Released in time for the 6th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and Camp David, Al-Qaeda’s ‘al-Sahab’ media organisation has released Osama Bin Laden’s first video statement from for nearly three years, followed by another in which Bin Laden praises Abu Musab Walid, one of the 911 hijackers. These statements generally accepted authenticity has put to rest speculation that Bin Laden might have died, and has put the West’s most wanted man back into the forefront of the politics of the ‘war on terror’. The coverage that the first video statement has been given throughout the international media has proven again that Bin Laden is the most important spokesperson on behalf of militant Islamism even though his direct organisational involvement in Al-Qaeda affairs may have possibly been curtailed. What is most noticeable about this latest statement is the stridently radical anti-capitalist rhetoric which many have attributed to the influence of former white US citizen Azzam Al-Amriki – ‘Azzam the American’ – previously known as Adam Gadahn, the son of a Jew and a Catholic, who has family members who live in Israel, who now runs al-Sahab, Al-Qaeda’s media wing. The British Telegraph on September 9th quoted former CIA covert operations officer Mike Baker who stated that the Bin Laden statement ‘has Adam Gadahn all over it’. Amriki’s own speeches and possible influence on the statements of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s second leader Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, has raised an interesting development in Al-Qaeda propaganda strategy in adapting its message to the politics, history and even culture of US society.
Most recognize Amriki as being the main person behind the al-Sahab media organisation, and it is thought that he runs its editing suite from the back of a van somewhere in and around the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Bin Laden and Zawahiri are also thought to be in hiding. Amriki has previously made video statements in English and is thought to be the third most important spokesperson for Al-Qaeda. Although nominally involved in al-Sahab he has been the only person apart from Bin Laden in Al-Qaeda who has directed his messages specifically to a US audience. It seems likely that Amriki is relied upon by Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and also possibly more widely in Al-Qaeda, as someone who is most sensitive to and knowledgeable as to the most effective ways targeting the US in its propaganda war.
Although Bin Laden and Zawahiri have directed many comments and statements at the people and government of the US, recent statements have shown that Al-Qaeda is attempting to improve this particular media strategy. One of Zawahiri’s latest statements stated that Al-Qaeda is fighting on the behalf of “all the weak and oppressed in North America and South America, in Africa and Asia, and all over the world”, being possibly the first time that Al-Qaeda leadership has stated that their struggle is also aimed at assisting the world’s oppressed. Zawahiri’s statement also contained many references to Malcolm X / Malik el-Hajj Shabazz, a figure that still holds an emotive and profoundly political place in the hearts and minds of radicals, Muslims and especially Black people in the US. Zawahiri cited the famous militant Black leader to call on Black soldiers in the US army to recognise their historical and continuing oppression by the US and to refuse to fight in a war that is not in their interests; “And I tell the soldier of color in the American army that the racist Crusader regime kidnapped your ancestors to exploit them in developing their resources, and today it is using you for the same purpose, after they altered the look of the shackles and changed the type of chains and try to make you believe that you are fighting for democracy and the American dream … And after you achieve for them what they want, they will throw you out into the street like an old shoe”.
In Bin Laden’s latest statement he takes up a similar theme of racial divisions and tensions in US society by citing a short Guardian Film which was syndicated by ABC about a US Black soldier in Iraq; “Among them is the eloquent message of Joshua which he sent by way of the media, in which he wipes the tears from his eyes and describes American politicians in harsh terms and invites them to join him there for a few days. Perhaps his message will find in you an attentive ear so you can rescue him and more than 150,000 of your sons …”
It has been speculated that Amriki is the person who is essentially script-writing sections or even large parts of Zawahiri and Bin Laden’s speeches, this seems especially so in the case of Bin Laden’s latest video statement perhaps drafting the entire speech. The question has to be posed: is this an effective strategy on the part of al-Sahab? If put into the historical context of conflicts in times gone by, the current media strategy by al-Sahab has the potential of being successful to some extent, and there is even evidence that this is working on young people across the West.
