New Bin Laden Video Released Ahead of 9/11 Anniversary
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The new video is almost 30 minutes in length. In it, bin Laden says, quote, “People of America, the world is following your news in regards to your invasion of Iraq. After several years of tragedies of this war, the vast majority of you want it stopped. Thus, you elected the Democratic Party for this purpose, but the Democrats haven’t made a move worth mentioning. On the contrary, they continued to agree to the spending of tens of billions to continue the killing,” end quote.
Bin Laden also mentions current events, including an acknowledgement of the recent elections in France and Great Britain.
For analysis of bin Laden’s message, we talk to Bruce Hoffman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University; and Mohammed Hafez, visiting professor of political science at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
Gentlemen, thank you for being with us. And, Bruce Hoffman, to you first. What do you make of this video and, first of all, in terms of how bin Laden looks?
BRUCE HOFFMAN, Professor, Georgetown University: Well, he has had something of a makeover. His beard is much darker. He doesn’t look quite as haggard as he did in his last appearance three years ago, but this could be just, on the one hand, the wonders of makeup, on the other hand, his attempt to disguise himself and to sort of camouflage himself and not appear as we last saw him.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Hafez, how different from the bin Laden of a few years ago?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ, Visiting Professor, University of Missouri: Well, he looks like he put on a little weight, but I agree with Bruce. His beard is trimmed, and it is darker. And, interestingly, some of the jihadists on the Web forums have commented on this, commenting about, is it permissible for him to trim his beard? Some of these guys don’t think it is Islamic to actually trim your beard.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What about — continuing with you, Professor Hafez — what about what he says? There are so many interesting things to look at in the transcript of what he says, talking about the Democratic Party winning the elections, not being able to end the war in Iraq. What do you make of the entire message?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, what’s interesting, I think what he’s trying to do is to speak to the American public above the heads of their leaders. And what he’s saying is, not only the Republicans or the Bush administration, but it’s also the Democrats that are out letting you down.
And he attributes this to corporate power. He attributes this to the powers that be, the moneyed interests that control this and that are benefiting from the war, according to his words. And this is, oddly enough, kind of a Marxist discourse, not an Islamist discourse, and that’s something I found really puzzling.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Bruce Hoffman, you’re smiling here.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well, I think Mohammed’s analysis is entirely accurate. I thought the same thing, that it’s almost this adolescent channeling of Marxism, blaming democracies and the capitalist system, but also borrowing from Leninism, saying that these systems are inherently corrupt, they’re inherently militarist.
It’s also a very selective, I think, and jaundiced view of history. He looks to John F. Kennedy and says, “He could have ended the Vietnam War but for the military industrial complex.” He talks about Jews, had they put their faith in Muslims and sought safety from Muslims, they could have avoided the Holocaust, which is, of course, I think a highly idiosyncratic reading of history, to say the least.
Critiquing the American system
JUDY WOODRUFF: But it's a different message from what we heard from him the last time?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Different and similar. I think it's similar that he picks up many of the same themes. As you recall in 2004, he was equally condemnatory of both President Bush and presidential candidate Senator Kerry.
I think this message is much less coherent. It also seems like a desperate bid for bin Laden to intervene, to comment on the most important affairs of our time, to offer his thoughts, and thus to demonstrate that, though he's been hiding for three years, he still has some relevance in the world of today.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Professor Hafez, what do you make of this -- you brought it up a moment ago -- but this almost obsession with the capitalist system and how, you know, telling Americans to throw off the yoke of capitalism?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, I think it's a message for the American public, but also for the world public. What bin Laden is trying to do is really take up the themes that Ahmadinejad and Chavez have brought up; that is, to try to portray America as this hegemonic bully that doesn't care about issues, for instance, the environment and global warming, and say that, essentially, that the world is -- you need to stay away from America and to not cooperate with America, and you'll be safe. I think that is an important message.
But also what he's trying to do is to appeal to a subculture, particularly in Europe, of youth, interestingly some that recently converted Islam or that might convert to Islam, that are anti-globalist, anti-hegemonic, that are anti-establishment. And in that respect, he might be trying to reach out to a new audience, not just the traditional jihadists that we're accustomed to seeing.
