Skip links

Bin Ladin is out to get America!

A shorter version of this article was published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Policywatch No. 347.

Numerous critics in the Arab world have blamed the recent anti-American terrorist attacks on America’s support for Israel, and its “double-standard” with regard to the Middle East. However, a closer look at the ideology and strategy of Osama bin Ladin and his followers shows clearly that for them the heart of the matter is the presence of the United States–a corruptive non-Muslim culture–on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia.

The bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam on the 7th of August have elicited a wealth of reactions in the Arab and Muslim world, and even in Europe. Most of these claim that the United States’ behavior toward fundamentalist Islam–and toward Muslim countries in general–since the proclamation of the “New World Order” in the wake of the Gulf War has encouraged, and to a certain extent justified the terrorist attacks. These criticisms cite the Americans’ “double-standard” in the Middle East and its leniency towards Israel’s conduct in the negotiations with the Palestinians.

Leading Egyptian newspapers, such as Al-Ahram and Akhbar al-Yom have condemned the bombings, while at the same time strongly criticized the American policy that “produced the international conditions which led to the aggravation of terrorism and the decision of more extremist elements to use terror.” Osama el-Baz, advisor to President Mubarak, was quoted by al-Sharq al-Awsat as saying that the US policy “is based on double standards and controlled by the lobby concept.” The opposition newspaper al-Wafd even claimed that the United States provoked the Arabs by accepting Israeli assistance in rescuing the victims from the ruins of the embassy.

Articles in the Saudi London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat are typical of such reactions. America’s strategy as a superpower, the newspaper wrote, “has remained captive to certain understandings which are either rigid or have been defined according to the whims of the domestic pressure groups.” One article concluded that, “the United States has played a part in this crime [the explosions in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salam] through its economic aggression on the African continent.” The article even accused Israel, “of committing this crime against the United States [the bombings] . . .because of its objection to Israel’s position on peace.”

The Guardian’s Middle East correspondent, expressing the mood of many European observers, claimed that the “US actions are seen through [the] prism of relationships with Israel” and that the pax-americana strategy in the region “has been destroyed principally by the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” It goes on to “explain” that the Arab governments cannot “publicly endorse US actions for fear of angering their domestic populations, who are overwhelmingly and increasingly anti-American.”

Actually, as often in the past, these critics of the American policy in the Middle East do not dare–or do not want–to read carefully the numerous strategic and ideological documents published by Osama bin Ladin and the now famous “International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders.” Even the original name of the organization is often “watered down” to reflect views of the critics, so that the “Front” is presented as fighting “against the Jews and the Americans,” thus minimizing its anti-Christian and anti-Western message.

Throughout bin Ladin’s public statements and declarations–beginning with his “Declaration of War,” published in August 1996, through his interviews with various Islamic journals, CNN and ABC News, and the two fatwas [religious rulings] published in February 1998 in Afghanistan–runs one fundamental and predominant strategic goal: the expulsion of the American presence, military and civilian, from Saudi Arabia and the whole Gulf region.

According to the “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”(its full title), “the latest and the greatest of [the] aggressions, incurred by the Muslims since the death of the Prophet . . .is the occupation of the land of the two Holy Places – the foundation of the house of Islam, the place of the revelation, the source of the message and the place of the noble Ka’ba, the Qiblah of all Muslims – by the armies of the American Crusaders and their allies.”

The declaration is presented as the first step in the “work” of “correcting what had happened to the Islamic world in general, and the Land of the two Holy Places in particular. . . Today . . . the sons of the two Holy Places, have started their Jihad in the cause of Allah, to expel the occupying enemy out of the country of the two Holy places.”

