Bin Laden video taps deeply into Arab emotions

Analysts call message powerful propaganda that many will heed

War On Terrorism

The World

October 09, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a widely broadcast video that some call "a declaration of war," Osama bin Laden struck a deep chord in the Arab world by tapping widespread anger over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraqis hurt by United Nations sanctions, analysts said yesterday.

His embrace of two of the most emotional issues in the Arab world is seen as part of a skillful and effectively delivered propaganda effort to broaden his appeal, even among people who oppose terrorist attacks against civilians.

While bin Laden has supported the Palestinian cause in past statements, this time he emphasized it, noting specific towns entered by Israeli forces and warning the American people that "America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine."

"In these days, Israeli tanks rampage across Palestine, in Ramallah, Rafah and Beit Jala and many other parts of the land of Islam, and we do not hear anyone raising his voice or reacting," he said, according to a Reuters translation.

Of the Iraqis, he said: "A million innocent children are dying at this time as we speak, killed in Iraq without any guilt."

"It seemed to be a broadening of his message," said one U.S. official. "He's appealing to those two constituencies [supporters of the Palestinians and Iraqi civilians] to garner support for his efforts."

"These are themes that resonate in that region," the official said.

Bin Laden was accompanied on the video by several associates, one of whom, Abu Zubeida, is a Palestinian.

Moderate Arab leaders have repeatedly told American officials in the weeks since the Sept. 11 terror attacks that the United States will have to show a greater involvement in trying to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to gain popular support for the war on terrorism.

America's perceived bias in favor of Israel, and Israel's use of U.S.-supplied weapons, have fanned anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The plight of Iraqis deprived of proper medical care and decent food, for which Iraq blames U.N. sanctions, is still a source of anger in the region despite the easing of sanctions in recent years.

"Traditionally, these were tertiary [issues]" for bin Laden, said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Now, he's basically brought them to the fore." Bin Laden's condemnation of the Saudi leadership, which revoked his citizenship, does not have as broad appeal in the Arab world, he said. "These are other things with a proven track record of resonating."

Whether prompted by bin Laden or not, the theme of the Palestinians figured in some of the earliest reaction in moderate Arab countries to the U.S. and British air and missile strikes.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher sent a message of solidarity to the United States but devoted much of his speech at the American University in Cairo to a bitter criticism of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, according to a Knight-Ridder dispatch.

Reporting on bin Laden's speech, the newspaper Al Rai in Jordan, a nation that is a close U.S. ally and recipient of American aid, commented that "no one denies that a historically unprecedented injustice has been incurred by the Palestinian people." But the paper went on to brand as unacceptable bin Laden's legitimization of the spilling of innocent blood.

Bin Laden's message was noteworthy not just for its content but for the way he delivered it. Specialists who abhorred what he said nevertheless spoke in almost awe-struck terms about his style, his skilled use of classical Arabic, his charisma and his timing, and say his words will appeal to many Arabs.

"Unfortunately, it's a powerful message. When put in English it sounds rather bizarre. But when spoken in Arabic within the context of an Islamic framework, it resonates quite powerfully," said Mary-Jane Deeb, a Middle East specialist at Washington's American University.

"The language is beautiful and the images are images with which the Arab world can identify," Deeb said. "The message is very simple and powerfully put forward. He is simply saying, `We're fighting for you.' "

The video, which aired Sunday soon after the start of U.S. and British airstrikes against Taliban targets in Afghanistan, is presumed by U.S. officials to have been taped up to several days in advance with the intent of releasing it in conjunction with the attacks.

Its delivery Sunday to Al-Jazeera, the widely watched satellite television channel based in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, marked a well-timed blow in bin Laden's propaganda war against the United States and against Arab leaders he says have betrayed Islam.

The video aired while moderate Arab governments that are quietly allied with the United States withheld any immediate public reaction to the airstrikes.

"He is cleverly using the media. He has used Al-Jazeera before, and Al-Jazeera used him to make a scoop," said Mohammed Wahby, a former Egyptian diplomat who is now a Washington-based columnist for Al-Mussawar magazine.

"He is appealing, just as we are, for the hearts and minds of Arabs," Schenker said.

"What we saw yesterday was a declaration of war," in bin Laden's division of the world into two camps - the camp of the faithful and the camp of the infidels, Deeb said.

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