Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in their own words
“A terrorist group is only the apex of a much larger pyramid of sympathizers and supporters.”
- Clark McCauley, Co-Director, Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict -
On July 29th, 1994, Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister, murdered Dr. John Britton and his body guard, James Barrett. The murders took place outside of the Pensacola, Florida abortion clinic where Dr. Britton worked and were committed, according to Hill, to “uphold the truth of the Gospel at the precise point of Satan's current attack (the abortionist's knife).” After submitting to the authorities and being placed behind bars, Hill authored a series of writings defending his actions and expressed a deep desire that others would follow in his footsteps. “... if you believe that abortion is lethal force you should uphold the force needed to stop it.”
Why start a treatise illuminating the ideology of the late Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda with an anecdote about Paul Hill? Because both the similarities and differences between them are enlightening. In the years since the atrocities of September 11th, 2001, the news has been dominated by tales of terrorism – threats abroad and at home have very nearly convinced the American public that our own homes are battlegrounds, and the loss of various civil liberties has been the cost of our cowardice. Misunderstanding regarding the true nature of the conflict is rife, and the common question, “Why do they hate us?” still demands an answer. It is not that “they” - the terrorists – have been withholding regarding their feelings or intentions, but that we have been undisciplined students. To be successful in the war which has been declared upon us, we must understand who is fighting us and why. So I begin, as do all good instructors, with the familiar.
Paul Hill was not, as is often claimed, an isolated incident. There have been many instances of violence against abortion doctors and clinics. While the mainstream anti-abortion movement rejects violence as a means of eliminating the practice, there are fringe groups, like the Army of God to which Hill belonged, which embrace and encourage it. Their logic is straightforward. Once it is accepted that abortion is murder, that a human life has been taken, then it is only logical that action, even violent action, is at the very least reasonable. “Many people mistakenly think that when the government sanctions mass murder that their responses should be limited to legal and educational remedies. But the appropriate response to an immediate threat to a child's life is not to merely pursue possible educational and legislative remedies, but to do what is necessary for the child's immediate and effective defense... Would it also be wrong to intervene if the government was to sanction the murder of any other minority, and thousands were being slain in the streets every day? If individuals are wrong to bomb abortion clinics, would it have also been wrong for individuals to have bombed the tracks that led to Auschwitz?”
Furthermore, Hill, while prepared to act alone, was acting in the belief that more would rally to his cry. The twin blasts which shattered the early morning in Pensacola in late July, 1994, was – in Hill's mind – the spark which would ignite a literal firestorm of righteous fury against the murderous doctors and legislative bodies which supported them. He was not a murderer, he was freedom fighter. He was not a terrorist, he was the physical manifestation of the will of God – and he persisted in this belief, without repentance, until 2003, when his death sentence was carried out. Unlike many, I do not see in Paul Hill the mind of a psychopath at work (unless you consider religious belief to be a form of mental illness). He firmly believed that he would be receiving great heavenly rewards upon his departure from the physical realm. He was calculating – to call him a psychopath is to underestimate the logic of Hill and the intensely loyal people who consider him a martyr. Hill was the tip of an extremist undercurrent in American Christianity which exists to this day.
The attacks on the World Trade towers and the Pentagon in 2001 by Al Qaeda were likewise designed to be the instigation of a global war on the secular West. Just as Paul Hill attempted to bring about an end to abortion on the morning of July 29th, so too did Bin Laden endeavor to strike the first blow against the Western nations on the morning of September 11th. As the dust cleared and the world's only superpower blundered about to determine the best reaction to this “unexpected” assault, it became clear that America had no notion of who had struck them or why. Even as we lumbered into action, first in Afghanistan and then in an escalation of the decade old war in Iraq, the public (and some of its principle leaders) were yet unaware of the true nature of the conflict we were entering. At once painting Bin Laden and his supporters as leaders of a large and powerful organization while only representing a small fragment of the Muslim world, our media did us few favors in the early days of the so-called War on Terror. We were shocked when our troops were not welcomed as liberators. Our feelings were hurt when we were told that we were to blame for the attacks on 9/11 through our meddling in world affairs. “Why do they hate us?” But even when they answered us, again and again, we seemed unable to comprehend.
Ignorantly observing world affairs from a position of inherited privilege, the American public floundered between two extremes in its relationship with Muslims: on the one side mistrusting and acting out against anyone whose skin was dark without the aid of a spray-tan, and on the other side drowning in a whirlwind of political correctness claiming that “jihad” can only mean “self-cleansing” and that Islam is a religion of peace. Americans seemed unable to entertain two ideas at once. Islam was either a religion of war or peace. The idea that it, like all religions, it could be both depending on the mind of the person believing it was unimaginable. That “jihad” could mean different things in different contexts was unthinkable. And to be clear, the word “jihad” as used by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda is not intended to mean “inner struggle” or “self-cleansing.” It is a word defined by context, and the context of jihad has been made obvious by Bin Laden via suicide bombings and brutal attacks on civilians. Make no mistake, jihad is a violent struggle against the perceived enemies of Islam: first the communists in Afghanistan and now the secularists, Jews and “polytheists” (Christians believing in the Trinity and non-theists "worshiping" money and sex) in the West.
