Osama bin Laden’s new audio tape message addressed to President Obama is simple and direct: The attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day will be followed by more terror until America stops supporting Israel. Al Qaeda is warning that the Nigerian who tried to destroy the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight was not a one-off, but part of a larger conspiracy and a campaign of suicide bombers. We don’t know if bin Laden is bluffing (we should assume not), but his focus on Israel is vintage bin Laden. Some argue the al Qaeda leader is a “johnny-come-lately” to the Israel issue and has only in recent years taken it on to appeal to angry Muslims. In fact, the opposite is true. He and his gang have had the destruction of Israel at the top of their agenda for decades, but they believe the road to that goal goes through Washington.
We can separate al Qaeda from the vast majority of Muslims by advancing a just and lasting peace that Palestinians accept.
Osama spent much of his youth in the Arab states of the Levant—Syria, Lebanon and Jordan—where the Arab resistance to Israel has always been the strongest. His mother was a Syrian. His father rebuilt the mosques of Jerusalem in the early 1960s—including the Dome of the Rock, the symbol of Palestine in the Islamic world, when it still belonged to Jordan. The young Osama spent time in Jerusalem at the family residence near the mosques. He was educated in Lebanon at schools where the Palestinian narrative was gospel and the Palestinian anthem was sung every day. He would have been deeply affected by the hatred around him for the Jewish state.
Bin Laden’s world view was deeply impacted by his first mentor and partner in jihad, a Palestinian named Abdullah Azzam, who has rightly been called “the father of the modern global Islamic jihad” by a former head of the Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service. Azzam was Bin Laden’s teacher in Jidda at university and then lead the Arabs who flocked to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early 1980s to join the mujahedin in fighting the Soviets. His writings called for jihad as the only solution to the Islamic world’s humiliations at the hands of the Americans and Russians, and advocated the destruction of the two superpowers as the means to Islam’s salvation. Azzam and bin Laden created the “Services Bureau” to help jihadis coming to Afghanistan, an early version of what would become al Qaeda.
Bin Laden declared war on his homeland, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in 1994 because the Saudi royal family had decided to support the Oslo peace process begun by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat. To bin Laden, any peace deal with Israel is treasonous, and represents a betrayal of Islam.
The life of Ayman Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s second in command, has been even more tied to fighting Israel and peace. He was a minor player in the plot to assassinate Anwar Sadat in October 1981 and was jailed for his role. Sadat was an enemy of Islam for Ayman because he made peace with the Israeli enemy and thus deserved to die. For Zawahiri, Israel is the Crusaders’ tool for dividing the Islamic world and keeping it weak by ensuring that only Israel has nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Al Qaeda believes the way to destroy Israel is to defeat its ally, America; then, shorn of U.S. military aid and financial support, Israel will collapse. Without the “far enemy,” the “near enemy” will die on the vine. As bin Laden has said repeatedly, and says again in this new message, the 9/11 attacks were all about punishing America for backing Israel.
But al Qaeda has also targeted Israel and Jews extensively over the last decade. The soft target—Israeli and Jewish tourists—has been attacked in Kenya, Turkey, Tunisia, India, and Egypt by al Qaeda and its allies. Al Qaeda has also tried to stage attacks on Israel itself, a much harder target. It has planned an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and even an attack on the Israeli port city of Eilat to be staged by mutinous al Qaeda sympathizers in the Royal Saudi Air Force. So far its ambitions have exceeded its capabilities.
Al Qaeda thrives on the anger and frustration that so many in the Islamic world feel about Israel. The siege of Gaza has been a propaganda gold mine for bin Laden. He and Zawahiri talk about it constantly in their propaganda messages. The bleeding sore of a million and a half Gazans under siege because they support a jihadist movement has been used to recruit bombers like the Jordanian of Palestinian origin who blew up the CIA’s base in Afghanistan on December 30, killing seven Americans and a member of the Jordanian royal family.
Obama should take bin Laden’s threat seriously; prudence dictates no less. We should keep the pressure on al Qaeda in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen. But we must also strike at the narrative that al Qaeda sells to wage its war. We can separate al Qaeda from the vast majority of Muslims by advancing a just and lasting peace that Palestinians accept. The President was right to make reviving the Arab-Israeli peace process a priority in 2009 and to promise America would do more to help end the misery of the Palestinians. We do this not to appease al Qaeda, but because it is in our national security interest to end this conflict that breeds so much hate for our country. Obama should redouble his efforts in 2010.
Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He was a negotiator at several Arab-Israeli summits and is the author of The Search for al Qaeda.