Sun, Nov 20, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Bin Laden in his own words

`Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden' give us a clearer idea of the man behind the image and al-Qaeda

By Peter Preston  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Message to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden
By Bruce Lawrence
224 pages
Verso

There he (probably) squats, the most wanted man in the world. His world is a cave in the Hindu Kush or the badlands of Baluchistan. His life is constant flight. Maybe, because we've heard nothing from him for nearly a year now, he is wounded, cornered or dead. Maybe his famously loose network is unravel-ling faster than we think. Osama bin Laden, after all, is a turbaned crackpot, a mad mullah, an evil monster. Isn't he?

Alas for such simplicities. If you read the texts of what he's said and justified over the last decade, if you put aside soundbites and White House mantras, then any persuasive answer emerges cloaked in complexity.

For bin Laden is a charismatic man of action, an eloquent preacher, a teacher of literature and a resilient, cunning, wonderfully briefed politician. Underestimate him, as the West has often done, and humiliation is only another bomb blast away. Judge him on 30 occasional seconds of al-Jazeera video, glimpsed across a newsroom, and the stereotype is profoundly deluding.

Here, with a shrewd, scholarly introduction from Bruce Lawrence, is the complete bin Laden reader, from his early days when the House of Saud was enemy number one to his final advice to US President George W. Bush, John Kerry and America's voters on the right way to win an election. It is full of brusque, slightly surprising judgments: "Saddam Hussein is a thief and an apostate." He can sometimes turn a neat, almost humorous phrase. Bush has declared, a "Crusade attack" and the odd thing about this is that he has "taken the words right out of our mouth." Most strikingly, it deals in facts and assertions that can't easily be brushed aside.

Take the last years of the monarchical hiatus in Saudi Arabia and the ludicrous idea that "the entire length and breadth of the land is ruled in the name of a king who, for a decade, has no longer known what's going on." Take rampant corruption and "the huge theft which is known as the al-Yamama contract, US$30 billion slid from greasy palm to greasy palm. Take 9/11 and the US$640 billion wiped off share prices in one day," "equivalent to the budget of Sudan for 640 years."

Osama deals out dodgy statistics like a seasoned Treasury pro.

That's only half the story. The number-cruncher does spleen just as adroitly: "Every Muslim, from the moment they realize the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews, hates Christians." Apologize for killing innocents? "We kill the kings of disbelief and the kings of the Crusaders, and the civilians among the disbelievers, in response to the amount of our sons they kill: this is correct in both religion and logic." And one day there will be victory? "We believe the defeat of America is achievable -- with the permission of God -- and it is easier for us ... than the defeat of the Soviet empire."

It's a weird ideological stew. Sometimes, as when analysing Israel's hold on Washington policy-makers or dissecting the rottenness of too many Arab regimes, bin Laden could be launching a standard left-of-center political tirade. Sometimes, he is a gentle interpreter of a gentle religion, able to quote widely soothing verse.

Sometimes, he raves, the fundamentalist promising hellfire tomorrow. But break down the stew into its basic ingredients and there's always substance as well as bluster.

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