Bin Laden’s script: ghost-written in the West
One thing is clear from the new book Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden - the al-Qaeda leader doesn't have an original thought in his head.
Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, edited by Bruce Lawrence, Verso, 2005.
How long before Osama bin Laden gets invited to something like the Edinburgh Book Festival, to rub shoulders with the likes of Julian Barnes, wolf down canapés and win polite applause from the chattering classes for his poetic ramblings?
One of his statements has already been published as a bona fide opinion piece in that liberal bible the Guardian (under the heading ‘Resist the new Rome’ in January 2004), and now there’s this new book from the leftish literary publishing house Verso. It’s a collection of bin Laden’s statements from 1994 to 2004 with a handsome and serious jacket cover and discoloured, raggedy-edged pages to give it the look and feel of an instant classic. Reviewers have fawned over its ‘magnificent, eloquent, at times even poetic Arabic prose’, and claim that it shows the ‘author’ bin Laden (he’s not really the author, being stuck in a cave and all and with few means to receive royalties) as a ‘charismatic man of action, an eloquent preacher, a teacher of literature and a resilient, cunning, wonderfully briefed politician’ (1).
If it were not for the fact that bin Laden is the most wanted man in the world, and a mass murderer, and possibly dead, and apparently painfully shy (but then, aren’t all great poets?), surely the book festival circuit would not be far behind. I can picture him in the Speakers’ Tent in Edinburgh, all ethnically coiffured and clutching a copy of this, his life’s work, surrounded by wide-eyed journalists inquiring about his writing style and what inspires him to put pen to paper.
How did this happen? Why has Verso brought out a book of bin Laden’s statements and why is it being treated so seriously, complete with a promotional push in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly, one of the biggest bookstores in Europe? I don’t know much about Arabic prose so I will have to suspend my disbelief that bin Laden does it ‘magnificently’ and ‘eloquently’. I do know, however, that something must definitely get lost in translation, because this English end product is turgid, repetitive and irritatingly religious: bin Laden can’t get through a sentence without mentioning God, peace, mercy or blessings. Is it that the dumbing down of public life is now so complete that even a loon like bin Laden can get five stars from literary pundits for saying things like ‘kill the Americans and seize their money wherever and whenever [you] find them’ (December 1998) and ‘My kidneys are all right’ (November 2001)?
I think there’s more to it than that. I reckon the reason why some commentators in the West seem drawn to bin Laden’s prose is because at times - and I’m not going to beat around the bush here - he sounds an awful lot like them. Seriously, it is uncanny. What comes across most clearly in this 10 years’ worth of rants is the extent to which bin Laden borrows and steals from Western media coverage to justify his nihilistic actions. From his cynical adoption of the Palestinian issue to his explanations for why he okayed 9/11 to his opposition to the American venture in Iraq, virtually everything bin Laden says is a rip-off of arguments and claims made in the mainstream media over here. He has taken the justifications offered by left-leaning pundits for al-Qaeda’s existence and actions (in the words of one commentator: ‘There is a simple reason why they attack the US: American imperialism’) and made them his own (2). And now these pundits have returned the favour by giving him his own book and glowing reviews to boot. It is the unholiest of marriages.
Take Palestine. It is widely assumed that al-Qaeda’s violence is primarily motivated by Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and will continue until that issue is resolved. Yet bin Laden’s nods to Palestine over the past 10 years tell a different story.
In 1994 he only mentions Palestine as a way of having a pop at the rulers of Saudi Arabia, whom he really despises for ‘betraying’ Islam and for having the nerve to expel him from Saudi territory (his birthplace) in 1991 and revoke his citizenship in 1994. Bruce Lawrence, editor of this collection, has given bin Laden’s first major public pronouncement - made on 29 December 1994 - the heading ‘The betrayal of Palestine’; but when you read it, Palestine is cynically mentioned as part of bin Laden’s spat with Saudi rulers. The statement is in fact a letter to Chief Mufti bin Baz, the Head of the Council of the ulema in Saudi Arabia, issued by the Advice and Reform Committee set up by bin Laden to ‘promote peaceful and constructive reform with regard to the way Arabia is governed’ and whose offices were in Dollis Hill, north London (!).
