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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
War of the airwaves
Al-Jazeera staff at the satellite channel's headquarters in Qatar
Al-Jazeera has become Bin Laden's favourite way of publicising his views
By diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

The American air strikes on targets in Afghanistan are being accompanied by an increasingly vehement war of words.

Osama Bin Laden showed his ability to plan ahead in releasing a pre-recorded video within a hours of the launching of US and British air strikes

The latest statement from Osama Bin Laden's network, al-Qaeda, threatened a storm of aircraft to follow the suicide attacks on New York and Washington that killed nearly 6,000 people.

The statement was made in a video broadcast by the Arabic satellite television station al-Jazeera, based in the gulf state of Qatar.

The station has become Bin Laden's favourite way of getting his point of view across to the Arab and Muslim people, over the heads of the sheikhs and presidents whose rule he detests.

But al-Jazeera is also being used by western leaders, notably by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to put their point of view in the propaganda battle.

Media freedom

The United States has found itself on the back foot, complaining to the Emir of Qatar that the television station was becoming a platform for Bin Laden but being told that media freedom was an essential part of democratic life.

Tony Blair gives an interview to al-Jazeera
Blair understands the need for rapid rebuttal of your opponent's arguments
In the past things have usually been the other way round.

Autocratic leaders complained to the West about media criticism but were told that western governments had no control over journalists.

Osama Bin Laden showed his ability to plan ahead in releasing a pre-recorded video within a hours of the launching of US and British air strikes on targets in Afghanistan.

The new statement by one of his lieutenants again follows the rule that the most effective propaganda lies in the constant repetition of a few simple messages.

There is defiance of the world's only superpower, praise for the suicide hijackers and the explicit threat of more to come -- "the storm of aircraft will not stop."

This comes as close as anything so far to an admission that al-Qaeda was responsible for the 11 September attacks.

Clear demands

Then there are a set of demands that resonate in a large part of the Islamic world, in this order: that the United States should withdraw all forces from Arabia, the home of the Prophet Mohmmed; that it should stop supporting Israel; that it should end the blockade of Iraq.

Bin Laden himself has increasingly emphasised the plight of the Palestinians and their treatment by the Israelis as this crisis has developed.

Osama Bin Laden tape shown on al-Jazeera
Bin Laden knows the most effective propaganda is constant repetition of simple messages
But his agenda reaches much further: he describes the world divided in two, between true Muslims and the infidels -- of whom George Bush is the chief. In other words, it is a war between Islam and the West.

That is the message that the United States and its European allies reject.

They repeat again and again that they are not attacking Islam, Muslim civilians or the Afghan people.

Their only targets are the terrorists and their backers: those responsible for murdering thousands of people going about their everyday lives, including Muslims.

Mr Blair has turned himself into the chief proponent of the western view to the Muslim world.

Rapid rebuttal

He understands the need for rapid rebuttal of your opponent's arguments, a technique his Labour Party refined to win elections in Britain.

Tony Blair has turned himself into the chief proponent of the western view to the Muslim world

In interviews with Arab television stations and others, he denied Bin Laden's right to speak for the Palestinians.

They did not want his fanaticism, Mr Blair said, any more than the people of Afghanistan wanted the fanaticism of the Taleban. He did not believe anybody seriously wanted to live under that kind of regime.

Mr Blair's aim is to isolate Bin Laden from the mass of Muslims, arguing that his theology is a perversion of Islam.

Some may think it is rash for a convinced Christian to fight on this ground, but Mr Blair has never been reluctant to take risks.

A S-3B Viking takes-off from the flight deck of the USS Enterprise
The US controls the skies, but what of the airwaves?
It is too early to say who is winning the propaganda war.

Bin Laden knows he is not having things all his own way. In his words: after the 11 September attacks "the United States succeeded in turning even the countries that call themselves Muslim against us."

On the other hand, Bin Laden has become a cult hero in street demonstrations and to a sizeable chunk of Muslim opinion. So far the protests have been contained by the government authorities he despises, just as more widespread demonstrations in favour of President Saddam Hussein were eleven years ago.

Glorification of violence

It is possible that al-Qaeda's glorification of violence and death will put off more Muslims than it attracts.

Many will find grotesque its statement that there are thousands of young people who are keen on death as Americans are on life.

But as western military operations go on, the number of civilians killed is capable of changing the atmosphere from day to day. And in the meantime, western politicians are hampered by not addressing more directly the grievances of the Arab world.

Removing the grievances would not end the extremism embodied by Osama Bin Laden, but leaving the resentment in place certainly fuels the fire.

See also:

10 Oct 01 | Middle East
In full: Al-Qaeda statement
10 Oct 01 | Middle East
TV station defends Bin Laden coverage
09 Oct 01 | Americas
America on high alert
10 Oct 01 | South Asia
US claims air supremacy
07 Oct 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden defiant
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
08 Oct 01 | Media reports
Al-Jazeera goes it alone
10 Oct 01 | Americas
Anthrax scare shakes US
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