Tag Archives: Osama bin Laden

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.

From Waco to Isis: The Mind of a Terrorist

For Osama bin Laden the crucial question became how to restore Islam to a dominant place in the world again. Could diplomacy accomplish that? Experience told him that diplomacy would not work. The West had been Anegotiating@ with the Middle East for more than a century, and what was the result? The establishment of Israel, for one. Another result was the colonial powers dividing the Middle East into artificial nations with no consideration of tribal borders and local interests. Meanwhile the West grew richer and more powerful and the Muslim world became increasingly irrelevant.

Should the Muslim world stand up and fight in military terms then? In its present state of weakness that would be foolish. Anyone unconvinced by the dominance of the Israeli attacks in 1967 and 1982 (in Lebanon) would have had no further doubts after the Gulf War and the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an age of information technology both the American and Israeli military are overwhelming and incontestable. Any form of direct, frontal assault would be the equivalent of pointless suicide. One would lose thousands of soldiers in exchange for a mere handful of casualties on the stronger side. No one could pursue warfare for long on those terms. So for bin Laden, there was only one alternative to helplessness, and that was what the West calls terrorism.

In the minds of jihadist leaders, “terrorism” is nothing more than a negotiating tool. It is a way the weaker party in a disagreement is able to project a sense of power greater than its numbers or its military prowess would otherwise allow. The actual physical damage of terror attacks is not significant in political or economic terms. What is significant is the psychological effect, it is far greater than the sum total of the physical damage or loss of life. Terrorism puts those who practice it on the political map. It allows the weaker party to go on the offensive. It puts powerful nations on the defensive. There are so many potential targets and it is so costly to defend them all that the jihadist entity can always find a soft spot somewhere.  “If you’re throwing enough darts at a board, eventually you’re going to get something through,” said a Pentagon strategist. “That’s the way al Qaeda looks at it.” The secrecy and seclusion of the jihadist makes the attacks very difficult to anticipate and defend against.

The only safe defense against what the West calls terrorism is one that anticipates every possible angle of attack, particularly against assets for which adequate defenses are not yet in place, like water supplies and transportation systems. To make matters worse, every mile of the US coastline is a potential entry point for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. In a sense eradicating this threat is like finding a way to detect and apprehend criminals before they commit their crimes.

The ability of the jihadists to attack at will and keep powerful enemies on the defensive gradually wears down a powerful nation’s will to resist. As happened in Spain in 2004, people often prefer peace on jihadist terms to the constant stress of watchfulness and defensive measures. In this battle vast amounts of money, intelligence assets and personnel must be expended to track jihadists at home and abroad. In a sense the attempt is being made to surround the United States with a “protective net.” But “all nets have holes.” So if the jihadists are patient enough and determined enough, they can wear down and outlast enemies who are more concerned with personal comfort than with ideological purity.

From Waco to Isis: The Rise of al Qaeda, Part 3

The trigger point for the war between America and al Qaeda was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. George Bush Sr. believed that his decision to intervene in this conflict would be received by all Muslims as an act of American solidarity to save an islamic state from aggression. The Saudi ruling family, on the other hand, felt that inviting Western troops into the land of Mecca and Medina would be perceived as a fundamental violation of islamic law. Caught between a rock and a hard place, the Saudis chose the route of political survival and brought in the Americans to stop Hussein.

In the past such “abominations” against Islam would have been greeted with impotent rage. But the war in Afghanistan made it different this time. Those Afghan veterans who were allowed to return to Saudi Arabia did not feel vulnerable and weak the way the Saudi leaders did. They were ready to defend the Kingdom against all comers if need be. They felt no dependance on the United States for the “protection” of the holy places. They saw that the governments in the Arab countries were corrupt and secular and could not possibly lead this fight. So international, militant, anti-American Islam was born in the wake of the Gulf War, an unintended consequence of what Americans had thought of as a noble action.

Here we see the great philosophical divide between the islamic world and the West. To the West the militant warriors of resurgent Islam are merely “terrorists,” lawless bandits who have no respect for human life and civilized values. They hate everyone, including most fellow Muslims, and everything that does not agree with their hateful rantings. But to many in the Muslim world these agents of terror are true patriots, freedom fighters willing to give their lives in the cause of God. They are the only thing standing between the islamic world and the horrific moral assaults of Hollywood, gay pride and American cruise missiles.

Osama bin Laden’s war against America was fueled by five factors. 1) The general decline of Islam over the previous centuries. In a Western-dominated world Muslims seemed to be humiliated on every side, by the Israelis, the Serbs, the Russians, the Indians, and now the United States. In addition, the West has “imposed” Western law codes on Muslim states, enforced Western economic ideas, including the charging of interest (contrary to Islamic law), and exported alcohol, drugs, pornography and crime. It is frustrating to a jihadist to believe that the Islamic culture is superior, yet to acknowledge that America has vastly superior power and wealth.

