Bin Laden votes in Iraq and Shoots himself in the Foot
Usamah Bin Laden’s latest video was broadcast on al-Jazeera on Monday, in which he commanded Muslims to boycott the January 30 elections in Iraq, and expressed his approval of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi had been a rival of Bin Laden’s in Afghanistan and had earlier declined to share resources with al-Qaeda. But in recent months al-Zarqawi changed the name of his group from Monotheism and Holy war to Mesopotamian al-Qaeda, and pledged fealty to Bin Laden.
In declaring “infidels” all who vote under the “infidel” interim constitution negotiated by Iraqi politicians with US civil administrator Paul Bremer last winter, Bin Laden is seeking to counter the decree of grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that Iraqis must vote in the upcoming elections or they will be consigned to hell. Bin Laden is arguing, according to the Aljazeera.net in Arabic, that the interim constitution that is the framework for elections is artificial and pagan (“jahili”, pertaining to the Age of Ignorance before Islam) because it does not recognize Islam as the sole source of law.
Bin Laden’s intervention in Iraq was hamfisted and clumsy, and will benefit the United States and the Shiites enormously. Most Iraqi Muslims, Sunni or Shiite, dislike the Wahhabi branch of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia, and with which Bin Laden is associated. Nationalistic Iraqis will object to a foreigner interfering in their national affairs.
Zarqawi is widely hated in Iraq because the operations of his group often kill innocent Iraqis as opposed to American troops. The Shiites in particular despise Zarqawi, and are aware of his hopes of provoking a Sunni-Shiite bloodbath in Iraq. (The muted Shiite response to the US assault on Fallujah in November and December derived in large part from a conviction that the city had become a base for Zarqawi and like-minded Salafi terrorists). Zarqawi websites have claimed credit for the assassination in 2003 of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, a respected Shiite leader, which involved descrating the Shiite holy city of Najaf. The mainstream of the Kurds hates Zarqawi, because of his earlier association with the small Kurdish radical Muslim terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam, which targeted the two major Kurdish parties.
Bin Laden as much as declared Grand Ayatollah Sistani an infidel. But Sistani is almost universally loved by the 65% of Iraqis who are Shiites, and is widely respected among many Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well. Bin Laden, the Saudi engineer, makes himself look ridiculous trying to give a fatwa against the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf. If anything, to have al-Qaeda menacing the Shiites in this way would tend to strengthen the American-Shiite alliance.
If Bin Laden had been politically clever, he would have phrased his message in the terms of Iraqi nationalism. By siding with the narrowest sliver of Sunni extremists, he denied himself any real impact. By adopting Zarqawi, who has killed many more Iraqis (especially Shiites) than he has Americans, he simply tarnishes his own image inside Iraq.
It appears that Bin Laden is so weak now that he is forced to play to his own base, of Saudi and Salafi jihadists, some of whom are volunteer guerrillas in Iraq. They are the only ones in Iraq who would be happy to see this particular videotape.
The only way Bin Laden could profit from this intervention in the least would be if a civil war between Sunni Arabs and Shiites really did break out in Iraq, and if the beleaguered Sunnis went over to al-Qaeda in large numbers. Since the Sunni Arabs are a minority of 20%, they and he would still lose, but for Bin Laden, who is now a refugee and without any strong political base outside a few provinces of Saudi Arabia, to pick up 5 million Iraqi Sunni Arabs, would be a major political victory. His recent videotape calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government suggests that he might hope to use any increased popularity in Anbar province as a springboard for renewed attacks on Saudi Arabia, especially on its petroleum sector.
It is a desperate, crackpot hope. The narrow, sectarian and politically unskilfull character of this speech is the most hopeful sign I have seen in some time that al-Qaeda is a doomed political force, a mere Baader-Meinhof Gang or Red Army Faction with greater geographical reach.