Usama bin Laden’s Trademark Concerns

One year after the killing of Usama bin Laden, the U.S. Government has declassified some of the materials seized during the raid on his compound.  The media had earlier reported that the terrorist leader was concerned that his organization’s brand had become tarnished by its association with attacks on noncombatants.  CNN gave this account last April:

Bin Laden well understood that al Qaeda’s brand name was in deep trouble, in particular, because the group and its affiliates had killed so many civilians.  ….  So badly tarnished had the al Qaeda brand become that bin Laden noodled with changing the name of his group. In an internal memo, bin Laden pointed out that “[President] Obama [says] that our war is not on Islam or the Muslim people, but rather our war is on the al Qaeda organization. So if the word al Qaeda was derived from or had strong ties to the word ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslims,’ or if it had the name ‘Islamic party’ it would be difficult for Obama to say that.”usama.trademark

A recently declassified transcript of an audiotape seized during the raid documents bin Laden’s trademark concerns.  The following transcript was translated by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, located in Monterey, California. 

* * *

UBL Transcript No. 716, Abbottabad, 04152011, 1930 GMT.   Transcribed from an audiotape seized by US Navy Seals (DLIFLC translation).  “UBL” refers to Usama bin Laden.  For security reasons, the other voices on the audiotapes are referred to as Person of Interest (POI) 1 and POI 2.

[Muffled sounds, apparently of persons entering room and sitting on carpets.]

UBL: Yes, Amal, you can leave the coffee there.  And the dates.  Don’t forget the dates.

[Sounds of plates and cups being moved.]

UBL: My brothers, I thank you for coming.  We have a problem which we must discuss.

POI 1: What is it, Sheik al-Mujahid?

UBL: It is our brand.

POI 1:  Brand?  I swear to you, Sheik, we do not brand.  Beheading and amputating hands now and then, yes, that we do on occasion, but branding, never.  It is forbidden.

UBL: Not that kind of brand, Faizul.  I mean the al-Qaeda brand.  Our trademark.

POI 1: We’ve used the al-Qaeda mark for over 20 years.  We all like it.  Got a nice ring to it. 

POI 2:  Yes, yes.  It is a fine trademark.  And catchy.  What’s the problem?

UBL:  Let us face facts.  The al-Qaeda brand has lost value and become tarnished.  Once mujahideen from all over the Middle East would approach us, offering us anything to be recognized as affiliated with us.  The name al-Qaeda opened doors.  So we didn’t need C4 explosives as much.

POI 2: What happened, O Lion?

UBL: Too many civilians, particularly Muslim civilians, kept getting killed by people operating under our name.  Killing innocent Muslims does not enhance the value of a brand that’s supposed to be associated with protecting Muslims.  Understand?

(Coughing sounds.)

POI 2:  No.

UBL:  Last August, I wrote to Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair in Somalia.  You know, he’s been telling people that his al-Shabaab militia is part of al-Qaeda.  I told him “Please, Mukhtar, you’re killing us.”  Of course, I did not mean that literally.  He only kills Somalis, as far as we know.  But he’s killing our brand.  So I told him, “Please, when you are fundraising, just tell people we have only a brotherly Islamic connection, nothing more.”  Ditto with al-Qaeda in Iraq.  They behead Muslims, and then they post the beheadings on the YouTube.  This is very bad for the brand.

PO2: What should we do, Sheik?

UBL: Do you remember Faisal Shahzad?

PO2: Of course, the Pakistani fellow.  Moved to Connecticut and tried to detonate a car-bomb in Times Square.  I helped train him.  Nice young man, a little on the shy side. 

UBL: Well, while he was in New York, I asked him to look around to see if he could get some good trademark advice.  There are many fine attorneys in New York City.

PO1: But Sheik.  New York lawyers.  I mean, look.  They are all Jews, the sons of pig and apes.

UBL: Yes, and their hourly rates are so high.  Well, Shahzad put me in touch with Sidney [last name redacted], and Sidney and I discussed the matter by Skype.

PO2:  What did you decide?

UBL: It’s complicated.  First I said, Sidney, why can’t we  change our name to something holier and less tarnished, you know, something with “Muslim” in it?  I said, Sidney, wouldn’t you agree that would be a good marketing ploy?  See, President Obama —

[Spitting sounds.]

UBL: — President Obama, he is always going around saying “The U.S.A is not making war on Muslims, it is making war on al-Qaeda.”  So I said, Sidney, can’t we just remove the word al-Qaeda and substitute a brand that includes the word “Muslim”?  Like “The Muslim Unity Group.” Then what is President Obama –

[Spitting sounds.]

UBL: — going to say?  “The USA is not making war on Muslims, it is making war on the Muslim Unity Group”?  Everyone would be like: “Huh?  Come again?”

POI 2: The Muslim Unity Group.  I like it.  It does not sound like the kind of brand that beheads a lot of people.

UBL: But Sidney said no.  He explained that we cannot call our organization the Muslim Unity Group, because the words are generic.  It’s simply the thing itself.  You adopt a name that’s generic, and you don’t get any rights.  Everyone can start using the same name for their organization, and then the name becomes generic.  When a mark becomes generic, it dies.  Lawyers call this “genericide.”

POI 2: Genocide?

UBL: No, genericide.  The name becomes generic.

POI 2: Oh, I see.  Genericide.  Because I thought you said, you know, genocide.  It’s like, you know … Death to All Trademarks!


POI 1: Yes, yes, my brothers!  We will issue a fatwa against the trademarks!  We must wage jihad against all trademarks, Allah akbar!

[Laughter and giggling.]

UBL:  You guys.  A fatwa against the trademarks….  (Laughter and coughing.)  Come, come, my brothers. Get serious.  Faizul, put down the scimitar.  You’re going to poke somebody’s eye out.

[Loud background noises, metal clattering.]

UBL:  Now, according to Sidney, the strongest mark we can adopt is a name that has nothing to do with the product.  He called it an arbitrary mark.  Like Apple for computers.

POI 2:  That is so.  My nephew received such a computer at the end of Ramadan.  It is a fine machine, and though it is called Apple it bears no fruit of any kind.

UBL: So that got me thinking.  Apple enjoys a very good reputation.  Its products are respected, and although the Company competes fiercely, it does not amputate the hands of those who sell rival products.  So Sidney and I decided.  We will change our brand from al-Qaeda to Apple Pie.  You might ask “Why Apple Pie?”  Here are my reasons.  First, as I’ve said, Apple has positive connotations.  Second, since the mark has nothing to do with our products, it is what Sidney calls an arbitrary mark, and therefore it is very strong.  Third, and finally, Apple Pie has a special spot in the hearts of all Americans.  To compare something to apple pie is to say it is very American.  So then, what will President Obama –

[Spitting sounds.]

— say about us?  Will he say: “The U.S.A is not making war on Muslims, it is making war on Apple Pie”?  That would be blasphemy to the American people.  They would rise up and stone him. 

POI 1:  Yes, apple pie is a holy food to Americans.

UBL: So, my brothers, I have instructed Sidney to file an application to register Apple Pie as our new brand.  He is preparing the papers now for me to sign.  Soon, we will no longer be al-Qaeda.  We will be Apple Pie.

[Long silence.]

POI 2: Well, this has been very interesting, Sheik.  I always enjoy our visits.  But if we’re going to avoid the traffic and drones, we had better be going.

* * *

The audiotape ends at this point.  Shortly after the meeting, the CIA received intelligence from local sources that helped them identify the Abbottabad compound as Usama bin Laden’s hideout.  Neither POI 1 nor POI 2 has been located.

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