This morning an audiotape attributed to Osama bin Laden appeared, directly addressing the American people. It appears to be vintage bin Laden, a major improvement over recent al-Qaeda communications and potentially a signal of a new stage in its strategic efforts. Bin Laden focuses almost exclusively on political issues of concern to ordinary Muslims and Arabs -- especially the Palestinian issue and to a lesser extent Afghanistan -- and abstains from ideological discussion or salafi-jihadist jargon. It deserves attention in ways which many recent al-Qaeda communications have not.
Getting a copy proved surprisingly frustrating. So many of the major jihadist forums are now down that it has become a challenge to find these videos even when they are well-advertised. And oddly, while SITE had it immediately, the most important jihadist forum al-Ekhlaas, which mysteriously reappeared the other day after a long absence, did not even have the link as of this morning. When I did find it on one of the remaining forums and tried to download it, a large number of the links were already closed down, and then four different versions which I managed to download failed to launch. I mention all of this not just to complain (okay, maybe a little), but to point out the growing problems that al-Qaeda really does have with its distribution mechanisms.
The video itself is not really a video -- it is an 11 minute audio over a static background. That's par for the course for bin Laden. The voice more or less sounds like the bin Laden I've heard on other tapes, but I'm no expert on authentication. By far the most important technical point about the tape is this: no English-language subtitles were offered on the video version. Al-Sahab productions very often provide such subtitles. For them to be absent in a video ostensibly produced as a direct message to the American people is frankly quite odd. Does it suggest degraded capabilities? Poor judgement? I really don't know, but it's worth noting.
The speech itself represents a vintage bin Laden appeal to the mainstream Muslim world, with a heavy focus on Israel and the suffering of the Palestinians and very little reference to salafi-jihadist ideology. This is important, because one of the reasons for al-Qaeda's recent decline has been its general exposure -- or branding, if you prefer -- as an extreme salafi-jihadist movement rather than as an avatar of Muslim resistance. It has lost ground from the brutality and ideological extremism of its chosen representatives in Iraq, because of nationalist outrage over its 'near enemy' attacks in a variety of Arab and Muslim countries, and because of the battles it has chosen with far more popular Islamist movements such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. But this does not mean that it can not learn from its mistakes.
This tape seemingly represents an effort by bin Laden to recapture the mantle of a generalized resistance to the West and to Israel and to downplay the salafi-jihadist tropes so beloved of the jihadist forums. Where the ideologues of the forums eviscerate Hamas, bin Laden speaks in general terms about Palestine. Where the forums obsess over fine points of salafi-jihadist doctrine, bin Laden speaks only about political conflicts in Palestine and Afghanistan. American strategic communications efforts towards the end of the Bush administration and into the Obama administration had considerable success in hurting al-Qaeda's image by making it a debate about them, not about us. It appears that al-Qaeda Central has absorbed this lesson and is attempting to turn the tables and it make it once more about America and Israel.
Bin Laden's heavy focus on Israel is not new, despite the frequent attempts to argue the opposite. He has frequently referred to Israel and the Palestinians since the mid-1990s. Whether he "really" cares about it is besides the point -- he understands, and has always understood, that it is the most potent unifying symbol and rallying point for mainsteam Arab and Muslim audiences. Al-Qaeda and the salafi-jihadists in general hurt themselves quite badly over the last few years with rhetorical attacks on Hamas and with the emergence of the Jund Ansar Allah group in Gaza. Tellingly, bin Laden says nothing of either of these and sticks to generalities about Palestinian suffering and Israeli perfidy.
Bin Laden also quite interestingly forgoes talk of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, and seems more keen to try to exploit internal American divides. His focus on the "Israel lobby" and his call to "liberate" Washington D.C. from the various lobbies and corporations allegedly controlling it is a far cry from a monolothic model of an irredemiably hostile and unified West crusading against Islam.
It's worth noting that bin Laden mentions John Mearsheimer and my Foreign Policy colleague Steve Walt by name as recommended reading. Some of Walt and Mearsheimer's enemies will probably try to use this "endorsement" to discredit them. This would be stupid. Walt and Mearsheimer are no more responsible for how bin Laden uses their words than is Dick Cheney. It should be obvious that Americans shouldn't avoid having a debate about Israel or about Afghan policy just because bin Laden says we should. Shouldn't it?
Towards the end of the tape, bin Laden lays out al-Qaeda's strategy in the weary, patient voice he has often used when saying similar things (compare this to his 2004 tape boasting that he could lead the U.S. by the nose, forcing it to waste millions of dollars simply by waving an al-Qaeda banner in some obscure locale). His presentation of this strategy as a war of attrition is worth quoting (relying on an unofficial translation sent by a twitter-pal):
"Once again, if you stop the war [in Afghanistan], then that is fine. If you choose not to stop the war, then we have no other option but to continue the war of attrition against you on all possible axes, just as we did with the Soviet Union for 10 years until it disintegrated, with the grace of God. Continue the war for as long as you wish. You are fighting a desperate, losing war that is in favor of others. There seems to be no end in sight for this war.
"Russian generals, who learned lessons from the battles in Afghanistan, had anticipated the result of the war before its start, but you do not like those who give you advice. This is a losing war, God willing, as it is funded by money that is borrowed based on exorbitant usury and is fought by soldiers whose morale is down and who commit suicide on a daily basis to escape from this war.
"This war was prescribed to you by two doctors, Cheney and Bush, as a cure for the 11 September events. However, the bitterness and losses caused by this war are worse than the bitterness of the events themselves. The accumulated debts incurred as a result of this war have almost done away with the US economy as a whole. It has been said that disease could be less evil than some medicines.
That this parallels our own internal debate goes without saying. That bin Laden is saying such things should not be a factor one way or another -- the U.S. should figure out the appropriate strategy on its own, not take its lead from al-Qaeda. Does that really need to be said out loud?
Overall, this tape struck me as something significant. Al-Qaeda has been on the retreat for some time. Its response thus far to the Obama administration has been confused and distorted. Ayman al-Zawahiri has floundered with several clumsy efforts to challenge Obama's credibility or to mock his outreach. But bin Laden's intervention here seems far more skillful and likely to resonate with mainstream Arab publics. It suggests that he at least has learned from the organization's recent struggles and is getting back to the basics in AQ Central's "mainstream Muslim" strategy of highlighting political grievances rather than ideological purity and putting the spotlight back on unpopular American policies. Several recent commentaries by leading Arab analysts - including today's column by the influential al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abd al-Bari Atwan [UPDATE: translation of column here]-- suggest that this may be paying off. American strategic communications efforts will need to up their game too.
FOLLOW-UP AND COMMENT: Jarret Brachman, formerly of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, argues that bin Laden's speech is just more of the same -- consistent bin Laden points presented in the new approach which Zawahiri and friends have been developing. Very interesting, but Brachman overstates his case -- the new presentation of old themes is significant if it improves the reception of al-Qaeda arguments. And he's right that bin Laden himself has often hit these themes, but other less effective AQ spokesmen have taken the message in other directions. Also see: Gregg Carlstrom, Spencer Ackerman.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.