That the editor has headlined the statement ‘The betrayal of Palestine’ points to a political agenda on his and the publisher’s part - even suggesting that their aim is to give consistency and coherence to bin Laden’s rants where neither exists. This early statement would have been better headlined ‘The betrayal of Osama bin Laden….by those Saudi bastards!’ It is an obscurantist screed about how Saudi rulers have put big business before pure Islam, such as by allowing ‘the practice of usury, which is now widespread in the country thanks to the usurious state institutions and banks whose towers are competing with the minarets of the two Holy Sanctuaries’. The stuff about Palestine comes a poor second to bin Laden’s boring complaints about usury, some Saudi royal wearing a crucifix (sacrilege!), and Saudi support for ‘the leaders of apostasy, the Communist Socialists in Yemen’.
Bin Laden sounds like a spoilt middle-class brat sticking two fingers up at his family and former friends (he was once close to various Saudi rulers) for getting all money-obsessed, dude. In fact, that’s exactly what he is: the son of a Saudi billionaire who in the 1970s made a fortune from running one of daddy’s construction firms and drove a white Chrysler, but then went all religious and decided that capitalism is not very nice. If he’d been born in the Home Counties instead of Riyadh, he would probably have been one of those Eton-educated types who turn their backs on privilege and piss off their parents by becoming smelly hippies who smash up McDonald’s.
Fast forward 10 years to 15 April 2004, and bin Laden is describing Palestine as the ‘real’ issue. If his big issue in 1994 was that backward Saudi Arabia wasn’t quite backward enough for his tastes, then in 2004 it is ‘the destruction and murder of our people’ in Palestine and elsewhere. What changed? It wasn’t that bin Laden suddenly became a selfless warrior fighting for Palestinian freedom but rather that many in the West presumed that 9/11 and other attacks must have been motivated by Palestine and bin Laden took such views on board. Look at how he talks about Palestine in 2004: ‘As for your leaders and their followers, who persistently ignore the real problem, which is the occupation of Palestine….’ That could have come, verbatim, from any number of editorials, comment pieces or blog entries of the post-9/11 period which claimed that Bush and Blair should resolve the ‘real’ issue of the Middle East if they want to do something about al-Qaeda. And what exactly is bin Laden calling for when he accuses Western leaders of ‘ignoring’ the real problem of Palestine? More Western intervention? A better peace process? What?
Even when bin Laden’s statements are liberally peppered with references to Palestine (as often they are), he only mentions it opportunistically and symbolically; there is no real or practical input into Palestinian politics. In 2001, his second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri said: ‘The fact that must be acknowledged is that the issue of Palestine is the cause that has been firing up the feelings of the Muslim nation from Morocco to Indonesia for the past 50 years.’ (3) By 2004, bin Laden has recognised that it also fires up feelings in the West. Indeed, he rather bizarrely calls ‘upon just men [in Europe], especially scholars, media and businessmen, to form a permanent commission to raise awareness among Europeans of the justice of our causes, primarily Palestine, making use of the enormous potential of the media’. That sentence sums up how cynical is bin Laden’s focus on Palestine: it’s an attempt to make an impact on the Western consciousness rather than on the ground in Ramallah. It also shows how much he’s driven by Western-style lingo and politics: he wants a ‘commission’ to ‘raise awareness’ about Palestine through the ‘media’….just what kind of warrior for God is he?
(Bin Laden is directly challenged over his latter adoption of the Palestinian issue. At the start of this collection the editor, Lawrence, claims that ‘Palestine, far from being a late addition to bin Laden’s agenda, was at the centre from the start’. He should have paid closer attention to the Al-Jazeera interview with bin Laden on 21 October 2001, republished in this collection on pages 106-129. The quick-witted al-Jazeera journalist asks why, recently, bin Laden has ‘foregrounded the Palestinian issue and relegated, so to speak, the issue of Saudi Arabia’, which he previously had ‘concentrated’ on. Ever the wily media operator, bin Laden replies: ‘Some of the events of recent times might foreground a certain issue, so we move in that direction, without ignoring the other…’ It is almost as if Lawrence, and perhaps others at Verso, want bin Laden to be a warrior for Palestine, even as the evidence reveals otherwise.)
