Osama Bin Laden had one noteworthy theme in Friday's tape: "Your security," he told Americans, "is in your hands." Some observers have translated this to mean, "You leave us alone, and we'll leave you alone," which would be a very different message from those that he and his hysterical minions have been sending for three years.
Another attack on the U.S. could obviously come at any time, but there's a good case to be made that OBL may be asking for a truce. Indeed, The Washington Post's lead editorial this morning discerns a note of "desperation" in Bin Laden's words.
"Something is clearly troubling Osama bin Laden," writes the Post. "Could it be the millions of Afghans who eagerly turned out to vote in the country's first democratic elections this month and who overwhelmingly supported the moderate, pro-Western Hamid Karzai for president? Or the growing support for democratic government in Iraq, especially from senior members of the Islamic clergy? Al Qaeda suddenly finds itself on the wrong side of a swelling debate about freedom in the Middle East—one triggered both by Osama bin Laden's bloody extremism and the powerful U.S. response to it."
As the French Arabist Gilles Kepel and others have argued, the 9/11 attacks have backfired dramatically on the Islamist agenda. Afghanistan now has an enlightened constitution, and has just staged a hugely successful election despite Al Qaeda's empty threat to disrupt it. Arabism may dominate Al Jazeera's programming and the arguments of many bypassed Arab intellectuals, but it appears to be dead in practice, as the journalist Mona Eltahawy recently argued in Asharq Al Awsat. An important debate about the future of the Arab world has erupted, one featuring the long-muffled voices of Arab liberals. The actions of Bin Laden and of such admirers as Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi have disgusted and alienated many millions of Muslims. (One Iraqi insurrectionist leader recently told the Post that the Jordanian Zarqawi is "demented" and has "defamed" the anti-occupation struggle.) There are reform movements of varying strength throughout the Muslim world, and a civil-society movement nurtured by the U.S. is gradually progressing in Arab nations. As the Post observes, there are many changes observable throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds, and many of them can be attributed to the aggressive U.S. response to Al Qaeda's attack.
Of course, the Post's speculations presuppose that Bin Laden is a rational actor. But even if he cannot be described in quite those terms, he has at least shown in the past that he knows the difference between a strong horse and a weak one.