Osama bin Laden’s new taped message has been getting a lot of airplay. I can’t quite see why. The only thing I find interesting about it is that he sent it to Al-Arabiya as well as Al-Jazeera, suggesting that he’s broadening his media channel. The idea that he had any intent or power to offer Europe any kind of truce, or that there there was ever any real prospect of European nations going along with it, is just too silly for words.
The core, essential, fundamental truth about terrorism is that it is a media strategy above all else. If terrorists could actually strike strategic targets, they wouldn’t have to be terrorists in order to further their aims. Von Clausewitz said that “war is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means.” Well, terrorism is also the continuation of politics by other means. Both are about the application of violence to gain political goals, but while ordinary war is about the direct effects of organised violence on the military, economic and political structures of the state, terrorism is about the psychological effects of violence, particularly through mass fear.
A lot of people do get that, but they don’t seem to understand that this same logic applies to anti-terrorism. It is no less a matter of media strategy than terrorism is.
Let’s take an example. Mark Kleiman is usually quite perceptive, but he doesn’t seem to realise that anti-terrorism is as much about media as terrorism is:
Those of us who remain Europhiles have to hope that the EU can get its act together quickly to repudiate Osama’s proffered “truce.” It would be nice to hear first from the Spanish Socialists.
Update Well, that was quick: The EU (via the President of the EC), Spain, Britain, Germany, and, yes, France all said “No” within hours.
Now I’m waiting to hear from the Europhobes.
Answer: Because splitting off Europe from the U.S. is obviously an al-Qaeda objective, and not obviously infeasible. Undeniably, there is a strand of European opinion that thinks that Islamist terrorism is a problem due to Israeli and American policies, and that if Europe disowned those policies it could free itself from danger.
It’s good news that the European governments aren’t playing. And those Americans who have spent the past three years coming up with inventive new insults directed at Europeans ought to acknowledge that.
Mark’s got it wrong. This is a big story because no one wants to say that there was never any chance of this “truce” coming to pass under any conditions. Even if bin Laden were capable of offering such a truce – which I doubt – and even if there had been any temptation to accept it, this would be the media equivalent of a tank batallion surrendering to a TV crew. It would have been bad TV.
None of the European leaders to whom this “truce” was offered would have had anything to gain from accepting it. No essential economic or military activity has been directly disrupted by the Madrid bombings or by 9/11. Al Qaeda can’t even threaten them directly. There is little risk to the lives of European politicians. Al Qaeda doesn’t do targetted assasinations in the west because they are ineffective uses of media. Killing thousands of anonymous people creates very productive fear. Killing a single man, even a hated political leader, creates a martyr. The Spanish election was close before the Madrid bombing, terrorism at most brought voters to the polls rather than changing anyone’s vote. Elsewhere in Europe, getting hit by terrorists is more likely to reinforce the existing government than undermine it. There is no risk whatsoever in refusing, and nothing to gain from accepting.
I doubt the idea even reached the conscious level in the minds of European leaders. I suspect deeper political instincts told them how bad it would look to even be perceived as stooping to that level. It was a mistake to even be perceived as organising a response. I suspect that was bin Laden’s goal: to create the appearance that he is so powerful that European leaders have to think before telling him to get bent.
Furthermore, there is no particular value nor any reason for bin Laden to try to split Europe and the US. Remember, this is a media compaign. If the combined military strength of Europe and America could destroy Al Qaeda through ordinary military means, it would have done so long ago. This has to be fought on TV, and having the whole world against him is better TV than having the world divided and creating ambiguity. As long as he appears – at least to some Muslims – to be the only real force in the Islamic world able to put fear into the West, he gains.
That was much of the appeal of the Soviet Union in the old days. People knew that the USSR was far from a worker’s paradise, but in 1917 it was a backwards, ruined country, and by 1950 it had the whole of the developed world scared of it. That had undeniable appeal. Osama bin Laden is playing on the very same thing. Arab nations have gone to war against Israel, what, three, four times? There have been direct wars with the US, France, the UK and India in the last 50 years. What is the Arab world’s record from these conflicts? Lost, every time. But it was the fundamentalists who pushed back the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – or at least, that is how it played out on TV – and it is Osama bin Laden who has them all scared now.
No, Kleiman is wrong to think that dividing Europe and the US is an objective for bin Laden. I suspect that the notion is an entirely fortuitous by-product of the Bush administration’s bungling. Being seen as the only man willing to stand up to America and the West is his objective. Getting Europe to back away might, conceivably, have had some propaganda effect, but I doubt bin Laden ever entertained the idea that anyone would agree to it. This is a different kind of war with a different kind of logic.