The period of Black, Hispanic and white leftist and anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s and ‘70s in the US saw these organisations ally themselves to struggles which the US government considered a part of what was at the time then the parallel of Al-Qaeda in terms of the way the communists and the ‘Evil Empire’ were demonized and seen by the US government to epitomize the very opposite of its principles of American democratic and free-market values. Significant sections, but by no means a majority of Black political movements of Black radical movements in the US have throughout the last century sympathized and even sided with those the US are at war with. This has included Saddam Hussein in the 1991 war, at which time influential rapper Rakim in his pioneering Hip-Hop outfit with DJ Eric B expressed support for Saddam Hussein with a mixture of Third Worldist, Islamist and anti-capitalist lyrics on the track ‘Causalities of War’:
… let’s see who reigns supreme
Something like Monopoly: a government scheme
Go to the Army, be all you can be
Another dead soldier? Hell no, not me
So I start letting off ammunition in every direction
Allah is my only protection
But wait a minute, Saddam Hussein prays the same
and this is Asia, from where I came
I’m on the wrong side, so change the target
Shooting at the general; and where’s the sergeant?
One of the pet hate figures of the US establishment has been the leader of possibly one of the biggest Black political organisations: Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, whose international allies include Cuba’s Castro and Libya’s Ghadaffi. One of the earlier leaders of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, was well-known for supporting practically any militant opposition to US power in the world from guerilla movements Vietnam to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the equivalent of the 911 attacks of its time.
Following the Zawahiri statement in which he quotes Malcolm X, one of the best documentaries on Malcolm X’s life and political beliefs overseen by his wife Betty Shabazz, was edited into a pro-Al-Qaeda version of the original film, renaming it ‘Prince of Islam’. This was also accompanied by the release of a pro-Malcolm X rap song and video entitled ‘By Any Means Necessary’ by the clandestine rap group ‘Soul Salah Crew’ with which the aforementioned ‘Prince of Islam’ film opens. The music video and the ‘re-mixed’ film are popular on video-sharing websites, showing that Zawahiri’s statement has been successful in fusing Al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology with the radical message of Malcolm X.
Further back in history we can find examples of white US soldiers defecting to North Korea during the war against it by the US in the early 1950s, who broadcasted radio statements encouraging US soldiers to defect, and who also played acting roles in North Korean propaganda films portraying the ignorant and racially chauvinist American. Then there is the case of Robert F Williams from Monroe, North Carolina, maybe the person most responsible for the rise of the Black Power movement in the early 1960s who conducted radio broadcasts encouraging Black US soldiers in Vietnam to defect and also got Mao Tse Tung to issue a statement in support of the Black civil-rights movement at a time that Mao and Red China were seen as irreproachable anti-imperialist radicals by the US government. Today there is no sign of any radical Black movement in open support of Al-Qaeda, but judging from the fact that throughout history sizeable sections of Black people who have no trust whatsoever in the US system, one can be sure that Al-Qaeda are receiving some sympathetic nods when they raise the parallels between the history of US oppression of Black people and the way in which they are treated today.
The South Asia Analysis Group states that the Bin Laden statement reads more like the text of a disgruntled American than that of an ‘Arab Sheikh’ and that ‘there are more allusions to contemporary American history than to ancient Islam’. Most of Al-Qaeda’s statements are highly political, derided by some trends within Islam as being concerned too much with politics. In their statements Al-Qaeda raise events in Islamic history to prove a very contemporary political proposition. Nevertheless, it is true to say that this latest statement has very few references to Islamic history apart from the last section whereby Bin Laden explains that rather than being guilty of massive anti-Semitic practices, Islamic history, especially that of the 700 years of Islamic rule in Spain, proved that it was under an Islamic government that Jews and Muslims lived together in peace and security at a time when they were both persecuted. Bin Laden points the finger at the West as the architects and executers of the genocide against the Jewish people; “They [Jews and Christians] are alive with us and we have not incinerated them”.
