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Osama's Big Lie By: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 17, 2004

On November 29, al-Qaeda’s chief ideologue, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a videotape to al-Jazeera that told the United States to make an important decision: “You must choose between two ways of dealing with Muslims -- either on the basis of respect and mutual interests, or treating them as if they were legitimate spoils, pillaged lands, and permissible sacrilege.  This is your problem, and you have to make your own choice.” 

Al-Zawahiri’s suggestion that the United States could deal with al-Qaeda “on the basis of respect and mutual interests” strongly implied, like bin Laden’s pre-election address encouraging Americans to “look for [9/11’s] causes in order to prevent it from happening again,” that America can buy its security through capitulation to al-Qaeda’s demands.


In a recent article, I explained that some Westerners in positions of influence – such as Britain’s former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam and U.S. Naval Postgraduate School professor John Arquilla – had been pushing for negotiation with al-Qaeda even before the late October release of bin Laden’s videotape.  The position of these scholars rests on a key error:  the conflation of al-Qaeda’s short-term grievances (such as the U.S. military presence in the Muslim world) with its long-term goals.


Michael Scheuer made this mistake in a recent interview on Meet the Press.  Scheuer, a former CIA agent, was the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris.  On Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked Scheuer if he believed “that being ‘tough on Israel’ would in any way change Osama bin Laden’s agenda or desire to destroy America.”  Scheuer’s telling reply:  “His agenda is not to destroy America, Mr. Russert.  He simply wants us out of his neighborhood.  He wants us out of the Middle East.”


In the interview, Scheuer stated that he does not believe the United States should disengage from the Middle East (“My book, if anything, is a hawkish statement . . .”).  But his articulation of bin Laden’s agenda makes a pull-out sound palatable.  If the genesis of all this danger -- to our troops abroad and civilians at home -- lies simply in our refusal to leave bin Laden’s “neighborhood,” doesn’t it make sense to negotiate with al-Qaeda and accommodate the terrorists’ desire for U.S. non-interference in the Middle East?


The answer is no.  Al-Qaeda’s objective is not limited to U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.  Rather, the network views this pull-out as a necessary prerequisite to the attainment of its ultimate goal:  the establishment of an Islamist super-state ruled by the harshest version of Islamic law, primed to re-conquer formerly Muslim lands and pursue an aggressive expansionist agenda.


This broad agenda will not change if the West chooses to negotiate with terrorists and give ground on some issues.  Those who favor negotiation and appeasement generally overlook the theological dimension of al-Qaeda’s thought.  The group has articulated political grievances and stated some goals, to be sure.  Ultimately, though, these aims are rooted in an overall theology that is unlikely to waver.  Al-Qaeda leadership and affiliated theologians influencing believe in a return to a pristine form of Islam that they think existed in Muhammad’s time, stripped of all the alleged bida, or “innovations,” that have crept into the practice of their religion in the intervening 1400 years.  This commitment to weeding out bida runs so deep that al-Qaeda members often brand as infidels those Muslims whose practice of the faith allegedly includes too much bida.  The worldview of al-Qaeda is fixed; this is not a theology given to adaptation.


Re-Establishment of the Caliphate


Al-Qaeda has made no secret of its desire to re-establish the caliphate as a centralized political leadership over the entire Muslim world.  The terrorist group’s training manual, in outlining its historical grievances against the West, begins with the fall of the caliphate:  “After the fall of our orthodox caliphates on March 3, 1924 and after expelling the colonialists, our Islamic nation was afflicted with apostate rulers who took over in the Moslem nation.  These rulers turned out to be more infidel and criminal than the colonialists themselves.”


The obvious way to redress the perceived harms that were inflicted by the collapse of the old caliphate (the Ottoman Empire) is to establish a new one.  A Congressional Research Service Report for Congress by analyst Christopher M. Blanchard explains that bin Laden has argued that the Muslim world “should see itself as one seamless community and that Muslims were obliged to unite and defend themselves.”  To that end, Blanchard writes, bin Laden “urged Muslims to find a leader to unite them and establish a ‘pious caliphate’ that would be governed by Islamic law and follow Islamic principles of finance and social conduct.”  The 9/11 Commission Report concurs with Blanchard’s assessment, stating that “[f]or those yearning for a lost sense of order in an older, more tranquil world, [bin Laden] offers his ‘Caliphate’ as an imagined alternative to today’s uncertainty.”[i][1]


Bin Laden has echoed this theme in his public writings and speeches since the September 11 attacks.  In his November 2002 “Letter to America,” bin Laden emphasized al-Qaeda’s dedication to unseating the current governments in power throughout the Middle East:  “The removal of these governments is an obligation upon us, and a necessary step to free the Ummah, to make the Shariah the supreme law and to regain Palestine.”


