Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden; drawing by David Levine

“We say outright: these are madmen, yet these madmen have their own logic, their teaching, their code, their God even, and it’s as deepset as could be.”

—Fyodor Dostoevsky


Recall, for a moment, the mood in Washington immediately after September 11. There was grief, and rage, and bewilderment, followed closely by a grim determination to strike back. This last response evolved, in parts of the policymaking establishment, into a will to go beyond mere punishment or containment of the aggressor, and instead to exploit the moment in order to advance a much broader agenda.

This was understandable. America’s past offers many examples of seeming setbacks being turned to dramatic and lasting advantage. The sinking of the battleship Maine is one that comes to mind, or of the liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, or of half the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. More recently, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan exposed a vein that allowed America and its allies to bleed the decaying Evil Empire, just as Saddam Hussein’s lunge at Kuwait in 1990 revealed an opportunity to score a number of American goals, from smashing this dangerous man’s army, to testing and displaying the power of new weapons, to warning potential rivals away from the Gulf’s crucial oil resources.

All these strategic overreactions had something in common. In each case, the identity and nature of the enemy were abundantly clear. In most such cases, too, little discussion took place to clarify the stakes involved, the advantages to be gained, or the optimum means for winning them. (Which usually meant the application of overwhelming force.)

Yet while the strikes against New York and Washington seemed to fit the first part of this historical template, they did not quite suit the rest. Here was yet another of the “sneak attacks” that seem to have punctuated America’s rise, demanding yet another crushing response. But where and who was the enemy? What was his motivation for attacking in the first place? What, beyond merely destroying this adversary, was the strategic prize waiting to be gained, a prize that surely must be worthy of an unchallenged global superpower? Which were the appropriate tools to be used for this broader mission? What were the risks?

By now it is clear that in pursuing the grand counterstroke, American policy has gone somewhat astray. Perhaps our proclaimed values of liberty, tolerance, and the rule of law will, eventually and in some fashion, be seen to have triumphed. Perhaps America will be seen to have secured tangible strategic gains.1 Yet it is safe to say that the immediate opportunity offered by September 11 either to promote ideals or extend influence was misused.

The so-called Global War on Terror, or GWOT, as the Bush administration initially labeled America’s offensive against vaguely defined dark forces, certainly has achieved some successes—notably in Afghanistan where, for all the current unrest, life is perhaps less bleak than under Taliban rule. But American action has also proven hideously costly and inefficient. The cost to US taxpayers of offensive military operations alone since September 11 is widely reckoned at around $300 billion. The Iraq occupation is costing about $60 billion a year, a sum considerably larger than that country’s own GDP, and 20 percent more than New York City’s annual budget. Other costs include the lives of close to 1,800 US servicemen, as well as several thousand Afghans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, most of them civilians. Less tangible are losses to American prestige and credibility in much of the world, and the galvanizing of sympathy for forces that may be hostile to American interests. Every opinion survey of Muslims taken since September 11 shows deepening distrust of the United States. For example, the percentage of Saudis expressing confidence in America shrank from 60 percent in 2000 to just 4 percent in 2004. And of course the prime culprit, Osama bin Laden, remains at large.

To an extent, America has fallen into precisely the trap that the September 11 attackers believed they were setting. It has created new enemies. It has alienated old friends. Arguably, it has not made the world a safer place, as the recent London bombings showed.

The reasons for this failure are multiple. One might cite, for example, a predisposition to grab the most obvious weapons at hand, such as bombs and missiles, rather than resort to subtler means of persuasion. Another institutional handicap is the reflexive placing of blame for America’s predicament on external actors, such as so-called rogue states, as opposed to addressing the responsibility of America’s own policies (or of Washington’s imagination) in unintentionally helping to create its enemies. Other factors have obviously been at play, too, such as the political instinct to go for glory, to exploit the public’s fears, its desire for action and also for revenge. As we now know, such untempered political drives often translated into an ugly excess of zeal on the part of commanders and soldiers.