Indeed, Osama Bin Laden and his various accomplices have been entirely forthcoming regarding their reasons for declaring violent jihad against the West. Just as Paul Hill was prolific in the defense of his actions, so too was Bin Laden in his justification for his war on secularism. As the Art of War says, “know your enemy and yourself, and you will not lose even in one hundred battles.” The American public has largely missed the point of 9/11. We do not know our enemy, and we have a decade of stagnation to show for it. It is a crime that the words of Bin Laden, in their entirety, are not read by every American high school student. It is a travesty that we have been unable, or unwilling, to face up to Islam in a realistic manner. These are failings which continue to cost us unnecessary blood both at home and abroad; failings which should have been avoidable, and which, even now, are not too far gone to correct.
Osama Bin Laden was born in Yemen in 1957. In the 1970's his father moved the family to Saudi Arabia where he opened the successful Bin Laden Corporation, a construction firm which grew substantially during the oil boom. The most religious of his family, Bin Laden was involved in the reconstruction of the mosques in Mecca and Medina and, after graduating college with a degree in civil engineering, left for Afghanistan in 1979. He was responding to the call put forth by the Mujahideen (literally: “Muslims engaged in jihad”) who were fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and brought with him bulldozers and engineering talent. Regarding his time in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets, he said: “In our religion, there is a special place in the hereafter for those who participate in jihad. One day in Afghanistan was like 1,000 days of praying in an ordinary mosque.” Moving from auxiliary support and financial aid to the battlefield, Bin Laden proved at the battle of Jaji in 1987 that the soviets were not invincible and became a hero within the Arab world for his work as a military leader and his ability to recruit thousands of foreign Mujahideen to come fight. Upon his return to Saudi Arabia, however, he quickly fell out of favor with the ruling elite due to his criticism of their application of Islam, and was forced to leave the country – first moving to Sudan, and then back to Afghanistan where, in 1996 and in the company of his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, he published his “Declaration of War Against the Americans.” This pamphlet was a formal declaration of jihad against the United States of America and its allies and the beginning of intelligence operations tracking his movements.
The following is an aggregation taken from the writings of Bin Laden's and Ayman al-Zawahiri. These are their words, their reasons for why they hates us. I will impose my voice only to guide the reader in directions which I feel are valuable.
“Praise be to Allah,” is how Bin Laden starts off his messages, as if to leave little doubt of his allegiance by parading his perverse religiosity. “It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist Crusader [the Israelis and Americans] alliance and their collaborators; to the extent that the Muslims blood became the cheapest and their wealth as loot in the hands of the enemies. Their blood was spilled in Palestine [by the Israelis] and Iraq [by the Americans in the First Gulf War and the bombing campaigns of the 1990's]. The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon are still fresh in our memory. Massacres in Tajakestan, Burma, Cashmere, Assam, Philippine, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Erithria, Chechnya and in BosniaHerzegovina took place, massacres that send shivers in the body and shake the conscience. All of this and the world watch and hear, and not only didn't respond to these atrocities, but also with a clear conspiracy between the USA and its allies and under the cover of the iniquitous United Nations, the dispossessed people were even prevented from obtaining arms to defend themselves.”
Bin Laden: “At the beginning, I say that we have made it clear and stated so many times for over two decades that the cause of the quarrel with you is your support for your Israeli allies, who have occupied our land, Palestine. This position of yours, along with some other grievances, is what prompted us to carry out the 11 September events.” In addition to the American support of the Israel, “the Arabian Peninsula has never -- since Allah made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas -- been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations.” The crusader armies of which he speaks are the various American military bases which are located in the Persian Gulf, in cooperation with the Arab governments there. Principle to understanding Bin Laden and the violent jihadi movement in general is a recognition that the state boundaries (such as Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt) matter little. These boundaries were mostly drawn up by European and Americangovernments in the early 1900's and are often, especially by fundamentalist Islamists such as Bin Laden, rejected as imperialist. As Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, says: “It appears that you don't know anything about the Muslim Ummah (Nation) and its history, and the fate of the traitors who cooperated with the invaders against it, and don't know anything about the history of Afghanistan and its free and defiant Muslim people. [Obama] must appreciate... that you are neither facing individuals nor organizations, but are facing a jihadi awakening and renaissance which is shaking the pillars of the entire Islamic world...”
