America must engage Osama bin Laden

By Joshua Steinman

Recent Osama bin Laden videos have created a subculture of analysts who claim that the world’s most wanted man is moderating. Those individuals are creating a verbal house of cards built on wishful thinking and flawed logic.

These armchair pundits, operating both in the mainstream and the “blogosphere,” misunderstand bin Laden’s history, motives, and goals. They latch on to pithy prases like bin Laden’s closer in the tape he released before the US elections in November, “your security is in your own hands…any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.” Such phrases are an emotional out designed to shunt responsibility away from the need for a strategic and complex foreign policy and to an electoral populace who can easily be lambasted as “uninformed” or “stupid”.

To understand why bin Laden is as much of a threat as ever, we must understand bin Laden’s war in Afghanistan. Not the war following September 11, but the Vietnam-style conflict between the Soviets and bin Laden’s Islamic freedom fighters in the 1980s. It was no mere independence movement.

There is a concept in Islam of government of the Ummah, the universal body of Muslims. The Caliph, or “successor to the prophet” is to administer a government over the Ummah. While Western modernity has little experience with true theocracy, one existed in the Middle East until only 70 years ago: the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Caliph ruled over nearly every Muslim in the world, from Turkey to Iran from 1517 until 1922.

Bin Laden’s struggle against the Soviets was an attempt to resurrect this system by defending members of the Ummah against external government. Despite decades of manipulation, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the first significant modern case of non-Muslims invading a Muslim nation. And when that happened, the Ummah responded: Bin Laden and most of the other troops fighting the Soviets were not Afghani, they were from across the Arab world, called to fight against those who would invade a Holy Land.

This struggle became the pattern for bin Laden’s later efforts against the West. It also led to the creation of an organization that would lay the foundation for the resurrection of the Caliphate. This organization created is referred to as “the base”, or in Arabic, “Al Qaeda”.

History informs us of the general shape bin Laden’s effort took after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Bin Laden left for the Sudan, taking with him thousands of the mujahidin fighters whom Hollywood had glorified throughout the ’80s in the Rambo and James Bond film franchises as courageous anti-Soviet crusaders. Once there he set about ingratiating himself with the Islamic power structure by building roads and basic infrastructure. He built a compound for the Sudanese leadership, and placed his house right next to the president’s. They became friends.

In Sudan, the effort against the West expanded. “Sudan will become a frontline base for the international Islamic movement,” a Sudanese minister stated in a 1994 interview about the presence of bin Laden and his mujahidin fighters in Sudan. Bin Laden did just that, organizing attacks on the West and those whom he perceived to be placating her.

In 1993, he ordered a bombing of the World Trade Center that killed more than 20 and injured hundreds. Not only did bin Laden claim responsibility within a few months of the 1993 attack, but the bomber was arrested at one of bin Laden’s homes in Yemen.

Further bin Laden efforts included the botched bombing in 1992 of a Yemeni hotel that was temporarily housing 100 Marines on their way to Somalia (the same marines of Black Hawk Down fame). The bomb killed some German tourists when it hit the wrong side of the Hotel.

In 1994, bin Laden organized an assassination attempt on the Egyptian prime minister, who was eagerly negotiating peace between Israel and her neighbors. The plot failed after it was uncovered. In response, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Sudan, and the United States froze bin Laden’s U.S. assets, and put pressure on the Saudis to do the same, as well as revoke his citizenship.

This international ping-pong match of force continued throughout the late 1990s with Clauswitzian escalatory fervor. The assassination attempt lead to cruise missiles, compound bombings, another assassination attempt (this time on bin Laden), a barracks bombing, embassy bombings, and the attack on the USS Cole. However, these attacks are of little relevance, for they concealed what was actually going on during the world at that time.

Bin Laden’s experience in Afghanistan taught him what a small group of dedicated jihadists could accomplish. Whereas in Afghanistan the effort had been to drive out the Soviets, al Qaeda is part of a grander plan, which can be unearthed by looking no further than its name. Translated, al Qaeda means “the base.” Throughout the ’90s, Osama bin Laden was creating an organization that would serve the exact same function that his mujahidin had served in Afghanistan: a guerrilla force capable of attacking and driving out the intruders. Only this time the intruder is the West, and the battleground is the entire Middle East. Al Qaeda is the base upon which the new Caliphate will be built.

Osama bin Laden and the members of the fundamentalist movement running the madrasas—Islamic schools-—across the Arab world preaching hatred of the West are motivated by their desire to resurrect the Caliphate’s righteous governance of the Ummah. This means that al Qaeda’s goal, as it has been for the past 10 years, is to expel Western influence from the Arab world by any means necessary.

Most horrifically, current documents recovered from seized al Qaeda laptops in Pakistan show internal al Qaeda memos estimating that in order to achieve this goal al Qaeda must kill upwards of two million Americans by any means necessary.

We must fight. Regardless of the past offenses we have committed to whatever people bin Laden claims to represent (the son of a billionaire Saudi construction magnate, he isn’t one of them), we cannot resort to Chamberlain-style appeasement. When bin Laden claimed that our security was in our own hands, he made the same argument Hitler made while expanding into Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland: We have been wronged, we deserve to have our own space, and if you want peace, that is up to you. Hitler laid out the broad strokes of his vision in Mein Kampf. Bin Laden has done the exact same thing for the past 10 years.

Al Qaeda is a proactive organization, not a reactive one. Bin Laden and those who wish to see the Caliphate resurrected want us to abandon our support for Israel (in fact, bin Laden has called for the end of the Israeli state). They want us to abandon Saudi Arabia (one of bin Laden’s first actions was to advise the Saudi Royal Family not to allow American troops on Saudi soil during the first Gulf War) in order to overthrow it. They want us to abandon Dubai and the other progressive Arab Emirates. They want us to abandon countless other countries that are modernizing in order to compete in the new world economy. They have no need for diplomacy to accomplish these goals. They, not us, use violence as a first resort. Worse yet, bin Laden is unbounded by the state system, and his adherents look down upon this world with disdain. Appeasement is not an option.