Osama bin Laden's latest message to the world, broadcast by al-Jazeera last Thursday, provoked the same sense of déjà vu as has Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama bin Laden, recently published by the left-leaning literary publishing house Verso. The book is a collection of every public utterance made by the al-Qaeda leader between 1994 and 2004, and according to one excitable reviewer it shows that he is a "charismatic man of action, an eloquent preacher, a teacher of literature and a resilient, cunning, wonderfully briefed politician." To me, however, there was something irritatingly familiar rather than surprisingly eloquent about his tone and turns of phrase.
Then it struck me: Bin Laden is a blogger. Not literally, of course, but he certainly speaks in the language of the blogosphere. He references Robert Fisk and Michael Moore, those darlings of the anti-war Web. In his latest statement, he recommends that people read Rogue State by leftist author William Blum, another favorite of the leftwing blogosphere whose email newsletter, "Anti-Empire Report," is frequently republished and discussed. Bin Laden also repeats conspiracy theories about 9/11 and lines of attack against Bush that I have read a thousand times on a thousand blogs.
It is often said that the blogging explosion was a byproduct of the 9/11 attacks, as people launched online diaries to try to make sense of those shocking events. Here's a thought: Perhaps bin Laden himself turned to the blogosphere after 9/11, in search of theories and arguments with which he might justify his murderous assault.
The latest statement reveals the extent to which bin Laden borrows from Western discussions of the Middle East. This seems less a man with a clear religious or political agenda than someone who is parasitical on the fear and loathing of his enemies. Indeed, bin Laden has scolded President Bush for ignoring "U.S. opinion polls which [indicate] that the overwhelming majority of you want the withdrawal of the forces from Iraq." He seems a little obsessed by opinion polls. Shortly after the Madrid train bombings in March 2004, he cited "opinion polls showing that most people in Europe want peace." What kind of warrior for God needs to conjure up the authority of opinion polls—rather than, say, the authority of Allah—to justify himself?
This latest message also talks about the "psychological pressure" on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, criticizes the news media for not showing the truth about the war, and cites humanitarian reports on conditions at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It contains very little about religious or political first principles; instead bin Laden leaps upon Western doubts about Bush's venture in Iraq and makes them his own.
Bin Laden's reliance on Western theorizing about the reasons for al-Qaeda's existence and actions is clear in Messages to the World. Reading his statements from 1994 to 2004 one can see clearly that he transforms himself from a religious crank obsessed by Saudi Arabia (circa 1994) to a self-described warrior for Palestine (around 2001 and 2002) to finally a fully-fledged Bush-basher (2004 onwards). His campaign is shaped less by his own program of ideas or aims than it is by the West's interpretation of that campaign.
In 1994 bin Laden's big concern was that his birthplace, Saudi Arabia, wasn't chokingly religious enough for his liking. By 2001, however, he was defining himself as a fighter for Palestine. When a quick-witted al-Jazeera journalist challenged him about that shift, bin Laden explained: "Some of the events of recent times might foreground a certain issue, so we move in that direction…." Here's a more plausible account: Numerous commentators in the West presumed (with little evidence) that 9/11 was payback for American policy in the Middle East, and especially its support for Israel against Palestine, and bin Laden, previously a Saudi obsessive, adopted those arguments as his own.
His justifications for 9/11 also changed in tune with Western theories. At first, in September 2001, he disavowed responsibility for 9/11, instead pinning the blame on some dastardly conspiracy within America itself. He talked about "a government within the government in the United States" which may have facilitated the attacks because "there are intelligence agencies in the US which require billions of dollars of funds from the Congress and the government every year." Such theories will sound familiar to anyone who happened upon conspiracy-theory websites or some of the wackier blogs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. By October, bin Laden was celebrating 9/11's impact on America's economy and sense of resolve, talking about "the psychological shock of the attack," and how it cost the Americans an estimated "$140 billion" and led to 170,000 employees being "fired or liquidated" from airline companies. Here, he cherry-picked from reports of job losses and predictions of doom that were widespread in the Western media after 9/11 and claimed ownership of them, as if they were part of his plot.
Bin Laden's parasitical relationship with Western debate really came into its own from 2004 onwards. During this period he has sounded almost indistinguishable from various Bush-bashing blogs. In April 2004 he ranted about "big media," describing them as "agents of deception and exploitation." He said the war in Iraq "is making billions of dollars for the big corporations, whether it be those who manufacture weapons or reconstruction firms like Halliburton and its offshoot sister companies." Halliburton has, of course, become the bête noir of anti-war bloggers. Bin Laden also said, "It is all too clear, then, who benefits most from stirring up this war and bloodshed: the merchants of war who direct world policy from behind the scenes." This is also a popular idea in the blogosphere: that a wicked cabal led by Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney (both of whom have big business links) is leading America to war. Indeed, in his latest statement bin Laden spells out who these "merchants of war" are, describing Iraq as "the ill-omened plan of the four—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz." He has also adopted the "war for oil" argument of various anti-war bloggers, arguing that the "black gold blinded [Bush]."
Bin Laden frequently namedrops the anti-war blogosphere's favorite authors and activists. In October 2004 he advised the White House to read "Robert Fisk, who is a fellow [Westerner] and a co-religionist of yours, but one whom I consider unbiased." In the same statement bin Laden chastised Bush for leaving "50,000 of his citizens in the two towers" because he considered "a little girl's story about a goat and its butting [to be] more important than dealing with airplanes and their butting into skyscrapers."—a clear reference to Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, which opens with footage of Bush reading My Pet Goat to a classroom of children on the morning of 9/11. Did bin Laden watch a pirate DVD of Fahrenheit 9/11, or did he read about it on the Web? And now he has recommended that Bush and Co. read Blum's Rogue State. Funny how this Islamist warrior never recommends that we read the Koran.
Who knows whether bin Laden has access to the Web? Who knows whether he reads blogs, or rather hears such arguments from supportive visitors from Pakistan or Afghanistan or Wherever-istan. But one thing is clear: His arguments sound remarkably familiar. Like bloggers he seems obsessed by media coverage of the Iraq war (and of himself) rather than by the substance of the war itself; and he certainly speaks in the shrill tones of some of the crankier left-wing bloggers. Bin Laden, it seems to me, is regurgitating the arguments of Western commentators and using them to justify his crimes. He is less the armed wing of a clear or coherent Islamist-imperialism or Islamo-fascism than he is the armed wing of the blogosphere, of the West's own fearful and tortured debates about war and terrorism today.