In the days following Adolf Hitler’s suicide in 1945, amid the rubble of Allied aerial bombardment, the Red Army’s westward advance and Nazi surrender, a company of American infantrymen made their way up Munich’s Prinzregentenstrasse, toward the late Führer’s personal residence. Hitler had owned a second-floor luxury apartment in Munich. The soldiers’ mission was to commandeer important Reich documents that might be stored there and to locate Hitler’s will. In the apartment, they found a sculpture and a painting of Hitler’s niece and love interest, Geli Raubal. (Hitler was rumored to have murdered her in the bedroom.) They found costly furnishings, spacious rooms and state-of-the-art gadgetry. They did not find important Reich documents, nor did they find a will. Several floors below there was a bomb shelter. There was also a safe, which an Army mechanic managed to force open. Save for twelve first-edition copies of Mein Kampf, the safe contained not a scrap of paper.
Hitler bequeathed many contortions to modern history, but none were so sharp and so horrific as Nazism’s animating idea, its blueprint, as expressed in his notoriously tortured prose, laid out in searing hatred and sketched across the vast catalogue of political ravings and paranoia that compose his “reckoning.” The twelve volumes of Hitler’s book were a disappointing discovery for the infantrymen who stumbled upon them in his Munich apartment; in the war’s immediate aftermath they were undoubtedly of little use. But the manner in which Hitler’s personal copies of Mein Kampf were entombed and protected was consistent with the idolatry bestowed upon the books throughout the Reich. In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s writings evolved beyond their message into the realm of revealed scripture. They became totems that were worshiped in their own right. Mein Kampf was used in wedding ceremonies. In 1935 senior Nazi officials commissioned calligraphers to painstakingly transcribe every one of its 782 pages onto parchment, in the style of a medieval Bible. The project took eleven months, and when the edition was finally completed, it was bound in heavy iron sheaves and weighed seventy pounds.
Organized political violence, by definition, must be directed by ideas–ideas about the use of power, about society fallen from grace, about revolutionary upheaval and the promise of a utopian future; ideas that are at once urgent, intoxicating and sweeping, even when they are used to justify the smallest and dirtiest of objectives. Manifestoes and political doctrines can be propagandistic and mired in tactical minutiae, but at their core they are intended to reflect deep, timeless truths. For Hitler, Mein Kampf was immutable. (To a journalist who once suggested revision, he scoffed: “I enter my corrections in the great book of history.”) Mussolini, who was not so steadfast, banned earlier writings when they were inconvenient or contradictory. Stalin wrote at such mind-numbing length–his complete works fill more than a dozen tomes–that it is doubtful even his staunchest supporters read everything he put to paper. The act of writing, in Stalin’s case, seemed to be its own truth.
Since the end of the cold war, a new ideologue has joined the literary canon of American enemies. His full name is Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden. During a recent address, George W. Bush described bin Laden as one of history’s “Evil Men, obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience,” and one can find both truth and hyperbole in this assessment. Men like Hitler and Stalin wrought catastrophic ruin upon their societies and were responsible for the deaths of millions of people. So far, bin Laden has proved to be much less adept at mass murder and physical destruction. Nevertheless, he demands our attention, and for obvious reasons. Bin Laden leads a sophisticated global insurgency that is largely unseen, profoundly violent, hostile to Western values and full of rage and bloodlust. More important, he has come to personify a dark strand of modernity, one that fuses austere religious ideas from eighteenth-century Saudi Arabia with recent innovations in political Islam. He has drawn the United States into a worldwide conflict. He hopes to kill on an unimaginable scale.
