January 20, 2006 -- IS Osama bin Laden looking for contracts for his family's construction firm?
The question is not fanciful. The latest audiotape attributed to the fugitive terrorist, aired by Al-Jazeera yesterday, is centered on an offer to help in "rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq." With projects worth a total of $30 billion in the pipeline in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is not surprising that the bin Laden tribe should be looking for at least some crumbs.
But how authentic is the tape?
It is certain that some terrorist group produced the tape.
But is it Osama bin Laden talking? My answer is: no. Bin Laden is either dead or too scared in his hole to look for construction contracts. But that is really not the point: Even if he is physically alive, bin Laden is, in political terms, a dead man walking, or rather hiding.
Whoever produced the tape may have had several objectives.
The first is to revive the myth that bin Laden is alive. In the past few months there has been much speculation in the media as to why nothing has been heard of the fugitive since November 2004. It was, therefore, necessary for whoever now owns the al Qaeda brand to respond by providing some indication of bin Laden's continued existence.
The second reason for issuing the tape is to prepare Arab opinion for the turning of the tide against the Jihadists in Iraq. With the Arab Sunnis now part of the democratic process in Iraq, the foreign Arab Jihadists fear that they will soon face the ire of the Iraqis rather than occasional operations launched by the U.S. forces. And if things come to that, the Jihadists know that the Iraqis will not be fighting them in accordance with the Marquis of Queensbury rules.
It is not fanciful to imagine the Jihadists leaving Iraq before they are massacred by Arab Sunnis there — perhaps to relocate to Saudi Arabia, Jordan or the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, where they could continue doing mischief.
Salih al-Mutlaq, the rising star of Arab Sunnis who has just been elected to the new parliament in Baghdad, has already warned that his community would "flush the Jihadists down the toilet."
Finally, the producers of the tape may well be trying to encourage renewed calls in the United States for a cut-and-run policy on Iraq. The voice on the tape is trying to say that Rep. John Murtha and former TV anchorman Walter Cronkite are right in urging the United States to throw away its victory in Iraq and deliberately produce a self-inflicted defeat. If the Murtha-Cronkite scenario for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory comes to pass, whoever made the tape would be able to claim that it was al Qaeda that drove the Americans out of Iraq.
All of that, however, is neither here nor there.
The real interest of the tape is that it may well indicate the deepening rift within the Jihadist movement. Remember the last two tapes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian fugitive who is often identified as bin Laden's sidekick?
Al-Zawahiri's strategy, as developed over the past four years (that is to say, after he and his cohorts ran for cover), has been based on a dream of conquering a few Muslim countries — he has mentioned Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in particular — as the nucleus of an Islamic "superpower" that will then proceed to conquer the world.
Such a strategy requires killing people in Muslim countries rather than in faraway Europe or the United States.
Bin Laden, or whoever pretends to be him these days, however, is still dreaming of 9/11-style operations in the West, preferably in the United States. The latest tape hints at a readiness to cool things down in Afghanistan and Iraq while threatening new attacks in America.
The bin Laden of this tape, like the one of the two tapes before it, is offering a ceasefire. What is new is that this latest offer, unlike the previous ones that were addressed to the Europeans, is directed at the United States.
His offer of ceasefire to the Europeans was followed by the Madrid attacks and the London suicide bombings, not to mention the dozen or so terrorist operations aborted in several Western European capitals. So, any ceasefire from bin Laden, or whoever speaks for his ghost, must be regarded as Islamo-cynical.
Oh, and about that demand for building contracts: Anyone who has seen the damage that the fugitive's firm has done in half a dozen Arab cities would know better than to offer him a contract.
Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.