When Al Jazeera broadcast Osama bin Laden's latest audiotape in January, it provoked the same sense of déjà vu as Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, recently published by the leftist publishing house Verso.
The book is a collection of every public utterance made by the Al Qaeda leader from 1994 to 2004. According to The Observer's 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 the language of the blogosphere. He references Robert Fisk and Michael Moore, those darlings of the anti-war Web. His latest statement recommends that people read Rogue State by William Blum, whose e-mail newsletter, Anti-Empire Report, is frequently republished and discussed in the left-wing blogosphere. Bin Laden repeats criticisms of Bush and conspiracy theories about 9/11 that I have read a thousand times on a thousand blogs.
It is often said that the blogging explosion was a by-product of the September 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. He seems less a man with a clear religious or political agenda than a parasite feeding off 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 on 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 2001–02) to a full-fledged Bush basher (from 2004 onward). 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 that 9/11 was payback for American policy in the Middle East, and especially its support for Israel against Palestine, so bin Laden, previously a Saudi obsessive, adopted those arguments as his own. Even before 9/11, Al Qaeda's occasional nods to Palestine were at best a cynical attempt to connect with the Arab masses through the Arab media.
Bin Laden's 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" that may have facilitated the attacks because "there are intelligence agencies in the U.S. 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 Web sites or some of the wackier blogs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
By October 2001, 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 onward. During this period he has sounded almost indistinguishable from various left-wing 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 is, of course, 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. 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 drops the names of 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." This reads like a reference to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which opens with footage of Bush reading The 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 the Pet Goat incident on the Web, where images of Bush's uncomfortable classroom performance were widely available even before Moore's film was released?
Now he has suggested that Bush and company read William 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 if he hears such arguments from supportive visitors from Pakistan or Afghanistan or Wherever-istan? One thing is clear: His arguments sound remarkably familiar. Like bloggers on both the left and right, he seems obsessed by media coverage of the Iraq war (and of himself) rather than by the substance of the war. 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 worldview than he is the armed wing of the West's own fearful and tortured debates about war and terrorism today.