On MSNBC's Hardball, National Review White House correspondent Byron York claimed that Osama bin Laden, in a 2004 videotape, "suggested that ... if states vote against Bush, then we'll [Al Qaeda] protect you in the future." York's comment was apparently based on a translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute indicating that bin Laden threatened the individual U.S. states not to vote for President Bush, but that translation has been disputed by numerous scholars and experts.
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On the January 19 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, National Review White House correspondent Byron York claimed that Osama bin Laden, in a videotape released days before the 2004 election, "suggested that ... if states vote against Bush, then we'll [Al Qaeda] protect you in the future." York's comment was apparently based on a translation of the 2004 video by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization with conservative ties. The MEMRI translation, which indicated that bin Laden threatened the individual U.S. states not to vote for President Bush, has been disputed by numerous scholars and experts.
From the January 19 Hardball:
CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): Let me ask you this. The White House had a quick reaction, which is almost a conditioned response in the West, which is "we don't negotiate." What did you make of the offer of a truce? What did you think he meant? Was that the play to -- who was he playing to when he said "I want a truce?" Because it doesn't sound like zeal. It sounds like an offer of a white flag.
YORK: No, I don't think it was serious. I mean, back before the 2004 presidential election, he released a statement which kind of suggested that, gee, if states vote against Bush, then we'll protect you in the future. This is not a sort of rational politics as we know it here."
York's claim that bin Laden, in the 2004 video, guaranteed the safety of states that voted for Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) is apparently based on MEMRI's translation of the video, which read (brackets in original): "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al-Qa'ida. Your security is in your own hands, and any [U.S.] state [wilaya] that does not toy with our security automatically guarantees its own security." MEMRI's translation differed from other translations, such as that of the Arab-language television network Aljazeera, which read: "Your security is in your own hands. And every state that doesn't play with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security." Most media outlets interpreted bin Laden's message to refer to "state" as a nation-state or country, and not the 50 United States. The New York Times reported that bin Laden warned that "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" as a whole.
Indeed, MEMRI's translation has been challenged by a number of scholars and experts. In a November 2, 2004, entry on his "Informed Comment" weblog, University of Michigan professor and Middle East expert Juan Cole noted: "MEMRI is claiming that the word used for 'state' in this sentence means state as in Rhode Island and New Jersey. But while they are right to draw attention to the oddness of the diction, their conclusion is impossible."
According to Cole:
Bin Laden says that such a "state" should not trifle with Muslims' security. He cannot possibly mean that he thinks Rhode Island is in a position to do so. Nor can he be referring to which way a state votes, since he begins by saying that the security of Americans is not in the hands of Bush or Kerry. He has already dismissed them as equivalent and irrelevant, in and of themselves.
Moreover, the way he uses "wilayah" is strange if he meant a Rhode Island kind of state. He should have said "ayy wilayah min al-wilayaat," "any state among the states" or some such diction.
But there are two possible explanations for Bin Laden's diction here. The first is that he regularly uses archaicisms. ... In classical Arabic, a ruler is a wali, who then rules over a wilayah or walayah. Wilayah can have connotations even in modern Arabic (see Hans Wehr [Arabic-English Dictionary]) of sovereignty and it can mean "government." Bin Laden is attempting to revive ways of thinking he maintains were common among the first generation of Muslims, and to slough off centuries of accretions.
The other possibility is that Bin Laden has lived most of the past 25 years in Persian, Pushtu and Urdu-speaking environments and that he occasionally lapses into non-standard usages. In Hindi-Urdu, I noticed that one meaning of vilayat is "the metropole." At least in past generations, people going from British India to the UK said they were going to "vilayat." More important, there is some evidence for fundamentalist Muslims using the word "wilayah" or "walayah" to mean "country."
A November 2, 2004, Philadelphia Daily News article also examined the MEMRI translation and quoted Omer Taspinar, a foreign policy studies research fellow at the Brookings Institution, challenging MEMRI's conclusions:
"Why would he make a difference between California, Ohio, Pennsylvania? These are all American states," said Omer Taspinar, an expert in foreign policy studies at the liberal-oriented Brookings Institution. "Al Qaeda would attack where it's going to attack.
"If he had wanted to target states, he would have easily said, 'Any state that votes for Bush is on our list of targets.' ... He would have given a direct warning."
The Daily News article also quoted Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and director of the RAND Corp.'s Washington, D.C., office, saying that bin Laden's video "was not about ... affecting the results of an election," and that it was "a stretch to say that bin Laden is saying how each state should vote."
According to MediaTransparency.org, MEMRI has received substantial funding from conservative grant-making organizations, such as the Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Randolph Foundation.