This section of the statement has been derided by many commentators and analysts which is rather heavy on Islamist rhetoric calling on people in the US to convert to Islam, something which Al-Qaeda has done in many statements. It should be remembered that many Muslims, including rather reformist Islamic trends which Western governments tend to encourage, see the obligation of dawa – a religious call – to the West to convert to Islam as one of the greatest challenges facing the Ummah – the international community or nation of Muslims – in establishing peace and justice which they see as only being possible under Islamic law. So it should not come as any surprise that Bin Laden also calls upon people in the West to do so, albeit with the obvious difference being that refusing to do so might result in terrorist guerilla attacks. However Al-Qaeda like many Muslims believe Islam to be the only viable alternative to what they see as the morally decadent nature of the West. If yesterday it was Marxism or communism that was seen by many as, on the one hand the greatest enemy of the West, and on the other hand, as the best possible alternative to Western democracy and capitalism, it shouldn’t be so shocking in a context where Islam is seen as having replaced communism as the great threat, that it is seen by many Muslims as the great alternative to Western capitalist democracy. Bin Laden sees that only Islam can save the people of the US, and that of those Islamic countries with which it is fighting, from war and exploitation as he does not see any effective movement in the US that fights the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, let alone a cohesive political movement that is able to fundamentally challenge the system. Bin Laden argues: “you can still carry anti-war placards and spread out in the streets of major cities, then go back to your homes, but that will be of no use and will lead to the prolonging of the war.”
Bizarrely, Bin Laden has become one of the most well-known personalities in the world that is championing anti-capitalist, anti-racist and environmentalist demands, and all the while favorably quoting one of the greatest radical minds of our times: Noam Chomksy. It is rare, even on anti-war demonstrations in the West, to find such radical pronouncements as those from Bin Laden when he calls on people who have ‘previously liberated yourselves before from the slavery of monks, kings, and feudalism’, to liberate themselves from ‘the deception, shackles and attrition of the capitalist system’, a system he continues to argue that ‘seeks to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations under the label of “globalization” in order to protect democracy.’
This Islamist leftist rhetoric has inspired annoyance in some left-wing and radical circles in the West. While they might share Bin Laden’s radical comments they perhaps don’t appreciate Bin Laden picking holes in their political strategies and movements so publicly. One has to wait and see whether Chomksy shares this sentiment or like William Blum, another leftist intellectual that Bin Laden has previously praised, will be ‘glad’ about Bin Laden’s name dropping. If Bin Laden quoting Chomsky as a great writer wasn’t surreal enough, he goes on to praise the author of the book Imperial Hubris, Michael Scheuer, currently one of the main writers on the conflict-analyst organisation Jamestown and former head of the CIA Bin Laden unit. Scheuer has said in the past that “the Islamic media’s correspondents and editors work harder, dig deeper, and think more than most of their Western counterparts.”
This latest Al-Qaeda statement indeed shows that Bin Laden has done his research, or perhaps Amriki has done the legwork for him, in crafting a statement well-suited politically to a US context. The calls for people in the West to convert to Islam are not as outrageous and important as they might seem; in this statement, like so many others by Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s main emphasis remains the demand for a security pact with the people of the West conditional on the cessation of hostilities against Islamic nations, especially in the Arab world and in Afghanistan. In this latest statement it is probable that Amriki has helped Bin Laden gear this statement for a US audience. No matter how much analysts, journalists and commentators rubbish Al-Qaeda’s attempts at developing a discourse that aims to bridge the political and cultural chasm created by Western mainstream media in the present conflicts, Al-Qaeda are, as shown in the example of the Prince of Islam and Soul Salah Crew song, achieving some successes in this strategy. As for Amriki, one can imagine that Amriki is rather flattered by the amount of attention and responsibility that he has been attributed in Al-Qaeda’s media campaign against the West, in addition to being the first person since 1952 to be charged with treason, something which undoubtedly boosts his jihadi kudos, and may well be satisfied with his efforts. Possibly Amriki’s aim at the very least is to have got people in the world to take notice as to this the latest development of al-Sahab’s media campaign, something which he has achieved, and in so doing, has contributed to one of the most extraordinary cultural accomplishments of our times – Al Qaeda with American characteristics.