bin Laden: the decline of an A-list celebrity

We have been at a loss to understand or explain the recent outpouring of terrorist recordings. Have they been coordinated or separate? What do they mean, since they seem to be all over the place in terms of targets, tactics and objectives? What about the terribly strange recent bin Laden tape, what did it mean? We’ll let Fareed Zakaria speculate for us:

bin Laden’s latest appeals have a very changed character. His messages used to be lyrical, sharp and highly intelligent. They operated at a high plane, rarely revealing anything about Al Qaeda’s operations. In fact, intelligence agencies looked for small signs—an offhand reference, an item of apparel—to reveal where Al Qaeda would strike next. Bin Laden’s most recent appeal is a mishmash of argument and detail, and seems slightly crazed. He has broadened his verbal attacks against the “Zionist-Crusaders” to include the United Nations and China. The latter he condemns because it “represents the Buddhists and Pagans of the world.”

Like Hitler crazily declaring war on the United States after Pearl Harbor, bin Laden is adding to his slew of formidable enemies: China was the only major world power that was unconcerned about him. (And his reference to the United Nations as a “Zionist-Crusader tool” would surely surprise most Israelis.) Bin Laden also makes some plaintive appeals to Muslims to rise up and attack the “crusaders” in the west of Sudan. This shows desperation because there are no “crusaders” in Sudan. The troops there are African Union peacekeepers. But more interestingly, the victims in Darfur are Muslim. Bin Laden’s real objective appears to be to support the government in Sudan—which once housed him—as it brutally exterminates tribes that oppose it. What does this have to do with Islam?

Most revealingly, bin Laden makes a parochial appeal for foreign aid, to help those Qaeda supporters in Waziristan who have been rendered homeless by Pakistani Army attacks. That suggests he and his friends are having a rough time. Strip away the usual hot air, and bin Laden’s audiotape is the sign of a seriously weakened man.

Time appears to have passed by bin Laden, whether he has been living in a cave for the last five years or a safe house in Iran. Militant, radical Islam is no longer a cavedweller’s game; it has gone institutional from Palestine to Iran. There is no statelessness to it anymore. We all know where the hearquarters are, and they are in places with big buildings and government bureaucracies. In one sense, this has been an accomplishment by bin Laden, to re-energize, institutionalize and highten the profile of radical Islam’s Great Game. In another sense, it has marginalized him, awakened a large number of people in the West, and painted a bulls-eye on some fat, juicy targets if and when the flare really goes up.

We may be wrong, but we see it this way: bin Laden was once an A-list celebrity, and now he can’t get his phone calls retuirned. His tape remended us of that Gloria Swanson moment at the end of Sunset Boulevard.

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