I've been absolutely fascinated watching the unfolding debate in the jihadist forums and various Arab media about what happened with al-Jazeera and bin Laden's Iraq address.
Some things that I've been reading about the episode are just wrong. This is not the first time that al-Jazeera has angered al-Qaeda. The jihadist forums routinely lambast al-Jazeera, along with the other Arab media outlets, for not acting as the propaganda outlets that they'd like. They've been frustrated for years with al-Jazeera's presentation of the tapes, cutting them up and airing only the newsworthy bits, with commentary and analysis from often unsympathetic guests. That's one of the many reasons that they came to rely on the internet distribution method, so that they wouldn't be at al-Jazeera's mercy. Still, it's clear that this one is something special - they are genuinely outraged, beyond the norm.
It's pretty clear that, at least in the eyes of his followers and online interpreters, bin Laden did not mean what most people thought he meant in the address. He was not addressing al-Qaeda in Iraq or the Islamic State of Iraq, or focusing on their errors. He was not calling for reconciliation or admitting defeat (although skeptics would respond that of course this is what his partisans would say). He was offering advice to the "mujahideen" in Iraq, but that is not being seen as anything new, as he has offered advice to the mujahideen around the world many times. The main charge being leveled against al-Jazeera, in fact, is that its presentation of the tape was fundamentally misleading because it made it seem like he was talking about al-Qaeda's mistakes and misfortunes when the full tape makes quite clear that he wasn't - he was offering advice and praise to all mujahideen, which to these interpreters was the whole point. There's also a lot of anger out there that the people who made their instant analyses based on the al-Jazeera version haven't come forward and changed their public views. Ah, media criticism and bashing pundits- the common glue which binds together internet activists across cultures and political divides. [UPDATE - I thought of a good American analogy for this last night. It's as if Bush gave a speech bashing Congress, and then CNN had only run clips suggesting that he had attacked Republicans, driving an entire news cycle dominated by "Bush attacks Republicans" - and then nobody changed their story after the whole tape aired elsewhere.]
So what was bin Laden up to? That's where things get murkier. There are a number of competing interpretations floating around the forums, some confused and some furious and some compelling. The most interesting interpretation I've yet seen comes from Dr Akram Hijazi, who is one of the more prolific and from what I can tell most influential of the jihadi analysts on these influental forums (his essay is easily found on any of the forums; ask me for a link over email if you want one).
Hijazi's reading of bin Laden's speech won't offer much support for either side of the current American political debate. He argues that bin Laden was speaking not as a political strategist but as a "salafi jihadist" (the divide between Muslim Brotherhood style political Islam and salafi jihadism is a particular theme of Hijazi's developed over countless essays). Hijazi argues that the salafi-jihadist organizations are religious first, not political organizations with a religious focus, and that such organizations do not change their doctrines for political ends. He notes bitingly that non-salafi-jihadists, even those sympathetic to al-Qaeda, always misinterpret bin Laden's speeches because they read him through their own political, strategic lenses (a sin of which I suppose I'm equally guilty).
To Hijazi, this is a major mistake. Bin Laden and the salafi-jihadists are first and foremost concerned with religion; if they admit mistakes, the mistakes are deviations from religious precepts rather than strategic or tactical. His major charges against the Iraqi mujahideen are that they are accepting judgements by bad ulema, or by hypocrites (munaqafin) who pretend to be good Muslims but who are really looking to spread fitna (internal conflict). His call for unity is a call for unity of honest organizations (jama'at sadiqa) - which for Hijazi is one of the major theoretical innovations and points of the speech. What bin Laden demands of the Iraqi fighters is religious sincerity and honesty, not any particular political strategy, and unity must begin from this religious foundation. Hijazi notes that nowhere in bin Laden's speech do words appear such as independence or liberation or negotiation or elections or political participation or nation (watan). That, to Hijazi, is the real clue to what bin Laden is talking about. The mistakes in Iraq are deviations from sharia - which could mean an overeager imposition of hadud penalties without the oversight of a sincere and qualified judge, could mean fanaticism (ta'assub) in placing one's group over the umma, or could mean bestowing illegitimate recognition on polytheistic political institutions (like democracy). Of course, the doctrinal and strategic likely run together - groups like the Islamic Army, which are forming the Political Council, would fall on the same side of the divide as would Tareq al-Hashemi since they talk about participating in the political process once the Americans leave.
This is just one interpretation of bin Laden's speech, but it comes from an influential insider voice. Frankly, I'm not sure what to do with it, and since it doesn't really fit any political agenda over here it will probably be ignored. But it seems like something interesting that people might like to hear about.