Articles

Jul 09, 2007

Review of “The OBL I Know” in Asian Affairs

The Man and the Message: The World According to Bin Laden (review article)

 

Author: Alexander Evans
DOI: 10.1080/03068370701349300
Publication Frequency: 3 issues per year

Introduction

Peter L. Bergen, The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al-Qaida’s Leader. Free Press, New York, 2006. pp. 444. Illust. Appendices. Notes. Index. Hb. ?17.99. ISBN 0 7432 7891 7

Abdel Bari Atwan, The Secret History of Al-Qa’ida. Saqi, London, 2006. pp. 256. Notes. Bibliog. Index. Hb. ?16.99. ISBN 0 8635 6760 6

Bruce Lawrence (ed.), Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. Verso, London, 2005. pp. 292. Notes. Further Reading. Index. Pb. ?10.99. ISBN 1 8446 7045 7

“God is sufficient for me against you all.” Osama Bin Laden, December 2004

Osama Bin Laden is a 21st century celebrity: international terrorist, radical Islamist icon, mass murderer. Like most of us, he cares about how he is perceived by others. He has a global audience, but is particularly interested in influencing Muslims. And, like celebrities, the character we see today is a careful product of marketing strategies designed to establish a brand – Al Qaida – and woo a niche audience of potential radical Islamists who can be persuaded to support or take militant action. For this reason it is essential we understand the man and his message. These three important books help do just that.

Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and CNN’s terrorism expert, is already something of an authority on Al Qaida – known for conducting a television interview with Bin Laden in 1997. In The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al-Qaida’s Leader, Bergen sets out to explore who Bin Laden is, what made him, and what he has become. He does so through a methodical trawl of those who have known him, conducting some 50 interviews ranging from people who knew Bin Laden as a young man to those who were with him during the 1990s. He also draws on an array of published and court documents that relate to direct experiences of Bin Laden the man. The resulting book – all 432 pages of it, including notes and acknowledgements – is both a gripping read and a highly useful primer on how Bin Laden and Al Qaida evolved.

The youthful Bin Laden emerges as a slightly bookish, serious and religious young man who was to be powerfully influenced by the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist. Bin Laden attended lectures given by Qutb’s brother, Mohammed Qutb, at King Abdul Aziz University in the late 1970s. According to his peers and others who knew him at the time, including his older half-brother Yeslam Bin Laden and his childhood friend Khaled Batarfi, he lived a life of intense religiosity – no music, fervent prayer, and a careful avoidance of shaking hands with women. For Bergen, an important potential moment of radicalisation may have been the November 1979 confrontation between Saudi security and several hundred Islamists who seized the Al Haram mosque in Mecca. Bin Laden was just 22 – an impressionable age for an already religious student who had been reading Qutb for several years. If this was the beginning of Bin Laden’s alienation from the House of Saud, it was his experiences in Afghanistan that introduced him to Jehad.

Bin Laden made his name as an Arab leader in Afghanistan during the 1980s war against the Soviets. By 1991, after a mixture of a little fighting and a lot of politicking, Bin Laden was propagating Jehad in Afghanistan. Bin Laden had also come to formally reshape his views about Saudi Arabia following the introduction of half a million US troops into the country in 1990. His earlier offer – to recruit militant youths under the banner of Jehad to expel the Baathist Iraqis from Kuwait – had been turned down by the Saudis. To Prince Turki this revealed Bin Laden’s “arrogance”. To Bergen, it captures the reason behind Bin Laden’s adoption of a more aggressive stance towards the United States. The rest – Bin Laden’s sojourn in Sudan, his return to Afghanistan, 9/11 and thereafter – is history.

Bin Laden’s brand – whether T-shirts bought in Peshawar, face-masks available in Hong Kong, or action-models (like the one I bought in Muzaffarabad a few years ago) – is now pervasive in most Muslim countries. As the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows only too clearly, in many Muslim countries Bin Laden enjoys either some or great public confidence. In 2005, over half those polled in Pakistan and Jordan, for example, had confidence in Bin Laden.1 What is the appeal of Bin Laden? And how does Jehadi propaganda find its audience?

