From on High

I retort. You decide.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Al Qaeda's Al Literation

Various news outlets are reporting on ABC's Exclusive broadcast of an Al Qaeda tape threatening "Yesterday, London and Madrid. Tomorrow, Los Angeles and Melbourne." Immediately, concern has emerged that these two cities may be next on the hit list. Both L.A. city officials and the Homeland Security Department have issued statements.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I'm wondering why no one has speculated that the naming of those two cities may be simply an attempt at alliteration (using cities starting in "L" and "M") and not an actual statement of future attack plans. Unlike previous tapes, after all, this one was delivered in English, and is full of rhetorical flourishes. Moreover, even the Bush campaign used a similar rhetorical device in 2004 when it declared that we must "fight the war on terror in Baghdad not Boston, and in Kabul, not Kansas City."

How WILL the terrorists choose their next target? At least one Qaeda tape - Bin Laden's pre-election rant last November - suggests that they may have in mind America's federalist structure. In that tape, Bin Ladens threatened "states" who endangered the security of Muslims, a term that was originally interpreted to mean nation-states. Upon further analysis, however, commentators with knowledge of Arabic noted that the statement was more accurately translated as referring to U.S. states. In other words, the threat may have been designed to influence electoral politics by vowing to attack only states who supported the Bush administration at the polls.

In the end, I am skeptical such considerations would influence Al Qaeda's target choices, given that their single most important objective is to kill as many Americans as possible. Nonetheless, parsing words might reveal something about the mindset of our enemies. And who better to parse words than a law school student?


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