2) The Israeli-Palestinian Situation. While securing a homeland for Jews made a lot of sense in the West after the Holocaust, the original partition of Palestine came at the expense of Arabs whose ancestors had been in the land for centuries. That move broke many promises that the British and the Americans had made during the two world wars. To Arab eyes the expansion of Israel looks suspiciously like a revival of the Crusades, with Israel at the forefront and America guiding behind the scenes. Jewish desperation after the Holocaust was real and for many Jews the homeland in the Middle East was the only spark of hope at the time. But the desperation of the Palestinian refugee camps remains to this day. From the Muslim perspective this is a serious injustice that is ongoing and has never been addressed. For bin Laden the injustice was criminal.

3) Secular corruption in the Middle East. A further major grievance of Osama bin Laden had to do with the corrupt and secular governments ruling over most Muslim countries. Governments of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were seen as unelected, oppressive, pandering to the West and soft on Islam. While the United States did not set up these governments directly, in the minds of the jihadists they would not stand without American support. For Muslim fundamentalists what really holds Islam back is the corruption and inefficiency in the political and economic realm of the Middle East. It is against these that the decisive battle must be fought.

4) Betrayal in Afghanistan. While the first three grievances were real, they were of long standing and by themselves would not have created the jihadist movement. As mentioned above, it was the betrayal in Afghanistan and the western militaries in Saudi Arabia that lit the fuse of Osama bin Laden’s anger. The first of these was the American betrayal in Afghanistan. When the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, the Americans immediately lost interest and abandoned bin Laden and his mujahedin to their own devices.

5) Western militaries in Saudi Arabia. The final trigger point, as we have seen, was the physical presence of the American military in Saudi Arabia during and after the Gulf War. In the 1980s bin Laden was not hostile to America, in spite of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. There is even evidence he may have been on the CIA payroll for a time. But the alcoholism, materialism, immorality and relative nudity exhibited by Western troops in Saudi Arabia seemed sacrilegious to even moderate Muslims. To bin Laden it bordered on blasphemy.

But why respond to these grievances with suicide bombers piloting commercial planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? What did that have to do with overthrowing corrupt governments in the Middle East?

From Waco to Isis: The Rise of al Qaeda, Part 2

The immediate context for the rise of al Qaeda was the war in Afghanistan that began in the late 1970s. To understand the motivation of those involved we need to understand something about the geography of politics. The closest any power has come (at least since the Mongol Empire around the year 1200 AD) to dominating the entire Eurasian landmass is the Soviet Union. So a primary focus of American policy in the 1970s was containing Soviet power by encircling it with a system of alliances from the northern shore of Norway, across the continent of Europe, through the Middle East, along the southern coast of Asia all the way north to the Bering Strait. The Soviets sought ways to break through this encirclement and the Americans did all they could to keep them boxed in.

But two events threatened this encirclement, both in 1979. The first was the fall of the Shah of Iran, a key American ally in the encirclement project. The second was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If the Soviets could defeat Afghanistan and invade Iran, they could break the encirclement and threaten the Middle Eastern oil fields. This would tip the balance of world power decisively in their favor. Thus the invasion of Afghanistan less than a year after the fall of the Shah seemed like America’s greatest nightmare.

As the leaders of the American military game-planned for a possible Soviet invasion of Iran, they concluded that their best option was to bog down the Soviets in Afghanistan, turning it into another Vietnam, but this time with the shoe on the other foot. So President Carter authorized the CIA to engage in covert operations in Afghanistan. But where would the money for this come from? Congress was in no mood to appropriate extra funding for the CIA in the wake of previous scandals. So Carter turned to the newly rich Saudis, who had as much to lose in this fight as America did. If the Saudis would fund this guerilla war and recruit Islamic fighters to resist Soviet power in Afghanistan, the CIA would provide training, coordination and intelligence.

But the Saudis were not comfortable funding this war from government coffers either. Instead they turned to wealthy, private families, asking them to contribute to the cause of islamic restoration. Here was an opportunity to reverse centuries of islamic decline. Many Saudi families contributed vast sums to the project, and the largest and wealthiest of these families is known in the West as the “bin Laden” family. So President Carter presided over the creation of an international army of Islamic fundamentalists. It was a low-cost, low-sacrifice (for Americans) way to keep the Russians bottled up in the vast interior of the Eurasian landmass. And they succeeded in that mission, but with unforeseen consequences.