Particularly crucial, however, was the failure of America’s giant intelligence apparatus to perform its primary function, that of knowing the enemy. It proved incapable of delivering a simple understanding of who and what America was up against. Was it just Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization, and, if so, what made this man tick? What attracted people to his ideas? How best to defuse their potency? Was the danger “terror” in general, or rather a particular strain of Muslim fundamentalism, or was it perhaps some flaw in the Near Eastern body politic that rendered that whole region a breeding ground for hostility to America?

The answers to these questions have grown clearer over time. In fact, something of a consensus seems to be emerging about the causes, effects, and best means of dealing with violent Islamist radicalism. Sadly, however, as recent publications about this “enemy” show, the wisest counsel has emanated from outside the US policymaking establishment. Only now does it appear to be penetrating the Beltway.2


Jonathan Randal, a seasoned war correspondent who has written illuminating books on Lebanon’s civil war and on the Kurds, was drawn to the sub-ject of Osama bin Laden long before September 11. Osama: The Making of a Terrorist, his light and digressive look at the world’s number-one fugitive, partly biographical and partly analytical, does not unearth many fresh facts. The basic riches-to-rags story is, after all, pretty well known by now, and despite long years of trying, Randal never did hit the journalistic jackpot of a face-to-face meeting. (Amusingly, the closest he came was when the al-Qaeda mastermind instructed a Pakistani intermediary to scold Randal for the poor quality of the Arabic translation of his—declined—written request for an interview.)

Yet even without striking new insights, Randal’s combination of worldliness and stolid common sense stands in refreshing contrast to much commentary on the subject. For a start, he presents bin Laden and his like-minded global jihadists not as crazed fanatics but as rational actors. Their worldview is certainly different from most other movements, arising as it does from a peculiar set of historical assumptions, yet it is a fully coherent, internally consistent worldview nonetheless.

To take a small example, Randal explains that in the perception of Islamist radicals, the real Iron Curtain created by communism was not the one that separated Eastern and Western Europe but rather the one that cut off Muslims in Central Asia and the Caucasus from their coreligionists in the Muslim heartlands. So, as he points out, pursuing jihad in those regions “was less a question of expansionism than winning back what had been previously lost.” To them, in other words, the fall of the Soviet Union did not mark the conclusion of the cold war so much as the starting point of a potential Muslim reconquista.

The significance of such apprehensions has often been missed by Western policymakers. Randal quotes, for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, defending America’s jihad-breeding intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s by asking what was ultimately more important for the world, “some stirred-up Muslims or…the end of the Cold War?” Such arguments, taken by themselves, can seem cogent (if one assumes it was Afghanistan that finished the Soviets off, which is debatable). But when multiplied by a range of other US foreign policy initiatives that further “stirred up” Muslim sentiments, often needlessly, one begins to understand the processes behind the growing demonization of America on the part of Islamists. As Randal notes elsewhere, the trouble was that America “maddeningly dominated the globe but refused to set right the festering Palestines and Kashmirs.” The conclusion that many Muslims, and not just radicals, came to was that America’s seeming deafness to the plight of their fellow Muslims was not simply a national hearing impairment but was instead a deliberate policy aimed at dividing and weakening them.

It was the slow poisoning of attitudes toward America that provided bin Laden with a historic opportunity. This lanky seventeenth of his billionaire father’s twenty-four sons had done much to inspire young Muslims with the romance of anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. With the assassination of his ideological mentor, the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, in 1989, bin Laden rose to figurehead status within the swelling ideological current usually referred to in Arabic as the Jihadist Salafists, Salafism being a school that calls for blinkered adherence to the way of the salaf, or forebears, i.e., the early companions and interpreters of the Prophet.

Yet bin Laden found himself, by the mid-1990s, bottled up in the Afghan badlands, having been stripped of his Saudi nationality and booted out of ostensibly “Islamist”-ruled Sudan. Among his camp mates, the ragtag leftovers of the Muslim foreign legion of Afghanistan, the fire of armed jihad still burned. But their passion lacked a satisfactory immediate outlet. Radical insurgencies had been defeated, or severely constrained, across a number of local fronts, from Egypt to Algeria to the southern Philippines. Most ordinary Muslims in these countries, as Randal observes, had not merely failed to join in the fight but questioned its very premises.