For more than a decade, bin Laden has been unapologetic about his own struggle to correct “the great book of history,” and he has carefully and lucidly described the specifics of his Kampf in a series of epistles, declarations and interviews. As far as it is known, bin Laden has never written a book, but that may be because he believes the most important book, the Koran, has already been written. Where Mein Kampf elevated the all-encompassing state (der totale Staat), and specifically the German nation, into the realm of the sacred, bin Laden seeks to bring the Islamic faith into the realm of the profane. The Koran, in his reading, is a revolutionary document. There is no need to hire calligraphers to give it the authenticity of ancient wisdom. It is already ancient and wise. Beside it, bin Laden’s scattered pronouncements are meant to seem derivative, as if he were merely a clerical warrior interpreting the word of God. But that notion clouds bin Laden’s real significance. In fact, he has a complex political vision that is highly coherent, uniquely contemporary and in many ways irreligious. And it is startling that only now, several years after 9/11, a number of new books give us the chance to inspect, firsthand and in detail, precisely what he has been saying.
Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, an anthology of bin Laden’s oral and written opinions edited by Bruce Lawrence, a professor of religion at Duke University, is among the best primary Al Qaeda resources available. It is divided into two dozen chapters that chronologically progress through what will probably be regarded as bin Laden’s most important decade, 1994 to 2004. In his introduction, Lawrence explains the difficulty in assembling a collection of bin Laden’s statements, which have been virtually unavailable to the public. “Occasional fragments are cited, and–much more rarely–a few speeches have been reproduced here and there in the press,” he writes. “Yet official pressures have ensured that, for the most part, his voice has been tacitly censored, as if to hear it clearly and without cuts or interruption would be too dangerous.” In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the White House urged newspapers and TV networks to refrain from publishing unedited Al Qaeda statements or videos, and for the most part they have complied. Chief among the government’s concerns was that bin Laden might transmit coded messages to his operatives (a dubious claim offered without any real evidence) or, as then NBC News president Neal Shapiro pointed out, that he could “arouse anti-American sentiment getting twenty minutes of air time to spew hatred and urge his followers to kill Americans.”
The longevity of these official pressures became apparent in November when Lawrence was invited to discuss his book on CNN. One of the network’s evening anchors, Carol Lin, began the segment by assuring viewers that “respected media” censored bin Laden. Then, after confusing Lawrence with another author, she testily asked, “Well, but aren’t these messages dangerous? I mean, you are essentially making Osama bin Laden the possibility of a bestseller.” Lin’s curt skepticism echoed a much more intense debate over a similar anthology, the Al Qaeda Reader, which is scheduled for publication by Doubleday in 2007 and which attracted a fusillade of hysterical criticism from conservative media for helping “to promote Al Qaeda’s evil.” When the anthology was announced last year, a National Review columnist accused Doubleday of going “too far” and acting “naive at best, harmful at worst.” The New York Post, in tones even more shrill, called for legal action against the publishing house. Its editorial writers effectively tarred Doubleday’s parent company, Bertelsmann, as treasonous and then, in a strange rhetorical gesture, doubted that anyone would read the book anyway: “Yeah, right,” the Post noted, “Americans are just clamoring to have the Bearded Butcher and his Egyptian sidekick, Dr. Death, spew their venom at the United States.”
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.
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.
Indeed, Muslim suffering, according to bin Laden, spans the globe–in Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Tajikistan, Burma, Somalia, Eritrea, among other places–and though these regions and their conflicts are disconnected in space and time, they are a single struggle because all of them run along the same civilizational fault line that divides Muslims from the West. Bruce Lawrence’s anthology includes one of bin Laden’s most fascinating interviews, a tough, freewheeling discussion with Al Jazeera’s Taysir Alluni in 2001. At one point, Alluni asked bin Laden for his opinion of Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations. Bin Laden, apparently referring to the book’s title alone, replied, “I say that there is no doubt about this.” Western countries, he argues, historically have sought to divide and conquer the umma, a word that is often translated into English as “the Muslim nation.” In bin Laden’s sense of the term, this is an accurate translation, although it is by no means the only way to express the concept. The umma could just as well be regarded as a diverse community of believers, scattered throughout the world, harmoniously mixed among peoples of various faiths and cultures. But for Al Qaeda’s adherents it represents a kind of modern nation-state, a vast monoculture that, in its ideal form, must be contained and protected by vast borders. Bin Laden has many ways of referring to this community–the Nation of Monotheism, the Nation of Honor and Respect, the Nation of Martyrdom, the Nation That Desires Death More Than You Desire Life, the Nation of Victory and Success That God Has Promised–but in each instance, his imagined umma is the same: a sovereign expanse populated by one kind of people, governed by one system of thought and purged of all others.