A major element of the war was the willingness of the American intelligence and military apparatus to pass on their skills to these islamic fighters. The mujahedin learned about covert and special operations. They learned the skills of stealth and hand to hand combat. They learned what American intelligence knew and how they got such information. They learned both the advantages and limitations of military technology. No doubt the Americans thought their islamic allies ignorant and incapable of using such information against them. But many of Osama bin Laden’s fighters were relatively wealthy and highly educated. They listened and learned, and they learned well, as the West has come to discover, much to its regret.

The Afghan war was long and brutal. It drained the Soviet Army of strength and credibility and was a decisive factor in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. But it also create thousands of battle-hardened and experienced Islamist soldiers, many of them trained by the CIA and American special forces. And the fall of the Soviet Union had a powerful impact on those Islamic soldiers. It was the first time in centuries that an Islamic force had defeated non-islamic forces. And this defeated army belonged to a major world superpower. In the minds of islamic fundamentalists, it was an islamic army that gave America its greatest victory over the Soviet menace.

And was the United States suitably grateful for this islamic sacrifice? To the contrary, America believed that Afghanistan was only a minor factor in the fall of the Soviet Union (no doubt both viewpoints were at least partly right). From the American point of view the islamic world owed America a debt of gratitude. So as America pulled out of Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union, the stage was set for a confrontation between a resurgent Islam and the world’s only remaining super power.

You see, America never entered the Afghan war out of some altruistic motive of defending Islam against atheistic powers. It used the islamic fervor of Osama bin Laden and others as a tool to keep the Russians encircled in the northern part of the Eurasian landmass. When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the United States completely lost interest in the country and pulled out, leaving a devastated and impoverished landscape filled with warring tribes and a highly trained, international islamic army recruited from the entire islamic world.

What was this army to do now? Just go home? That was not an option. These skilled fighters were as much of a threat to their governments back home as they had been to the Soviets. So no country in the islamic world wanted them back. They were essentially stranded in Afghanistan, without external support and without purpose. What America and its allies had done in Afghanistan was to train an army of highly diverse people bound together by the common experience of the war against the Soviets, a sense of betrayal by their own governments as well as the Americans, and the awareness that they had the power to change the world. Al Qaeda was the unintended consequence of short-term American political objectives.

From Waco to Isis: The Rise of al Qaeda, Part 1

Where did al Qaeda (the self-appointed leadership of worldwide islamic terrorism) come from? What is the source of its rage against the West in general and the United States in particular? To fully understand today’s events we have to go back into history once more and pick up religious, political and economic threads that are all part of the story. The story of al Qaeda begins in the desert sands of the Hijaz, the western part of the Arabian peninsula, in the 7th Century of our era. Whether or not you believe that God had His hand in the rise of Islam, it cannot be denied that Muhammad was one of the most significant change agents in the history of the world. The energy unleashed by his religious experience turned the Arab people from idolatrous bandits to one of the greatest civilizations the world had known up until that time. The Islamic Empire was the great superpower of the Middle Ages and played a dominant role in world affairs right up to time of the so-called Enlightenment (18th Century).

Then something went wrong with the islamic dream. Some scholars trace the beginnings of decline as far back as the islamic reaction to the Crusades, others trace it back to social developments in 13th Century Spain. The energy unleashed by Muhammad’s vision was dissipated by narrow thinking. Scholarship that had transformed the arts, the sciences and literature became focused on maintaining the status quo. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the rebirth of ancient Greek and Roman ideals created the kind of energy in Europe that had characterized the early islamic empire. The torch of science and learning somehow passed to the West, and the power and wealth of the world went with it. By the 18th Century of our era the islamic world was in serious intellectual, political and economic decline. By the mid-19th Century it was largely “colonized” by the West and has never recovered.

In the face of this long-term decline, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) founded an islamic “back to the Bible” type of movement. He wanted to restore the pure Islam of the desert, free of all later additions and innovations. In other words, he taught that all the resources needed to restore the greatness of Islam lay in the past. This is the basic conviction shared by today’s Muslim “fundamentalists.” Much like Fundamentalist Christians and historic Adventists, they seek to restore the faith to its former greatness by careful attention to the teachings of the faith’s pioneer(s). The key to Islam’s salvation lies in replicating her past. The Muslim world has deviated from pure Islam and only a return to its origins would safeguard it from domination and exploitation by the West. This “Wahabism” is closely entwined with the Saudi royal family (the House of Saud) that came to rule the Arabian peninsula in the wake of World War I. This is the intellectual atmosphere in which Osama bin Laden and his compatriots were raised.

The second foundation for the development of al Qaeda occurred in 1938, with the discovery of the world’s largest supply of easily accessible crude oil. Up until this time, the primary source of income in the Saudi kingdom came from servicing pilgrims in Mecca, Islam=s holiest city. But even the first shipment of oil produced wealth beyond all expectation. This isolated country with no other exportable product now became a major factor in global politics. The stage was set for the events of the late 1970s. To be continued. . .