How did Osama bin Laden, who during the Soviet-Afghan war viewed the United States as a friend of Islam, become America’s most vehement enemy?
One of an estimated 52 children of a Yemen-born Saudi construction magnate, he became a multimillionaire when his father died in 1968. In 1979, he went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet Union, where he was more bankroll and organizer than warrior. Returning from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, he aligned himself with foes of the reigning House of Fahd and U.S. military forces based in that country.
In 1991, he went to the Sudan with an estimated $250 million to support the Islamic revolution going on in that country. Three years later he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship and his remaining assets were frozen. In 1996, he issued a fatwah, or religious ruling, to kill U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. It was in the Sudan that bin Laden’s reactionary neofascist Islamism was developed and nurtured. There he was able to witness a militant Islamic state wage genocidal war on its political and theological opponents. In 1997, he was expelled from the Sudan (the Sudanese government earlier had offered to turn bin Laden over to the United States, but the offer was ignored). He moved back to Afghanistan and allied himself with the reactionary Taliban. In 1998, he issued another fatwah, this time advocating killing any Americans, military or civilian. In this fatwah, bin Laden stated his solidarity with the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Palestinians (1) . Throughout the 1990s, no effective effort was launched to eliminate bin Laden or his terror network. He brashly launched his jihad on the U.S. mainland on 11 September 2001.
Bin Laden is a follower of Wahhabism, a strict, austere form of Islam. The sect is named after Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab, an 18th-century Islamic reformer who wanted to return Islam to its beginnings by emphasizing a literalistic approach to the Koran. Noted for its apocalyptic teachings and zeal, the sect has three defining beliefs:
1) Cleanse Muslim society and restore it to its original purity.
2) Purify Muslim lands of infidels and/or infidel influences.
The greatest enemy to the faith is now the Western democracies, whose principles of free elections, religious tolerance, and freedom of speech threaten their ideas of the perfect Islamic state.
There has been a steady stream of leaders who have attempted to wield power over the Arab and Muslim peoples, but most have failed. The path to power for the militants seemed clear with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. When the fundamentalist Shiite cleric Ayatollah Khomeini seized the reins of power in one of the most Westernized Islamic nations, it was clear that God had given the faithful a major victory. With coffers full of oil money, the Iranian zealots began training terrorists to take the fight to the world.
Then came the war in Afghanistan, which changed a gawky young Arab businessman into the spiritual leader of a new and more militant brand of Muslim terrorism. The Osama bin Laden we know was born in the fight to repel the Soviet invaders from holy Muslim soil in Afghanistan. With the aid of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Afghans liberated their country, but victory brought chaos as warring factions fought for control of the nation. The reactionary Taliban finally won the fight and established an extremist Islamic state where the 20th century was repudiated and the 8th century embraced. Returning from the Sudan, bin Laden made his way back to the Taliban’s police state, where he and his mercenaries set up shop to wage war on the infidels.
Experts debate whether bin Laden is the mastermind or the money behind today’s terrorism. The fact remains that he is the poster boy for rabid Muslim extremism. His is the face that inspires young Muslims from middle-class Saudi families to fly jets into buildings. In his name, teenagers enter Kashmir and kill Hindu men, women, and children. With his name on their lips, Muslims from Western Europe rediscover their faith and become missionaries of destruction and death.
The United States cannot afford to slip into a posture that stymies our ability to deal with this threat. The reality is that significant numbers of Muslims in the world are expressing their religious zeal by waging a bloody jihad against anyone who is not with them. Because of our position of power in the world and particularly in the Persian Gulf—the womb of Islam—we have become the major target of the extremists.
What is incumbent on the United States is to know our enemies and what makes them tick. While these enemies may have much in common with fascists, the underlying principle that inspires them is their militant interpretation of the Koran. And although there are followers of Islam who in the name of God murder and maim, there are those who are just as committed to exterminating the cancer of terrorism. With judicious care we can nurture this antipathy to extremism, benefiting the United States, the world, and the faith born in the deserts of Arabia more than 14 centuries ago.