CAIRO, Egypt – Osama bin Laden’s vow to bleed America to bankruptcy at a time when the economy is a major issue in the U.S. presidential campaign shows he’s a close student of the United States, as well as a strategist bent on getting the most impact from his words as well as his attacks.
The al-Qaida leader boasted in his first appearance in more than a year that for every $1 his terrorist organization has spent on strikes, it has cost the United States $1 million in economic fallout and military spending, including emergency funding for Iraq and Afghanistan.
“As for the size of the economic deficit, it has reached record astronomical numbers,” bin Laden said, estimating the deficit at more than $1 trillion.
In reality, spending in the war against terror and other factors have resulted in an expected $377 billion shortfall for 2003 — the highest deficit since World War II when inflation is factored out. The total U.S. national debt is near the $7.4 trillion statutory limit.
Bin Laden dwelled on al-Qaida’s economic strategy against the United States in portions of an 18-minute video aired Friday on the Arab television station Al-Jazeera and obtained by U.S. intelligence. Al-Jazeera aired about 14 minutes of the video.
The terror mastermind whose al-Qaida network carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks credited the religiously inspired Arab volunteers that he fought with against the Soviets in Afghanistan with having “bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.” He suggested the same strategy would work against the United States.
“So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” a calm and forceful bin Laden said in the tape that appeared near the end of a U.S. campaign that has focused on the war on terror as well as the foundering U.S. economy.
Bin Laden, in rhetoric that seemed to echo critical campaign headlines in the United States, accused President Bush of going to war in oil-rich Iraq simply to create business for military contractors linked to his administration.
In his message aimed at American listeners, bin Laden claimed al-Qaida was winning its war with the United States, and that contractors “like Halliburton and its kind” were also benefiting, while the losers were “the American people and their economy.”
Bin Laden noted reports that al-Qaida spent $500,000 “on the event” — referring to Sept. 11 attacks — while the United States has lost more than $500 billion “in the incident and its aftermath,” he added, citing an estimate by a British think tank.
Evan F. Kohlmann, a U.S.-based counterterrorism researcher, said it was as if bin Laden were following the news from the United States, perhaps on satellite TV, and drawing shrewd assumptions about what concerns Americans.
“He is trying to create doubts in America’s mind that this war is worth the cost,” Kohlmann said.
Al-Qaida has long made a point of hitting economic targets. The World Trade Center was likely targeted in the Sept. 11 attacks both because attacking it would kill thousands and because the twin towers were symbols of America’s economic power. In a video that surfaced in December 2001, bin Laden said the Sept. 11 attackers struck the American economy “in the heart.”
Bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, comes from an Egyptian militant group that had attacked tourism and other economic targets in hopes of bringing down Egypt’s government. In an audiotape that surfaced in October 2002, al-Zawahri threatened new attacks on the U.S. economy.
At about the same time, a small boat crashed into a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen and exploded. That attack was seen as a strike at international oil shipping. Saudi militants linked to al-Qaida have attacked foreigners working in that kingdom’s oil industry.
In August, U.S. officials said they had uncovered indications al-Qaida was targeting financial sites, including the New York Stock Exchange and World Bank buildings.
Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Scotland’s St. Andrews University, said terrorists want more than a horrific body count. They choose economic targets because they want to shake the foundations of the societies they see as the enemy.
“There’s an acute awareness of where to hit, where it hurts the most,” Ranstorp said. “There’s an awareness of the benefits of targeting critical infrastructure.”
Bin Laden’s latest statement was a selective reading of history. Internal problems and U.S. help, not just the Arab “holy warriors,” contributed to the collapse of the Soviet experiment in Afghanistan. The U.S. economy was experiencing trouble before Sept. 11.
Such nuances matter little to angry Muslims who see bin Laden as a hero who stands up to the West, and who were as much his audience as the American voters he addressed directly.
“When you’re a fundamentalist, there is no gray area,” Kohlmann said.