Appealing to a young audience
JUDY WOODRUFF: He makes specific reference to several people, the new book -- recent book, I should say -- by the former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, the title of it "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror." What did you make of that?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, he also recommends for people to read Noam Chomsky, again, kind of a leftist anarchist, not the Prophet Muhammad or Sayyid Qutb, which is, you know, the normal stable of radical Islamists. And, again, I think what he's trying to do is to really appeal to the youth, particularly in Europe, to try to get that segment that does not fit the normal profile and create a new generation perhaps of jihadists that are mobilized on anti-globalist, anti-imperialist themes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see that kind of a message in this?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Yes, I think he's struggling to prove his relevance by casting a very wide net to as broad a constituency as possible, by touching on just about all the major issues that are in the public discourse today and then, like everyone else, weighing in on Iraq and giving his opinion on what should be done, which is exactly what everybody is now in the process of at least holding their breaths, but about to do with General Petraeus' report.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What does all this add up to? What does this tell us that we didn't know about the workings of al-Qaida, about the threat it poses to the United States?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Two things. First, I thought it was remarkable that he very uncategorically takes credit for 9/11. He talks about how the United States denies the innocent blood that it shed in Iraq, and he says, "This would be like me denying the blood of your sons that I've shed." So, so much for all the conspiracy theories that are on the Internet and elsewhere and say that this was a Mossad or a U.S. plot.
The rise of Zawahiri
JUDY WOODRUFF: He had not done that before?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Not as explicitly, no. In a tape that was found in Kandahar in November 2001, which is a private videotape, he says something to this effect, but he's never quite, I think, so uncategorically stated it.
I think, secondly, again, it shows that he's a marquee name, that he's a galvanizing presence, but I look at it as someone who's out of touch and is struggling to again have a message. I think we've seen his nominal deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, supersede him as actually the leader of the group.
Zawahiri has had more than 30 videotape or audio messages in the past two years. Zawahiri has overseen the quadrupling of As-Sahab, al-Qaida's media arms, publication. And also Zawahiri is the one, I think, who's engineered this resurgence of al-Qaida that was reflected in the National Intelligence Estimate released in July.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But are you saying bin Laden is irrelevant?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: I think he is irrelevant. He's struggling to be irrelevant. I think that we're still preoccupied...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Struggling to be relevant?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Sorry, he's struggling to be relevant. We're still -- we fall into that trap. We're still preoccupied with bin Laden. At the same time, I think Zawahiri has emerged as the major force in al-Qaida today.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that, Professor Hafez?
MOHAMMED HAFEZ: Well, I agree, but I think the message is the tape. The fact that he appears six years after the war on terrorism commenced really is trying to deliver the message that this war has failed. He mentions several times in his speech that Bush is struggling in Iraq, that Bush is defeated in Iraq.
And just the response of the jihadists on the chatrooms and just the number of clicks that have overwhelmed the jihadist forums trying to hear bin Laden speak suggest that, well, he might still be relevant. I think there's going to be a slight confusion about this message. What is he trying to say?
And some people have already indicated it suggests a kind of lack of realism on his part to say that Americans should convert to Islam. But you have to know that the jihadist community are amenable to spin doctors. It will be the ideologues that will come out and say, "Well, really, what he meant to say is this, and really what he's trying to do is that." I wouldn't go as far to say that he is irrelevant, but the message is slightly confused.
Al-Qaida's gaining strength
JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet you look -- I mean, there's everything in here, you've talked about America is in the same position that the Soviet Union was before it fell, and he goes on to talk about global warming. He said it's the most dangerous of threats to humans. He talks about real estate mortgages and taxes under capitalism.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well, I think he's trying to marshal every conceivable argument to the bankruptcy of the United States as a political or a moral force in the world. And that's similar to what he had done in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the then-Soviet Union.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And so you add it all up, and, looking at this tape, do we think that al-Qaida is stronger or not than it was before 9/11?
BRUCE HOFFMAN: Well, I don't think al-Qaida is stronger than it was after 9/11, but I think it's been gaining strength. And the reason it's been gaining strength is because I think Zawahiri's leadership.
I think bin Laden remains really the glue that holds this together ideologically. But you can see that him touching on a variety of different topics, hoping to get resonance with one or some of them, he's doing the talking, in essence. Zawahiri is doing the commanding and the fighting.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Bruce Hoffman, we thank you. And, Professor Mohammed Hafez, thank you both. We appreciate it.