Osama bin Laden made the news last week for the first time since October 2004. In an audio recording released by Arabic news net al-Jazeera, lanky-and-cranky bin Laden graciously offered “a long-term truce with the U.S. military.”
Both pundits and bloggers were swift to react to the message, offering in-depth though largely speculative analyses of just what bin Laden’s offer might mean: we’re winning, they’re losing, al-Qaida wants to debunk widespread rumors of bin Laden’s recent demise. Theories were rampant.
But it seems like both the al-Qaida founder and a great many of those who offered comment last week missed a couple of essential facts: Nobody cares about Osama bin Laden, and talking about the war on terrorism in terms of winning, losing and truces misses the point entirely.
The conflict with al-Qaida began not on 9/11 but on December 29, 1992, when an explosion ripped through the Gold Mihor Hotel in Aden, Yemen, killing a Yemeni and an Austrian national and injuring many others. The bomb had been intended for the 100-odd U.S. soldiers who had been staying at the hotel, but those troops left for Somalia before the attack could be carried out. The details of the plot behind the bombing have never been uncovered, but the opinion of the State Department is that it was the very first al-Qaida attack.
Between the Aden attack of 1992 and the morning of September 11, 2001, lie nearly nine years of attacks and planned attacks: the aborted Operation Bojinka plot that targeted passenger planes over the Pacific, the Khobar Towers bombing of June 1996 that killed 19 U.S. servicemen and one Saudi citizen, the African embassy bombings in 1998, the various millennium plots including the thwarted bombing of Los Angeles International Airport, the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole. The list just goes on and on.
But terrorist attacks against U.S. targets didn’t begin with al-Qaida. In December 1988, an improvised bomb exploded aboard Pam Am flight 103 while it was in the air over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 passengers and crew and 11 people on the ground. A former Libyan intelligence officer was convicted of murder in 2001 for his part in the plot.
It didn’t start there, either. In April 1986, Libyan agents bombed a Berlin disco popular with American troops, killing two U.S. soldiers and a Turkish woman and injuring 230 others. Just days earlier, a Palestinian bomb exploded aboard TWA flight 840 killing four Americans, including a nine-month-old baby.
In October 1985, members of the Palestinian Liberation Front hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro, brutally murdering wheelchair-bound retiree Leon Klinghoffer.
On October 23, 1983, Iranian-linked militant group Hezbollah detonated a massive truck bomb outside the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen including 220 Marines.
And, of course, radical supporters of the Islamic Republic of Iran held 52 U.S. citizens, and our entire nation, hostage for 444 days between November 4, 1979, and January 20, 1981.
The war on terrorism didn’t begin on 9/11; that was just the day that the American people woke up and realized that our nation had been at war for more that twenty years. And it didn’t begin with al-Qaida; we had already been under attack for a decade before that organization was founded. So when Osama bin Laden, an influential Johnny-come-lately at best, releases a statement offering the United States a truce, the proper reaction isn’t serious consideration or in-depth analysis. It’s laughter. Side-splitting, eye-watering laughter. Because the only thing a statement like that demonstrates is that Osama bin Laden doesn’t have the first clue what this war is really about.
The war on terrorism is very much a war of bombs and bullets in which soldiers and civilians die. It’s also an economic war, a war waged in dollars and cents on dusty ledgers in banks in New York and London and Geneva. But more than any of those things, it’s a war of ideas. It’s a war that will, when it reaches its eventual conclusion, finally settle the question of what kind of world we’re going to live in.
Are we going to live in a world where airplanes fall burning out of the sky and where discotheques explode without warning and where skyscrapers turn into mass graves? That’s the question the participants in this war seek to answer. And if we want the answer to be “no” – and we do – we’ve got no choice at all but to radically change the rules governing a third of the world.
The days of measured responses and Realpolitik are over. On September 11, 2001, we realized that tyranny anywhere poses a direct and immediate threat to freedom everywhere. Because tyranny is the petri dish in which terrorism breeds. On that day, it was the fundamentalist prison of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan that allowed terrorism to fester. When Pan Am flight 103 fell from the skies of Scotland, it was because a Libyan dictator made it happen. When the Marine barracks in Beirut collapsed, it was the work of the Iranian mullahs.
Tyranny anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere. That’s the war we’re fighting. And it’s bigger than al-Qaida. It’s bigger than Iraq and it’s bigger than Palestine, and it’s sure as hell bigger than Osama bin Laden. It’s a war to decide the fate of the entire world. And it’s a war we mean to win.
Jeff Harrell blogs at The Shape of Days.