Behind Enemy Lines | The Nation


Behind Enemy Lines

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Part of what makes this outrage so misplaced is that there are numerous publications already in circulation that contain primary Al Qaeda source material. (To name a few: Osama bin Laden: America's Enemy in His Own Words, edited by Randall Hamud; The World According to Al Qaeda, edited by Brad Berner; What Does Al Qaeda Want? Unedited Communiqués, edited by Robert Marlin; and The al-Qaeda Documents, a series edited by Ben Venzke.) None of these books say anything America's enemies do not already know, and jihadi militants have proved that they do not need Doubleday to recruit operatives, to convey secret messages or to promote their agenda. For such things they have their own channels--Islamic websites, online chat rooms, Arab media, mosques, safe houses and the back alleys of Baghdad. Meanwhile, even the military recognizes that the United States is engaged in a two-pronged war, "a battle of arms and a battle of ideas," as the Pentagon noted in this year's Quadrennial Defense Review. The more Americans study Al Qaeda's ideas, no doubt the better chance we have of winning in that struggle. Currently, one out of four Americans cannot identify the name of the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks; a third of all Americans believe that bin Laden has no ideological agenda, that he is driven only by abstract hatred. Given the number of lives and resources lost to the "war on terror"--now known in the Pentagon as the Long War--this is remarkable. It hardly presents the image of a society committed to understanding its foes.

About the Author

Raffi Khatchadourian
Raffi Khatchadourian has written on militant Islam in Central Asia and North Africa for several publications, including...

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When George Kennan set out for the Caucasus in 1870, few if any Americans had explored the highlands of Dagestan, Chechnya and the wild frontiers of imperial Russia. And with good reason.

During World War II, by contrast, one could enter a bookstore in the United States and purchase The Nazi Primer (1938), a translated Hitler Youth handbook; or German Psychological Warfare (1941), a compilation of Nazi military and propaganda manuals; or Nazi Guide to Nazism (1942), an anthology of official Nazi pronouncements. And of course, Americans could choose from no fewer than four English translations of Mein Kampf. The first, published in 1933, was heavily scrubbed of anti-Semitic themes, but later unauthorized translations became progressively more faithful and complete. By the time Hitler invaded Poland, in 1939, Mein Kampf was an American bestseller--as dangerous as its ideas were. Demand for the book soon spiked in libraries; it became recommended reading for Army officers; it was taught in schools as a way to strengthen the "war effort." On this final point, a reader of the New York Times wrote a letter to the paper in 1942 to express his approval: "Why should not Mein Kampf be studied?" he said. "Millions of Americans would do the things to win this war with more vigor if they knew what they were fighting Hitler and Hirohito for."

Today, Mein Kampf remains a disordered, hate-filled "coagulated stench," as one contemporary reviewer noted, yet it does serve as a useful manual on the art of political demagoguery. Hitler wrote, for instance, that "it is a mistake to make propaganda many-sided, like scientific instruction"; rather, "propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand." Bin Laden also knows the power of a focused message tailored to a specific constituency, and he has put that knowledge to use. In his speeches and interviews, he has stuck to a narrow set of themes, drawing on an inherited vernacular of Islamic dissent. "While bin Laden's words have not been a torrent, they are plentiful, carefully chosen, plainly spoken, and precise," observes Michael Scheuer, the CIA's former top bin Laden analyst, in Through Our Enemies' Eyes. "Seldom in America's history has an enemy laid out so clearly the basis for the war he is waging."

Bin Laden formally declared war on the United States in 1996 and again in 1998, when he and Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian Islamist, joined several other militants to sign a charter titled "World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders." The declaration was arguably Al Qaeda's most direct and forceful plea. Crafted as religious dictum, it urged every Muslim to kill American citizens and military personnel in the service of a grand defensive battle. In clean, scriptural language, it described a universe thrown into turmoil by two competing forces, good and evil, and within that universe a just society under mortal threat:

Ever since God made the Arabian Peninsula flat, created the desert in it and surrounded it with seas, it has never suffered such a calamity as these Crusader hordes that have spread through it like locusts, consuming its wealth and destroying its fertility. All this at a time when nations have joined forces against the Muslims as if fighting over a bowl of food.

The infested and defiled Arabian landscape, the subjugated and abused Muslim peoples--these are the two most important images in bin Laden's rhetorical arsenal. He employs them frequently. They fit into his theological apologia for large-scale violence. More important, they convey a sense of primal urgency that extends beyond religious obligation; bin Laden's message here is about raw communal survival. As Carl von Clausewitz noted, "Where no enemy is to be found, there is no want of courage to oppose him." Hitler recognized this. He, too, spoke of a society--the German Volk--that was "broken and defenseless, exposed to the kicks of all the world." In fact, one can find expressions of civilizational crisis among many modern revolutionary and millenarian groups. Aum Shinrikyo sectarians, the Shining Path and early anarchists have all demonstrated such thinking. In Anarchism and Other Essays, published in 1910, Emma Goldman observed that a terrorist's "very being must throb with the pain, the sorrow, the despair millions of people are daily made to endure" before setting out to commit violence that, by comparison, is but "a drop in the ocean." In many ways, this same murder-drenched social calculus is what has propelled bin Laden onto the battlefield of global jihad.

It is not surprising, then, to find in bin Laden's writings and speeches a detailed portfolio of human suffering. In recruitment videos, he speaks of such matters with tears in his eyes. In the 1998 World Islamic Front charter, he began with the following indictment: "Firstly, for over seven years America has occupied the holiest parts of the Islamic lands." This is a reference to US troops then stationed in Saudi Arabia, home to the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. For bin Laden, this "occupation" represented not just a religious affront but an imperial gambit, a base from which Washington projected "excessive aggression" upon the Middle East and forced Muslims to reside in "paper mini-states" that have been folded and twisted to the will of non-Muslim enemies. Exhibit A of this aggression is Iraq. He notes that during the 1990s United Nations sanctions, along with their strongest advocate, the United States, caused the death of more than a million Iraqi children (a more accurate assessment puts the figure at around 500,000, a number that hardly needed inflating), and that the United States would soon attempt to "repeat these horrific massacres" against the Iraqi people. Finally, he discusses America's relationship with Israel. Bin Laden never makes clear which side he believes is dominant in that relationship, but it is no mystery that he regards it as a hostile alliance. Elsewhere, he is more specific, citing, for instance, Palestinian refugees or the 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath, when Israeli air raids into southern Lebanon killed more than 100 civilians taking shelter at a UN compound.

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