I wasn't able to write up any thoughts about bin Laden's tape this morning (other than yesterday's note that Hamas immediately told bin Laden to get lost), which in blog time means that it might as well have happened ten years ago. But for posterity's sake, here are a few brief notes, with all references being to the semi-transcript released on al-Jazeera's web site. Bottom line: this was actually a pretty major address, which laid out a comprehensive vision of Islam's clash with the West and al-Qaeda's current priorities. It didn't give off an air of desperation, nor of irrelevance - certainly not any sense of bin Laden being on the run, as the White House is spinning it. While I take seriously Fawaz Gerges's sense that it's an attempt to revive the jihad's flagging fortunes, I'm not sure I entirely agree. For reasons I go into below, it may have more long-term importance than is immediately apparent.
While much of the media commentary has been on specific points bin Laden made (Darfur, Palestine), the overwhelming preoccupation of the tape was in fact the need for Muslims to accept the reality of a 'clash of civilizations.' The Danish cartoons crisis loomed remarkably large, as did Saudi and other Arab intellectuals calling for a dialogue of civilizations. This tape encapsulated "al-Qaeda's constructivist turn" powerfully, as bin Laden clearly laid out a vision of international politics defined by a clash of essential identities, Islam against the Zionist-Crusader West. And as with the culture warriors of the West, bin Laden's combines his opposition to this Crusader West with scorn for the Islamist moderates who he sees as the greatest threat to his own leadership of the Islamic umma.
Bin Laden begins with the cartoons insulting the Prophet, and goes on at some length about how this insult to Islam represents a far wider onslaught against Islam. Al-Qaeda initially played a very passive role in the cartoons issue, reaping great benefits from the polarization caused by the crisis but doing little about it. That began to change with Zawahiri's latest video, and now with this tape bin Laden has appropriated the issue and elevated it to the forefront. Every Islamist would-be popular leader - from Yusuf al-Qaradawi to Amr Khaled to the Muslim Brotherhood and onward - has tried to harness the cartoons issue to his wagon; bin Laden is just joining the crowded field. He has some built in advantages over his rivals, particularly as their competition has honed the pitch of anger and made this such a potent symbolic issue - and he metaphorically tips his hat in thanks to his "clash of civilizations" fellow-travelers in the West who helped out in fanning the flames. It's hard not to think that a similar statement by bin Laden three months ago wouldn't have had a much greater impact... but it's also significant that it's now become not just one point in his speech but the center-piece.
In the spirit of intra-Islamic competition, bin Laden seems more concerned with these rivals to his claim to lead the Islamic umma than anyone else. He attacked everyone who tried to mediate the crisis, or even those who sought a Danish apology - the issue goes far deeper than anything an apology might offer, he argues. He's really quite extreme in his denunciations of those Islamist moderates - the worst, most dangerous of all Islam's enemies in his eyes because they might mislead the umma. Even those who led the boycott against Denmark fell short - he wants a boycott against America, since the Danish affront was only one case of a much wider problem in his view.
He's similarly scathing about those calling for dialogue with the West (the Copenhagen conference, the Saudi government, most Arab regimes), and accuses a number of Saudi and Gulf figures of spreading apostacy with their writings and fatwas. The West only calls for dialogue to weaken and confuse the Muslims, according to bin Laden, and only understands the language of force; the clash of civilizations exists, in his telling, because the West has attacked and continues to assault Islam, which makes dialogue a fool's game.
Only after three full transcript pages (out of 9 - so a third of the way in) does bin Laden finally leave the cartoons and the clash / dialogue of civilizations to talk about Hamas. Western analysis of the speech may have headlined with Hamas, but bin Laden did not. I thought his remarks on Hamas were actually fairly perfunctory - we opposed their participation in the elections, he says, but now that they've won the West's treatment of them only proves... and then he's back to the main theme of the grand confrontation between Islam and the Crusaders. Then, the bit about the Sudan, which caught me (and most people, I think) by surprise. Again, the particular is in the service of the general theme though: he isn't interested in Darfur for its own sake, only for what it says (or can be made to say) about the grand clash theme.
Then a few words on Iraq. Surprisingly few, I might add. We've been told a million times that al-Qaeda views Iraq as the central front in the war on terror. Well, in this tape Iraq takes up a grand total of two paragraphs, on page 5 of a nine page transcript.
After Iraq, bin Laden turns to Abu Aardvark, figuratively speaking (thank god), and offers a few words about the Arab media. As I wrote in my National Interest piece, al-Qaeda and the jihadis have grown resentful of the Arab satellite television stations - for all their utility, they aren't reliable allies and can't be controlled. Bin Laden denounces the "wicked media cultural invasion" with the creation of television and radio stations which are bringing an "invasion of ideas against our umma and warring against our doctrines and changing our values." I'd take this as a tacit endorsement of my argument that Arab satellite TV stations pose one of the greatest challenges to bin Laden's form of Islamism (though unlike William Blum I don't think I'd choose to use the blurb... ). Before fans of al-Hurra take heart, he specifically adds "in addition to the voices of America and London" - in other words,he's talking about Arab television stations like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, probably along with sexy music video stations like Rotana and religious stations like Iqra (for different reasons).
Then bin Laden takes a quick tour d'horizon of the Islamic world, name checking struggles and sounding for all the world like the President during a State of the Union address. After that he returns for another four pages to the clash of civilizations theme, heaping scorn on calls for dialogue and for those preaching an openness to the West.
To sum up, bin Laden's address strikes me as offering a clear guide into the organization's strategic thinking. As I argue in a forthcoming piece (previewed very crudely on the blog a while ago), al-Qaeda has evolved into a constructivist actor, with its strategy largely directed towards what International Relations theorists call "strategic social construction." A solid six out of nine pages of this transcript are devoted to this agenda, laying out a broad narrative of Islam's essential clash with an aggressive West, defining Muslim identity as the terrain of battle, and denouncing moderates and rivals within the Islamic world who might help avoid such a confrontation.
Al-Quds al-Arabi's headline declares rather chillingly that "bin Laden prepares for attack in response to Zionist Crusade war". For many people, whether or not such an attack takes place would likely determine the significance of the tape. I'm not so sure. I read the tape as more of a grand vision statement, which might not be meant to foreshadow an imminent attack, like tomorrow. But a year or two from now, we may be looking back at this tape as a more important intervention than it initially seems.
UPDATE: I didn't see this until after I wrote the post, but Michael Scheuer seems to have a somewhat similar take over at Jamestown. I'll let you know if I see any other particularly interesting commentaries. Walid Phares here agrees on its significance, at least. Or amusing ones, like Dan Drezner's Tampa Bay Devil Rays metaphor, which I missed the first time around... .
UPDATE 2: Does a big terrorist attack at an Egyptian resort count as the kind of attack which makes the tape be taken seriously? Probably not - not a Western target, even if the hotels were frequented by Westerners.