In an interview with Nida’ul Islam several months later bin Ladin details the work that has been done in this direction:
“There were important effects to the two explosions in Riyadh on both the internal and external aspects. Most important amongst these is the awareness of the people to the significance of the American occupation of the country of the two sacred mosques, and that the original decrees of the regime are a reflection of the wishes of the American occupiers. So the people became aware that their main problems were caused by the American occupiers and their puppets in the Saudi regime.”
However, these terrorist attacks had a larger strategic importance, as bin Ladin reveals in the same interview:
“. . . these missions also paved the way for the raising of the voices of opposition against the American occupation from within the ruling family and the armed forces; in fact we can say that the remaining Gulf countries have been effected to the same degree, and that the voices of opposition to the American occupation have begun to be heard at the level of the ruling families and the governments of the . . . Gulf countries.”
Here, perhaps, we see the explanation for the very careful behavior of the Saudi security services in their cooperation with their American partners during the investigations of the bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia, and for the political and diplomatic restraint displayed by those countries in their dealings with the extremist Islamic movements and their terrorist off-shoots.

In any case, bin Ladin did not hesitate to present his extremist views to the American public and government. In his first TV interview, to CNN in March 1977, he stressed from the very beginning that of “the criticisms of the ruling regime in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian peninsula, the first one is their subordination to the US. So, our main problem is the US government while the Saudi regime is but a branch or an agent of the US.”

After his success in forming the new Islamic Front, bin Ladin felt much stronger vis-a-vis the American enemy:
“The movement is driving fast and light forward. And I am sure of our victory with Allah’s help against America and the Jews. . . After the Americans entered the Holy Land, many emotions were roused in the Muslim world, more than we have seen before. . .The co-operation is expanding between general supporters of this religion. From this effort, the International Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders was formed, which we are a member of with other groups.”
It should be stressed again, that bin Ladin and the Front he created do not forget the “crimes” and the wrongs done, according to them, to the Muslim nation: “the blood spilled in Palestine and Iraq . . .the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon . . .and the massacres in Tajakestan, Burma, Cashmere, Assam, Philippine, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Erithria, Chechnia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

Nevertheless, it is important to look more closely at the fatwa, publicly presented in May 1998 to Islamic journalists in the name of the leaders of the International Islamic Front for the Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. This fatwa presents as the primary reason for the declaration of Jihad against Americans the fact that “for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.” Second comes the “devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people” and only in the third place the American role in serving the “Jews’ petty state” and its occupation of Jerusalem.

The question arises as to why Osama bin Ladin has chosen the American presence in Saudi Arabia as the main focus of his ideological, strategic and terrorist activity.

There are obvious personal reasons pushing bin Ladin in this direction. He is Saudi (albeit of Yemeni origin), his family’s wealth is invested in Saudi Arabia, but above all he firmly believes in the superiority of the Islamic faith and values and the importance of the purity of the Holy Places in keeping those values alive and victorious. An Arab journalist close to him has claimed that bin Ladin “wants to die a martyr and believes he will go to heaven.”

Although obviously aware of the CIA’s role in supporting the Afghan guerrillas in their fight against the Soviet army, bin Ladin could not ideologically reconcile himself to the fact that the United States could intervene against a Muslim nation, Iraq, invading another Muslim land, Kuwait. Therefore, according to The Guardian, he proposed to the Saudi defense minister to help in defeating Baghdad “with the Islamic faith,” on condition that the US would not be involved. After the Gulf war, the continued American presence on Saudi soil caused bin Ladin to become deeply disappointed with the royal regime. He resolutely joined the ranks of the opposition.

It seems that bin Ladin has also undergone a slow but steady change in his character and in his aspirations. During his Afghan period in the 1980s he was mainly an organizer, an entrepreneur and at times a fighter. After his exile to Sudan at the beginning of the 1990s he became a sponsor and a financier of numerous terrorist groups present at that time in Sudanese training camps, in co-operation with the Iranians. The expulsion from Sudan to Afghanistan transformed him into the strategist of the Sunni terrorist groups, as can be seen from the publication of the “Declaration of War.”

Finally, the Spartan life in the mountains of Afghanistan, the swift and overwhelming victory of his Taliban friends and allies, the close contacts with a number of Egyptian, Pakistani, Kashmiri organizations, and Afghan veterans seem to have transformed him into the new religious ideologue of the most extremist Sunni movements in the region. Hence the religious ruling issued by the Front and his nomination as chairman of the “higher council to co-ordinate rousing the Muslim nation to carry out jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders.”