With these so-called “near enemies” in Asia and the Middle East proving inconveniently resilient, the idea emerged of transferring jihadist zeal instead to the “far enemy.” Hitting the United States would in itself score points, considering that America was seen as a pillar of support for compromised Muslim regimes, such as Egypt’s and Saudi Arabia’s, that bin Laden had as his target. The boldness of attacking the strongest world power would propel Islam (or rather, the jihadists’ version thereof) onto the geo- political stage as a force demanding equal stature. This would not only inspire reluctant jihadists to join in the fight. It would also help cement the broader, and growing, Muslim sense that their faith was somehow under threat, and needed vigorous defense.

The September 11 attacks, destructive beyond the wildest dreams of their planners, were the extreme outcome of such thinking. “No doubt,” writes Randal,

bin Laden hoped the fear and loathing he inspired so widely would outlive him and help plunge the Islamic world into a convulsive “clash of civilizations” with the West. The attacks on New York and Washington were designed not just as payback for the real and imagined grievances he felt that Muslims had suffered, but to set off just such a conflagration.


This strategy is not original. In Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, Olivier Roy, one of France’s leading scholars of modern Islamism, notes striking parallels between today’s jihadists and Europe’s radical left of the 1960s and 1970s. The two movements have drawn from similar social pools of alienated, dislocated youth. They have chosen similar symbols (beards and guns and sanctified texts: the Koran substituting for Marx, Sayed Qutb, the Egyptian whose theories inspired the Muslim Brotherhood, for Gramsci) and targets (“imperialism,” “globalization,” “Americanization”). The jihadists’ notion of a pan-Islamic Ummah, or nation, says Roy, recalls the Trotskyists’ idea of the proletariat: “an imaginary and therefore silent community that gives legitimacy to the small groups pretending to speak in its name.” The triumph of Islam is held to be, as the triumph of socialism once was, “inevitable.”

Jonathan Randal gives substance to even deeper echoes by relating the Raskolnikov-like testimony of a captured al-Qaeda convert named Kemal Daoudi. The son of Algerian immigrants to France, Daoudi was a brilliant engineering student. But when poverty forced his family to move to a grim Paris suburb, he awoke suddenly to what he called

the abominable treatment meted out to all the potential “myselves” who had been conditioned to become subcitizens good only to keep working to pay for the retirements of the “real” French when the French age pyramid gets thin at the base.

The choices he felt he faced were either to fall into depression or “to react by taking part in the universal struggle against this overwhelming iniquitous cynicism.” So off he went to Afghanistan, and back to Paris as a commit-ted jihadi, where he was intercepted as part of a plot to blow up the US embassy.

Modern jihadists have also borrowed the classic revolutionary idea that the most effective way to rouse the cowed masses is to goad their masters into acting rashly, so revealing the supposedly true, exploitative nature of their relationship. Terrorism forces “bourgeois” society to strip off its mask, bare its fangs, and thus alert the proletariat—or in this case the Muslim Ummah or nation—to the real peril facing it. In this light, it is interesting that extensive references to Menachem Begin’s 1951 autobiography, The Revolt, were found among the computer files captured at an al-Qaeda safe house in Kabul. As leader of the paramilitary Irgun group in the 1940s, the future Israeli prime minister advocated using terror to jump-start politics.

In the same way that the Red Brigades, for example, believed their acts exposed the underlying fascism of the Italian state, jihadists believe they have bared the true face of Western Crusader imperialism. Leaving aside the many and varied justifications for America’s punitive invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the very fact of Western military intrusion into Muslim countries has strengthened, visually and viscerally, al-Qaeda’s contention that Islam is engaged in a war for its own survival. Small wonder that bin Laden’s group actually endorsed President Bush for reelection or, as Roy points out, that its fellow travelers heartily embrace what he calls the “lazy” cultural analyses of such Western thinkers as Samuel Huntington. (Asked in a 2001 interview whether he believed in a clash of civilizations, bin Laden’s answer was “Absolutely!”)

