Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman
revived this theme last week as the Bush administration ratcheted up
criticism of Democrats as terrorist “appeasers.” Mehlman cited public
statements by al-Qaeda leaders about their plans to drive Americans from
Iraq and then make it a base of terrorist operations.
“We ought to not ignore when they say they’re going
to do that,” Mehlman said in arguing that withdrawing from Iraq would
play into al-Qaeda’s hands. [Washington Post, Aug. 31, 2006]
President George W. Bush has made similar points
while urging Americans to “stay the course.” For instance, earlier this
year, Bush told a crowd in Nashville, Tennessee, that America’s only
option in Iraq was “victory.”
“I say that because the enemy has said they want to
drive us out of Iraq and use it as safe haven,” Bush said. “We’ve got to
take the word seriously of those who want to do us harm.”
Bush returned to this theme of how Americans must
take al-Qaeda’s words seriously in a Sept. 5 speech that essentially
accepts the view of neoconservative hardliners who insist that the
United States has no choice but to fight World War III with radical
But does that make sense? Should Americans take al-Qaeda’s
public pronouncements so seriously that this relatively small terrorist
band is given a kind of jujitsu veto power over U.S. politics and
foreign policy? Or should Americans assess a situation on their own and
make judgments as to what’s best for the United States?
Al-Qaeda wouldn’t be the first extremist group to
exaggerate its own influence and the likelihood of accomplishing its
outlandish goals – in hopes that overreaction by an adversary will help
it become what it otherwise never could be.
During the Cold War, it was common for some fringe
leftist group to show up at a broad-based political rally, take a photo
of its few members holding a banner, and then pretend that the group was
responsible for the large turnout. The group also might issue some
demands that few took seriously.
Indeed, the best that such a fringe group might
hope for was that the authorities would act as if the group really were
significant, thus elevating its notoriety among other activists who then
would become potential recruits.
Similarly, al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden
have benefited from President Bush’s insistence on exaggerating their
After the 9/11 attacks, the vast majority of
Muslims shared the world’s revulsion at al-Qaeda’s actions. Even in
Iran, hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched in sympathy for their
longtime adversaries in the United States. Syria provided U.S.
intelligence help in hunting down terrorists.
But Bush’s blunderbuss “war on terror” – which
heavily targeted Muslims – turned around that initial wave of support,
allowing al-Qaeda to sell itself as the defender of the Islamic world
and regain a measure of respectability.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Bush got a
reverse bounce by presenting himself as the leader who would protect
America from the supposedly vast international reach of al-Qaeda. At
Consortiumnews.com, we have referred to this mutually beneficial
relationship as the “The
Bush-Bin Laden Symbiosis.”
But there remains the question of whether – as Ken
Mehlman warns – the American people “ought not to ignore” what al-Qaeda
is saying. One answer is that the appropriate U.S. reaction would depend
on the circumstances surrounding al-Qaeda’s statements.
If, for instance, al-Qaeda leaders are making
public declarations, especially those directed at the American public,
their statements probably should be discounted because they could have a
secondary intent, i.e. the jujitsu influencing of U.S. opinion. Greater
weight might be given to intercepted internal al-Qaeda messages.
So, for instance, when bin Laden broke nearly a
year of silence on the Friday before the U.S. election in 2004, his
tirade against Bush might best have been viewed as an attempt to
manipulate the American voters. Most likely, bin Laden, a student of
U.S. politics, understood that he could send voters to Bush by attacking
Privately, CIA analysts reached exactly that
conclusion as did Bush. “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for
the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a
meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” after the videotape had
dominated the day’s news, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent
Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years
“parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, [Ayman]
Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden
speaks only for strategic reasons. … Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s
message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”
Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for
intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how
Bush’s heavy-handed policies – such as the Guantanamo prison camp, the
Abu Ghraib scandal and the war in Iraq – were serving al-Qaeda’s
strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to
keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”
The CIA analysts were troubled by the implications
of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as
what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush
reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.
