Bin Laden Urges Europe to Quit Helping the U.S. in Afghanistan
LUKE BURBANK, host:
Well, Osama bin Laden has apparently released a new audio tape. This one is actually aimed at Europeans, urging them to lean on their politicians to end military cooperation with the U.S. If it's confirmed, through voice analysis, this would be the fourth message released by bin Laden this year. Prolific? Watch out, Kanye.
Some analysts think that this release and also his last message, which was back on October 22nd, seemed to represent a kind of shift in tone. Back in October, bin Laden admitted that mistakes have been made by al-Qaida and that it was wrong for some members to target civilians, which got us to wondering if this shift actually exists and if it does, does it mean anything for al-Qaida strategy.
Daniel Byman is director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, also author of "The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad."
Mr. DANIEL BYMAN (Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University; Author, "The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad"): Hi. How are you doing?
BURBANK: Great. Let's talk a little about some of the specific excerpts of this message that was released yesterday. The person on the tape says the American tide is ebbing, so it's best for you to press your leaders to change their policies. Is he threatening European countries, European citizens?
Mr. BYMAN: He's both threatening and, in his own way, trying to reach out. This is a tradition of his where he lays out the sins and problems of his target audience, and then says you can repent and join me or else. And so he's both trying to appear conciliatory in one way, but he's also laying the groundwork, rhetorically, for a potential attack or continued militancy.
BURBANK: Just a basic question, I guess. How do they actually know it's bin Laden when they do verify this thing? The tapes were always incredibly grainy. It just sounds sort of like a guy mumbling over some hiss. How can they be so sure that this comes from this guy?
Mr. BYMAN: It's difficult. You are looking not only for the quality of the video but also in particular the audio. You're looking for voice patterns at a very, very fine grain level - particular pitches, particular intonations. Very difficult question as well is to date it. This particular video didn't have references to a particular current event, so it makes it hard to know was it recorded five days or five months ago.
BURBANK: And so back to this audio tape that sort of was made public yesterday. He, the person on the tape, is going - talking to Europeans and not Americans. Is that new? Has he addressed people outside of the U.S. in many of these messages?
Mr. BYMAN: Absolutely. Bin Laden has addressed Europeans before. His organization regularly addresses both Europeans and, in particular, the Muslim world. Naturally enough, we focus on his addresses to the American people, but reaching out or threatening Europeans, Asians, people in the Middle East is something al-Qaida does on a regular basis.
BURBANK: Do you get the sense that there's a shift in strategy here for him? And the October 22nd message, he sort of does admit some mistakes, is he having any kind of an about-face?
Mr. BYMAN: Not really. The October 22nd message was, in particular, focused on Iraq where the organization has suffered significant setbacks in the last year. And that's in part, bin Laden believes, because the organization tried to do too much. It tried to take on many Iraqi civilians and tribes, in particular, and this was disastrous.
But the Europe tape is pretty traditional for bin Laden. I think he sees Europe as both vulnerable and as an opportunity. European Muslims have been prime recruits for al-Qaida in the years since 9/11. But also he believes that European governments can be pushed away from the United States. They've withdrawn support from the U.S. effort in Iraq, in most cases. And he's hoping to push them away from the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan.
BURBANK: Another thing that the person in this tape says is that he was responsible solely for September 11th. Why is that important to point out?
Mr. BYMAN: Right now, in Europe and in the United States, a lot of the effort against the Taliban and in support of the Karzai government is donned in the name of 9/11. People are fighting their soldiers from Europe, and they're being told that you're fighting the people who perpetrated 9/11, which is true in many ways. Bin Laden is saying no, I did it not the Taliban, and claims the Taliban was ignorant, and ignores the fact that for many years he and the Taliban had an exceptionally close working relationship. And even if the Taliban leadership didn't know the precise details of 9/11, they knew that he was plotting large-scale terrorist events.
ALISON STEWART, host:
Daniel, I have a question, which is all opinion, from you. There's always discussion back and forth about whether or not we should air these tapes - back and forth. Is it news? Is it not news? Does it provide the kind of information that people need, or is it just furthering propaganda from an al-Qaida terrorist group? When you hear about these new tapes coming out, what do you think? Should the American public listen to them? Should they hear them? Should we dissect them?
Mr. BYMAN: I strongly believe that people should listen to this closely, and that they do deserve coverage. Like it or not, bin Laden is a major figure in the world today. We need to know what he thinks. And these tapes are clues to his strategy. In the past, they've been warnings about important tactical shifts, or even have given hints of possible attacks. And regardless of whether we air them, the world airs them. They have a very sophisticated media apparatus that puts their videos and so on on the Internet.
STEWART: Al-Sahaba. Is that what's it?
Mr. BYMAN: Absolutely.
Mr. BYMAN: And they're reaching out to a wide variety of audiences in the Muslim world and Europe. So even if we chose not to listen, the world will listen anyway.
BURBANK: Well, what do these tapes do for bin Laden? I mean, is it a P.R. move? It's just to remind, you know, future al-Qaida members or just sympathizers that he's still doing his thing in Waziristan or wherever he might be?
Mr. BYMAN: That's a good chunk of it. But it's also intended to provide strategic direction to the movement. One of the problems al-Qaida faces is that the movement has, in many ways, been more localized since 9/11. As a result there's fights and jihads, whether it's Iraq or in Afghanistan or Kashmir or Chechnya, or (unintelligible) in Europe, which from al-Qaida's point of view is desirable. But the problem is controlling it. How do you make this organization cohesive? And these statements are meant to suggest where the priorities of the organization should be.
BURBANK: Does it matter how he looks in these videos? I ask because there's always a speculation that he's sick; he has a bad kidney. And then I noticed in the recent video, he had the worst just-for-men dye job on his hair and beard I have ever seen in my life. Is that because he's trying to send the message that he's vigorous and fine?
Mr. BYMAN: Absolutely. These videos are, as you said before, a former propaganda and he wants to look strong; he wants to look defiant. And that's not only in what he says but also how he looks. And the kidney problems and so on, we've been, you know, hearing about them for a decade now and he seems to be doing quite nicely. So really his good appearance is a way of showing that he's still standing strong despite U.S. pressure.
BURBANK: Daniel Byman, director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. He's also the author of "The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad."
Thanks very much, Daniel.
Mr. BYMAN: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.