Gilles Kepel, who is France’s best-known authority on political Islam, points out in his latest book, The War for Muslim Minds, yet another resemblance between radical leftist and Islamist jihads, this one created by erroneous outside perceptions. Huntington and others, he asserts, facilitated a subtle “transfer” of the West’s cold war strategic hostilities:

The parallel drawn between the dangers of communism and those of Islam gave Washington’s strategic planners the illusion that they…could simply transpose the conceptual tools designed to apprehend one threat to the very different realities of the other…. [They] were culturally incapable of grasping an actor that was not, in the final analysis, a state…. The strategy of destroying the Afghan base and then annihilating Saddam Hussein’s “rogue state” presented the advantage of being operational: it allowed the Pentagon to use its panoply of high-tech weapons, forged in the confrontation with the USSR…. But it missed the intended target. The very intangibility of the Al Qaeda network precluded a traditional military conquest.


A generation ago, many members of the radical left failed to notice a major transformation of their time, which was the quiet absorption of their imagined constituency, the “proletariat,” into the supposedly wicked “bourgeoisie.” Today’s Islamist radicals seem similarly unaware that they themselves are a product of the globalization they profess to be resisting. One aspect of this is what Roy characterizes as the deterritorialized nature of modern Islamism. This can be discerned, for instance, in the peripatetic personal histories of bin Laden and his cohorts. No national group dominates al-Qaeda. Many of its activists appear to be drifters, often hailing, like Kemal Daoudi, from regions where Muslims live as minorities. What unites them is a sense of shared alienation. Calling each other brothers and adopting new kinship titles—Abu-this and Abu-that—they seem to be seeking to create a sort of virtual village.

In Understanding Terror Networks, Marc Sageman, a sociologist and former intelligence analyst, has constructed a profile of what he sees as the overlapping networks that make up al-Qaeda. He distinguishes various links, including close ties of family and friendship between many members, as well as nationality “clusters,” such as the groups of Moroccan origin responsible for several terrorist attacks in Europe. His conclusion is that it may be more accurate to describe jihadist violence as deriving from “in-group love” rather than “out-group hate.”

Olivier Roy further suggests that whereas Salafi jihadists (he calls them neofundamentalists) believe they represent Islamic tradition, what they express in fact is a negative form of Westernization:

The real genesis of Al Qaeda violence has more to do with a Western tradition of individual and pessimistic revolt for an elusive ideal world than with the Koranic conception of martyrdom.

So it is that one of the neofundamentalists’ key doctrinal innovations is their discarding of the traditional Muslim view of armed jihad as a collective Muslim responsibility. They assert instead that jihad is a binding individual duty for each Muslim, rewarded by God in fulfillment, and punished in omission.3

What such shifts represent, in a subtle sense, is a rejection of the authority of the contemporary father, whether he is identified with the king of Saudi Arabia or simply the head of a dysfunctional Muslim household.4 As with America’s own cultists or latchkey delinquents, this father is, in the experience of many jihadist recruits, already discredited by failure or simple absence. Yet his rejection causes added stress for young men in highly paternalistic societies. Small wonder that forms of dress are such important identifying marks for Salafists. The short robe and untrimmed beard or, in the case of women, black cover-all garments, are meant to emulate early Muslims whose devotion to Mohammad was unadulterated. Yet in much of the Middle East these fashions also suggest a revolt against the conformities of either Western dress or local folk costume.

The fact is, says Roy, that most societies in which Muslims live are already, in effect, largely secularized, which is to say modern enough to produce dangerous conditions of anomie and free-floating anger. This is obviously true for Muslim minorities in the West, but also true of the newly urbanized and often unemployed, under-educated, and sexually deprived youth of cities such as Casablanca, Cairo, and Riyadh. Neofundamentalism can be itself a force for secularization, Roy continues, in that it represents a willful recodification of what Islam is, and of what it means to be a Muslim. Instead of a territorially and traditionally based faith, their version of Islam is objectified, stripped of a regional setting, and reconstructed in opposition to the challenges that are seen to face it, particularly American military superiority and presence in parts of the Muslim world. Religion is replaced by a religiosity in which “resistance” becomes the primary criterion for membership. Bin Laden himself once declared in an interview that al-Qaeda’s aim is to give jihad “the status of worship.”