The shifting justifications for 9/11
Likewise, bin Laden’s justifications for 9/11 are continually moulded and shaped by Western media coverage. At first - on 28 September 2001 - he disavows responsibility for the attacks, instead trying to pin the blame on some dastardly conspiracy within America itself: ‘The United States should trace the perpetrators of these attacks within itself….persons who want to make the present century as a century of conflict between Islam and Christianity so that their own civilisation, nation, country or ideology could survive…. Then there are intelligence agencies in the US, which require billions of dollars of funds from the Congress and the government every year. This [funding issue] was not a big problem [with] the existence of the former Soviet Union but after that the budget of these agencies has been in danger. They needed an enemy…. Is it not that there exists a government within the government in the United States? That secret government must be asked as to who carried out the attacks.’ (Quoted in Faisal Devji, Landscapes of the Jihad.)
A secret government that may have executed the attacks itself in order to get more funding for foreign wars of intervention…sound familiar? Bin Laden could have lifted these explanations from any number of blogs or conspiracy sites that swung into action in the days and weeks after 9/11. Later he claims that 9/11 was in retaliation for Palestine (see above). Later still, he starts banging on about 9/11 as part of a bigger ‘plan to bleed America to the point of bankruptcy, with God’s will’. And guess how he tries to prove that this plan has been a success? Yes, by once again pilfering Western media coverage. On 21 October 2001, he says:
‘I say that the events that happened on 11 September are truly great events by any measure…. The daily income of the American nation is $20 billion. The first week [after the attack] they didn’t work at all as a result of the psychological shock of the attack, and even today some still don’t work because of it. So if you multiply $20 billion by one week, it comes to $140 billion…. The cost of building and construction losses? Let us say more than $30 billion. So far they have fired or liquidated more than 170,000 employees from airline companies, including airfreight companies and commercial airlines…. One of the well-known American hotel companies, Intercontinental, has fired 20,000 employees, thanks to God’s grace….’
And on it goes. Can you see what bin Laden is doing here? He has not been ‘wonderfully briefed’ by al-Qaeda’s resident economist, if it has such a thing; rather, he is cherry-picking from the various scare stories and predictions of doom - and indeed real job losses - that were splashed across the media in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and claiming ownership of them, as if they were all part of his plot. Also in October 2001, he cites ‘American studies and analysis [which] have mentioned that 70 per cent of the American people are still suffering from depression and psychological trauma as a result of the [attacks]’. Here, he takes a very contemporary Western phenomenon - the notion that post-traumatic stress disorder necessarily follows all tragic events - and celebrates it as part of his effort to ‘degrade’ the United States. He attempts to attach meaning to his nihilistic assault retrospectively - first by borrowing the Palestine explanation from Western commentators, and then by citing the economic handwringing that also was widespread in the Western media.
Hilariously, bin Laden even favourably quotes the Royal Institute for International Affairs - the heart of British diplomatic and foreign policy circles. On 29 October 2004, he argues that Bush officials, by going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11 and therefore inflicting further hardship on their own military and economy, are actually helping al-Qaeda to bleed America dry, saying: ‘To some analysts and diplomats, it seems as if we and the White House are on the same team shooting at the United States’ own goal, despite our different intentions. These and other such ideas were referred to by a British diplomat at the Royal Institute for International Affairs….’
Suddenly, on 15 April 2004, in a message headlined in this collection ‘To the peoples of Europe’, bin Laden starts talking about security. He says, ‘It is well known that security is a vital necessity for every human being’, and says ‘sensible people would not let their leaders compromise their security’. These are weird words indeed from a man who okays the planting of bombs in civilian-populated areas - until you realise that this statement is made shortly after the Madrid train bombings of 11 March 2004, when European officials and commentators kickstarted a debate about tightening security around the continent. Bin Laden again feeds off Western concerns. In this same statement he also mentions ‘opinion polls showing that most people in Europe want peace’ in contrast to the ‘White House gang…making billions of dollars for the big corporations’. Once again: what kind of fighter for Allah needs to cite Western opinion polls to justify his war against Mammon?
Bin Laden and the Bush-bashers
Bin Laden’s parroting of Western views is most stark in his later statements about Iraq. Here, he sounds like a cross between Michael Moore and Robert Fisk, with a bit of Koran-bashing thrown in for good measure. In a statement dated 29 October 2004, one bit in particular made me laugh: bin Laden seems to suggest that the weapons inspectors in Iraq should have been given more time before the rush to war! He says:
‘…American thinkers and intellectuals warned Bush before the war that everything he needed to guarantee America’s security by removing weapons of mass destruction - assuming they existed - was at his disposal, that all countries were with him when it came to inspections, and that America’s interest did not require him to launch into a groundless war with unknown repercussions. But the black gold blinded him and he put his own private interests ahead of the American public interest….’
