We know that the majority of your people want this war to end and based on the substance of the polls, which indicate Americans do not want to fight Muslims on Muslim land, nor do they want Muslims to fight them on their land, we do not mind offering a long-term truce based on just conditions that we will stand by … a truce that offers security and stability and the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan that war has destroyed … And there is nothing wrong with this solution except that it deprives the influential people and warlords in America from hundreds of billions of dollars – those who supported [President George W] Bush’s election campaign with billions of dollars.
– Osama bin Laden on tape, January 18

Just a slow, composed, husky voice out of a telephone line recorded on a scratched tape (not digital; a mere cassette). No video. Just a voice – capable of sending the markets into a tailspin and the networks into hysteria, spiking the oil bourses in London and New York, resetting the global agenda, unleashing armies of US intelligence analysts scrambling to confirm if the voice is real or fake.

You had totally vanished from the face of the Earth for more than a year. You are the most wanted man in the world. You re-enter the global stage just with your voice, a mere whisper. The simplicity of it. What politician would not dream of such power?

Osama bin Laden, master media manipulator turned global politician, is back. Talk about astonishing timing. Only a few days ago in the Pakistani tribal area of Bajur a US Central Intelligence Agency drone delivered punishment from heaven toward what should have been al-Qaeda’s No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but turned out to be villagers, including children, and also reportedly some al-Qaeda militants.

Cue to a tape moving hand-to-hand undetected from the tribal areas – it could be South Waziristan in Pakistan, it could be Kunar in Afghanistan – to Al-Jazeera’s office in Peshawar and then to the network’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar. There’s no reason to doubt Al-Jazeera’s assessment that the tape was recorded last month. It didn’t have to sit very long to reach the limelight.

Bin Laden may have never read James Joyce, but he is applying to perfection the Dubliner’s motto: silence, exile, cunning. Against the awesome US military machine, al-Qaeda’s weapons of choice since September 11, 2001, have been subterfuge, evasion and deception.

But the Bush administration – and US public opinion – will have only themselves to blame if they confuse the messenger’s tactics with the message. Whatever the tactics, bin Laden is always on message – and should be taken at his word.

Bin Laden is now explicitly offering a truce to the United States: “We do not mind offering a long-term truce based on just conditions that we will stick to. We are a nation that Allah banned from lying and stabbing others in the back, hence both parties of the truce will enjoy stability and security to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, which were destroyed by war.”

The chances of the Bush administration (“we don’t negotiate with terrorists, we put them out of business”) accepting the offer are as slim as the chances of Vice President Dick Cheney rejecting oil as an expendable commodity.

So, according to bin Laden, Zawahiri and al-Qaeda’s “Allah bans us from lying” reasoning, they have fulfilled their duty. The enemy has been warned. This means bin Laden’s threat of a renewed al-Qaeda attack inside the US is not pure imaging – or a weapon of rhetorical destruction. Then, after the fact, a tape – audio or video – will inevitably follow, florid Arabic elaborating once again that “you never listen to what we’re saying.”

It’s always the same message. When he last showed up on video, in October 2004, a few days ahead of the US presidential election, bin Laden said there would be no more September 11s if the US stopped attacking Muslim lands.

With Bush – al-Qaeda’s preferred candidate – re-elected, bin Laden reappeared in audio on late December 2004 to designate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, an anointed supreme commander in a local defensive jihad against occupation by a Christian army.

In at least 35 messages – in audio or video – delivered by both bin Laden and Zawahiri since September 11, the heart of the matter is always the same. The US must leave the Middle East alone – it must stop supporting Israel over Palestine and stop supporting corrupt dictatorial regimes in the Arab and Muslim world.

Strategy mutating

The fact that Zawahiri – influenced by the Islamists’ foremost thinker, Sayyid Qutb – defines jihad as “an armed putsch … requiring cooperation between civilians and the military to achieve its goal” proves that al-Qaeda is all about politics, and marginally about religion.

Bin Laden’s latest tape is devoid of any window-dressing of Islamic phraseology. Al-Qaeda is above all involved in a long-range political war of attrition. Al-Qaeda’s ideology relates to model military operations that can be easily comprehended and identified with by local populations.