Even Bush recognized that his struggling campaign
got a boost from bin Laden. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said
in a post-election interview about the videotape. “I thought it would
help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the
President, something must be right with Bush.”
In the last days of Campaign 2004, Bush’s
supporters exploited bin Laden’s attack against Bush, calling it an
“endorsement” of John Kerry. Pollsters recorded a jump of several
percentage points for Bush, from nearly a dead heat to a five- or
six-point lead. On Election Day, Bush won by an official margin of less
than three percentage points.
While casting a very suspicious eye on al-Qaeda’s
public remarks, Americans might give greater weight when they learn of
al-Qaeda’s internal discussions from intercepted communications
describing the group’s assessments of its real problems and potential.
For instance, a 6,000-word letter purportedly
written by Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman Zawahiri in mid-2005 and sent
to Abu Musab Zarqawi expressed concern about an early U.S. military
withdrawal from Iraq.
The letter, which was reportedly intercepted by
U.S. intelligence, showed Zawahiri suggesting strategies to keep
Zarqawi’s foreign jihadists from simply deserting the field and leaving
Iraq once the Americans were gone.
“The mujahedeen must not have their mission end
with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their
weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,” the letter said, according to a
text released by the office of the U.S. Director of National
Zawahiri suggested that al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq
talk up the “idea” of a caliphate along the eastern Mediterranean as a
way to avoid a collapse of the Iraqi theater of operations if the
Americans left, according to the letter.
The letter also asked if the embattled al-Qaeda
operatives in Iraq might be able to spare $100,000 to relieve a cash
squeeze facing the group’s top leaders back in hiding, presumably along
the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Yet, even with this fretful letter in hand, Bush
warned Americans in fall 2005 that al-Qaeda planned to follow up any
U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by turning the country into a base to
“establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.”
Bush said such an “empire” would spell the strategic defeat of the
United States. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Osama’s
In his Sept. 5 speech, Bush returned to this alarmist view. “This
caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all
current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa,
the Middle East, and Southeast Asia,” Bush said. “We know this because
al-Qaeda has told us.”
But how realistic is Bush’s apocalyptic vision?
In the so-called “Zawahiri letter,” al-Qaeda comes
across as a marginal movement worried about the reaction of many Muslims
to its brutal tactics. Al-Qaeda even lacked a reliable means for getting
out its messages. Zawahiri complains that six of his audio statements
“were not published for one reason or another,” the letter said.
Though the “Zawahiri letter” depicts a nearly
bankrupt movement facing political and physical isolation, Bush gave the
American people another image: al-Qaeda as a menacing strategic threat
preparing for first regional and then global domination.
Many Middle East experts, however, say al-Qaeda
jihadists represent less than 10 percent of the Iraqi insurgency, which
is dominated by disaffected Sunnis fighting to stop their own
marginalization in a country they have long dominated.
Al-Qaeda has been tolerated by many of these Iraqi
Sunnis out of desperation and expediency. If the Americans left, al-Qaeda
could find itself in trouble not only because the jihadists will have
lost their “fighting zeal,” as the “Zawahiri letter” fears, but because
Iraqis of all sects might want to rid the country of these violent
Middle East experts also have noted that al-Qaeda’s
goals always have been relatively modest: seeking to punish the United
States for its interference in the Muslim world, its positioning of
military bases in Saudi Arabia and its support for Arab governments that
Islamic fundamentalists consider corrupt.
But – in the five years since 9/11 – al-Qaeda also
has learned that its popularity has risen among disaffected Muslims in
large part because of the excesses in the “war on terror” carried out by
the United States and its allies, including Israel.
Al-Qaeda now realizes that its greatest strength is
the overreaction of its American adversaries in the Bush administration.
So whatever al-Qaeda leaders say publicly about
their intent – or when Bush’s advisers say Americans must do the
opposite of whatever al-Qaeda supposedly wants – the American people
might want to take the whole business with a large grain of salt.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'