Sleeping with the enemy
Bush and bin Laden need each other as much as they despise each other.
Why don’t President Bush and Osama bin Laden just get a room? Judging from events over the weekend, they need each other as much as they despise each other. The latest crackly tape issued by bin Laden (if it’s him) confirms that al-Qaeda has no independent programme or war aims, but merely feeds off Western fears. And Bush’s response – ‘the bin Laden tape [shows] this is still a dangerous world’ – suggests that his administration will leap on any squeak from the man on the mountain to justify the war on terror. B&B are more and more like a parasitical double act.
For all the ‘Bin Laden is back’ headlines, the new tape, aired on al-Jazeera on 18 October 2003, shows the extent to which al-Qaeda now lives off Western insecurities. Having failed to launch an attack anywhere in the West since the ‘spectacular’ of 9/11, nihilistic terrorists play off the West’s fear of attack as a way of making an impact. Indeed, in the absence of a political or military programme – and feeling the squeeze of the Afghan war and arrests in Pakistan – al-Qaeda seems increasingly to be sustained by Western anxieties. Its weapon of choice is now Western fear itself, turned back against the West.
Western commentators leapt upon the tape’s threat to attack Britain as evidence that we cannot be complacent. The voice on the tape says ‘we maintain our right to reply’ to those who supported the war in Iraq, including Britain. Yet the British authorities have been talking up a potential al-Qaeda attack for months. Last month, Sir John Stevens of the Metropolitan Police said an al-Qaeda attack in the UK is ‘almost inevitable’, especially after the war in Iraq. Prime minister Tony Blair has also said, ‘I think it is inevitable that [al-Qaeda] will try to attack us’ (1). Now Bin Laden, or whoever, seems to be exploiting these fears by namechecking Britain in his list of dream (on) targets.
The tape also struck fear into some by praising the ‘resistance’ in Iraq, the ‘blessed jihad’ against American and British forces. According to some journalists, this confirms that al-Qaeda has played some role in what is taking place inside postwar Iraq. Maybe – or maybe the man on the tape is opportunistically taking the credit for attacks that no one else has claimed. Again, it was Western politicians and journalists who first labelled the anti-coalition attacks in Iraq as a ‘new jihad’, which al-Qaeda might be orchestrating. As a newspaper headline put it just last month: ‘In Iraq, the hand of al-Qaeda?’ Bin Laden (or whoever) now seems to be saying ‘yes please, we’ll have some of that….’ (2)
As for al-Qaeda’s politics – judging from the tape, bin Laden’s opposition to America is copied and pasted from the arguments of the West’s own anti-war lobby. The voice says Bush and Blair ‘lied to the whole world’ about the need to invade Iraq – tapping into the WMD and Hutton controversies that have shaken America and Britain since the war ended in April. The voice also says that Bush told lies to ‘conceal his own greed’, which was for ‘Iraq and its oil’ (3). Far from having a clear programme, the man on the tape merely repeats the tired Western slogan ‘It’s all about oil!’, which has become a catch-all device for denouncing Bush and Blair’s war in Iraq.
The latest tape confirms that it is we in the West who make al-Qaeda into the big bad threat of international affairs. Many instantly accept that ‘bin Laden tapes’ are genuine, even before they have been tested, interpreting the grainy messages as a sign of terrible things to come. It is this kind of response that gives the tapes, and those who make them, their power. Like the proverbial tree in a forest, if we were to ignore bin Laden’s messages they probably wouldn’t make much noise. By leaping on them, reading into them, sweating and fretting over them, Western commentators allow the mysterious voices to have a disproportionate impact.
Completing the circle, President Bush cited ‘the bin Laden tape’ (two days before CIA officials confirmed that it was ‘most likely’ a bin Laden tape) as justification for continuing the war on terror. ‘This is still a dangerous world’, said Bush. ‘The bin Laden tape should say to everybody the war on terror goes on, that there’s still a danger for free nations and that free nations need to work together more than ever….’ Bush is currently in Asia for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, where he pointed to the alleged bin Laden tape as a way of pressuring Asian leaders to ‘sign a new security package, and issue a strong statement against terrorism, agreeing that economics and security are inseparable’ (4).
What kind of leader of the free world needs a grainy tape allegedly made by a man on the run (and reportedly attached to a dialysis machine) to justify his international mission and sway world leaders? It seems that, just as bin Laden opportunistically taps into Western anxiety in order to appear a bigger threat than he really is, so an uncertain Bush cites bin Laden to convince us that terror is still alive – and that America still has a role.
Bush and bin Laden may be after each other’s blood, but they’d miss each other in the long run.
spiked-issue: War on terror
(1) Recruiting by al-Qaeda ‘means bombs in the UK’, Guardian, 4 September 2003
(2) In Iraq, the hand of al-Qaeda?, Christian Science Monitor, 11 September 2003
(3) ‘Bin Laden’ messages: full text, BBC News, 18 October 2003
(4) Bush calls on Asia to renew support for war on terror, Daily Telegraph, 20 October 2003