazeera's "rapid response" to the tape came in a show titled Ma wara's al khabar (Beyond the News). The anchor, interpreting the message, said Al Qaeda "is perhaps now an idea," hence very difficult to defeat by counter terrorism measures. A powerful assertion as European security services are bracing for potential strikes -- in response to this tape but also in retaliation to a Dutch documentary assumed to be critical of the Koran, to be released soon. The al Jazeera assessment about al Qaeda is relevant as it projects the movement as invincible physically.
Even more interesting, it coins Bin Laden's threat as serious as it touches an issue of ijmaa bayna al muslimeen, "consensus among Muslims." In other words, while the tape asserted so, it was al Jazeera that claimed that "the cartoons issue has created an Ijmaa-consensus among adherents." The confusion between what Bin Laden said "it should be" and what the Qatari-funded channel said "it is" is somewhat worrisome. For the millions of viewers, including many in Europe, the line is blurred.
Then came al Jazeera's "experts in Islamist movements." Mr Yasir al Zaatra from Jordan said al Qaeda per se doesn't have to send militants to Europe because "local groups could offer to wage operations on European soil." Pushing the comment farther, Zaatra added that "most likely, some groups may have already offered Bin Laden to perpetrate attacks." He asserted that there are existing cells that would carry out these attacks and Bin Laden would take credit. And to reinforce the credibility of the threat, Zaatra referred (strangely) to a statement by Michael Sheuer a former CIA officer who was in charge of the Bin Laden unit. Quoting Sheuer, the al Jazeera analyst said "Bin Laden's threats are always executed."
Following him, another "expert on Jihadist groups," Dr Diya' al Zayyat said the tape is a clear menace by whom he called (for the first time) the "general guide of the Salafi Movement worldwide. He added that Bin Laden would claim responsibility for a potential action "depending on the type of operation and the publicity that would follow." Both commentators agreed that a revenge action will take place and that European based Jihadists will carry it out. Al Jazeera's anchor taking it to the apex called the Bin laden's speech a "Jihadi road map."
What I saw in the al Qaeda message and the al Jazeera debate was clear: The Salafist movement worldwide was "talking" to the Europeans and the Euro-Jihadis. It was threatening Governments to retreat from the confrontation on the one hand and unleashing the pools of indoctrinated Jihadis across the continent to "engage" in violence. The near future will tell us if the trigger will be successful or not.
Dr Walid Phares is a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy and the Director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is the author of the recently released book, The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad