Edited by Sam Thielman
I HATE 'THE DISCOURSE.' From the start, I have structured this newsletter around counterprogramming it. "The Discourse" is what editors and now algorithms substitute for examining, investigating and contextualizing an issue from its root and across its branches. It leads journalists to avoid rigor, police readers' reactions to an issue and convince ourselves that that's the same thing. That is unfair to you and it wastes journalistic resources. The Discourse cannot challenge power. It can only distract from the concentration of power that I'll go to my grave insisting journalism must confront. I consider it psychic death.
But today I'm going to make an unfortunate exception because it seems Tik Tok's algorithm is pushing people toward a kind of reconsideration of Usama bin Laden, via promoting videos that read and discuss his 2002 “Letter to America" communique.
I don't want to sound like we're on the verge of some kind of broader UBL Redemption Arc. Social media is not reality. But social media's algorithmic manipulation, born of the basic economic bargain that turns engagement into money for the social-media companies, can create reality. And I will never be able to forget the way the air in New York City smelled of burning human corpses. So I want to do everything I can to resist that ever happening again—for anyone, everywhere on earth.
Usama bin Laden was a billionaire who did the thing billionaires do: play with the lives of others. He made his preoccupations and pathologies everyone else's problem. Bin Laden deserves zero credit for recognizing that American foreign policy had for decades immiserated and oppressed millions throughout the Middle East. Lots of people recognized that and managed not to become mass murderers. Read Arundhati Roy's September 2001 essay for The Guardian instead of lamenting that my and Sam's former employer took the UBL communique down. As well, Bin Laden came self-interestedly late to his critique of U.S. foreign policy, after the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan materially supported the 1980s Afghan jihad that he fought alongside. (He said later, in 2004, that his critique began with the U.S.-backed* 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which sure complicates his participation in Afghanistan.)
Over the last several weeks, Israel has given the world a sickening crash course in the horrors of collective punishment. If collective punishment rubs you the wrong way, then Usama bin Laden is not going to be your thing. (I am not making any moral comparison between UBL and Israel; I am making a point about collective punishment.) Bin Laden's argument was that Americans deserve to die because American foreign policy is murderous and Americans pay taxes and isn't it a democracy, anyway? Meanwhile, the bombardment of Gaza has provided the latest example of how undemocratic American foreign policy is. The hundreds of thousands protesting Gaza, the millions who demand a ceasefire—to bin Laden, you're all Henry Kissingers and your lives are forfeit.
9/11 was Usama bin Laden's fault. Responding to 9/11 by launching the War on Terror was a choice that American policymakers made—not, as so much War on Terror propaganda would have it, the only, inevitable choice they could have made. At the same time, bin Laden in his 2004 pre-election statement claimed that all the carnage of the War on Terror unfolded according to his cunning plan. "All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written 'al-Qaida,' in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies," he boasted. In reality, bin Laden was by then losing control of his revolution to its supremely violent and nihilistic children like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom he and his companions would be unable to rein in. Bin Laden is basically a jihadi Kendall Roy.
You can read a whole lot more about this in my book REIGN OF TERROR. Like I mentioned last edition, I'm in a childcare crunch this week and don't have time to write a more thorough piece before my wife needs to hand our youngest back to me so I can endlessly sing her a version of Baby Shark that's about Spider-Man. So let me end with this before I belabor the point.
I suspect that whatever miniscule reconsideration of UBL is occurring is a function of people discovering for the first time that bin Laden was not simply the cave-dwelling, freedom-hating religious fanatic that everyone in power during the War on Terror portrayed him to be. Bin Laden really did have politics, and he had a political critique that, as mentioned above, on a banal level captured certain structural realities of U.S. foreign policy. (I would hasten to note here that he had no real economic critique—shocking for a billionaire, I know.) As I wrote in REIGN OF TERROR, political and journalistic elites presented their publics with only his religious critique—which, in their ignorance about and bigotry toward Islam, they portrayed as authentically Muslim—and subordinated his geopolitical critique to it, if they mentioned that geopolitical critique at all. It can be natural for someone who comes across that unexpected geopolitical critique to overlearn the lesson of having been manipulated. I consider this yet another failure of the War on Terror.