Other key al-Qaeda leaders share bin Laden’s goal of re-establishing the caliphate.  The Washington Post reported that in late 2001, a treatise written by al-Zawahiri was smuggled out of Afghanistan and eventually published in the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.  Al-Zawahiri’s treatise explained that the goal of al-Qaeda’s jihad was to establish a religious state throughout the Muslim world and “reinstate its fallen caliphate and regain its lost glory.”


Harsh Version of Islamic Law


A new Islamic caliphate is not necessarily objectionable in theory.  In this case, however, the new caliphate envisioned by al-Qaeda’s leadership would be run by exactly the sort of theocratic zealots currently waging war to establish it.  Bin Laden has trumpeted the fact that his caliphate would enforce the strictest possible version of Islamic law, a form of rule akin to the Taliban’s.

Bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against America rejects all kinds of law except for shariah:  “[I]t is not a secret that to use man made law instead of the Shari’a and to support the infidels against the Muslims is one of the ten ‘voiders’ that would strip a person from his Islamic status (turn a Muslim into a Mushrik, non believer status).”  Even in 1996, before bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, he made explicit his desire to implement a strict version of sharia law.  In an interview that year, Robert Fisk asked bin Laden what kind of Islamic state he would like to see, and specifically “whether thieves and murderers [would] still have their heads cut off . . . in a sharia-governed state.”  Fisk reported: “Bin Laden’s answer is unsatisfactory.  All Muslims would love to live under true sharia, he said.  A guilty man would only be happy if he was justly punished.”


Bin Laden left Sudan on May 19, 1996 and returned to Afghanistan.  Soon after, the Taliban cemented its power and implemented the harshest version of sharia law that the world had seen in centuries.  In the Taliban’s Afghanistan, the list of capital crimes included homosexuality, conversion out of Islam, and preaching non-Islamic faiths.  Women had no rights under the Taliban’s governance, and men could be imprisoned if their beards were not long enough.  Music and all forms of light entertainment were banned; the Taliban even forbade the use of paper bags lest the paper include recycled pages of the Qur’an.[ii][2]  The Taliban also shocked the world by massacring the Hazaras (a Farsi-speaking Shiite group in northern Afghanistan) and blowing up two historic Buddha statues in Bamiyan Province.


Bin Laden enthusiastically praised the Taliban’s dictatorial society as consonant with true Islamic principles.  In a late 1996 interview with Nida’ul Islam magazine, he stated that the Taliban “are committed to support the religion approved by Allah, and that country remains as the Muslims have known it, a strong fort for Islam, and its people are amongst the most protective of the religion approved by Allah, and the keenest to fulfill His laws and to establish an Islamic state.”  Al-Qaeda may, in fact, seek to implement a more repressive government than the Taliban’s.  In the late 1990s, journalist Peter Bergen asked bin Laden’s London contact, Khaled al-Fawwaz, what present government most resembled his vision of an ideal Islamic state.  Al-Fawwaz replied that the Taliban were “getting there.”


Retaking Formerly Muslim Lands


Al-Qaeda’s caliphate would not be limited to the present-day Muslim world.  Rather, its rule would properly encompass all those lands that had once been a part of the Islamic world.


In the view of classical Muslim jurists, the world is divisible into the dar al-Islam (the “house of Islam”) and the dar al-Harb (the “house of war”).  The dar al-Islam refers to those geographical locations where the sharia is enforced.  Although al-Qaeda’s leadership believes that the sharia is not adequately enforced in any contemporary Muslim state -- not even uber-conservative Saudi Arabia – those states are included in dar al-Islam.  In al-Qaeda’s worldview, any land that was once part of dar al-Islam remains so forever.


Thus, al-Qaeda’s vision necessitates the takeover of governments throughout the Muslim world.  All lands that were once part of dar al-Islam remain legitimate targets of jihad.  In a March 1997 interview with Peter Arnett, bin Laden was asked about veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviets who had gone on to fight in scattered regions of the globe.  Bin Laden explained, “Their going to Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan and other countries is but a fulfillment of a duty, because we believe that these states are part of the Islamic World.”