This forms the basis of bin Laden’s preoccupation with the “fragmentation” of the Muslim world, and it inevitably has led him to examine the cause of that disunity. For decades other Islamists focused their jihad upon the “near enemy,” the corrupt autocrats–some secular, others religious–who rule the Middle East, but by the 1990s these movements had either been smashed or had collapsed under their own weight. Bin Laden’s response to that failure has been to turn to the “head of the snake,” the United States–the distant reptilian juggernaut that provides the “near enemy” with military and financial backing, acts inscrutably to satisfy its economic hunger, is limitless in its political manipulations and has little regard for the people who live beyond its imperial horizons. Bin Laden often frames his jihad against the United States as a religious conflict, and he has taken endless pleasure in Bush’s ill-considered comparison of the “war on terror” to the Crusades. (“The odd thing about this is that he has taken the words right out of our mouth,” bin Laden remarked.) But more often than not, he appears to be concerned with questions of lost Muslim territory and the imbalance of global wealth, which so dramatically tilts in the West’s favor. At times he likens the United States to ancient Rome, a ruthless and expansionist power that propagates its own brand of terror throughout the world. In 1998 bin Laden asked an American journalist, “Was it not your country that bombed Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Were there not women and children and civilians and noncombatants there? You were the people who invented this terrible game, and we as Muslims have to use those same tactics against you.”
The function of propaganda, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “is not to make an objective study of the truth” but to incite. Bin Laden regards himself as an instigator. To build an effective case for his jihad, bin Laden distorts figures and facts, commits errors of omission and builds arguments upon theological logic that is widely repudiated. He is contradictory. In one breath, he is able to claim: “Many people in the West are good and gentle people. I have already said that we are not hostile to the United States. We are against the system which makes nations slaves of the United States.” In another, he says that “the American people have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their government,” and therefore, “the American people are not innocent.” As he tells it, the jihadi movement brought down the Soviet Union entirely on its own in the mountains of Afghanistan (apparently without any lift from the $3 billion in US aid provided through Pakistan and other countries). He overlooks the nationalist dimension of certain conflicts, like the one in Chechnya, which he maintains are primarily about Islam. He ignores regions where America has sided with Muslims, such as Kosovo. When all but 500 US troops finally left Saudi Arabia in 2003, he quietly dropped this grievance from his rhetoric.
Still, despite these knots and inconsistencies, bin Laden’s message resonates with millions of Muslims, because the larger threads of his narrative are spun from reality. Lawrence reminds us of Madeleine Albright’s 1996 exchange with Lesley Stahl on the human toll of sanctions against Iraq. (Stahl: “We have heard that a half-million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima.” Albright: “We think the price is worth it.”) More broadly, Lawrence notes, the umma has been attacked by Western countries in one form or another for two centuries, “from the first French invasion of Egypt in the last years of the 18th century and the seizure of the Maghreb in the 19th century, the British grab for Egypt and the Italian for Libya, the carve-up of the whole Middle East by Britain and France at the end of World War One” and so on to the present. “All the lines of intrusion and violence historically run in one direction.” This is partly why, in a study conducted last October across the Arab world by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, more than half the respondents said they found some form of legitimacy in bin Laden’s pronouncements. (Thirty-five percent said they sympathized with him for “standing up” to the United States; 19 percent said they sympathized with his position on various Muslim causes.) Very few Arabs said they wanted to live in an authoritarian theocracy like the Taliban’s Afghanistan, and few agreed with Al Qaeda’s methods. But tellingly, bin Laden rarely says much about the society he wishes to construct, and he is always careful to describe Al Qaeda’s violence as “a reaction to events in our land.” If anything, he is a canny politician who knows his audience.