It is always tempting to look for metrics: causes that can be clearly set out.2 Is it poverty? Not so: most Islamist extremist leaders hail from the urban middle classes, and Bin Laden himself comes from an elite Saudi family. Is it rage as the result of particular international disputes, like the Israel/Palestine dispute? Debatable: although Bin Laden was motivated by the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and later by the Saudi regime and American support. And many Jehadis since have been radicalised as much by loathing for their own regimes as any concern for the victims of others. But the radical message clearly plays into a populist strand of public emotion.3

How it does so is explored well in Abdel Bari Atwan’s The Secret History of Al Qa’ida. Atwan, a Palestinian and long-time resident of London, is editor in chief of al-Quds al-Arabi. Like Bergen, he too has met Bin Laden. In his short and eminently readable book, Atwan explores the nature of Al Qaida strategy – in particular reviewing the role of suicide bombing and cyber-Jehad. His perspective is different to Bergen’s. As a Muslim journalist, he can capture the emotional public response that 9/11 generated among “a significant number of ordinary Muslims”. He cites Rahma Hugira, a Yemeni female journalist interviewed on CBS shortly after the attacks:

I didn’t used to think that I could support violence. When I saw the World Trade Center and the Pentagon burn, I cried, I fainted with joy. And I prayed that God would help Al-Qa’ida hellip What we all see in Osama bin Laden is the man who was able to take our revenge, to wipe the tears that have been falling for a long time for our brethren in Palestine and Iraq. (p. 86)

Atwan’s point? Through violence, Al Qaida began a dialogue with people not governments. And through the Internet, the extremist message can be endlessly repackaged, recycled, and renewed. It is a message of action through asymmetrical violence. As one of the 11 September Saudi hijackers recorded in his will, “the time of humiliation and slavery is over” (p. 109). In contemporary Iraq suicide attacks are often rigged to be videoed from several angles simultaneously, allowing for well-edited, high resolution films to be posted to the Internet within hours. Atwan cites Hamid Mir, the Pakistani biographer of Bin Laden, who recalled watching Al Qaida militants fleeing US bombs in November 2001: “Every second al-Qa’ida member [was] carrying a laptop computer along with his Kalashnikov” (p. 122). The Internet, suggests Atwan, is the “single most important factor in transforming largely local Jihadi concerns and activities into the truly global network that al-Qa’ida has become today” (p. 124).

This is the platform that Bin Laden and other radicals use to propagate their message. All use classic propaganda techniques: repetition (e.g. endless images of Israeli actions on the West Bank), selection (no claim to objectivity), and emotional appeals. The importance of emotion to Bin Laden – and the way in which he manipulates it – is worth noting. Al Qaida’s use of violence is often subordinate to the radical message that asymmetrical methods can – so extremists argue – deliver political change.

The style of Bin Laden’s pronouncements, both in terms of his rhetoric and how he presents himself, deserves close attention. He has spent several decades cultivating the manners of an ideal Muslim – gentleness, and in particular affection for the weak in society.4 Bin Laden is “likeable”, “extremely natural, very simple” (Atwan cited in Bergen, p. 168). Noman Benotman, the Libyan Jehadist, observed that Bin Laden laughed when being made fun of in the late 1990s. Bin Laden’s style in his video broadcasts makes careful use of recurring Islamist styles: the warrior-ascetic, and even the pir (notwithstanding the Salafi loathing of Sufis, Bin Laden often talks about dreams and visions). One striking element in his videos is the “austerity of his physical performance”.5 The objective is to present an image of simplicity and purity.

