Bin Laden Issues New Video: October Surprise?

In Video Message, Bin Laden Issues Warning to U.S. (NYT)

In a new videotape televised Friday, Osama bin Laden made a direct, formal address to the American people, saying that the best way for Americans to avoid a repeat of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was to stop threatening Muslims’ security. The videotape of the leader of Al Qaeda was the first to surface in more than a year. In contrast to his haggard appearance in his last videotaped message televised on Sept. 10, 2003, Mr. bin Laden appeared vigorous and healthy, more than three years after the United States began the intense manhunt that he has so far evaded.

Mr. bin Laden did not explicitly threaten any new attacks in an excerpt of the videotape, first broadcast on Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language satellite network. But the appearance of the tape four days before Election Day injected Al Qaeda and Mr. bin Laden into a presidential campaign in which the threat posed by terrorism has weighed heavily. Though Mr. bin Laden’s statement referred to President Bush and Senator John Kerry by name, he said the prospect of a future terrorist attack would depend not on the outcome of the election but on concrete actions taken by the United States. “Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda; your security is in your own hands,” Mr. bin Laden said. He added: “Any state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security.” Gesturing emphatically at times with his hands, the Qaeda leader wore a long gray beard, traditional white robes, a golden cloak and a turban. He gazed directly into the camera as he delivered the address, which he appeared to be reading from a text behind a lectern in front of a plain brown backdrop.

“Oh, American people, I am speaking to tell you about the ideal way to avoid another Manhattan, about war and its causes and results,” he said. He added: “Despite entering the fourth year after Sept. 11, Bush is still deceiving you and hiding the truth from you, and therefore the reasons are still there to repeat what happened.” The appeal to Americans to reconsider United States policy toward Muslims echoed the theme of Mr. bin Laden’s last public message, an audiotape in April that offered a truce to European nations if they pulled troops out of Islamic countries.

American intelligence officials, who indicated that they had obtained access to the entire videotape, said it appeared to have been made recently, possibly as recently as last Sunday, the date that appeared in Arabic in script superimposed on part of the tape. American intelligence and law enforcement officials said an analysis by the C.I.A. had established with “a high degree of confidence” that the tape was authentic. They offered no other immediate assessment of the videotape.

It’s not at all clear to me whether Osama’s reemergence is good news for Bush or Kerry–a case could be made either way–but the press is already jumping on that angle of the story.

Thomas M. DeFrank of the NY Daily News advises, “See tape as boost for Prez.”

With his typical flair for drama, Osama Bin Laden inserted himself directly into the presidential election yesterday, and both parties believed it would boost President Bush’s reelection hopes. Bin Laden popping up like a malignant jack-in-the-box four days before the balloting may bolster John Kerry’s argument that Bush should have finished wiping out Al Qaeda before turning his attention to Iraq. But it also refocused the nation on terrorism, which polls show helps Bush. And it reminds voters of their horror on Sept. 11 and Bush’s well-received response, as well as obliterating the recent flood of bad news for Bush.

“We want people to think ‘terrorism’ for the last four days,” said a Bush-Cheney campaign official. “And anything that raises the issue in people’s minds is good for us.” A senior GOP strategist added, “anything that makes people nervous about their personal safety helps Bush.” He called it “a little gift,” saying it helps the President but doesn’t guarantee his reelection.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Kerry has accused Bush of “letting Bin Laden escape” when he was cornered at Tora Bora by “outsourcing” the job to unreliable Afghan warlords instead of using U.S. troops. And he has mocked Bush for never mentioning the Al Qaeda leader after pledging to get Bin Laden “dead or alive.” But the new tape – which is so nakedly political that it should end with the words “I’m Osama Bin Laden and I approved this message” – makes it difficult for Kerry to keep hammering Bush on the subject without appearing to be capitalizing on terror. Kerry eliminated those lines from his speeches yesterday evening.

WaPo’s Dana Milbank sees it differently: “Impact Of Tape On Race Is Uncertain.”

With two days to spare, the October Surprise arrived yesterday, but it was not the type either campaign had in mind. Instead, it was America’s most loathed enemy, injecting himself into Tuesday’s election — not with the bombs that preceded the elections in Spain but with a videotape taunting President Bush, Democratic nominee John F. Kerry and Americans generally.

As Bush and Kerry responded with dignified statements of unity against Osama bin Laden, the two campaigns struggled to game out their reactions, and to figure out how such a surreal event — the feared, ghostly image returning to Americans’ TV screens after a long absence — would alter Tuesday’s outcome. Some Democrats held out hope that the reappearance of bin Laden would remind Americans that Bush still had not caught the arch villain, and lend legitimacy to Kerry’s argument that Bush allowed the United States to get distracted in Iraq. But Republicans argued — and some Democrats privately agreed — that the videotape would revive Americans’ fears of terrorism, an issue on which Bush is strongest.

Few expected bin Laden’s October Surprise to have a major impact on voters’ choices. “The response from the American people is going to be more along the line of ‘This guy is trying to inject himself in the process, and we don’t like it,’ ” Republican pollster David Winston said. “Their response will be not to let him.” But in an election as close as this one is, even minor influences can have some impact. That concern was evident in the reaction to the tape’s broadcast yesterday — first an unusual silence, then hurried meetings and, finally, cautious statements.

Again, the arguments made by both camps strike me as quite plausible.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. bryan says:

    Any state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security.

    That’s a load of crap.

  2. Anjin-San says:

    Bin Laden is free to plot against us while bush gets us into ever deeper quicksand in Iraq. What a disaster… Of course bush said he was “not really concerned” about bin laden. Then he denied he said it. Whatever happend to “dead or alive”?

    How many of our boys have to die for non-existant WMD in iraq? Who will bush blame when al-queda strikes again?

  3. legion says:

    “…makes it difficult for Kerry to keep hammering Bush on the subject without appearing to be capitalizing on terror.”

    While GW sends out last-minute Xmas cards with the smouldering ruins of the WTC on them? I don’t know if it helps Kerry directly, but anyone who believes that reminding the electorate that Bush has totally failed to nab OBL is somehow a ‘boost’ for Bush is truly grasping at straws.