In fact, those who have spent the most time studying bin Laden appear to nurture a cautious respect for what he has been able to achieve. “Not since Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser galvanized the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s with his vision of Arab nationalism married to socialism has an Arab political figure had as much impact on the world,” writes Peter Bergen in The Osama bin Laden I Know, an “oral history” of bin Laden’s life. The book is a prismatic biography of Al Qaeda’s leader assembled from jihadi documents–some never before quoted in English–and from the testimony of militants, journalists, relatives and teachers who knew him personally. Bergen, a former CNN producer, conducted more than fifty of the interviews, and his story unfolds with the ease and vividness of a TV documentary. After several pages, the book’s myriad accounts–not all of them in agreement, and many deeply biased–begin to form a composite portrait that is among the most honest we have. Bergen is explicit about his project: to peer behind the multiple layers of propaganda that have obscured bin Laden’s actions. He hopes, among other things, to get a fix on the development of bin Laden’s worldview, the depth of his influence, the precise nature of his demands and, perhaps most interesting, how he has been living these many years.
What Bergen’s book makes clear is that Al Qaeda’s soft-spoken leader possesses a magnetic aura. Bin Laden exhibits a combination of piety, discipline, self-reliance and sincerity that give his words the imprimatur of authority for many Muslims. When, for instance, Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former bodyguard, describes their time in Afghanistan, he sounds as though he were recounting a parable:
We never really felt afraid as long as we were with that man…. He was consistently very generous with others. No one ever came to ask for financial assistance and was rebuffed. An Arab brother who wished to travel abroad came and explained his difficult circumstances to him. Sheikh Osama went into the house, came out with whatever money his family had, which was around $100, and gave it to the man. I was aware of the Sheikh’s financial situation and said: “Why did you not leave a part of that money for us. Those who are staying here are more deserving than those who are leaving.” He replied: “Our situation is not hard. God will send us money.” For five days after this incident we had nothing to eat except pomegranates that grew around his house although they were not yet ripe. We ate raw pomegranates with bread, three times a day. I believe that God raised Osama bin Laden to a high status because despite his great wealth, he was very modest, and attached only to what rewards God would give him.
The Bush Administration appears to underestimate the importance of this type of imagery. In terms of “message,” Washington’s answer to Al Qaeda’s leader–a man who relinquishes vast wealth to subsist on unripe pomegranates and bread on the frigid Afghan terrain; who speaks of universal issues like faith, justice and retribution; who vows to bring down the world’s Goliath and has already dramatically struck at it–was to create a bureaucratic office within the State Department called the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and to send former White House counselor Karen Hughes as its first officer on “listening tours” to tell the world that yes, she is a mother, and yes, there are many mothers in America. Upon reaching Jakarta this past October, Hughes breezily told an audience of Indonesians: “My state of Texas is very big. So you can imagine my surprise to learn that your country, Indonesia, is three times bigger than my big state of Texas.” Now, imagine for a moment: You’re an Indonesian and you’re confused about the United States. Whose message do you take seriously?
As it happens, the Bush Administration’s worst response to bin Laden wasn’t to unleash Karen Hughes but to invade and occupy Iraq in what the Pentagon might call the War Within the Long War. Whereas the invasion of Afghanistan greatly weakened Al Qaeda, removing from it an important stronghold, killing or capturing its top leaders and forcing operatives into hiding, the war in Iraq diverted American military resources away from the pursuit of bin Laden, gave Al Qaeda a point of focus, an opportunity to engage the enemy in conditions favorable to it and a chance to train new recruits–basically, a means to regain its strength. “Islamist militants are happy that the Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq,” Bergen writes. “Without the Iraq War, their movement, under assault externally and fragmented internally, would have imploded a year or so after September 11.” Bin Laden, who loathed Saddam Hussein and his secular regime, has called the Iraq War a “golden and unique opportunity.” With Iraqi civilian casualties in the tens of thousands and the White House’s justification for the war a figment, it only helps bin Laden make his case to the world. (Perhaps one of the most surreal moments during the Long War occurred last October, when Bush said of bin Laden, without any irony, “Our new enemy teaches that innocent individuals can be sacrificed to serve a political vision.”) In May Sayf al-Adl, an Al Qaeda military commander, said that prompting the United States “to come out of its hole” was one of the 9/11 plot’s “ultimate objectives.” By drawing America into the Middle East, he explained, Al Qaeda knew it could easily fight Americans and that it would gain “credibility” among Muslims and “the beleaguered people of the world.”