The world according to Osama Bin Laden and those who now follow in his footsteps revolves entirely around religion. The Ummah, or nation of Islam, encompasses all the land where Muslims live or historically owned. Stretching from Southern Spain, across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, sweeping over northern India and down to Indonesia, and back up to Chechnya and Bosnia, the Ummah is the body politic which concerns Muslims – and this is the entity which Bin Laden feels has been violated by the West.
“Today we work from the same mountains to lift the iniquity that had been imposed on the Ummah by the Zionist Crusader alliance, particularly after they have occupied the blessed land around Jerusalem, route of the journey of the Prophet [Muhammad], and the land of the two Holy Places [Saudi Arabia, the location of Mecca and Medina].” Bin Laden was clear, precise even, about the roots of his grievances. Al Qaeda and its allies believe that they are defending the Ummah. Ayman al-Zawahiri: “What is taking place in Gaza is only part of the Zionist-Christian Crusade targeting this Muslim Ummah in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Somalia, Algeria, and Darfur, rather every Arab nation and many Islamic nations which claim to be independent. The reality is that they are occupied, either by the physical presence of the Crusader armies, or indirectly by being subjugated to their authority. What Gaza has felt is only a part of what Grozny, Kabul, Baghdad, and Mogadishu has felt. We are all fighting the same jihad against one enemy on different fronts.”
Bin Laden continues: “All these crimes committed by the Americans are a clear declaration of war on Allah, his messenger, and Muslims. ...On that basis, and in compliance with Allah's order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem] and the holy mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of the Almighty Allah, [quoting from the Koran] 'and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,' and 'fight them until there is no more tumult of oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah.' … We – with Allah's help – call on every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on the Muslim [scholars], leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's US troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so they may learn a lesson.”
Here again the claim is often made, by well meaning liberals and moderate Muslims, that when Bin Laden quotes the Koran he is distorting the true meaning. However, the true meaning of verses like Surah Al-Tawbah (9):14-15 - “Fight against them so that Allah will punish them by your hands and disgrace them and give you victory over them and heal the breasts of a believing people” - is of little importance when used, in this case by al-Zawahiri, in the context of violent jihad. Like all books, the Koran can be interpreted and will be used for good or ill. I spoke earlier about the futility of asking whether or not Islam is a religion of peace or war. Indeed, we could ask the same of Christianity, and the answer must depend on who you ask, and when. To those Christians in the 14th century who took verses like Exodus 22:20 seriously - “Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the LORD must be put to death” - Christianity was certainly, if not a religion of war, a religion of torture (just ask anyone suffering in the Tower of London under the reign of Queen Mary). We could ask Paul Hill his interpretation of scripture and it would follow a similar course. What is self-evident is that Al Qaeda is following what it believes to be the true version of Islam as dictated by the Koran. You are welcome to argue theology with them as much as you please, but I suggest donning a bullet-proof vest beforehand.
Thus we know why they hate us. Our support of Israel and our military bases in the Middle East are viewed as a renewed Crusade against Islam, and statements by the former President George W. Bush to that effect were soaked up by an already offended population. In fact, Al Qaeda is fighting a war against the leaders of the Arab world as well as against American imperialism. The various usurpers of the people who exist in the high places of Arab government, often with varying levels of American support, are as much the enemy of the radical Islamist as the West; both the dictator and the democrat seek, to greater or lesser degrees, self gratification and do not live according to the Laws of Islam which, in the eyes of the extremist, is haraam (against the will of Allah). In reality, radical Muslims are not merely seeking an end of the American presence overseas, but is aiming at global domination. Al-Zawahiri calls for non-stop resistance and defense in an effort “to make Allah's Word supreme,” and later asks the Ummah, “does it want the establishment of Allah's Law on His earth and the expulsion of the invaders from all realms of Islam, which... are a single country? Or does it want an emaciated and paralyzed secular state...?” Indeed, Bin Laden himself offered America the solution to ending the violence: “I invite you to embrace Islam...”
Who, in the Muslim world, embraces the radial ideology of Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri? It would indeed be a relief if we could write them off as a mere fringe group, as we do the Army of God in America. However, it is more accurate to say that the followers of radical Islam are, in the Muslim world, a large and influential minority. In a recent Pew Research Group (May 2011) results indicating a decline in support forBin Laden and Al Qaeda were touted about as showing a marked improvement. Here are the numbers:
According to the data, while it is true that 'confidence in Osama Bin Laden was waning, it still rested at an astounding 34% of the population of the Palestinian territories, 26% of Indonesia, and 22% of Egypt. These are not small numbers and do not represent small groups of people. To put it in perspective, only 11% of the American public approves of Congress at the time of writing. This is an appalling figure. Data regarding opinions about Al Qaeda generally were similar:
|See for yourself|
And, because Al Qaeda does only represent some of the radical Islamists:
When asked about suicide bombings directed against civilians...
|See for yourself|
That's right, 48% of Egyptians think suicide bombing civilians is rarely, sometimes, or often justified; 56% of Lebanese, 67% of Nigerians, and 83% of Palestinians feel the same way.
|See for yourself|
These results from 2005 (in bold) are similar.