In this sense, al-Qaeda’s hit-and-run tactics in Afghanistan may work with Pashtun tribesmen, but Zarqawi’s senseless killings of civilians may not be working with nationalist Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

Numbers also play a crucial part. This year marks the 10th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s rite of passage from strategic considerations to an overall battle plan.

In August 1996 in Afghanistan, bin Laden issued his “declaration of jihad against the Americans occupying the land of the two holy sites.” Less than two years later, in February 1998, the World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders was created and an offensive was intensified, culminating in September 11.

So al-Qaeda’s war was firmly declared twice on the record. The Madrid bombings took place exactly two and a half years after September 11, which was a precise military operation that took five years of meticulous planning. Al-Qaeda’s love of symmetry may point to an attack five years after September 11 – this year.

The initial, Zawahiri-formulated basic concept was to “strike at the faraway enemy” (the United States), thus opening the way to the overthrow of the “nearby enemy” – pro-American leaders in the Muslim world. This simply did not happen; al-Qaeda’s strategy failed.

So, once again showing signs of strategic operational flexibility, al-Qaeda since September 11 and the invasion of Iraq mutated into privileging local jihads in Afghanistan and Iraq, where according to its own strategic objectives, it is winning. Let a thousand mini-al-Qaedas bloom. Now bin Laden’s new message may reveal a renewed commitment to “strike at the faraway enemy.”

According to Zawahiri’s conceptualization, radical Islam must bridge the gap between an elite – a revolutionary vanguard, of which al-Qaeda is part – and the Muslim masses. Jihad, according to Zawahiri, requires a “scientific, confrontational, rational” leadership.

So stigmatizing al-Qaeda’s leadership as “evil terrorists” won’t help. Zawahiri and bin Laden are now practitioners of realpolitik. They favor Niccolo Machiavelli over the Holy Koran. It’s all about coining the right rhetoric – and the right audio-video global media coups – to lift the Muslim masses out of fatalistic passivity, impregnate them with political conscience, and persuade them to join the jihad.

What you hear is what you get

Al-Qaeda inevitably has to move beyond surprise, stealth and heavy symbolism (how can you top September 11?) So for a high-impact, multi-layered message like bin Laden’s, you don’t need video. You have to force people to listen to what the voice is saying. Enter bin Laden the politician.

Politically, addressing US public opinion, bin Laden clearly identifies the Bush administration – and its “war on terror,” a military response to a concept – as the problem. Overwhelmed by media noise, Americans once again won’t listen. Dealing with the Muslim masses is much more complicated. They will listen – but they won’t necessarily agree.

Support for al-Qaeda may consist of scattered Muslim intellectuals, clerics, Islamic bankers and a small army of young, disgruntled, desperate suicide bombers. To succeed, al-Qaeda would have to unify poor urban youth (not only in Muslim lands but all over Western Europe), Muslim middle classes everywhere, and the Islamist intelligentsia.

Borrowing a concept from liberal democracy, al-Qaeda, to succeed, needs a broad coalition. To attract, for instance, sectors of the anti-globalization movement, it needs to be less Islamic. To conquer moderate Muslims, it needs to be less radical.

By any standards, al-Qaeda now needs political, not military, skills. This correspondent has identified many echoes – from Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Western Europe – that Islamic radicals who sympathize with al-Qaeda’s project have been seriously questioning its strategy, or lack of it. As far as global Muslim public opinion is concerned, bin Laden’s message has tried to address these concerns.

Careful examination of bin Laden’s latest words also reveal that unlike the Bush administration spin, al-Qaeda does not want to destroy the United States or its way of life. But at the same time the US, and the Bush administration in particular, may enhance al-Qaeda’s appeal as it will never waver from its two strategic imperatives – absolute security for Israel in the heart of the Arab Middle East and the obsession in taking over all of the Middle East’s oil reserves.

So there’s no way to stop the infernal spiral. The husky voice on the tape has been, once again, unmistakable; we want a Middle East not subjected to the United States, deciding its own destiny. This is like any politician in the developing world talking about national sovereignty. But it’s not going to happen. We, the damned of the Earth, seem to be condemned to “war on terror” forever.