Mask and face of Bin Laden
in the Al Qaeda mediatic strategy
Through the media propaganda, Bin Laden demonstrates perfectly well his knowledge of systems of ‘psychological warfare’ and ‘ manipulation of the masses’ and thus, inaugurates the ‘terrorism in franchising’ system, where the operative cells have an independent life within the guidelines issued by the leadership. Essential to this strategy ,which is addressed for different reasons both to the Western audience, as well as to the Arab World, is the revelation of his work of camouflage. The Saudi Sheikh transforms himself into ‘man of legend’, the flesh into symbols. This article documents the most salient moments of such a process, running photographs of Osama’s metamorphoses from the Mujahedin’s military chief to strategic advisor of Allah’s Army, to political leader of a universalCaliphdom, to the most recent figure of ideologist of the ‘civil war’ in Iraq between the Sunnites and Shiites.
We do not know whether Bin Laden has ever read “Psychology of the Masses” a book by Gustave Le Bon, a French writer of the late 19th century, the first to analyse the behaviour of the “masses” and to study techniques to control them.
We suppose that he did not. However, from this book, (which has been used by able manipulators like the Nazi propaganda minister, Goebels - a man who was very familiar with the ‘suggestive power’ of the media and who ideated ‘psychological warfare’), we can trace the explanation for some of the significant aspects of the Al Qaeda communication strategy as applied to a mass terrorist campaign.
The strategy goes from the cult of the leader’s personality with forms of real idolatry,(otherwise, how can one explain the graphite image of Bin Laden on t-shirts worn, in some Arab areas, as a sign of ‘belonging’), to the use of a language capable of evoking ancestral images (..“ devour Americans like lions devour their prey”), capturing the emotions of supporters, as well as, enemies, to the extolling of the ethnic-educative function of martyrdom (ever present in the proclamations, in the “funeral orations for the September 11th attackers), as being the highest of all virtues.
It is a strategic propaganda based on the internationalisation of the “Jihad” against the Jews and the crusaders. It has gained more and more strength, raising the conflict level from the “close enemy” ( the American outposts on Arab territories, in the skies of Somalia, the Kenya and Tanzania embassies or in the waters of Yemen), to the “far enemy” (America, and the Jewish-Christian horizon) passing to the “Holocaust” of the Twin Towers and the last blow to the Spanish, on the 11th of March.
Under the banner of “Qaedism” a sort of ideological hybrid between the wahhabita rigor (Bin Laden, quite often, cites ‘to the letter’ the orthodoxy of the Sunnite theologist Ibn Taymiyya, who lived between the XIII and the XIV centuries and was the “ante litteram” forerunner of this ideology), the Salafita influence of some Algerian and Egyptian fighting groups and the ideological intransigence of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. - Bin Laden’s “International Islam” works like a franchising enterprise.
It is an unusual and innovative system for the management of a terrorist network, although it seems quite adequate to the atypical organizational parameters of Al Qaeda, where the “central” sends out orders for operational strategies (suicidal attacks, car bombs, mines, abductions, etc.) encouraging the formation of autonomous cells ( the necessary training references can be found in numerous Jihad manuals on line ) orienting the priorities according to operation areas.
One goes from Iraq, which is identified as the “front line to defend the Islamic identity in the world” to Palestine, to the Arab countries ruled by “corrupted” governments, the first being Saudi Arabia and its “black gold” put ‘on sale’ for the Americans, to the rest of the world, where any attack, no matter how sporadic, must be spectacular and have the ‘surprise affect’, (as in New York and Madrid).
The Web constitutes the keystone and the glue of the entire mechanism. It is not for nothing that “Al Qaeda”, which in Arabic means “The Base”, understood as the original moujiaheddin training camp in Afghanistan during the decade 1979-1989 of anti-soviet resistance, can be interpreted, as a ‘database’ which joins the pre-existent nationalistic militant extremist groups and the new drafts of the global jihad in one single identity, and all harbouring the common anti western resentment.
The “Jihadist identity, therefore, starts a new form of terrorism which is diffused with a “no-space” reference. In other words, it is capable of disguising itself for a long time in its host organism before coming to light. It is a cross between Islamic radicalism and modernity and an offspring of the conflict between globalisation, of the American model, and anti globalisation, of the Islamic model, of which the Saudi Sheik and entrepreneur is the emblem.
Bin Laden is a borderline personage, who lived between the rigidly conservative precepts of the Wahhabita sect and the managerial formation of Anglo-American inspiration. He has built of himself an image which is both antique and modern, of the elite and of the people, - he is a Jihad strategist and at the same time an experienced self-promoter.
To put it in TV language, his messages and his videotapes (typical instruments of the Western mass media culture), are created to appeal to a wide variety of audiences, and with a strategic choice of the broadcasting times in order to capture the maximum share and secure the first pages of international media.
Going through the audio-photographic files on Osama we find a great variety of photographs, but there are three images which best document the evolution and ambitions of the Sheik, from the military chief of the moujiaheddin, to strategic adviser, to political leader of a “universal Caliphate” (with Bagdad as Capital). A goal to be reached through the overthrow of lay Arab governments exposed to the contagion of democracy.
