Civil Fights: Bin Laden's strategy for dividing the West

Talk of Israel as his target is a ruse to divert attention from al-Qaida's goal of an Islamic superstate.

Bin Laden 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bin Laden 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Osama bin Laden released a new audio message last week in which he termed the Palestinian issue the "core reason" for al-Qaida's war against the West, and a major impetus for the 9/11 attacks. This is the second time in less than six months that he has tried to put Israel center stage: In December, he issued an audiotape threatening to "expand our jihad" to Israel in order to "liberate Palestine, the whole of Palestine, from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea." Yet in reality, Israel has never been of much interest to al-Qaida. Thus it is crucial to understand what bin Laden seeks to achieve by pretending otherwise. That Israel is in fact of only marginal interest to bin Laden is amply demonstrated by his own words and actions. Indeed, his December message implicitly acknowledged as much by vowing to "expand" his jihad to Israel: If the Palestinian cause were truly al-Qaida's chief concern, why was it "expanding" its jihad to Israel only now, after years of successfully staging attacks in almost every other quarter of the globe? Israel, after all, is not a difficult target, as repeated attacks by Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists make clear. Its neighbors all have large Muslim populations that loathe it, and Israel itself has a large and disaffected Muslim population; thus al-Qaida would have a wide choice of potential recruits and staging grounds. Yet to date, there has not been a single documented al-Qaida attack on Israel - even as the organization successfully staged attacks in countries as diverse as the United States, Kenya and Saudi Arabia, while helping allies stage additional attacks in countries from Indonesia to Spain. Given al-Qaida's track record, there is only one possible explanation for this failure: The group has never seriously tried to target Israel. EXPERTS ON al-Qaida agree that Israel is far from being the organization's primary concern. David Schenker, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The New York Times in October 2001 that bin Laden's first call for jihad, issued in 1992, made almost no mention of Palestine; its primary target was America. His 1996 fatwa cited Palestine as merely one item in "an endless list of Muslim grievances against the United States and injustices endured by Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Somalia, Kashmir, the Philippines, Tajikistan and Eritrea, to name a few," the paper reported. His 1998 fatwa deemed Saudi Arabia his top concern, followed by Iraq; Jerusalem - which is of lesser religious importance than either Saudi Arabia, Islam's birthplace, or Iraq, seat of the last Arab-Islamic caliphate - got only third billing. Tunisian intellectual Al-Afif al-Akhdar highlights the fact that bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a book in which he listed the movement's three main goals as "religious rule based on Shari'a [Islamic law], forging ties with believers only; and total and immediate severance from the unbelievers." In other words, Akhdar explained in a 2006 interview with Haaretz, al-Qaida's main goal is to reshape the Muslim world into an Islamic theocracy that maintains no ties with the West; issues such as Palestine are "second-tier." But if Israel is not a major concern for al-Qaida - if it is in fact of so little concern that not one of al-Qaida's numerous and globe-spanning attacks has targeted it - why has it increasingly starred in the organization's rhetoric since 2001? According to Akhdar, this is a tactic to muster support for the organization among Muslims worldwide, for whom "liberating Palestine" is a far more enticing cause than "religious rule based on Shari'a." YET SUCH rhetoric almost certainly has another goal as well: to divide and weaken the West by deceiving it about al-Qaida's true intentions. That bin Laden seeks to divide the West is obvious: Just consider the Qaida-assisted pre-election bombing in Spain in 2004, which toppled a pro-American government and replaced it with one whose first move was to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. His interest in doing so is equally obvious: The last thing he wants is for the West to unite and wage war against al-Qaida as it did against Nazi Germany. But since most Westerners would hardly be enthusiastic about seeing the entire Muslim world become a theocracy whose sole interest in the West is waging jihad against it, dividing the West requires deceiving it about al-Qaida's true aims. And Israel is clearly the perfect issue for this purpose. In Europe, as repeated polls have found, it is already the world's most unpopular country, and even in America, a vocal minority has long argued that US support for Israel is the main reason it has become a target for Islamist terror. Thus if bin Laden can convince Westerners that his main goal is ending Israel's "occupation of Palestine," rather than transforming the Muslim world into a jihadist theocracy, they will view al-Qaida not as an implacable enemy that must be fought, but as an organization that can be persuaded to abandon violence by placating its legitimate grievances. At the very least, a critical mass of such people would effectively paralyze the West: Far from being able to mobilize to combat al-Qaida and its allies effectively, the free world would be bogged down in endless arguments over whether the organization should be opposed or appeased. And if the appeasement camp were strong enough to pressure Israel into major concessions, al-Qaida would gain a double victory: Western concessions typically increase support for jihadist groups among ordinary Muslims, by enabling these groups to portray themselves as the winning side against a West in retreat. Bin Laden has sowed his seeds of division expertly. But only the West can make his "divide and conquer" strategy succeed. If it remains focused on his true aims - which he has taken little trouble to conceal - and acts accordingly, his strategy will fail. But if too many Westerners are deceived by his claim that Palestine is the "core reason for the war between our civilization and your civilizations," al-Qaida will have racked up another major victory on its road to the theocratic Islamic superstate of its dreams.