Apparently the Bush administration only understands their own domestic propaganda:
President George W. Bush's homeland security adviser said on Sunday al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is "virtually impotent" and can do little more than send videotaped messages.
Top White House aide Fran Townsend said U.S. officials were studying bin Laden's new video tape for clues to his health or whereabouts, and whether there were any hidden meanings or messages.
But she said there was no sign of an imminent attack.
"This is a man on the run in a cave who is virtually impotent other than his ability to get these messages out," Townsend said on CNN's "Late Edition." "It is propaganda.
"Based on our experience, we have never seen bin Laden use a tape to trigger any operational activity."
Then why did Condi tell the networks not to air his tapes?:
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor, this morning called a group of network executives to raise their awareness about national security concerns of airing pre-recorded, pre-taped messages from Osama bin Laden that could be a signal to terrorists to incite attacks.
It was a very collegial conversation. At best, Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans. At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks.
Townsend in right in one important respect: Bin Laden’s communiqués are propaganda. But they’re propaganda that needs to be taken seriously, and our actions and our own efforts at shaping public opinion in the rest of the world need to be improved. The terrorist’s credo of the propoganda of the deed is about sending a message. The more dramatic the message AND the delivery, the more effective the terrorist will be. As terrorism expert Brian Jenkins succinctly put it, "terrorism is theater." Al Qaeda obviously understands this, and is adapting this dictum to the information age:
Just before the 2004 American elections, (insurgency expert David) Kilcullen was doing intelligence work for the Australian government, sifting through Osama bin Laden’s public statements, including transcripts of a video that offered a list of grievances against America: Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, global warming. The last item brought Kilcullen up short. "I thought, Hang on! What kind of jihadist are you?" he recalled. The odd inclusion of environmentalist rhetoric, he said, made clear that "this wasn’t a list of genuine grievances. This was an Al Qaeda information strategy." Ron Suskind, in his book "The One Percent Doctrine," claims that analysts at the C.I.A. watched a similar video, released in 2004, and concluded that "bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reëlection." Bin Laden shrewdly created an implicit association between Al Qaeda and the Democratic Party, for he had come to feel that Bush’s strategy in the war on terror was sustaining his own global importance. Indeed, in the years after September 11th Al Qaeda’s core leadership had become a propaganda hub. "If bin Laden didn’t have access to global media, satellite communications, and the Internet, he’d just be a cranky guy in a cave," Kilcullen said.
Bin Laden’s understanding of the United States isn’t any better than that of the godfather of modern Jihadist throught, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb lived in the US from 1948 to 1950. He apparently was familiar with the Kinsey report, but his own letters show him to have been so overwhelmed by sexuality that he comes off as a Muslim caricature of William Bennett, railing on about Americans’ bestial impulses as evidenced by such horrors as the woman who "wears bright colors that awaken the primitive sexual instincts, hiding nothing, but adding to that the thrilling laugh and the bold look." He was appalled by jazz, and incensed that the foot was barely used in American football. But America played a big role in his thinking, even though he didn’t really understand it. Same with Bin Laden, whose most recent video tape (transcript here) has him railing on about the US, citing Noam Chomsky but also making low-tax arguments that make him sound like a governor offering tax breaks to lure a manufacturing to his state. It’s not the kind of message that would find much appeal to Americans, even if they didn’t realize it was from the world’s most wanted man.
But it’s still compelling theater. Bin Laden has been able to elude capture since he declared war on the United States over a decade ago. As a messenger, as the face of Al Qaeda, he’s a charismatic figure, one that those sympathetic to his message might even find heroic (subscription only):
It is this mystique, as much as bin Laden's words, and certainly more than the fact that he is responsible for the death of perhaps five thousand innocents, that continues to attract admirers. Indeed, the plot line of his life story fits rather neatly into traditional constructs of the hero—from Horus to Odysseus, Jesus or Siegfried, let alone such Arab models as the Prophet himself, or the folktale warriors Antar and Abu Zeid:
—a princely birth (his father was a billionaire, who died in a plane crash after claiming to be the only Muslim ever to have prayed at Jerusalem, Medina, and Mecca on the same day);
—physical prowess (he is well over six feet tall);
—courage and cunning (he is still alive);
—sacrifice (of a large personal fortune for the cause of jihad);
—closeness to animals, and a taste for life in the wilderness (bin Laden is a great horseman, with a proclivity for caves);
—rise to a higher calling (jihad for the salvation of Islam);
—closeness to God (he is pious, and he is still alive);
—respect for ancestors (his puritan version of Islam draws sole inspiration from the semi-mythical first three generations of Muslims);
—experience of exile, and rejection by his own tribe (bin Laden was stripped of Saudi citizenship in 1994, has been disowned by his family, and has spent most of his life abroad, often as a fugitive);
—escape from great perils (Tora Bora);
—striking a blow to the eye, or Achilles' heel, of his enemy (September 11);
—concluding, perhaps, with a lonely death on a distant mountain peak.
