The media have been having a hard time figuring out what the latest bin Laden tape is all about. Possibly the best analysis came from Walter Cronkite, who in an interview with Larry King guessed it was all part of a deal with Bush mastermind Karl Rove. Backing third parties has long been a tactic of the right-wing Republicans, and there may be something in what Cronkite says, although he doubtlessly didn’t mean it that way.
“Al-Qaeda has ambitions beyond just blowing a few things up, no matter how horribly,” writes Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, who is probably the most levelheaded of the Middle East experts and who has a lifetime of on-the-ground knowledge of the area. “It is now a cadre organization, that is, it consists of a few thousand committed fanatics. But it wants to be a political party.
“That is the significance of bin Laden’s most recent videotape,” Cole continues. “He is posing as a champion of ‘freedom’ in the Muslim world (mainly meaning freedom from U.S. hegemony, but also freedom from U.S.-backed authoritarian and corrupt regimes). Bin Laden is making a play not just to be a cult leader but to succeed to the position of Gamal Abdel Nasser as an anti-imperialist icon in the region.
“Ultimately Al Qaeda would like to get control of entire states and merge them into an Islamic superstate, a new caliphate. It is a crackpot idea that will fail, but many crackpot ideas that fail (e.g., the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia) do a great deal of damage along the way.”
Additional reporting: David Botti, Nicole Duarte, and Laurie Anne Agnese