Who benefits from the last-minute surprise appearance of Osama bin Laden in the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign?
"If Bush wins the elections, he will owe Bin Laden a favor," says London's Al-Sharq al-Awsat (in Arabic), an influential Saudi-owned newspaper based in London.
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But most of the Arabic newspapers surveyed by the BBC say bin Laden's videotaped appearance on al-Jazeera was a "devastating blow" to the president that would boost the Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.
The only consensus seems to be that bin Laden mostly helped himself. The five minute videotape showed he is capable of communicating something to a Western audience other than menace. Whoever is elected president today will confront an al Qaeda leader with an evolving message about his enduring strategy.
As the transcript posted Monday on aljazeera.net makes clear, bin Laden was trying to use language and references familiar to U.S. voters. He alluded to Michael Moore's anti-Bush film "Farenheit 9/11." He quoted Ben Franklin ("An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."). He expressed sympathy for Sept. 11 victims who blamed U.S. foreign policy for the attacks.
Gone, if only temporarily, were his usual flowery poetics, bloody-minded hyperbole and theological digressions. Instead of citing verses in the Koran, he spoke directly to American voters about their interest in the Middle East. He boasted that al Qaeda had gained ground in recent years but slyly acknowledged "the Bush administration has also gained."
Look "at the size of the contracts acquired by the shady Bush administration-linked mega-corporations, like Halliburton and its kind," he said. "It all shows that the real loser is...you."
Bin Laden, who hadn't been seen on tape since September 10, 2003, or his media advisers, whoever they are, made sure that U.S. viewers would see the message. According to the Age in Australia, the Oct. 29 tape was the first bin Laden video to come with English subtitles. Like Bush and Kerry, bin Laden seems intent on reaching those key swing state voters.
There was none of the usual hand-held camera footage of the imperturbable sheik surrounded by gun-toting disciples on some rugged mountainside. Rather, bin Laden sat at a table, reading from his notes. The media product was more C-SPAN than Lawrence of Arabia.
"Bin Laden is offering the Americans a deal," wrote columnist Amin Taheri in the Gulf News. "The deal is simple, and Bin Laden hammers it in more specifically: 'Do not play with our security, and spontaneously you will secure yourself.'"
Taheri is an iconoclastic Iranian-born journalist critical of the Arab political order. Taheri posits that the fugitive Saudi prince is sounding reasonable because al Qaeda has lost the ability to carry out strikes on Americans.
"Appearing on the eve of elections in democratic countries to throw in a political hand grenade is the major asset that Bin Laden has left," Taheri wrote. "And it is on that basis that he is offering a deal. Bin Laden may have the illusion that by offering an olive branch, albeit in his own strange way, he might pave the way for negotiations with a putative Kerry administration in Washington. "
Yigal Carmon, an Israeli terrorism analyst and head of the Middle East Media Research Institute, wrote that bin Laden is implicitly making a "peace offer." He described the Saudi's remarks as a follow up to the speech he directed at European public opinion last April. In the wake of an attack that killed 192 people in Madrid, the al Qaeda leader offered a truce to any European nation that pulled its armed forces out of Iraq.
Carmon sees bin Laden mounting a diplomatic offensive to make his ever-present threat of terrorism more effective. He quotes an Islamist Web site that says bin Laden's appearance brought together "the complementary elements of politics and religion, political savvy and force, the sword and justice."
One message to American voters, summed up in bin Laden's much-quoted conclusion, was almost reassuring: "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaeda. No. Your security is in your own hands."
But Mahmud Rimawi, a columnist for al Rai (in Arabic), the most popular newspaper in Jordan, said another message is that "keeping this or that person in the White House is not that important and that what is important is to review [U.S. foreign] policies." The message, Rimawi concluded, "could have been very convincing had the person who made it been other than Bin Laden."
After all, bin Laden's low-key approach in the latest video could not dispel his sinister reputation nor conceal the threats implicit in his diplomacy. He took credit for the Sept. 11 attacks that killed 3,000 people more explicitly than ever before. He made clear his strategy for driving U.S. forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq. He called it the "bleed-until-bankruptcy" plan. Al Qaeda's message may have been modified but its mission has not.
What is new is that bin Laden, while wielding the stick of terrorism, seems to be offering a carrot to the American people: the possibility of a respite from fear. That's a potentially powerful message even if it's entirely deceptive. No matter who wins the presidency, Taheri predicts that bin Laden will "be able to claim part of the credit."