His master's voice

"Bin Laden" speaks.


Osama bin Laden is back, though ever more spectrally, preferring the anonymity of the audiocassette to the vanity of video. The language is more mystical, the tone wearier; bin Laden may have already begun his heavenly ascent.

That, or maybe video cameras are hard to come by wherever bin Laden presently resides. Or, perhaps, Al-Qaeda's leader is reluctant to flaunt his purported physical ailments, despite the audacious words.

Several aspects of bin Laden's recording—if it was indeed his voice on the tape—merit a mention. The first is that it puts an end to an academic debate within the Bush administration on possible ties between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, while simultaneously exacerbating the political debate on the issue.

The academic debate was mainly between the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and part of the intelligence community. While intelligence analysts argued that an Al-Qaeda-Iraq alliance was ideologically unlikely, Rumsfeld held that the two sides could put ideology aside against their common enemy—the United States. Bin Laden's tape confirmed this.

However, this only complicated the political debate, since nothing in what bin Laden said proved that Al-Qaeda and Iraq were collaborating. Indeed, his harsh words for Iraqi president Saddam Hussein suggested the opposite. A more relevant question is how each side can help the other, and the tape demonstrated that bin Laden had only advice to offer.

US secretary of state Colin Powell's efforts to hold the tape up as proof of an Al-Qaeda-Iraq axis were unconvincing. With suspect haste, US officials declared the recording genuine, ignoring passages showing bin Laden only really expressing solidarity with the Iraqi people, not their regime—a view often articulated (if far less virulently) in the Arab world and Europe.

Another interesting feature of the tape was bin Laden's account of the Tora Bora battle in Afghanistan. He explained that 300 militants had succeeded in resisting continuous American air assaults, while "the US forces dared not break into our positions," and asked: "Is there any clearer evidence of their cowardice, fear and lies regarding the legends about their alleged power?"

Bin Laden used the battle both as a strategy lesson for the Iraqis and as a way of casting his own conflict with the US in a heroic light, thanks to Tora Bora's similarities with events from Islamic history.

There was little of value in bin Laden's strategic ruminations. The Al-Qaeda leader offered two stock observations: First, that a motivated group, even when outnumbered, can defeat a larger military force; and that once a new Gulf war starts, the Iraqis, in the words of the Caliph Omar, should "take the ground as a shield" until the enemy runs out of ordnance.

More noteworthy was bin Laden's situating Tora Bora in Islamic history. He mentioned the Battle of Yarmuk of 636, when a Muslim army annihilated the more numerous Byzantines. However, the parallels between Tora Bora and the Battle of Badr, where the prophet Muhammad defeated a superior Meccan force, were more compelling even if inadvertent: Muhammad, too, had 300 men and won thanks to faith, military will, and Meccan cowardice.

It is unclear what this means, if anything, in terms of bin Laden's psychological progression. But one thing is increasingly obvious: He is taking on the persona of a secluded militant guru, a latter day Hassan Sabbah, willing to bless all signs of anti-Western hostility as if they were his own work. While this co-optation is adroit, it also means bin Laden is elevating himself to the level of spiritual guide over conflicts where he actually has no influence.

Has bin Laden kicked himself upstairs to the boardroom, where the prestige is higher but the influence lower than in management? Most likely he doesn't have a choice, though he must be contemplating a comeback. According to Pakistani journalist Ahmad Rashid, writing in the Wall Street Journal, this comeback is scheduled for spring, when the Taliban and Al-Qaeda plan an offensive against allied forces in Afghanistan, to coincide with an Iraq war.

Meanwhile, the FBI director, Robert Mueller, has again described Al-Qaeda as "the most immediate and serious threat" to the US. Even the highest-ranking government officials can't seem to stick to a script that reserves that niche for the Iraqi regime.