It all starts in Autumn 2001 when the images of the Anglo American raids in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s stronghold, are superimposed by the images of Bin Laden, in the company of his alter ego, the ideologist Ayman Al Zawahiri and of the spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith. Like a modern Saladin in a camouflage suit, Kalashnikov and microphone, the Saudi Sheik harangues about the sacred war (Jihad) from a cave symbolizing the choice of a Spartan way of life, capable of creating a strong identification process in the masses of undernourished people who crowd the Arab Countries (from the Caucasus to Central Asia, from North Africa to the Middle East).
We shall find this image again of the “warrior” Bin Laden until the 10th September 2003, while the chaotic Iraqi post war is still at the beginning, the Sheik abandons military dress (but not the “kalashnikov”) and wears Afghani clothes. He must stay in the rear guard, but, in a background of a rough and inaccessible landscape as his tribal refuge between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. He feels so invincible that he stresses to his enemies. “ you did not achieve anything,.. you did not find us”; invincible and confident in his role as strategic advisor of Allah’s Army. The mujiaheddin’s new generations will carry ahead the “banner” of a single transnational Jihaddist identity - those mujiheddins who “do not fear to scale the mountains”.
His faithful Al Zawahiri, who walks by him in the film, says, with an “off stage” voice :”we shall cut off the arms of whoever touches us”! And, most likely, he is already thinking of the horror which, in the months to come, will be shown in shock videos, of the young “head cutters” of al Qaeda, (Abdul Aziz Al – Moqrin in Saudi Arabia and Abu Musab Al Zarkawi in Iraq).
After this video, Bin Laden for one year is not seen, but makes himself heard! In April 2004, he offers a truce to a still shocked Europe for having been thrown into the trenches of the Iraqi conflict by the slaughter on the eve of the political elections in Spain, one of the “invading” countries.
Strong from the ‘emotional’ capsizing of the election results and the subsequent Spanish military withdrawal from Iraq, the Sheik starts the new “blackmail on line” strategy (destined to spread through the circuits of the Qaeda galaxy for the entire Summer), by which he intends to put pressure on popular opinion to compel European Governments, allied with the U.S.A., to withdraw their soldiers from the enormous Iraqi game. The tone of the proclamation is now that of a mature political leader, who flatters and threatens at the same time; giving legitimacy, in accordance with the general principal of reciprocity, to the carrying out of terrorist acts in countries who support the “invasion”. (Our actions are a reaction to your actions in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in Palestine).
With this compromisingly styled initiative, the transformation of the military strategist Osama into the political actor Osama, is now complete; gifted with a strong sense of opportunism - (“let’s support Saddam”, he said, before the Iraqi war. “Down with Saddam”, he will say after the Iraqi dictator’s capture), and possessing an unexpected, grotesque sense of irony, he recalls, with these words, the attack on Marines in an international peace mission in Mogadishu in 1993: “The killing of Americans in Somalia came only after the ‘Restore Hope’ operation. We have ‘restored them’ but without hope, thanks be to Allah!”
When the Saudi Sheik appears again in the flesh on the 29th of October 2004, on the eve of the American elections, the metamorphosis is complete also in the “look” .. and not only; in fact, he wears the white gold bordered Jallaba, the dress of a high tribal dignitary, while the filming technique is that which uses all the dramatic affects available to confer the highest solemnity and maximum importance to an occasion.
In the pose of a conference reader (he is reading a written text from a podium and it almost seems like a symmetrical parody of the official speeches pronounced by his direct antagonist in the Oval Office of the White House), Bin Laden addresses the Americans, offering his hand and retracting his arm. His is a vote of exchange: he offers peace but he assures an “exhausting war”, if the attacks against the Muslims in Palestine and Iraq do not cease.
In fact, Bin Laden is already experimenting the “election way” to impede, in view of the consultations in Iraq, that the West export the wicked democratic system under the green skies of Islam.
The Sheik wants to enter the elections game ‘to defeat the enemies of Islam’ and he does it ruthlessly. On the eve of the vote in Iraq, he recognizes Al Zarqawi as the head of the military operations and warns the Iraqi Sunnites to distrust the “impostors” (Shiites) who, in open apostasy, incite the people to vote, with the certainty of a majority victory.
It can be easily understood how, around the corner, there will be an attempt to manipulate, in the name of Jihad, the secular internal division of the Moslem world and that Osama intends to ride the Sunnite minority pride, unleashing against the Shiite “dictatorship”, (defined by Al Zarkawi as “ the Trojan horse utilized by the enemies of the nation”), a permanent status of conflict in order to wear down the western presence in the area and to paralyse the institutions.
So the new role of Osama is born. The ideologist of the Iraqi civil war, and it is the fruit of the umpteenth metamorphoses and propaganda calculation to tie local goals to global targets, but which, this time could prove to be a wrong move.
Facing the Shiites Islam so roughly (as Al Zarkawi does in his attacks), emphasizing the religious difference, could, in fact, spring a leak in the “Qaeda” diplomacy and loosen the tight fabric of that mass consensus on which Bin Laden intended to build the common anti-American front.
Without wanting to reach a hasty conclusion or simplify a scenario where the variances are infinite, it is a perspective to be taken into consideration.