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    Middle East
     Jun 9, 2006
Bin Laden's jihadi spring
By Michael Scheuer

Over the past two years, US and other Western commentators have concluded that Osama bin Laden is largely irrelevant as the leader of the worldwide Sunni insurgency. Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, for example, has said that "by now it is surely clear that al-Qaeda can produce videotapes but not terrorism ... And the bad guys are losing."

James S Dobbins at The National Review said that bin Laden "made many threats of course, but was never able to back them up, creating an unbridgeable credibility gap". The new US Central Intelligence Agency chief, General Michael Hayden, has described bin Laden's recent audio tapes as a public relations campaign to prove he is still alive. "These attempts," Hayden

said, "may be an attempt on their part [bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri] to kind of re-establish authenticity with their followers."

Finally, from Sarah Lawrence College, Fawaz Gerges all but dismisses bin Laden's relevance, arguing that "we are in the throes of the beginning of a new wave [in the Muslim world] - the freedom generation - in which civil society is asserting itself". In short, these arguments assert that the situation has improved.

Well, maybe. The issue of bin Laden's continued relevance as a major leader of Sunni militancy - and as an enemy of the West - can surely be assessed through the lens these authors used. Put most simply, this lens is built on the assumptions that bin Laden leads a gang of criminals who have hijacked Islam and is nihilistically attacking the US because they hate democracy, freedom, elections and gender equality.

Based on this analysis, the above-noted quotations suggest that a US-led victory over al-Qaeda is in the offing because bin Laden's popularity is withering and because there has been no al-Qaeda attack inside the United States since September 11, 2001.

The purpose of this article is not to attack either the distinguished individuals quoted or the views and analyses they put forth. The tent under which attempts are made to understand bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the threat they pose must be a large one that accommodates a broad range of heated but civil debate.

The point of this piece is to examine where bin Laden might believe he and al-Qaeda stand vis-a-vis his primary goals today, nearly 10 years after his late-August 1996 declaration of war on the US.

This is an opportune moment to try to view the war from bin Laden's perspective, as the West is sorting out the broader meaning of last week's major police actions against al-Qaeda-inspired Islamists in the United Kingdom and Canada.

It often comes as a surprise to people to discover that bin Laden has never claimed that al-Qaeda can or would defeat the US, much less that al-Qaeda's goal was to destroy the "American way of life" or "Western civilization". He is not a man given to grandiose pronouncements and has limited his goal to incrementally increasing the pain inflicted on the US and its allies to force them to disengage from the Middle East to the greatest extent possible.

If achieved, bin Laden believes, this would then allow al-Qaeda and its allies to focus on its main targets: the tyrannies that rule most Arab states, and the State of Israel.

In examining where bin Laden thinks he stands in attaining this goal, it is also vital to understand that he has never claimed that al-Qaeda could achieve this goal by itself. Quite the contrary, he has consistently maintained that al-Qaeda is only the vanguard of the large-scale movement that is needed to achieve this goal. The working title of my first book on al-Qaeda was Allah's Humble Incendiary. That title was not used, but I believe that it remains a useful shorthand summary of the role bin Laden seeks for himself and al-Qaeda in the present war.

He intends to be the instigator and inspirer of Muslims to follow the path of jihad and aims to agitate their souls until they do so. Even in this, he claims no original role for himself, explaining that he is honored to "provide our ummah [community] with the inspiration it requires" [1] because "Allah asked it from the best of humans, the Prophet". [2]

It is in this context that bin Laden assesses the current status of the effort he publicly launched in 1996. "I must say," bin Laden re-emphasized just after the September 11 attacks in the US, "that my duty is just to awaken Muslims, to tell them what is good for them and what is not ... Al-Qaeda was set up to wage jihad against infidelity, particularly to encounter the onslaught of infidel countries against the Islamic states. Jihad is the sixth undeclared element of Islam. Every anti-Islamic element is afraid of it. Al-Qaeda wants to keep this element alive and active and make it part of the daily lives of Muslims. It wants to give it the status of worship." [3]

If bin Laden is taken at his word - that his goal is to incite Muslims to jihad and that he and al-Qaeda will not and cannot be the sole agent forcing substantial US disengagement from the Middle East - some of the judgments of the individuals quoted above become problematic. It also makes irrelevant the argument by some commentators and government officials that bin Laden is losing control of international Sunni militancy.

