Behind Bin Laden’s Message
We may very well be caught unprepared to deal with another terrorist attack because of our fixation on Iraq. Try as they may to link Al Qaeda to Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, administration officials have failed to make their case. Nothing in bin Laden's recent message establishes that connection. The tape has many other ominous implications that the administration must take seriously, but creating an artificial connection between the two does nothing to improve our public safety. It only distracts us from focusing on the real dangers both now and in the future that Al Qaeda actually poses.
It should not have come as a surprise to anyone that this is so, as the war against Iraq seems imminent. The looming war has galvanized anti-American sentiment throughout the Arab and the Muslim world. Even before bin Laden's most recent call to arms, Hamas and Jihad have urged all Arab and Muslims to violently resist the Americans and the Israelis by any means, especially advocating suicide bombings as acts of martyrdom. Bin Laden's exhortation to the Iraqi people to rise against the American (Infidels) represents nothing more than a conversion of interest, a sort of marriage of convenience; it does not translate into any real connection between Saddam and bin Laden. In the same message bin Laden does not hide his disdain for the Iraqi leader (as a corrupt communist); rather he speaks directly to the Iraqi people, pressing them to defend themselves against an American invasion.
The second important aspect of bin Laden's message is its timing. Although the administration was eager to capitalize on this (the tape surfacing just as the United States is in the final stages of war preparations), to suggest as officials did that the timing of the message is indicative of collusion between Saddam and bin Laden stretches credibility. For any terrorist organization to remain relevant, it must make its presence felt by whatever means is available, including, of course, acts of terror. Al Qaeda would risk irrelevance if it did or said nothing as the mighty American forces, from its perspective, assemble to assault another Islamic nation. For bin Laden, then, this is precisely the right time for him to make a statement raising, once again, the banner of his crusade against the United States and Israel. Moreover, the timing of his message to coincide with the last day of the Haj was certainly deliberate, meant to give religious significance and weight to his ominous words.
The third important element behind the bin Laden tape is that it shows he has not let up on his crusade against many Arab and Muslims governments which he accuses of corruption. Because of this betrayal of the people and their association with the United States, they have, according to him, become infidels, and as such legitimate targets of Al Qaeda. Thus, the tape is also an opportunity to radicalize Arabs and Muslims around the globe, instigating them to rise up against their governments. Such a message obviously makes it much harder for some of these governments such as Kuwait, Yemen, and Turkey, to side with the United States without the risk of dire consequences to themselves.
This said, Saddam Hussein is still a direct menace to his neighbors and an an indirect one to the United States. He must be disarmed in one way or another, but the administration's overzealous focus on Iraq is preventing it from dealing effectively with terrorist organizations here and abroad. The preparations for war against Iraq, never mind what we will expend on the war itself, have already cost us billions. Meanwhile, our own intelligence agencies and many countries are strapped for funds to conduct any real war against terrorism. The global hunt for terrorists is also severely undermined because of lack of funds. Countries from Indonesia to Morocco have been crying out for more financial support, insisting that they could do great deal more to fight terrorism if we had provided them with more money. Of perhaps even greater concern, here in the United States, many state and local governments are completely unprepared to deal with a major terrorist attack because of delays in providing them with emergency funds, to the tune of $3.5 billion, the amount the Bush administration promised immediately after September 11th. The government has been so keen on waging war against Saddam Hussein that it has lost sight of this greater immediate threat. Both CIA Director George Tenet and FBI Chief Mueller have attested to the fact in a recent Senate hearing, that acts of terror undertaken by scores of Al Qaeda cells right here at home, remain the single most ominous danger to our nation. But the administration, having made the war to oust Saddam Hussein into an extension of our war on terrorism, is willing to cling to anything, and at any cost, however incongruous, to make the connection between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi dictator.
The situation is a mess and highly dangerous one at that. Through its constant warnings, the government is alarming the American people, although probably there is good reason for concern. Yet at the same time it is providing haphazard and amateurish guidance on how to deal with any attacks. To this unseemly state of affairs, we need only add the media frenzy, and we end up with a frightened and confused public that has lost confidence in government officials and can't wait to wake up the next morning, hoping that this was all just a bad dream.