What lends this construction further strength is the fact that it arises in a Muslim landscape that is, in the modern world, singularly barren of heroes. It is hard, for example, to think of a modern Arab political figure with the stature of, say, Kemal Attaturk, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, or even Ariel Sharon. There have been no recent parallels even to such flawed Muslim statesmen as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, or Egypt's Pan-Arabist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Since the deaths of Ayatollah Khomeini and Yasser Arafat, probably the only rival to bin Laden today, in heroic allure, is Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.
Compelling theater indeed.
The leaders in the Bush administration—in fact, most of the foreign and defense policy establishment, for that matter—still haven’t figured out that fighting Al Qaeda requires the US to adapt to an information war. We lack a compelling message, backed up with compatible actions, that would change minds in Muslim societies about the US and the West, and about jihadi terrorism. Townsend’s dismissal of Bin Laden’s message as mere propaganda show they don’t know that much of the struggle against Al Qaeda IS a propaganda struggle, utilizing effective branding and message discipline as well as new technologies and media. It’s also likely they don’t understand Bin Laden’s value to Al Qaeda or, as terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman argues in today’s WaPo, that he’s not Al Qaeda's strategist and operational leader:
[...]Bin Laden's days as the movement's guiding star are over. The United States' most formidable nemesis now is not the Saudi terrorist leader but his nominal deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Part impresario, part visionary, bin Laden made himself and the terrorist organization he co-founded into household words. Today they are paired global "brands" as recognizable and interchangeable as any leading corporation and its high-visibility CEO. But mounting evidence suggests that his time of active involvement in al-Qaeda operations is behind him. Forced into hiding, he has ceased to be a major force in al-Qaeda planning and decision-making and, even more astonishing, in its public relations activities...
Zawahiri has also overseen a quadrupling of al-Qaeda video releases in the same period...all as part of a PR campaign to keep al-Qaeda in the news and to ensure the continued resonance of its message.
He may lack bin Laden's charisma, but Zawahiri is the superior strategist. It was he who, more than a decade ago, defined al-Qaeda's strategy in terms of "far" and "near" enemies. The United States is the "far enemy" whose defeat, he argued, was an essential prerequisite to the elimination of the "near enemy" -- the corrupt and authoritarian anti-Islamic regimes in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia that could not remain in power without U.S. support. Zawahiri's strategic vision set off the chain of events that led to 9/11...
His treatise...painted a picture of Islam under siege by a predatory, Western-dominated world in which "there is no solution without jihad." He argued for:
- The need to inflict maximum casualties on the opponent, no matter how much time and effort such operations take, for this is the language understood by the West.
- The need to concentrate on martyrdom operations as the most successful way to inflict damage and the least costly in casualties to the mujaheddin.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq presented al-Qaeda with the opportunity to put his arguments into practice. As long ago as the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri had explained al-Qaeda's strategy in response to what he was already decrying as a repressive U.S.-led occupation. "We thank God," he declared in September 2003, "for appeasing us with the dilemmas in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans are facing a delicate situation in both countries. If they withdraw, they will lose everything, and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death."...
Iraq has also figured prominently in Zawahiri's plans to reinvigorate the jihadist cause and recapture its momentum. By portraying U.S. efforts in Iraq as an oppressive occupation, he and al-Qaeda's hyperactive media arm, al-Sahab ("the clouds" in Arabic), have been able to propagate an image of Islam as perpetually on the defensive, with no alternative but to take up arms against U.S. aggression...
The Bush administration hasn’t shown any evidence that they’ve ever understood Al Qaeda. Rather, they continue to play right in to the hands of the deranged by shrewd Zawahiri and act in ways that make Zawahiri’s tasks easier. They got us involved in a stupid and unnecessary war in Iraq, largely through exploiting fears from 9-11. And what’s it given us? A situation where it’s quite possible that Bush is again ignoring Presidential Daily Briefing, this time titled "Zawahiri Determined to Strike in U.S."