From Waco to ISIS: The Strategy of Osama bin Laden

The previous blog gives us a window into the mindset of Osama bin Laden when he gave the go-ahead for the attack of September 11, 2001. While the actions of the highjackers were gruesome and incomprehensible to Westerners, they were part of a strategic plan to change the balance of power in the world. The leaders of al Qaeda see the Islamic world being occupied by non-Islamic forces. To change the balance of power in the world al Qaeda must find a way to end the Aoccupation@ and re-unite Islam. Since the United States is the leading power in the world and the patron of many “islamic” regimes, it is the power behind the “occupation” and, therefore, the great enemy that motivates and controls the anti-Islamic agenda.

Defeating the United States directly was and is not a realistic option. But the kind of war bin Laden unleashed has burdened America with billions of dollars of expenses to fight “terrorism” at home and abroad. It distracts Americans with the constant fear of unsuspected attacks. It makes Americans feel as insecure as Europeans and Israelis have felt for decades. It makes isolationism look more attractive. If, in the process, the United States can be caused to withdraw from the islamic world, other anti-islamic powers such as Russia, India and Israel would not be strong enough by themselves to intervene. Corrupt and secular governments in the Muslim world would then have no base of outside support and would be overthrown by the islamic masses.

So al Qaeda did not expect to destroy the United States directly, unless some doomsday weapon might come into their hands. The United States is too powerful and too distant to defeat. Rather, bin Laden’s strategy was to force the United States into a series of actions that destabilize the governments of those Middle Eastern countries that are dependant on Washington. If the United States could be made to look weak and vulnerable in the eyes of the Arab street, the governments of the Middle East would lose their credibility. If pressure from the United States then forces those governments to join the US in fighting Islamic militants, popular uprisings could easily lead to their collapse. The ultimate goal would be the establishment of an Islamic superpower, a vast Islamic state stretching from Morocco to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, governed by Islamic law. While I first wrote about this plan thirteen years ago, it almost seems prophetic now, as we have recently seen Iraq, Syria, and Libya become failed states, Egypt held together by an iron first, Israel on the defensive, and the Saudis and Jordanians running scared.

Although the United States has important interests in the islamic world, they are not on a scale to justify the expense and casualties involved in a long-term occupation. As further jihadist acts in the US occur, the American populace could easily sway toward an isolationist stance. If this isolationism should lead to complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and even the partial abandonment of Israel (already done?), the political world would have changed considerably in favor of the islamist agenda.

The goal of the attacks on September 11, 2001 was not to defeat America. America was too powerful and too distant for that to happen. Osama bin Laden’s goal was a very strange one from the Western perspective. He wanted to provoke America to attack Saudi Arabia. That’s why 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis, even though the four “pilots” were from other countries. The muscle-men who would take over the plane were all from Saudi Arabia. Osama wanted it to appear that this was a Saudi attack on America. While he anticipated the attack on Afghanistan in 2001, he was sure that President Bush would not stop there. In order to stop al Qaeda he would have to control Saudi Arabia as well.

Why provoke an attack on Saudi Arabia? Because that is the holy land of Islam, the place where Allah met the prophet Muhammad, the place of pilgrimage, the land of Mecca and Medina. If any action could be calculated to inflame the passion of the islamic masses in the Middle East it would be a Western occupation of the holy places. Osama bin Laden wanted above all else to arouse the fervor of the people to rise up against the invaders and make life so miserable for them that they would be forced to withdraw, as the Soviets were forced to withdraw from Afghanistan. It was a shrewd calculation that the only way to get rid of corrupt and secular governments in the Middle East was to find a way to humiliate the sponsor of those governments, the United States. Once the sponsor proved powerless, these Arab governments would fall and the Islamic Empire would be reborn.

It appears that President Bush and his advisors saw through this and attempted to sidestep the scheme by attacking Iraq instead, a target with an “evil” dictator and no major Sunni holy sites. By this means the US could control Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria without actually occupying them. But the unintentional consequence of the Iraq war was the destabilization of Iraq and the inflaming of all the faults lines within Islam (Sunni/Shia, secular/fundamentalist, salafist, jihadist, tribal enmities). And among these unintended consequences was the birth of ISIS, which began as Al Qaeda in Iraq, under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. With the death of Zarqawi in 2006 and the “surge” in 2007, AQI went underground until the Americans left Iraq in 2011. Then taking advantage of the American absence in Iraq and the civil war in Syria, AQI morphed into ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (or sometime “the Sham”– Arabic for Syria– the acronym ISIL uses the French word for Syria, the Levant). What is so attractive about this new player in the jihadi game? Stay tuned.

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