- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Last week, al Jazeera played an audiotape made by Osama bin Laden. The tape was unexceptional except in one regard: bin Laden called for taking the fight against the “crusader-Zionists” to Darfur and the Sudan-Chad border, a rather distant location for jihad.

The tape raises many questions, of which three are particularly interesting. Does this audiotape signify that bin Laden is still leading al Qaeda and is simply expanding his battle zone? Or, as Mao Tse-tung fought back in the 1960s to regain power from his opponents in the Communist Party, is bin Laden struggling to wrest back control of his organization (possibly from his No. 2, former Egyptian physician Ayman al Zawahiri or Abu Musab Zarkawi leading the al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq, who just issued a video as well)? Or has bin Laden’s time come and gone and is he, as Voltaire described of the great creator, having precipitated the movement become a mere observer?

No matter which of these views may prove accurate, none of them is good news for the United States and other targets for jihad extremists for this reason:

Two overriding and yet largely overlooked revolutions are far more significant than bin Laden, one igniting Islam and the other the Arab world. Both revolutions are two sides of the same coin that pit “old” vs. “new.” In the world of Islam, the “old” is represented by bin Laden, who would like to turn the clock back to the 7th century, and the “new” are those who wish to modernize and reform Islam. The clash is one of life and death.

In the Arab world, the battle is likewise joined between the old and new. In this case, the “old” are the autocratic regimes in the Gulf and Egypt that are unwilling to share or lose power. The challenge for the Mubaraks, Abdullahs and other Arab leaders is to absorb these pressures in time without precipitating a revolution in the process. The “new” demand distribution of political power and access into the political process.

Because the existing regimes are autocratic, this battle is joined without due process of law or full consideration of human rights and civil liberties. These contradictions and tensions greatly complicate American policy choices in how much to press for reform or tolerate the status quo.

Both revolutions have been in train for some time. But September 11 catalyzed them.

Framed against these revolutions, what is bin Laden’s status? Since September 11, al Qaeda has been severely if not mortally wounded. What remains is impossible for us to assess, even if parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan are being reconstituted as insurgent and terrorist strongholds. However, bin Laden may be in a rebuilding period, and, hence, still in charge.

Meanwhile, al Qaeda wannabes and lookalikes are waxing. Estimates are that possibly hundreds of thousands and even millions of fellow travelers and converts have flocked to supporting jihad. In this case, bin Laden may be trying to re-establish his leadership over these disparate groups. That al Zawahiri is emerging as the force with whom to reckon is certainly possible. If that is correct, then bin Laden is truly engaged in a leadership struggle.

Last, bin Laden’s time may have finally passed. Responsible for igniting and coalescing al Qaeda, bin Laden may have lost authority and credibility. Marx and Engels wrote the “Communist Manifesto.” But it took a Lenin and a Trotsky to implement it. This possibility does not raise a happy ending. By serving as the focal point for the grievances, desperation and humiliation in the Arab and Islamic worlds, bin Laden may have provoked the revolutions that others will lead.

Ascancermetastasizes throughout the body, bin Laden may have been the inventor of the gene or virus that spreads the disease. To those in the Arab and Muslim worlds who see themselves repressed, rejected or resistant to what is perceived as foreign occupation of Arab lands, whether by Israel or other “infidels,” the analogy is not one of pathology but of a better life and, for the extremists, the seductive chance for paradise through martyrdom. Hence, bin Laden’s legacy will have been an ideology addictive to millions that perverted Islam while giving the rationale for extremism, violence and terror.

For the United States and its friends, and even some of its adversaries in the Arab and Muslim worlds, there is a clear message: Osama bin Laden has been a highly distorting mirror, but one that attracts many who are mesmerized by the image they see. If we regard bin Laden and his followers as only “crazies,” we can only hope we are right. If we are wrong, then that misjudgment could be catastrophic.

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