September 11 retrospective: Bruce Lawrence on Osama Bin Laden's strategic thinking
Quoting again today from Bruce Lawrence of Duke University from his edition of one of the English editions of Bin Laden's public pronouncements, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (2005). In his Introduction, he agrees with sociologist Michael Mann that American military presence and actions in the Middle East lay at the root of the hostility of Bin Laden and his followers to the US. In Mann's words, "As long as America seeks to control the Middle East, he and people like him will be its enemy."
But Lawrence stresses that Bin Laden framed his ideology in religious terms:
Objectively speaking, bin Laden is waging a war against what many - admirers as well as critics - now call the American empire. But it is crucial to note the he himself never uses this vocabulary. The word "imperialism" does not occur once in any of the messages he has sent out [as of the publication of the book]. He defines the enemy differently. For him jihad is is aimed not at an imperium, but at "global unbelief". Again and again, his texts return to this fundamental dichotomy. The war is a religious war. It subsumes a political war, which he can wage with terms appropriate to it, as he demonstrates in his addresses to the people of Europe or of American. Yet the battle in the end is one of faith. [my emphasis in bold]
Because of that religious vision, Lawrence argues against the view that Bin Laden's Al Qai'da was a kind of direct, lineal successor to anti-imperialist terrorist groups like Germany's Rote Armee Faktion (RAF) or Italy's Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades; BR), which were secular groups with their own brands of Marxist-Leninist ideology. (In the quote below addressing the comparison with those groups, Lawrence gives them them perhaps a bit too much credit in articulating a vision of a future society; but his point about their materialist-social focus is valid.)
Lawrence is not agreeing with the Muslim-haters who claim that Bin Laden's view of Islam is correct because Islam is a religion of violence: "It would be wrong either to dismiss these [Qur'anic] references [by Bin Laden] as imaginary, or to take them as representative of contemporary Muslim opinion." Bin Laden's "select reading of scriptural sources and extra-scriptural authority," Lawrence argues, "sits ill with the conscience of the great majority of contemporary Muslims; for all but a few, implacable warfare in the name of jihad is not the sole or the best measure of Islamic loyalty."
The jihadist ideology of Al Qa'ida had its immediate origins in the mujahidin war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Lawrence argues that the confidence that Bin Laden took from the Afghan victory over the Soviets and the American withdrawal from Somalia in 1993 was what "originally launched [Bin Laden] on his hugely ambitious undertaking." Bin Laden assumed that the US could be beaten just as the Soviet superpower was in Afghanistan.
This confidence was based on "two great miscalculations," Lawrence argues. One was an overly-expansive generalization from the Afghan experience. Its particular conditions made it an especially favorable staging ground for a guerrilla war against an invading power. "Even so, it required massive amounts of US finance and weaponry, and the full backing of the Pakistani state, for the mujahidin to prevail."
The other was the American withdrawal from Somalia:
As for Somalia, the inconsequential American landings there, more a public relations than strategic operation, were no gauge of the powers of the Pentagon. The effect of both Afghanistan and Somalia seems to have been simply to lure him into illusions of US fickleness and weakness.
What Lawrence is saying here is that however clever Osama bin Laden may have been in staging dramatic terrorist attacks, he was operating from a foolish set of political and military assumptions. The magnification of Bin Laden and "Al Qa'idi" - the actual organization and the mythological bogeyman - into an existential threat to the United States served the interests of Dick Cheney's vision of war and torture. It was not founded in strategic reality.
Lawrence summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of Bin Laden's theology of jihad this way:
Connected to these miscalculations is the nature of his religious vision itself. One of its most striking features, displayed throughout the texts in this book, is the absence of any social dimension. Bin Laden was barred from the kind of analysis that would have allowed him to distinguish the different structural features of the various Muslim societies in which jihad was to be awakened, and made him hesitate in inflecting the notion of "One, Two, Three, Many Afghanistans." Morally, he does denounce a host of evils. Some of them - unemployment, inflation, and corruption - are social. But no alternative conception of the ideal society is ever offered. There is an almost complete lack of any social program. This alone makes it clear how distinctive al-Qaeda is as a phenomenon. The lack of any set of social proposals separates it not just from the Red Army Faction or the Red Brigades, with which it has some times mistakenly been compared, but - more significantly - from the earlier wave of radical Islamism, whose leading thinker was the great iconoclast Sayyid Qutb [whose similar-minded brother was a professor of Osama bin Laden's]. In place of the social, there is a hypertrophy of the sacrificial. Bin Laden's messages rarely hold out radiant visions of final triumph. His emphasis falls far more on the glories of martyrdom than the spoils of victory. Rewards belong essentially to the hereafter. This is a creed of great purity and intensity, capable of inspiring its followers with a degree of passion and principled conviction that no secular movement in the Arab world has ever matched. At the same time, it is obviously also a narrow and self-limiting one: it can have little appeal for the great mass of believers, who need more than scriptural dictates, poetic transports, or binary prescriptions to chart their everyday lives, whether as individuals or as collective members of a community, local or national. Above all, there is no rush to restore a Caliphate today. Bin Laden seems at some level to recognize the futility of a quest for restitution [i.e., restoration of the Caliphate]. He sets no positive political horizon for his struggle. Instead, he vows that jihad will continue until "we meet God and get his blessing!" [my emphasis in bold]