The discourse of this new, disembodied, and overstretched Islam, as seen on Web sites, for example, tends to follow a model of asking what is “the opinion of Islam” on various issues. But the answers to such questions, Roy notes, are less significant than the approach they imply. Their unstated premise, he argues, is that Islam is no longer a unified society of believers but is being confronted by secular, modern influences:

The formulation, not the content, creates the meaning. Even if the answer is integrative (“Islam is everything, from hygiene to politics”)…merely to pose such a question presupposes that one is not living in a true Muslim context, which means that secularization has succeeded.

The Cartesian neatness of such arguments is, to be sure, a little too abstract. However “secularized” the environment surrounding their endeavor may be, the Islamists’ effort to construct a nonsecular system of rule (godly not worldly, timeless laws not temporal ones) continues to have tremendous romantic appeal, and can still mobilize much force. Roy also neglects non-Western antecedents of jihadism, such as the many local rebellions, often led by Sufi orders and mes-sianic movements, that have erupted periodically across the Muslim world. (One wonders, for instance, how such disparate events as the Emir Abdel Qader’s resistance to the French invasion of Algeria in the 1830s, the Shamil revolt against imperial Russia in the 1840s, and the Indian Mutiny of 1854 would have played out had their leaders had access to modern arms and means of communication.)

Yet Roy’s dry and rational analysis is still a welcome relief from both the neoconservative refrain that the DNA of Islamist violence is somehow embedded in the Koran and from the popular liberal notion that terrorism is purely a response to Western encroachment. Instead, he believes that to a large degree, Islamist radicalism represents an attempt to Islamize “an existing space of anti-imperialism and contestation,” the resentment of the dominance of technology and markets by rich nations. It just happens, at the moment, to be the most gaudily packaged product in the same market for anti-globalization remedies that, say, activist Green movements are responding to in more settled, comfortable societies.

The glorification of suicide—call it martyrdom if you like, or rapture—is of course a particularly sick twist. As Faisal Devji points out in his brilliant long essay on the ethical underpinnings of modern jihad, Landscape of the Jihad, suicide bombing also represents another departure from Sunni Muslim tradition, and may indeed be a borrowing from Shia traditions which the Salafists claim to abhor. Yet more than acts of aggression, suicide attacks are intended as a message, a declaration of belief, an ultimate signal of total commitment. Martyrdom, observes Devji rightly, “only achieves meaning by being witnessed by the media.” It is, in short, a horrendous form of advertising.

Global jihadism can be seen as markedly “modern” in other ways. Gilles Kepel has, famously, described the decentralized structure of al-Qaeda as akin to that of a consultancy firm or franchise, “with bin Laden merely the logo for small-time operations managed by independent micro-entrepreneurs working under license to purvey terrorism.” Using terminology similarly borrowed from the world of business, Devji characterizes the organization’s local affiliates as “speculative investments.” Some pay off. Others fail.

Devji, who teaches history at the New School in New York, carries the analogy between al-Qaeda and global institutions, such as multinationals and NGOs, even further. As a supranational movement, he suggests, the current jihad can be interpreted as part of what he sees as a central trend of the post–cold war era, namely the replacement of territorial politics with ethical issues. Bin Laden himself has stated that the United States is not the principal enemy, which is what he calls “global Crusaderism,” an abstraction almost as vague as “terror.” (Gilles Kepel quotes him as saying the September 11 targets were not women and children but rather “icons of military and economic power.”) Jihadists tend to view “the West” as a negative mirror image of “Islam,” in other words as a metaphysical entity. Noting that jihadist leaders often invoke such perceived American sins as the failure to sign the Kyoto treaty, or abuses at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, Devji suggests that their jihad is in essence a cry for universal justice, a “perverse call to ethics.”

It is in this sense, notes Devji, that the French philosopher Jacques Derrida has described jihadists as somehow comparable with those who posit the universalism of modern Western culture. America’s war on terror becomes, in such a view, a sort of auto-immune response, where cherished ideals such as civil liberties and the free movement of capital must be sacrificed for the sake of killing the jihadist cancer. Perhaps, says Devji, America could even be termed a “suicide state,” “its martyrdom mirroring the many martyrdoms of the jihad.”

