In war, said Napoleon, the moral element and public relations are half the battle. And that was before radio and television. For the first time, a Mideastern antagonist of the United States - Osama bin Laden - has not only mastered public relations, but is using the media as a potent weapon against the world's mightiest military and media power.
Washington had planned to repeat in Afghanistan the success it enjoyed during the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq, when the Pentagon monopolized, filtered, and shaped all news coming from the theatre of operations. To this day, the number of Iraqis killed by U.S. bombing remains secret.
However, researchers have just learned through the Freedom of Information Act that the U.S. government expressly destroyed Iraq's sewage and water treatment facilities, knowing full well the result would be widespread disease and epidemics. In short, biological warfare. The U.S. refuses to allow Iraq to import chlorine to purify water.
According to the UN, 500,000 Iraqis, mostly children, have died from disease and malnutrition caused by U.S. sanctions. Thousands more Iraqis have died from cancers linked to U.S. depleted uranium munitions. When asked about this huge toll, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright memorably replied, "the price is worth it." Is the anthrax terror now afflicting America payback?
In Afghanistan, the Taliban stole a march on the U.S. by giving Al-Jazeera, the Arab world's only uncensored TV station, exclusive coverage. Bin Laden uses Al-Jazeera and Pakistani media to promote his anti-U.S. cause and challenge America's control of information. As a result, the White House is trying to silence him by the disgraceful recourse of censoring/pressuring America's media. Almost as shameful, much of the U.S. media has co-operated, reducing its role from useful critics to public relations hacks.
While much of bin Laden's hate-filled statements are being kept out of the U.S. media, the Pakistani paper Uumat published a lengthy interview with him that reveals much about the motivation of America's arch-enemy. The interview disproves the idea being promoted in the U.S. media that bin Laden's actions are driven by some sort of Islamic totalitarianism and have nothing to do with Israel.
Bin Laden denies his al-Qaida organization was responsible for the suicide attacks against the U.S. But he applauds them. He suggests the attacks were made by Americans from either intelligence agencies or "a hidden government." According to him, "we are against the system which makes other nations slaves of the United States, or forces them to mortgage their political and economic freedoms."
Bin Laden insists that Israel's repression of Palestinians is the principal reason for his war against America. He argues U.S. foreign policy is totally controlled by the pro-Israel lobby, whose first priority, he says, is Israel, not America. He claims, implausibly, that he is not really fighting Americans, only Israel and its allies. (Then again, Bush is just as implausibly telling Afghans he's not fighting them, just "terrorists".)
Bin Laden's second reason for fighting America is the punishment the U.S. has inflicted on Iraq at, he alleges, Israel's behest: he claims the U.S. killed one million Iraqis. U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, Islam's holy land, come third on bin Laden's hate list.
Such claims would normally be ignored, but thanks to the publicity bin Laden has received, he has unfortunately become a cult figure across much of the Islamic world, perceived as a Muslim David defying the American Goliath; or an Arab Che Guevara, determined to uproot America's omnipresent influence from the Mideast. When bin Laden is eventually killed, he will become a figure of veneration and martyrdom.
Arabs already call bin Laden "the Second Saladin," after the great general who crushed the Christian crusaders. Bin Laden enjoys a unique asset no other leader of the Muslim world today possesses: respect. He has cleverly crafted for himself the image of an "Ansar", the desert warrior of Islam's early era: courageous, austere, honourable, driven by faith.
Small bands of such warriors and explorers helped spread Islam from Morocco to China. In Islamic culture, as in Japan, a noble warrior who battles impossible odds, knowing he will die, is held in highest esteem. Martyrdom for Islam is also venerated by Muslims. Bin Laden has captured both themes in a remarkable display of medieval thinking turbocharged by 21st century public relations.
Westerners see him as a loathsome, murderous fanatic. But to many people in Asia and Africa, including non-Muslims, bin Laden is a defiant, heroic figure who gives a measure of self-respect to those who have little; a mujahid, or holy warrior battling the successor to the British Empire, the American Raj; and an avenger come to smite the United States for all the real and imagined wrongs it has done around the world.
Bin Laden, has proclaimed a jihad, or holy war, against the West, though he has absolutely no authority to issue religious edicts (fatwas). This has endangered millions of Muslims living in the West, and provided justification for another jihad - George Bush's "crusade against terrorism" which will inevitably hurt Muslims.