The reality is that he has never sought universal command-and-control and has always tried to foment widespread, anti-Western Islamist violence that would need nothing from al-Qaeda except inspiration. Indeed, the data surfacing since last week's disruption of what appears to have been preparations for major terrorist attacks in Britain and Canada - perhaps a chemical attack in the UK - strongly suggest that bin Laden's unrelenting focus on instigation and agitation is having an impact among Muslims worldwide.

Some will correctly argue that last week's events are not enough to validate the contention that bin Laden is succeeding in his main goal of instigation. The aborted operations in London and Toronto, however, are both said to have been inspired by bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Moreover, they are two more in a series of events that now stretch back over more than three years. Kuwaiti Islamists, for example, said that the attack that killed one US marine and wounded another before the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a gift to bin Laden.

In the same period, a Yemeni cleric killed a senior member of Yemen's socialist party and announced the same motivation as the Kuwaitis. More recently, the bombers who hit Madrid's Atocha train station in March 2003 and London's transit system last July, as well as the Islamist militant cell taken down by Australian authorities in late 2005, are said to have been inspired by al-Qaeda's example.

Even in such places as Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta and the teeming cities of Bangladesh, Islamist leaders claim to have been inspired by bin Laden. In each of these events and places, national authorities have yet to document direct training, financial or command-and-control links to al-Qaeda; indeed, in the case of the actual and thwarted attacks, the required training appears to have been done in the country where the attack occurred.

In addition, Islamist leaders in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Jerusalem in 2005-06 declared the formation of insurgent organizations that have pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda and the goals enunciated by bin Laden.

Other incidents also suggest the viability of bin Laden's clear intention to incite Muslims by keeping them focused on what the US and Europe do in the Muslim world, and not on how they conduct their domestic political and social affairs.

Islamist networks established to recruit Muslims to fight US-led forces in Iraq, for example, have been found in France, Belgium, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. European intelligence officers have said that up to 1,000 European Muslims have been sent to fight in Iraq; British officials claim that up to 150 Muslims from the UK alone have gone to Iraq.

In these cases, Europe-born Muslims - some third-generation - and local converts have been attracted and motivated by the Iraqi jihad, a cause that for Islamists pivots on the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, and not on opposition to elections, democracy and liberty. They will return home, moreover, with significant military skills and imbued with the jihadi spirit. [4]

Taken at his own word, then, it seems likely that bin Laden is quite pleased with where he and al-Qaeda stand a decade after declaring war. This is not to say that US military and intelligence forces have not hurt al-Qaeda; they have, although not to the catastrophic extent some claim.

It is to say, however, that bin Laden's main goal of using his words, al-Qaeda's actions and a tight focus on what the US does in the Islamic world to instigate Muslims to join the anti-US jihad has not only found traction, but is increasingly successful worldwide.

Today, the US and Europe are not only confronted by a still undefeated al-Qaeda, but by an increasing number of Muslims in their own populations who - inspired and religiously agitated by bin Laden - are prepared to pick up arms and spend their lives to act on that inspiration.

1. "Exclusive Transcript of Previously Unaired Interview with Osama bin Laden", Qoqaz (Internet), May 23, 2002.
2. "Exposing the New Crusader War - Osama bin Laden - February 2003", Waaqiah (Internet), February 14, 2003.
3. "Interview with Osama bin Laden", Ummat, September 28, 2001.
4. Sydney Morning Herald, January 7; BBC News, January 12; Washington Post, February 18; The Sunday Times, June 4.

Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years before resigning in 2004. He served as the chief of the bin Laden unit at the Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999. He is the once-anonymous author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror and Through Our Enemies' Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)

(Copyright 2006 The Jamestown Foundation.)

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