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December 29, 2004

Bin Laden Strikes Out


by Juan Cole

Osama bin Laden's latest video was broadcast on al-Jazeera on Monday, in which he commanded Muslims to boycott the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq and expressed his approval of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi had been a rival of bin Laden's in Afghanistan, and had earlier declined to share resources with al-Qaeda. But in recent months, al-Zarqawi changed the name of his group from Monotheism and Holy war to Mesopotamian al-Qaeda and pledged fealty to bin Laden.

In declaring "infidels" all who vote under the "infidel" interim constitution negotiated by Iraqi politicians with U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer last winter, bin Laden is seeking to counter the decree of grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that Iraqis must vote in the upcoming elections or they will be consigned to hell. Bin Laden is arguing, according to the Aljazeera.net in Arabic, that the interim constitution that is the framework for elections is artificial and pagan ("jahili," pertaining to the Age of Ignorance before Islam) because it does not recognize Islam as the sole source of law.

Bin Laden's intervention in Iraq was ham-fisted and clumsy, and will benefit the United States and the Shi'ites enormously. Most Iraqi Muslims, Sunni or Shi'ite, dislike the Wahhabi branch of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, with which bin Laden is associated. Nationalistic Iraqis will object to a foreigner interfering in their national affairs.

Zarqawi is widely hated in Iraq because the operations of his group often kill innocent Iraqis as opposed to American troops. The Shi'ites in particular despise Zarqawi and are aware of his hopes of provoking a Sunni-Shi'ite bloodbath in Iraq. (The muted Shi'ite response to the U.S. assault on Fallujah in November and December derived in large part from a conviction that the city had become a base for Zarqawi and like-minded Salafi terrorists). Zarqawi Web sites have claimed credit for the assassination in 2003 of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, a respected Shi'ite leader, which involved descrating the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf. The mainstream of the Kurds hates Zarqawi because of his earlier association with the small Kurdish radical Muslim terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam, which targeted the two major Kurdish parties.

Bin Laden as much as declared Grand Ayatollah Sistani an infidel. But Sistani is almost universally loved by the 65% of Iraqis who are Shi'ites, and is widely respected among many Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, as well. Bin Laden, the Saudi engineer, makes himself look ridiculous trying to give a fatwa against the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf. If anything, to have al-Qaeda menacing the Shi'ites in this way would tend to strengthen the American-Shi'ite alliance.

If bin Laden had been politically clever, he would have phrased his message in terms of Iraqi nationalism. By siding with the narrowest sliver of Sunni extremists, he denied himself any real impact. By adopting Zarqawi, who has killed many more Iraqis (especially Shi'ites) than he has Americans, he simply tarnishes his own image inside Iraq.

It appears that bin Laden is so weak now that he is forced to play to his own base of Saudi and Salafi jihadists, some of whom are volunteer guerrillas in Iraq. They are the only ones in Iraq who would be happy to see this particular videotape.

The only way bin Laden could profit from this intervention in the least would be if a civil war between Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites really did break out in Iraq, and if the beleaguered Sunnis went over to al-Qaeda in large numbers. Since the Sunni Arabs are a minority of 20%, they and he would still lose, but for bin Laden, who is now a refugee and without any strong political base outside a few provinces of Saudi Arabia, to pick up 5 million Iraqi Sunni Arabs would be a major political victory. His recent videotape calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government suggests that he might hope to use any increased popularity in Anbar province as a springboard for renewed attacks on Saudi Arabia, especially on its petroleum sector.

It is a desperate, crackpot hope. The narrow, sectarian, and politically unskillful character of this speech is the most hopeful sign I have seen in some time that al-Qaeda is a doomed political force, a mere Baader-Meinhof Gang or Red Army Faction with greater geographical reach.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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