Bin Laden’s audiotapes have become an extremely important link between that
terrorist leader and the outside world. Through them he has been able to
convey political rhetoric to his enemies and followers alike, to issue
threats, and even claim responsibility for terrorist acts perpetrated by Al
Just recently in Spain, for example, an Al Qaeda videotape and letter were used first to claim credit for the 3/11 Madrid bombings, and subsequently to coerce the Spanish government into withdrawing its troops from Iraq. While so doing they added a degree of clarity to the events in Madrid, and helped remove all doubt about the relevance of those bombings to the international fight against terrorism.
So while their usefulness can hardly be questioned, how much do we really know about the origins of these Al Qaeda tapes or their authenticity? Precious little time is dedicated to such considerations. But as we will see, closer scrutiny will actually shake our certainty in both departments and hopefully inspire a reevaluation of the standards by which we judge similar evidence in the future.
Quite curious, for example, is the convenience of the timing of the release of many of these tapes to the cause of international politics. And this quality of these broadcasts provides an excellent starting point for our analysis.
On many occasions, in fact, hopes seemed to ride on the impact of the resuscitated spectre of Bin Laden on international negotiations.
One of several such cases involved one of the earlier audiotapes, released just two days prior to the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Its message actually preceded Bush's first UN appeals on Iraq by mere days, and further similar lobbying before congress in the weeks that would follow.
Another tape a year later came while Bush courted Asian countries hoping to win financial assistance for the reconstruction in Iraq. This tape also came before a donors’ conference scheduled for Madrid just the following week.
But not only the timing of these tapes but also their content should raise suspicions.
The push for war in Iraq, for instance, got a boost when a Bin Laden audiotape helped to cement dubious US claims of a link between himself and Saddam Hussein. This took place in February 2003, while the US lobbied heavily in preparation for a second resolution on Iraq, and just a month before hostilities in that country would begin.
But if Osama’s record for support of the Bush administration seems impressive, consider that the tapes from an underground Saddam showed little difference.
One obvious case of Saddam’s apparent complicity came at the time his two sons, Uday and Qusay, were killed. The entire Arab world remained skeptical about the reports of their deaths. But Washington’s rising frustration would soon be brought to an end with some assistance from Saddam himself.
Not recognizing the tremendous propaganda value of perpetuating the fiction of his sons’ survival, Saddam released a tape eulogizing the two men, hailing them as martyrs. This final confirmation brought all debates about their deaths to a most conclusive end, and finally allowed the US to enjoy this small victory in the battle for Iraq.
But you’re probably still not convinced.
Is it possible, for example, that these messages are authentic and that the pro-war lobby has just been successful at spinning the broadcasts in their favour?
It is possible. But we definitely have no reason whatsoever to believe that these tapes are authentic. While there have been reports of scientific voice analyses performed on them, these studies have been invariably done by CIA experts. In fact, on only one occasion was an independent analysis done. And while US officials were certain of that tape’s authenticity, Swedish scientists were equally convinced that it was a fake.
But the media and politicians alike generally seem little concerned with such matters. On many occasions no evidence at all is produced to support claims about a tape’s origins, while at other times only the thinnest of connections is offered. One time, for example, outside of his Tikrit accent, reporters offered only "his habit of sipping water as he talks" as proof that a speaker was Saddam. Reports on other tapes offered only unfulfilled promises that "technical experts would try to match the voice on the tape… with known recordings of Saddam", while others still merely conceded that "there was no way to independently authenticate the tape".
But such facts receive little prominence in the discourse of politicians and media pundits where these tapes are most damaging.
Never discussed as well is the fact that it is only since this new, unverified medium, that Al Qaeda has adopted new tactics never before associated with them. Never before the audiotaped message, for example, did Al Qaeda take responsibility for any terrorist attack. But since their introduction, the terrorist group has claimed credit for attacks against German tourists in Tunisia, Israeli tourists in Kenya, and the more recent 3/11 tragedies in Spain. And they even offered an audiotaped admission of involvement in the 9/11 attacks despite all their previous videotaped protestations to the contrary.
But the Kenya confession was doubly curious because it represented the first occasion that Al Qaeda is believed to have ever directly targeted Israeli interests.
No one has ever sought to explain either why Osama’s interest in international politics more closely mirrors US global interests than his own troubles in Afghanistan. In fact, since September 2002 after the collapse of the Taliban regime, and the installation of Hamid Karzai’s government, Bin Laden seemed little concerned with his own circumstances in that country and preferred instead to critique Bush’s position on Iraq.
Strange also is why Al Qaeda would use a taped message to antagonize France, Moscow and Germany, even though all countries, at the time, were noted for their opposition to the extension of the war on terror to Bin Laden’s new pet project, Iraq.
But even after the case about the suspect nature of these tapes has been made some may still wonder if it really matters whether they are real or not. It most certainly does. While the taped messages supposedly sent out by Hussein and Bin Laden were seldom at the forefront of the debate to go to war, they were instrumental in creating a climate of fear in which pro-war rhetoric flourished. And it is precisely for this reason that these tapes demand the same level of scrutiny as any other piece of evidence used to propel the world towards this conflict.
And it is only under those conditions that we can pretend to have a true understanding of whose message these tapes truly carry.
Jason Kernahan is a writer with special interest in International politics in the post 9/11 era. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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