Osama Speaks Out on Gaza. Is Anyone Listening?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Rahimullah Yousafzai / AP

Osama bin Laden in 1998

With all the drama in Gaza, no one was paying any attention to Osama bin Laden. So the al-Qaeda leader tried to fix that with a new audio-taped message, criticizing Arab governments over their handling of the war and calling for jihad against Israel. But Bin Laden's desperate attempt to capitalize on Arab anger over Gaza came several days late, and many dollars short. Despite his longstanding hatred of the Jewish state and rhetorical support for the Palestinians, bin Laden has never managed to rally significant support in Gaza or the West Bank. Even the role of sympathizer-in-chief has been usurped, by Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There's no reason to think bin Laden's passion for the Palestinian cause is anything but genuine. Peter Bergen, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The Osama bin Laden I Know, says bin Laden has a close personal connection to Palestine: his father's construction firm repaired and renovated Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque in the 1960s and 70s, and the bin Laden family has long worn that as a badge of honor. Also, the ideological mentor who turned the young Saudi into a global jihadist was the Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam. So, the Palestinian cause has long been a mainstay of bin Laden's writings and speeches denouncing the West and Arab moderates. (See pictures of suffering in the Middle East)

But the al-Qaeda leader's ardor for Palestine is largely unrequited. Although some Palestinians do see him as an Arab hero, bin Laden's call for a global jihad against the infidel West has never been answered with any enthusiasm from Gaza or the West Bank. Even Palestinians who do buy into al-Qaeda's philosophy are much more consumed with the jihad at home — where, Bergen points out, they are hardly lacking for homegrown groups: "Why would they need al-Qaeda? They already have the terrorism part worked out."

In other parts of the Muslim world, bin Laden has been able to leverage the al-Qaeda brand by franchising it out to local jihadist groups, but not in Palestine. Hamas (like Lebanon's Hizballah) has repeatedly made clear it wants nothing at all to do with al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda has publicly attacked Hamas for its willingness to participate in a democratic political process. (Also, Hamas is descended from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, an organization long loathed as insufficiently militant by bin Laden's Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.)

Bin Laden's other problem is simply making his voice heard in the clamoring chorus of condemnation against Israel. Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, for example, speaks with the credibility of an organization that fought Israel to a standstill in 2006, while Iran's funding of Hamas during the economic blockade of the past 18 months and its training of Hamas militants make it a more useful ally than Al-Qaeda could ever be.

Even at the height of his prestige among Arab extremists, bin Laden could offer little monetary or military support to the Palestinians: only a handful are known to have attended al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s. He couldn't compete for Palestinian affection even with the likes of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who gave financial support to the families of those "martyred" by the Israeli military.

So, was Bin Laden's audio-taped message a waste of breath? Not necessarily, says Jonathan Randal, author of Osama: The Making of a Terrorist. "Bin Laden has a keen sense of self-advertising," Randal says, noting that the message is designed to insert the al-Qaeda leader into the conversation that is dominating the Arab world. If he can't get any love or admiration, bin Laden will at least try and generate a little buzz.

When Will Obama Give Up the Bin Laden Ghost Hunt?

Why Can't We Find Bin Laden?