What Does Osama Bin Laden Want?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Sept. 14 2001 2:30 AM

What Does Osama Bin Laden Want?

Nothing we have.

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To no one's surprise, Secretary of State Colin Powell today named Osama Bin Laden as a prime suspect in Tuesday's attacks. Bin Laden's brutal record is well known. The United States indicted him for masterminding the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Saudi fugitive was also reportedly connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1993 killing of American soldiers in Somalia, mid-'90s bombings of U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Authorities have prevented Bin Laden associates from launching attacks during the millennium celebrations, bombing a dozen trans-Pacific flights in 1995, and assassinating the pope and President Clinton in the Philippines.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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This is what Bin Laden does. But why does he do it? What does he want?

(If you want more background about Bin Laden's personal history and about how his organization, al-Qaida ("The Base"), works, click.)

Bin Laden is the most notorious advocate of a potent strain of militant Islam that has been gaining popularity in the Muslim world for 30 years. It is simultaneously theological and cultural. Its fundamental tenet is that the Muslim world is being poisoned and desecrated by infidels. These infidels include both outsiders such as the United States and Israel, and governments of Muslim states—such as Egypt and Jordan—that have committed apostasy. The infidels must be driven out of the Muslim world by a jihad, and strict Islamic rule must be established everywhere that Muslims live. These extreme "Islamists," as Bin Laden biographer Yossef Bodansky dubs them, hope to re-establish the Caliphate, the golden age of Muslim domination that followed the death of Muhammad. They regard the Taliban's Afghanistan as a model for such Islamic rule.

This Islamist militancy has ancient roots—Saladin's expulsion of the crusaders in the 12th century is one starting point—but it was galvanized in the 1970s by several events. The growing influence of secular Western capitalism in the Muslim world, the military triumphs of Israel, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan horrified Islamic traditionalists. The Afghanistan invasion was the culminating moment: It persuaded Bin Laden and thousands of others of the need for Islamic holy war. Their fervor has only increased since, fueled by the Palestinian intifada, the Gulf War, the American operation in Somalia, and other conflicts of Islam with the West.

(The Islamists are not merely Pan-Arab but Pan-Islamic. Bin Laden is exceptional in his ability to recruit from all over the Muslim world. The Sunni Muslim world, that is. Bin Laden and his allies follow a very strict Sunni Islam.)

That is Bin Laden's general philosophy. What is his particular grievance against the United States? According to CNN's Peter Bergen, author of a forthcoming book on Bin Laden, Holy War, Inc., Bin Laden is most enraged by the American military presence in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden was incensed when the Saudis invited U.S. troops to their defense after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Bin Laden—like many Muslims—considers the continued presence of these armed infidels in Saudi Arabia the greatest possible desecration of the holy land. That is why he sponsored bombings of the American military facilities in Saudi Arabia, why he has tried to destabilize the Saudi government, and why the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed on Aug. 7, 1998—eight years to the day after the first American troops were dispatched to Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden is also furious about American support for Israel. He detests Jews and views the United States as the Jewish lackey. ("[Jews] believe that all humans are created for their use, and they found that the Americans are the best-created beings for that use," Bin Laden has said.) His supporters seem particularly exercised by Israel's reaction to the current intifada, Bergen says. Bin Laden also can't tolerate American alliances with moderate Arab governments in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

Mainstream Muslims denounce Bin Laden's bloody-mindedness—in 1998 he issued a fatwa calling for attacks on all Americans—but he has found plenty of firebrand clerics to offer Quranic backing for his belief that terrorism is glorious. According to Bodansky, these mullahs insist that all methods of war, including terrorism, are justified in the battle against the infidels. (Bin Laden, holding up a Quran, puts it this way: "You cannot defeat the heretic with this book alone. You have to show them the fist.")

Bin Laden has strategic reasons to believe in terrorism, too. The Muslim victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan showed him that superpowers are not so superpowerful. And the ignominious American withdrawal from Somalia—following a Bin Laden connected attack—convinced him that the United States is morally weak. The U.S. soldier is "a paper tiger" who crumples after "a few blows."

It is a mistake to assume that killing Bin Laden means killing his movement. It's true that Bin Laden is an iconic leader who inspires his followers and millions of sympathizers in the Muslim world. But eliminating Bin Laden would do nothing to decrease the intensity of the other militant Islamists. The Afghan war created a cadre of warriors and belligerent clerics who are constantly recruiting. Bin Laden has a core of highly trained aides ready to continue his work. His trainees are scattered in two dozen countries. It is hard to imagine how the United States could neutralize all of them. And attacks on Bin Laden have only increased his popularity: Killing him would likely rally many more Muslims to his cause.

(Some pundits have suggested that killing Bin Laden would be effective because it would stanch the flow of cash to terrorists. This may not be so. Bin Laden's groups do get funds from his personal fortune, but they also finance operations by dunning wealthy Gulf Arabs and by siphoning off donations to Muslim charities. And the terror organization is cheap. They don't use heavy weapons, and it costs almost nothing to house and train hundreds of men in Afghanistan.)

Is there anything we can do to persuade Bin Laden to stop? The terror groups Americans are familiar with—Palestinian bombers and hijackers, IRA hard men—have desires we understand. They perform acts of terror in order to gain sympathy or sow fear. That sympathy or fear is a means to their end: political recognition, a state, compensation. They seek to participate in our world.

But Bin Laden and his followers are alarming because they don't want anything from us. They don't want our sympathy. They want no material thing we can offer them. They don't want to participate in the community of nations. (They don't really believe in the nation-state.) They are motivated by religion, not politics. They answer to no one but their god, so they certainly won't answer to us.