But absolutely none of this should lead anyone to believe that there is anything, anything at all, redeemable about Usama bin Laden. Your leaders were lying. That does not remotely mean bin Laden told you the truth. His truth was that you deserve death.
Ugh, I feel gross for having Discoursed. Tomorrow, FOREVER WARS returns to our typical fare—a column for The Nation I'm proud of, about what Gaza reveals about the difference between international law and the U.S.' "rules-based international order." FOREVER WARS subscribers will get that directly in their inbox, so subscribe!
*I don't have the space here to go into why U.S. support for Israel in Lebanon was more complicated in 1982 than the unconditional support it provided to Israel during the Second Intifada or today. I suggest you read Chapter 4 of Rashid Khalidi's The Hundred Years War on Palestine. "Until the end, and despite some shifts in the American cast of characters and attitude toward Israel, the United States remained committed to achieving Israel's core war aim: the defeat of the PLO and its expulsion from Beirut," Khalidi judiciously writes.
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VIA FRIEND-OF-THE-NEWSLETTER KEN KLIPPENSTEIN, here's a leaked list of the weapons the Pentagon is sending Israel with minimal transparency.
ON WEDNESDAY, HA'ARETZ PRINTED the names of the U.S. citizens Hamas kidnapped during its Oct. 7 massacre. They are: Sagui Dekel-Chen, 35; Hersh Goldberg-Polin, 23; Keith Siegel, 62; Adrienne Siegel, 64; Gadi Haggai, 72; Liat Beinin, 49; Omer Neutra, 22; Itay Chen, only 19; Edan Alexander, only 19; and little Abigail Mor Idan, only 3 years old, whom Ha'aretz's Ben Samuels writes was "abducted after witnessing the murder of her parents."
They are every bit as precious as the rest of the 240-odd Israeli hostages Hamas took and every bit as precious as the over 11,000 people, including 4600 children, whom Israel has killed in revenge. I wish we could say all of their names as well.
Ceasefire now. Hostage release now. Binationalism tomorrow. I'm running out of words for all of this, you guys.
MY FRIEND JONATHAN KATZ has been writing great stuff about the U.S.-backed Israeli war on Gaza. His latest at his newsletter The Racket, on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, is no exception.
MICHELLE SHEPHARD is another friend, and also a professional hero of mine. Readers of REIGN OF TERROR's acknowledgments know that Michelle spent most of the War on Terror as one of its most relentless and focused reporters, back when she was the national-security correspondent for the Toronto Star. She returned to the Star this week to provide some hard-learned wisdom:
In 2015, I spent a year as an Atkinson Fellow researching what drove young people into the ranks of terror groups, for a series I called “Generation 9/11.” There is no one profile, and many factors influenced recruits. But what was consistent in interviews I conducted in Somalia, Tunisia, Turkey, throughout Europe, or here at home in North America, was a sense of injustice. That was often cited as the initial motivation, which made them vulnerable to recruitment.
State injustice provides material support for terrorism, in other words.
MIKE KELLY OF NORTHJERSEY.COM devotes a thoughtful column to highlighting the story of a New Jersey National Guard military policeman who recently surrendered to face charges relating to his participation in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. It's worth your time. As well, via Teddy Wilson's Radical Reports newsletter, Konstantin Toropin of Military Times reports that a Navy SEAL, Bryce Henson, is under investigation for "possibly participating with, or supporting, extremist causes."
In March 2023, Henson did an hourlong interview with a Christian-focused podcast, representing himself as Ben Richards. He described himself as being "activated" into protesting various school policies in April 2022, and his group's mission is "to expose, challenge and resist critical race theory, radical gender ideology, and COVID and vax tyranny in our schools."
"It's a Marxist indoctrination," Henson said, seemingly referring to the LGBTQ+ movement.
At one point in the conversation, Henson said he believed a "radical trans army" had targeted women, and as a result he "brought people over to these rallies and they need protection and they need that masculine energy."
I'd refer back to this piece.