Bin Ladin’s frequent references to the victory of the Iranian Islamic revolution and the fall of the Shah, together with his descriptions of the corrupt and unfaithful royal regime in Saudi Arabia could indicate his, perhaps secret, desire to become a kind of Khomeini of the Sunni world. This, in spite of his lack of real religious credentials and his esteem for the ulemas and sheikhs who are considered the spiritual leaders of the Saudi opposition movement and are now imprisoned by the Saudi authorities.

Bin Ladin has also learned the lessons of the events that have rocked the Middle East during the last two decades. He relentlessly cites in his interviews and statements the expulsion of the American troops from Lebanon as a consequence of the Hizballah car-bombings and the shameful retreat of the American and Western troops from Somalia. He even boasts that he had an important role in supporting Somalia’s victorious struggle against the Americans. The confessions of Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, the main suspect in the Nairobi bombing, would seem to corroborate bin Ladin’s claims.

Thus the strategy conceived by bin Ladin seems to him and his allies as a realistic option–to expel the American military forces from Saudi Arabia and the whole of the Gulf region, thus permitting the overthrow of the reigning Saudi regime and the establishment of an extremist Islamic government.

The time and place for the strike at the American targets were also carefully chosen. Bin Ladin, like Saddam Hussein in the Iraqi case before him, probably estimated that President Clinton’s room to manoeuvre and decisiveness would be negatively influenced by the repercussions of the Lewinsky affair. Africa was chosen as the “soft underbelly” of the American security system. And too, bin Ladin was perhaps thinking back to his success in Somalia.

It is less clear why the Egyptian organizations, such as al-Jihad and Gama’at al-Islamyyia–which are dedicated to the overthrow of the existing regime in their own country–have chosen to participate in bin Ladin’s scheme and concentrate their efforts in the Arabian Peninsula. It could be that they feel weakened on the internal front by the splits subsequent to the massacre of tourists at Luxor, and therefore are ready to strike at American targets, as the U.S. is seen as a staunch supporter of Mubarak’s regime. Bin Ladin’s financial assistance could also have some influence on their leaders’ decision.

As previously noted, the Palestinian problem and the American policy in the political process in the Middle East are often cited in bin Ladin’s interviews and documents. His statements in this context are often laden with crude anti-Semitic and conspiracy motives, but this theme would need another article. However, it seems that his use of this particular theme is mainly ideological and propagandistic. In any case, the “occupation” of Jerusalem by the Jews will not distract bin Ladin from his main ambition–the expulsion of the United States’ presence, military and civilian, from Saudi Arabia. According to the Arab journalist, Abdel-Bari Atwan, bin Ladin “has been criticized in the Arab world for focusing on such places as Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and [he] is therefore starting to concentrate more on the Palestinian issue.” But even a future terrorist attack against an Israeli target will not be an indication of any change in the overall strategy of Osama bin Ladin and his Front.

As to the assertions that bin Ladin’s decision to strike was influenced by the paralysis of the political process in the Middle East, the negative policy of the Netanyahu government and the American double-standard, one should remember the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide attacks against Israel during the Rabin and Peres governments, and the assassination of president Sadat by the Egyptian al-Jihad after he signed the peace agreement with Israel. The extremists of all sides tend to act just when it seems that the bloody conflict is on the verge of resolution. This can be seen from Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish religious extremist or the last bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland by the “Real” IRA in protest of the peace process.

In the new international environment, all progress on the path of agreement and peace may be accompanied by massive acts of terrorism on the part of extremist groups and elements opposing the process. This is particularly true with regard to the Islamic extremist organizations forming the coalition around bin Ladin. The new feature in this kind of terrorism is the readiness of the terrorist leaders to perpetrate indiscriminate attacks on civilians even at the price of hundreds of innocent victims from neutral or even friendly countries.

The long-term strategy to counter the threat presented by this kind of terrorism must take these facts into account. It should not, therefore, be influenced by the threat of future acts of terror, but by a clear and firm vision of the final goal to be achieved–the containment, if not the total eradication, of the phenomena.