The opportunism of a caveman

By latching on to the ‘heroic’ Pantsman, bin Laden proved he is an attention-seeking exploiter of Western anxiety.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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How desperate can Osama bin Laden get? It’s understandable, I guess. Holed up in some cave on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border with nothing but a camcorder and a copy of The Koran for Beginners, the increasing lack of public attention must be galling for this most shameless of self-publicists. But surely even the Bearded One can find a more impressive bandwagon to jump aboard than that of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the saddo who apparently failed to detonate his knickers aboard a flight to Detroit this Christmas?

Well no, it seems not. ‘The message I want to convey to you through the plane of the hero Umar Farouk, reaffirms a previous message that the heroes of 9/11 conveyed to you’, trumpeted bin Laden in a recording given to Arabian TV channel Al Jazeera on Sunday. Despite bin Laden’s grand tone, the reality was somewhat different. This was not some sort of Odysseus-like achievement, but the act of a lonely but rich Liverpool-supporting student who, having grown tired of masturbating, allegedly decided he was going to embark on a mini-Jihad which involved sewing explosives into his pants and causing a bit of a fuss on a plane flight. What message is being sent here is unclear, aside from the importance of non-flammable smalls. None of this seems to have stopped bin Laden, however. ‘America will never dream of living in peace unless we live it in Palestine’, he continues: ‘It is unfair that you enjoy a safe life while our brothers in Gaza suffer greatly. God willing, our raids on you will continue as long as your support to the Israelis will continue.’

All the standard bin Laden guff is there: The informal mode of address to ‘you’ the American people; the exploitation of the plight of the Palestinians; the anti-Israeli sentiment-cum-conspiracy-theory; and, of course, the mentions of Him upstairs. But bin Laden’s latest video missive also has more than a hint of neediness. He wants what he increasingly no longer has: the world’s attention, our fearful respect. Hence, in an flailing attempt to regain it, he’s prepared to at least endorse, if not completely claim responsibility for, Pantsman, a hero for anti-masturbationists everywhere. As a US State Department spokesman concluded, ‘he’s trying to continue to appear relevant’. And, like Paul McCartney, failing.

Not that bin Laden’s latest attempt at wresting the limelight from Pantsman has been entirely without success. On Sunday, following bin Laden’s ‘Letter from a cave’, UK foreign secretary David Miliband was still prepared to talk of al-Qaeda and bin Laden as if they were a force in the world, rather than just on video-sharing websites. It was ‘an attack on the West rather than an attack within the Middle East’, he said of Pantsman’s scorched nethers, clearly believing them to be part of some vast al-Qaeda operation rather than the product of the frustrated imagination of a lonely 23-year-old with enough parental cash to take a trip to Yemen for so-called terror training. The willingness to create the al-Qaeda terrorist threat is still, it seems, as strong as ever in some quarters of New Labour.

Generally, however, there has been an air of ridicule around bin Laden’s attempt to associate himself with Pantsman. Given the widespread acceptance that he had nothing to with bin Laden, one news site even ran with satirical headline, ‘Bin Laden Claims Responsibility for Balloon Boy Hoax’. That bin Laden is now a source of humour, not terror, doesn’t simply reveal his irrelevance, or even his own consciousness of his irrelevance. Rather, it reveals what bin Laden always was: a painful tribute act to Western fears.

In the past, no element of Western self-loathing was alien to bin Laden. There was criticism of consumerism, attacks on the exploitation of women, and an objection to America’s destruction of nature through ‘industrial waste and gases’. Couple all this with talk of the Israeli influence on US foreign policy, a smattering of anti-big business sentiment, and it shows just how boundless was bin Laden’s ability to parrot back an angst born and bred in the West not the Middle East. He was always open about his opportunism, too. Asked by an Al Jazeera journalist in 2002 why he had suddenly decided to focus on Palestine, at the cost of his previous cause, Saudi Arabia, he responded: ‘Some of the events of recent times might foreground a certain issue, so we move in that direction, without ignoring the other.’ In other words, he fastened on to whatever he thought was the more fashionable issue.

Bin Laden’s craving for a Western audience is still driving him to continue to try to exploit Western anxiety. This time, however, he has not seized upon an object of terror or angst, whether the environment or Israeli-Palestinian relations. He has happened upon Pantsman, an object of derision. In doing so, he exposes himself as what he always was: a figure whose significance depended less on what he himself is or does than his ability to become what the West fears.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Faisal Devji viewed Osama bin Laden as a celebrity terrorist of the MTV era. Brendan O’Neill wondered if bin Laden is an environmentalist and suggested that al-Qaeda’s leaders have picked up on the Western politics of victimhood. He also thought bin Laden was little more than a media whore. Philip Hammond concluded that al-Qaeda is neither big nor clever. Tim Black looked at bin Laden’s cut-and-paste terrorism. Or read more at spiked issue War on Terror

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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