Bergen and Atwan’s books provide the perfect introduction to Bruce Lawrence’s account of Bin Laden in his own words – Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. The statements were all made between 1994 and 2004, and show Bin Laden as the organiser, the polemicist, and the hero. Lawrence, a professor of religion at Duke University, has penned a fascinating introduction that briefly assesses the content and tone of Bin Laden’s various messages. One feature is the regularity with which Bin Laden constructs statements as an argument with a real or imagined interlocutor, another is the way in which he weaves fluently in and out of different forms of “public Muslim discourse: the declaration, the juridical decree, the lecture, the written reminder, and the epistle” (p. xvi). Like Vladimir Putin, whose mastery of Russian has been noted elsewhere,6 Bin Laden is inclined to use Arabic in a rich and lyrical fashion. For Lawrence, Bin Laden’s standing in the Muslim world is inseparable from these literary gifts.

Lawrence’s collection also demonstrates how Bin Laden’s message is evolving. In December 2004 he picks up on madrasah reform:

The proof of the depth of Crusader control over our country lies in the way these collaborators carry out the changes their superior imposes on them, even in things like educational curricula, with the aim of distorting the character of the umma and alienating its sons. This is an old project that started decades ago in the curricula of al-Azhar in Egypt. Then America asked the rest of the collaborationist countries to change their educational curricula, to dry up what it called the sources of [religious] awakening hellip This Crusader interference in changing curricula is categorically one of the most dangerous kinds of interference in our affairs, because – to put it bluntly – it amounts to changing our religion, which is an indivisible whole. (pp. 252-253)

The struggle ahead is one for values. As Tony Blair put it, this “is not a clash between civilizations; it is a clash about civilization”.7 It is a struggle for hearts and minds in an environment often ripe for radicalisation.8 The backdrop for Bin Laden’s messages includes the inchoate mantras of anti-globalisation and anti-Westernism (well narrated in Occidentalism,9 the useful rejoinder to Edward Said’s Orientalism10 that shows how an ideology of anti-Westernism now enjoys global appeal). Both tie in, for many young Muslims in diasporas or majority-Muslim countries, with a sense of humiliation and grievance. Atwan and Lawrence make no attempt to conceal their dislike of Western foreign policy, which they hold responsible for a further wave of alienation and potential radicalisation.

Bin Laden is wrong to assume that Al Qaida strategy will bleed America dry financially (set out in his October 2004 message, see Lawrence, p. 242). But the challenge of the cult of Bin Laden is one of communication: pitting the marketers and messengers of extremism against all those, Muslim or not, who reject the means with which Islamist extremists pursue their agenda.11 The key thing is to understand the extremists and, based on that understanding, to counter their narrative. Drawing on cultural knowledge of Islam in general, and of regional and local cultures in particular, will be crucial in the years ahead. A December 2006 article in the New Yorker picks up on the work of David Kilcullen, a young Australian anthropologist who believes that countering Al Qaida’s information strategy needs “deep knowledge of diverse enemies and civilian populations”.12 Kilcullen’s emphasis on cultural knowledge matters, as radical networks – like Al Qaida itself – thrive and often rely on informal connections, now augmented by the ease with which radicals can propagandise and communicate through the Internet.

Altogether too much is published on terrorism, Al Qaida, and Osama Bin Laden. But each of the three books reviewed here is worth reading in order to understand the man, the myth and the message.

Notes

2. Although Marc Sageman has done excellent work in exploding the myths of common factors driving radicalisation. See his Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

3. See Douglas Walton, The Place of Emotion in Argument. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

4. Akbar S. Ahmed, Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society. New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 22.

5. Nicholas J. O’Shaughnessy, Politics and Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Seduction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004, p. 200.

6. Perry Anderson, ‘Russia’s Managed Democracy’, London Review of Books, 25 January 2007.

7. Tony Blair, “A Battle for Global Values”, Foreign Affairs, 86, 1 (January 2007), pp. 79-90.

8. A point made in Michael Gove’s Celsius 7/7. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006.

9. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism. London: Atlantic, 2005.

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