Abdullah Azzam – who had taught bin Laden at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia and continued to serve as his theological mentor when they were both in Pakistan in the 1980s – has an impressive wish list of formerly Muslim lands to be re-conquered: “This duty will not end with victory in Afghanistan,” Azzam stated.  “Jihad will remain an individual obligation until all other lands that were Muslim are returned to us so that Islam will reign again:  before us lie Palestine, Bokhara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, Southern Yemen, Tashkent and Andalusia [southern Spain].”[iii][3]


Al-Qaeda’s actions have been entirely consistent with this view.  The group provided equipment and training to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, which have been involved in an insurgency designed to establish an independent Islamic state.  A flood of al-Qaeda-trained fighters poured from Afghanistan into Chechnya after the second Chechen war flared up in 1999.  Al-Qaeda also provided assistance to Muslim insurgencies in Algeria, Egypt, Eritrea, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and even China.


Expansionist Vision


Al-Qaeda’s new caliphate would affect not only those forced to toil under its repressive government and residents of formerly Muslim lands who would be its targets; ultimately, it would mean bloodshed in the West, as well.  Bin Laden has already stated that he is prepared to fight “against the Kuffar [unbelievers] in every part of the world.”  According to al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the group has “the right to kill 4 million Americans, including 1 million children.”[iv][4]


Even jihadist victories within the Muslim world can cause considerable harm in the West. Al-Zawahiri has explained that any lands conquered by the radical Islamist mujahideen would be used to further the jihad against the United States.  For example, he has outlined the geopolitical importance of the current struggle in the former Soviet republics:


The liberation of the Caucasus would constitute a hotbed of jihad (or fundamentalism as the United States describes it) and that region would become the shelter of thousands of Muslim mujahidin from various parts of the Islamic world, particularly Arab parts.  This poses a direct threat to the United States represented by the growing support of the jihadists movement everywhere in the Islamic world.  If the Chechens and other Caucasian mujahidin reach the shores of the oil-rich Caspian Sea, the only thing that will separate them from Afghanistan will be the neutral state of Turkmenistan.  This will form a mujahid Islamic belt to the south of Russia that will be connected in the east with Pakistan, which is brimming with mujahidin movements in Kashmir.[v][5]


Bin Laden’s ultimate aim is to forcibly impose his theocratic vision on the West.  As his November 2002 “Letter to America,” began, “The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.”  Second, he demanded that America “stop your oppression, lies, immorality and debauchery that has spread among you.”  Bin Laden had an ambitious vision for ending the United States’ immorality and debauchery, including “reject[ing] the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.”  Describing how he was “sadden[ed]” to have to tell Americans that theirs is “the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind,” bin Laden first chastised the United States as “the nation who, rather than ruling by the Sharia of Allah in its Constitution and Laws, choose to invent your own laws as you will and desire.” 

Only after bin Laden calls Americans to Islam and outlines the many ways that the U.S.  violates sharia law does he asks that America end its support for the governments of Israel, India, Russia, the Philippines and others.


The theologians influencing bin Laden have expressed views that further illuminate the perpetual conflict between the West and a potential al-Qaeda-sanctioned caliphate.  The 9/11 Commission Report notes bin Laden’s heavy reliance on Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, and concisely explains Qutb’s significance:


Three basic themes emerge from Qutb’s writings.  First, he claimed that the world was beset with barbarism, licentiousness, and unbelief (a condition he called jihiliyya, the religious term for the period of ignorance prior to the revelations given to the Prophet Mohammed).  Qutb argued that humans can choose only between Islam and jihiliyya.  Second, he warned that more people, including Muslims, were attracted to jihiliyya and its material comforts than to his view of Islam; jahiliyya could therefore triumph over Islam.  Third, no middle ground exists in what Qutb conceived as a struggle between God and Satan.  All Muslims – as he defined them – therefore must take up arms in this fight.  Any Muslim who rejects his ideas is just one more nonbeliever worthy of destruction.[vi][6]