The above statement is like a microcosm of the trendy liberal argument against the war in Iraq: we should have let the weapons inspectors continue their job (bin Laden for Blix!) but because Bush is so addicted to oil (the ‘black gold’) he went ahead with the war anyway. Bin Laden even worries about the war having ‘unknown repercussions’, an echo of debates in the West about the unpredictability of war in Iraq and the concern that it might make all of us less rather than more safe. No wonder bin Laden namechecks ‘American thinkers and intellectuals’ - he got his political position on Iraq directly from them.
By the time of Iraq, bin Laden - who started out as a Saudi obsessive who wanted to make Saudi society even more chokingly religious - has become a fully-fledged Bush-basher, virtually indistinguishable from a new generation of journos and bloggers who see Bush as the most evil president ever and Iraq as the wickedest war of all time (they have short historical memories). He rants that ‘this war is making billions of dollars for the big corporations, whether it be those who manufacture weapons or reconstruction firms like Halliburton and its offshoot and sister companies’. Halliburton has, of course, become the bete noir of the anti-capitalist-cum-anti-war movement. Bin Laden says: ‘It is all too clear, then, who benefits most from stirring up this war and bloodshed: the merchants of war, the bloodsuckers who direct world policy from behind the scenes.’ This is also a popular idea on today’s anti-war left: that a wicked cabal led by Paul Wolfowtiz and Dick Cheney (both of whom have big business links) is leading America to war. (Indeed, I tried my best to find some differences between that sentence uttered by bin Laden and this one uttered by anti-Bush actor Woody Harrelson - ‘the epidemic of all human rights violations all stems from the same sick source, and that is The Beast: these giant frigging industries that control the body politic, our society and certainly our economy’ - but I had no luck.) (4)
Also on Iraq, Bin Laden rails against ‘big media’ (a term created on the Blogosphere to describe news corporations and mainstream newspapers) and describes Bush as ‘the liar in the White House’. He also denounces the nepotism of the Bush clan, saying ‘Bush Snr saw the benefits of making his sons state governors’, and criticises George W Bush for ‘falsifying elections’ in Florida. This doesn’t quite add up, does it? After all, bin Laden got his fortune courtesy of family connections, and he’s hardly in a position to lecture anybody about democracy: he’s never been elected by anyone and often complains about the thick Muslim masses who fail to rise up against their American and local oppressors. Indeed, al-Qaeda was born of a distinctly anti-masses sentiment among former Arab Mujahideen and Egyptian Islamists. Bin Laden is such a shameless plagiarist that he will even take up the popular pastime of bashing the Bushes over the Florida thing and their political-family ties even though similar accusations of anti-democracy and nepotism could be made against him (and then some).
So many of bin Laden’s statements are peppered with references to ‘intellectuals’, ‘thinkers’, ‘analysts’, ‘diplomats’, ‘writers’ and so on - most of them Western, rather than Eastern mystics, and all of whose work he has ripped off. Indeed, he gives the game away with two statements in particular. In the first (on 29 October 2004) he advises the White House to read ‘Robert Fisk, who is a fellow [Westerner] and a co-religionist of yours, but one whom I consider unbiased’. Indeed, he ‘dares’ the White House to ‘interview [Fisk], so that he could explain to the American people everything he has learned from us about the reasons for our struggle’. Note that this Islamic warrior doesn’t encourage the White House to read the Koran if they want to know the truth, but Robert Fisk: the Independent columnist who is known for his (often shrill) anti-war arguments.
In the second statement (also on 29 October 2004) bin Laden chastises Bush for leaving ‘50,000 of his citizens in the two towers to face this great horror on their own’, because he considered ‘a little girl’s story about a goat and its butting [to be] more important than dealing with aeroplanes and their butting into skyscrapers’. What is he rabbiting on about? You’ll know if you’ve seen, or read about, Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, which opens with painful footage of Bush reading a story called ‘My Pet Goat’ to a classroom of kids on the morning of 9/11 while the planes hit the twin towers. Maybe bin Laden watched a pirate DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11; maybe he just read about the opening scene somewhere on the web. Either way, he seems yet again to borrow from an anti-Americanism that has its origins in the West.