None of this is to suppose that Muslims in general are likely to be extremists, they are not. But radical Islam is far from a fringe movement, isolated and without friends. It is a strong, vocal, and bellicose minority which has proven itself capable of crimes on a global scale. Crucially, unlike Paul Hill, who represents a small minority of extremists and was prosecuted by his own culture and coreligionists, Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are not isolated cases, but are indicative of broader trends with roots in theological and geopolitical movements.
What are we to do about it? That is not the topic of this essay, however I will interject some underdeveloped thoughts for now. We are facing a militant version of Islam which seeks, in the short term, to drive out all non-Muslim powers from the Ummah and, in the long term, world domination (or at the very least, world conversion - in this respect, it is not unlike Evangelical Christianity). They profess, and have spoken with both words and actions, to have little regard for civilians and have expressed joy upon hearing of the deaths of Americans. However, while we are facing facts, lets be clear: America had been waging a continuous war against Iraq since 1990 – the so-called 'first' and 'second' Gulf Wars are only terms to describe periods of increased engagement. Likewise, Israel has often overstepped its boundaries in its dealings with the Palestinians and must be held accountable. It is true that our policy regarding the Middle East has been one focused on the acquisition of wealth and energy, and that we have had little regard for who gets hurt in the process. Our record of supporting dictatorial regimes in the Muslim world is too long to recount here and it is little wonder that there is anger against us (when anger is converted to supporting the murder of civilians it becomes something else, however). It is self-evident that America needs to rethink its foreign policy in the Muslim world. Certainly we cannot hope to stomp out all hatred against us, but we can make it a safer world for everyone.
In an essay entitled, "Global Support for Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden: An Increase or Decrease?" by Professor Rohan Gunaratna and terrorist analyst Karunya Jayasena (Nanyang Technological University in Singapore) they share several findings which I think are valuable. To begin with they note that "support for terrorism is positively correlated with negative views of the U.S., a perception that the U.S. does not favor democracy in a respondent's country, and a belief that the Iraq war has made the world more dangerous." Furthermore, "many [Muslims] are convinced that 'there is a struggle in their country between groups who want to modernize the nation and Islamic fundamentalists.'" (Indeed, this is a struggle that we can observe playing out in Egypt and other nations still feeling the effects of the "Arab Spring"). A list of policy implications follows:
- "Policy makers should consider that there is still strong opposition to U.S.-lead efforts to combat terrorism. Utilization of military forces can result in new resentments and grievances therefore, it is extremely important for western countries to rebuild a good relationship with Muslim nations."
- "The U.S. should attempt to be more culturally sensitive toward Muslims. We must take necessary measures to create an atmosphere of cultural understanding, promote inter-faith [and alternative-to-faith -- editor's note] understanding and endorse a culture of peace, tolerance and hope among various ethnic groups."
- "It is vital for U.S. policy makers to educate the general public that undermining Islam is not a key objective for U.S. foreign policy."
- "U.S. counter-terrorism strategies should adopt appropriate measures to incorporate both hard and soft policies that will improve the outlook of America while diminishing the appeal of Al Qaeda and Bin Laden."
As they note in the article, "there is 'no evidence that most people who support suicide actions hate Americans' internal cultural freedoms, but rather every indication that they oppose U.S. foreign policies.'"
"There are two fundamental reasons correlated to increase in support for al Qaeda and bin Laden. First, opposition to U.S.-led war on terror has dramatically increased since 2003. Many Muslim individuals surveyed believe that U.S.-led war on terror has contributed to their deteriorating economy. In addition, there is little enthusiasm for drone attacks targeting extremist leaders mainly because many civilians believe that these attacks are conducted without the approval of their governments. Many Pakistanis believe that U.S. and NATO should withdraw their troops from their country, thus support the idea of using their country’s army to fight terrorism."
In conclusion, while the death of Osama Bin Laden on May 2, 2011, was hailed a victory by the West, we should have no doubts that the radical Islamist movement is alive and well. al-Zawahir, the current head of Al Qaeda, is just as fiery (if not as charismatic) as his predecessor, and there are hosts of others out there, waiting for their moment to serve Allah in the best way they know: by fighting in defense of the Ummah and by advancing fundamentalist Islam globally. Only by understanding what motivates those who seek to kill us can we have any hope of beating them. We know why they hate us; now we have to figure out what to do about it.