Besides Qutb, other theologians cited by bin Laden believe that Islam and the West are locked in mortal combat.  Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, publicly praised by bin Laden, argued in an essay entitled “The Call to Jihad in the Qur’an” that all Muslims are obligated to participate in a perpetual jihad against the non-Muslim world.[vii][7]  Bin Humaid bases the much of his argument on Surah 9:29 of the Qur’an.  He explains, “Allah revealed in Surat At-Taubah (Bara’ah) (Repentance, IX) the order to discard (all) the obligations (covenants, etc.) and commanded the Muslims to fight against all the Mushrikun as well as against the people of the Scriptures (Jews and Christians) if they do not embrace Islam, till they pay the Jizyah (a tax levied on the non-Muslims who do not embrace Islam and are under the protection of an Islamic government) with willing submission and feel themselves subdued (as it is revealed in Verse 9:29).”


Beyond that, bin Humaid promotes an aggressive jihad for the purpose of establishing Islam:  “And it is they, (Mujahidin) who fight against the enemies of Allah in order that the worship should be all for Allah (Alone and not for any other deity) and that the Word of Allah (i.e. none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and His religion Islam) should be superior.  Allah has made them (Mujahidin) partners in reward along with all those who guard Islam with their weapons . . .”


A third theologian whom bin Laden references is Sheikh Salman al-Auda.[viii][8]  Like Qutb and bin Humaid, al-Auda advocates perpetual conflict with the West.  He has stated that “jihad is the highest Islamic goal,” and that Muslims should engage in it “to bring about the certain fall of the West.”  Al-Auda’s book The End of History argues that the West is in a deterministic state of decay that “leads to its total collapse, sooner or later.”  In the book, al-Auda proposes that Muslims should accelerate the West’s collapse by undertaking “actions that will facilitate the collapse of the American economy.”  Al-Auda’s ideas clearly resonate with bin Laden’s recent boasts about the success of his plan to bleed America into bankruptcy.




There is nothing new about al-Qaeda’s use of deception to weaken the West’s resolve.  In 1996, bin Laden told Robert Fisk that the Afghan mujahideen who had accompanied him to Sudan were definitely not engaged in training for future jihads.  Fisk recounts bin Laden’s repudiation of this suggestion:  ‘The rubbish of the media and the embassies,’ he calls it.  ‘I am a construction engineer and an agriculturist.  If I had training camps here in Sudan, I couldn't possibly do this job.’  And ‘this job’ is certainly an ambitious one: a brand-new highway stretching from Khartoum to Port Sudan, a distance of 1,200km (745 miles) on the old road, now shortened to 800km by the new Bin Laden route that will turn the coastal run from the capital into a mere day’s journey.”  We now know this denial to be absolutely false.  In fact, during his time in Sudan, bin Laden laid the groundwork for his current global terrorist network.[ix][9]


Al-Qaeda has again turned to deception as a means of gaining a strategic advantage in its war against the West.  Although many continue to fall for the terrorists’ claims of reasonableness and a limited agenda, al-Qaeda has repeatedly made its true endgame clear:  re-establishing a caliphate ruled according to Taliban-style Islamic law, re-conquering all formerly Muslim lands, and preparing Islamic super-state for perpetual conflict with the West.  Ignore their true agenda at your own peril.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project, a Washington, D.C.-based terrorism research center.  A 2002 graduate of the New York University School of Law, he previously worked as a law clerk for the Honorable Harry T. Edwards of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and as a commercial litigator at the law firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

[i][1] The 9/11 Commission Report:  Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States at 51 (2004) [hereinafter 9/11 Commission Report].


[ii][2] Peter L. Bergen, Holy War, Inc.:  Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden at 9 (2001).


[iii][3] Id. at 53.


[iv][4] Josh Meyer & Bob Drogin, Resilient Al Qaeda Resumes Plotting, L.A. Times, June 11, 2002, at A1.


[v][5] Quoted in Dore Gold, Hatred’s Kingdom:  How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism at 137 (2003).


[vi][6] 9/11 Commission Report at 51.


[vii][7] Bin Humaid’s essay can be found at Sheikh ‘Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, The Call to Jihad (Holy Fighting in Allah’s Cause) in the Qur’an, reprinted in Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an (Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali & Muhammad Muhsin Khan translators, 15th ed. 1996) at 1224.


[viii][8] A description of bin Laden’s citations to al-Auda and al-Auda’s theology can be found in Gold, supra, at 163-64, 170.


[ix][9] 9/11 Commission Report at 58.

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