Bin Laden’s cynical shift from anti-Crusader to Bush-basher is summed up in the contrast between a statement made on 3 November 2001 (here titled ‘Crusader wars’) and one made on 29 October 2004 (‘The towers of Lebanon’). In the first he talks in broad terms about the Crusader West, including the United Nations, and how they are trying to reconquer Islamic lands; in the second, made three years later, he barks on about Bush, Bush, Bush, this evil man and his evil family who are trying to bleed the world dry. His political posturing is very clearly and directly shaped by changes among the oppositional left in the West, which transformed between 9/11 and Iraq into a narrowly anti-Bush camp, laying the blame for the world’s ill at the foot of one man.
Al-Qaeda: sustained by a cynical left
Bin Laden is not an ‘eloquent preacher’ or ‘teacher’ or ‘wonderfully briefed politician’: he is a glorified blogger - a blogger with bombs on, if you like. Like bloggers he is parasitical on the media (while at the same time slating ‘big media’) and he’s always commenting on others’ comments rather than saying anything original or distinct; where bloggers spend too much time in their bedrooms and communicate with the world through proclamations on their websites, bin Laden spends his days in a cave or hovel somewhere and communicates with the world through video or audio messages (which often are reproduced on pro-al-Qaeda websites).
In a nutshell, bin Laden steals from and quotes Western commentators in his justifications for al-Qaeda violence, and then Western commentators re-quote bin Laden’s rehashing of their own arguments as evidence that al-Qaeda is a rational political organisation. Talk about a vicious cycle. In the process, some commentators get dangerously close to being apologists for al-Qaeda. In the introduction to this collection, editor Bruce Lawrence asks ‘Should bin Laden…be described as a contemporary anti-imperialist fighter adaptive to the Information Age?’ He answers his own question by quoting Michael Mann (whom he describes as ‘one of the most level-headed of sociologists’). Mann says: ‘Despite the religious rhetoric and the bloody means, bin Laden is a rational man. There is a simple reason why he attacked the US: American imperialism. As long as America seeks to control the Middle East, he and people like him will be its enemy.’
What these commentators don’t seem to realise is that they provided bin Laden with the cloak of rationality and political reasoning. Their own arguments, often cynically made, about al-Qaeda being an understandable (if bloody and murderous) response to American imperialism have been co-opted - explicitly so - by bin Laden. Indeed, if the Bush administration’s scaremongering about al-Qaeda provided bin Laden with the kind of notoriety that made him a global player (in short, the Bushies’ warnings about a terrible terror threat to Western civilisation became a self-fulfilling prophecy), then the anti-war left’s opportunistic claims about al-Qaeda being some kind of rational resistance provided him with the moral authority to continue his bloody campaign. As I argued on spiked in November 2003, ‘Fearful Western officials made “al-Qaeda” - whatever that might be - into an instantly recognisable, frightening, global phenomenon’ (see Does al-Qaeda exist?, by Brendan O’Neill). Now we have a situation where the critics and opponents of those Western officials are helping to keep al-Qaeda chugging along by handing it a rationale for its terrorism and apologising for its antics.
Instead of exposing the glaring contradictions in bin Laden’s statements - all the better to undermine al-Qaeda’s violent outbursts and put the real case for a Palestinian homeland and an end to Western intervention in the Middle East - too many on the left read meaning and consistency into his statements, projecting their own political prejudices on to the ranting of a bearded man in a cave. As a result, what is in truth a disparate nihilistic campaign, an incoherent lashing out against modernity, is given the cloth of ‘anti-imperialism’ with which to dress up its crimes.
It is no longer enough to see al-Qaeda as the creation of the pro-war right, who blew the group out of proportion and gave it a place on the world stage. Al-Qaeda is also sustained by sections of the anti-war left who provide it with moral and political substance. This collection of bin Laden’s statements reveals that al-Qaeda is the bastard child of a fearmongering right and an opportunistic left.
Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website.
spiked-issue: War on terror
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(1) Evil yes, mad no, Peter Preston, Guardian, 13 November 2005
(2) Michael Mann, quoted in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, Verso, 2005
(3) See Osama bin Laden: more media whore than guerrilla warrior, by Brendan O’Neill
(4) Woody Harrelson, quoted in ‘Hollywood’s angry young man’, Benjamin Davis, New Statesman, 5 December 2005