Osama bin Laden has released a new tape to al-Jazeera claiming responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing, linking it to Gaza and declaring that America would not be secure until Palestinians were truly secure. Bin Laden's ability to frame an entire tape around a failed bombing attempt demonstrates how badly the American public's over-reaction played into al-Qaeda's hands. It should not be surprising that bin Laden would claim responsibility on behalf of al-Qaeda Central or threaten new attacks, whether or not it's actually true. And it should not be surprising that bin Laden would link the attempted attack to the Palestinian issue, since contrary to common American claims he almost always does talk about the Palestinian issue. Still, there are a few noteworthy points about the new bin Laden tape.
It is interesting that bin Laden released the tape directly to al-Jazeera rather than uploading it to the jihadist forums. The video and transcript are not yet available on the forums; instead there is an administrative note warning that only an official al-Fajr production should be considered authoritative, perhaps in response to what happened a few years ago when the clips from a bin Laden tape sent to al-Jazeera created the wrong impression about the thrust of his comments on Iraq. Many of those forums have been down recently, and more broadly over the last couple of years they have become increasingly unreliable --- many of the top-tier forums have either been shut down or have been forced to migrate repeatedly, which has undermined their reach and credibility. Satellite TV has always been better than internet forums for reaching the mass Arab public, as bin Laden wants to do, as opposed to the base-mobilizing qualities of the forums.
The Arab media's coverage of the bin Laden tape overwhelmingly focuses on his remarks about Israel and the Palestinians. Without access to a full transcript, it's impossible to know whether this was actually his primary focus or whether al-Jazeera chose those clips to highlight to fit its own narrative. But either way, it shouldn't be a surprise. Bin Laden has always spoken about the Palestinian issue and has always sought to use it to reach out to the mass Arab and Muslim public. Palestinians, for the most part, want nothing to do with al-Qaeda. A recent paper by the Washington Institute's Matthew Levitt and former Shin Bet leader Yoram Cohen (neither exactly known as apologists for Hamas) demonstrated the opposition between Hamas and salafi-jihadist groups. As much as al-Qaeda would like to have an effective Palestinian franchise, it has not been able to gain a foothold in either the West Bank or Gaza.
A lot of ink has been spilled since 9/11 trying to argue that bin Laden doesn't really care about Palestine. But that's always been silly -- nobody knows what he "really" cares about, and it doesn't especially matter since he talks about it a lot and presents it as a major part of his case against the United States. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement surely would not convince bin Laden or al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements to give up their jihad --- but it would take away one of their most potent arguments, and one of the few that actually resonates with mass publics. This is why Obama was right to put dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue at the center of his Middle East foreign policy, regardless of whether Israeli or Palestinian leaders are serious about it. It is one of the many reasons why his team's failure to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and ignoring Gaza, is dangerous for American national security interests. Like the failure to close Guantanamo, the issue isn't that it will or won't change the minds of al-Qaeda jihadists. It's that the failure badly hurts U.S. credibility with the mainstream Arab and Muslim audiences that he most needs to reach, entrenching a twin narrative of Obama being no different from Bush and not matching his words with deeds, while giving extremists an argument against the U.S. that resonates widely.
Al-Jazeera screen capture, January 24, 2010
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.