That, surely, is too far a flight of academic fancy. America’s war on terror is not going so well. But then neither is the jihad.


Twenty years ago, Olivier Roy argued in his clever but clearly premature book The Failure of Political Islam that the Islamists’ self-declared ideological purity would inevitably be diluted by the practical necessities of politics. He argues now that global jihadism also carries the seeds of its own destruction, rather like a virus that kills its host before the host can pass on the disease. The hideous cruelty of al-Qaeda and its offshoots, which has now touched so many countries, already appalls and repels many Muslims. And having failed to mobilize the Muslim masses, jihadists should be regarded not as a strategic challenge capable of changing the balance of power, Roy argues, but as a security threat that can be contained.

This does not, in Roy’s view, imply that strong action against the jihadists should be avoided, or that there are realistic hopes of negotiating with the most extreme radicals. It just means that pursuing a “global war on terror” is a silly idea—“a metaphor, not a policy,” in Roy’s words—because it risks infusing local disputes with the jihadists’ millennialist goals. This, of course, is exactly what has happened; the old rallying cry of Palestine is now joined by the new one of Iraq.

While all these authors call attention to the central importance of Palestine to the jihadists’ creed, Gilles Kepel makes especially explicit how the issue has fueled al-Qaeda’s fires. He quotes Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenant, the Egyptian Ayman Zawahiri, stating bluntly that Palestinian suffering is a useful goad for the sympathies of Arabs, “whether or not they are believers.” As Kepel observes, al-Qaeda chose to launch its terror offensive at just the point when coverage of the second Palestinian intifada had raised Muslim anger to fever pitch. Significantly, too, bin Laden himself issued his first open admission of responsibility for September 11 shortly after Israel’s reconquest of Palestinian cities in the spring of 2002. The timing suggests he meant to imply that the bloody destruction of the Jenin refugee camp represented a kind of belated excuse for al-Qaeda’s atrocities.

Cynically manipulated or not, the Palestine tragedy has clearly helped create a constituency in the Muslim world for attacking Israel’s primary backer, America. That constituency has wavered when faced with evidence of the jihadists’ excesses, and particularly in response to the copious amount of Muslim blood they have shed. But it keeps being reconsolidated by American blunders. One can only wonder what the global jihad’s current strength would have been had its chief enemy not been tainted by Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and other follies, or by association with Israel’s uglier policies. Because, as all the writers under review agree in one way or another, the jihadist project is probably doomed to failure anyway.

Devji, for instance, believes that the chief impact of jihadism will prove to be not its acts of violence but the challenge it has posed to traditional structures of Muslim authority. In reaction to al-Qaeda’s extremism, he notes, mainstream fundamentalist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have already shifted toward more open-minded politics. A trend toward democratization ultimately may be seen to have been an accidental effect of the jihadist movement. Indeed, he says,

Al-Qaeda may already have done more than any previous movement, secular or religious, liberal or conservative, to throw open the world of Islam to new ways of conceiving the future.

In a similar vein, Gilles Kepel notes that underlying all the jihadists’ rationalizations is the historical Muslim fear of fitna, a word meaning internal schism, sedition, and chaos. The traditional role of religious scholars was to guard against this menace. But having arrogated to themselves the right to take the offensive against the fitna-creating West, the jihadists have in fact inflicted fitna on their own societies.

Perhaps this chaos will prove productive in the long run. In the meantime, there appear to be several optimal means of addressing jihadist violence. One is to make a concerted effort to address the geopolitical problems that agitate Muslims, Palestine among them. Another is to prove the strength and success of secular, liberal values by encouraging the inclusion of tolerant Islamist trends. (Rather romantically, Kepel hopes that a multicultural Europe may yet evolve into a model “new Andalusia,” where “the hybridization and flowering of two distinct cultures can produce extraordinary progress in civilization.”) And then there is the most obvious approach, which is classic, plodding police work. In the homely words of Jonathan Randal, “If there is an answer to such an enduring phenomenon as terrorism, I suspect it lies in needlework, that time-consuming, patient, dull, but professional accumulation of detail.”

This Issue

August 11, 2005