The Gospel According to Osama Bin Laden

To Western ears, the author writes, the public utterances of Osama Bin Laden have always come across like the "tirades of a loony idealogue." But these skillful rhetorical constructions, rich in historical allusion, have enormous powers of penetration—and will survive their author

Osama bin Laden has established himself as one of the most momentous figures in contemporary Islamic history, etching into the Western psyche, not to mention the Muslim one, the rhetoric of jihad against "Jewish and Christian Crusaders." We may never know when the Maktab al-Khidamat, or "Office of Services"—a holy-war clearinghouse for several thousand ragtag Arab volunteers in the Soviet-Afghan War—evolved into the highly organized anti-American terrorist group known as al Qaeda. Bin Laden's greatest achievement—the creation of a worldwide network of warrior cells—will outlive bin Laden unless the United States physically eliminates al Qaeda's entire command structure.

Bin Laden's jihad will be harder to deal with spiritually and intellectually. Through the power of their own bitter, angry faith, bin Laden and his followers have melted skyscrapers and crippled an American warship. For holy warriors, who live to die, these are inspiring achievements. Just as important, bin Laden and his followers have left a written corpus that is likely to motivate the faithful for years to come.

Like the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, of Iran, Osama bin Laden made his anti-Western passion and plans clear in print years before gaining prominence through a frontal assault against America and its friends. The Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad, a multivolume guide to paramilitary and terrorist activity, written by his followers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, signaled bin Laden's intention to wage an anti-Western campaign far beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The encyclopedia was probably compiled and published in Peshawar, Pakistan, in late 1992. Because it doesn't provide a date or an exact place of printing (an intentional wartime evasiveness pervades the writing), one must make guesses about its provenance based on the text and on conversations with Pakistanis, Afghans, and Arabs. The encyclopedia, "one of the Sources of Energy for the faithful," was designed to transfer the knowledge and spirit gained from the "first brick of Islamic justice"—the successful war against Soviet communism—to a larger, more important campaign against the West, which bin Laden's statements have referred to only as kufr ("unbelief"), a classical-Islamic way of denoting geography by faith. The next jihad against America and its Muslim allies would, the authors of the encyclopedia prayed, lead to "the establishment of a castle of the Muslims, a [new] Caliphate"—a reference to the ruling politico-religious office of Islam's "golden age." For many fundamentalists, if not for the common man, the caliphate remains, at least sentimentally, the ideal geopolitical expression of Muslim universalism—an empire free of Westernized nation-states, where the shari'a, the holy law, reigns supreme, thus guaranteeing the union of Church and State and the brotherhood and strength of the faithful.

The aim of the encyclopedia and many smaller paramilitary and terrorist manuals that have appeared since 1992 is to democratize terrorism, to give to any true believer a portable guide to waging holy war worldwide. The encyclopedia has been found in print or on CD-ROM wherever al Qaeda has sent its cadres. Bin Laden and his followers also sought to accomplish philosophically what the Shi'ite Ayatollah Khomeini aspired to but never achieved: taking Islamic radicalism mainstream by forcing and dominating the discussion of holy war among the various strains of Sunni fundamentalism, which has become a significant force in every Middle Eastern country. Though unquestionably the most influential Muslim of modern times, Khomeini could never transcend the seventh-century division of Islamic society into those who recognize the legitimacy of the caliphal succession to the Prophet Muhammad (the Sunnis) and "the party of Ali" (the Shi'a), who believe that only Muhammad's son-in-law and his descendants can rightfully rule the Islamic world.

After September 11 bin Laden and the Arabic-speaking spokesmen of the Taliban tried, through the Gulf-based satellite-television channel Al Jazeera and through sympathetic partisans elsewhere on the ground, to make vivid the Muslim history of 300 years of defeat at the hands of Christians and Jews preceded by a thousand years of triumphs. Bin Laden's effort has been much more successful than that of Khomeini, whose charisma had a distinctly Shi'ite, messianic core, at gaining a foothold in the Sunni community, which comprises around 90 percent of the world's Muslims. A wealthy man who chose hardship in Afghanistan, a "persecuted" man who repeatedly fled countries to escape the hostility of Americans and their Middle Eastern allies, bin Laden evokes the prophetic tradition. Muhammad, too, was a well-off man; he had to forsake his native Mecca owing to the hostility of infidels and faithless members of his own tribe. His hijra ("emigration" or "flight") was arduous and perilous, but he was, as every faithful Muslim knows in detail, eventually victorious—in the hearts and minds of his followers, and then on the battlefield.

Bin Laden's criticisms of the West, and America in particular, can easily appear to a Westerner as the tirades of a loony ideologue with a Leninist capacity to sublimate slaughter through a testament of faith. To embittered Muslims, however, his image is far more complicated. It is seen in the context of a civilizational tug-of-war that began in the seventh century, when Arab Muslim armies invaded Byzantine Palestine. And his ideas will survive martyrdom.

Osama bin Laden's initial calculation was simple: that the anti-Western (for "Western" it is actually more meaningful to use the term he sometimes employs, "Judeo-Christian") baggage of 1,400 years would sufficiently neutralize the revulsion that Muslims might feel for terrorist tactics. His writings and communiqués have reminded Muslims "not to forget the dropping of the H bombs on cities with their entire populations of children, elderly, and women [and] ... the Christian Serbians who massacred and raped in a manner not seen in contemporary history ... [and the] massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, Philippines, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Eritrea, [and] Chechnya ... that sent shivers through the body and shake the conscience [all while] a clear conspiracy between the USA and its allies ... under the cover of the iniquitous United Nations [allowed it to happen]." The writings hammer home the suffering of the Iraqis, always citing a figure of 600,000 Iraqi children dead as a result of "the boycotts and sanctions against the Muslim Iraqi people." They call attention to the dictatorial regimes under which Muslims live and the friendly relations the United States has with their "moderate" rulers. They remind Muslims that Americans, like the Crusaders of old, aren't invincible. Here is how bin Laden once addressed U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, in his 1996 "Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places":

Where was this courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place in 1983 ... You were transformed into scattered bits and pieces at that time; 241 soldiers were killed, most of them Marines. And where was this courage of yours when two explosions made you leave Aden in less than twenty-four hours! ... you moved tens of thousands of international forces, including twenty-eight thousand American soldiers, into Somalia. However, when tens of your soldiers were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, you left the area in disappointment, humiliation, and defeat, your dead with you ... It was a pleasure for the heart of every Muslim and a remedy to the chests of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden, and Mogadishu.

Fortunately, Sunni Muslims, who are, so to speak, the Roman Catholics of Islamic history, have never been particularly keen to embrace radical ideas en masse, let alone the ruthless violence that is an integral part of bin Laden's message. Historically, they have been uncomfortable with Saudi Wahhabism, the creed of bin Laden's homeland, a "purist" version of Islam that issued forth in the eighteenth century from the Hanbali school of legal thought, the last born and least fun of Sunni Islam's four schools of jurisprudence. The conquest in 1925 of Mecca and Medina, Islam's holiest cities, by the as-Sa'ud family, and the enormous oil wealth of Saudi Arabia, have tended to obscure the fact that the Saudi version of Islam is closer to Puritan Christianity than to the more tolerant and more widespread traditions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Saudi Arabia, with its intrusive morals police, decidedly does not represent mainstream Islam.

Presented by

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served as a specialist with the CIA's Directorate of Operations, now known as the Clandestine Service, and is the author of Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In