There is a hint of hindsight to these pronouncements, and while Congressional researchers in their recent government study “Al Qaeda: Statements and Evolving Ideology” are willing to take Adl at his word, Bergen seems more skeptical. He points out that another aspect of bin Laden’s persona is his impulsiveness, a trait he has demonstrated throughout his career as a militant. “September 11 showed that al Qaeda could attack the United States itself,” Bergen writes, “but it turned out to be something of a kamikaze mission for bin Laden’s organization, as the American response to the attacks was to decimate al Qaeda and destroy its Taliban partners.” As a result, bin Laden’s organization was forced to adapt. In November 2002, Al Qaeda’s top leadership reportedly convened a meeting in northern Iran, where members recognized that they could no longer function within their existing hierarchy. After much discussion, they decided to become even more decentralized, according to a team of West Point scholars in their paper “Harmony and Disharmony,” an analysis of the Defense Department’s massive database of primary Al Qaeda documents. Meanwhile, as the organization shifted in structure, Abu Jandal explains, a much more profound development occurred. “Al Qaeda became an ideology,” he says, and “what effected this transformation from an armed group into an ideology is the United States.”
Many terrorism experts agree that this adaptability is a mark of Al Qaeda’s astounding resilience. But since 9/11 an alternate theory has emerged suggesting that Al Qaeda in its newly fractured form, beset by ideological rifts, may be its own worst enemy. Bergen, along with the team at West Point and Fawaz Gerges, a professor at Sarah Lawrence who interviewed numerous Islamist militants for his excellent book The Far Enemy, point out that bin Laden’s strategy–attacking the “head of the snake”–was always a deeply controversial move within the jihadi community, and that the further the Long War progresses, the more controversial that move has become. Gerges makes this case persuasively, citing the testimony of disaffected militants such as Abu al-Walid al-Masri, who once worked closely with bin Laden but who now holds undisguised contempt for his “recklessness.” (At one point, Walid angrily says that bin Laden “was not even aware of the scope of the battle in which he opted to fight, or was forced into fighting. Therefore, he lacked the correct perception and was not qualified to lead.”) The West Point analysts also note that Al Qaeda documents “reveal a surprising level of infighting and conflict,” creating many opportunities–some military but more, perhaps, ideological–that the United States can exploit to combat Al Qaeda.
Since 9/11 bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have released more than thirty audio- and videotapes, which averages about one communiqué every six weeks; lower-level functionaries have spoken more frequently. After combing through this extensive jihadist literature, Gerges concludes that “Al Qaeda’s reaction to its Muslim critics has become more volatile and abusive, a clear sign of desperation and escalation of the war within.” In 2003, for instance, Zawahiri wrote a book titled Loyalty to Islam and Disavowal to Its Enemies, and he warned of “a misleading intellectual and moral campaign” that was threatening the movement. Zawahiri, much like bin Laden, is a man who seeks “revenge” and “retribution” for the suffering he finds in the Muslim world. (Last year, after the London bombings, he warned Europe: “It appears that you want us to make you taste the horrors of death. So taste some of what you made us taste.”) The object of that revenge, Zawahiri insists to wayward jihadists, must be the West. In fact, if Al Qaeda’s motivating logic can be reduced to any single principle, it is that ancient code of lex talionis, an eye for an eye, or “terror for terror,” as Bruce Lawrence titles one of bin Laden’s interviews. Bin Laden’s vanguard, at its core, weaves toxic religious commitments with political grievances to form a cult of vengeance.
Vengeance is both immediate and primordial, what Martha Nussbaum calls “the primitive sense of the just,” offering clarity of action when there is none, reducing complex situations to a simple and forceful binary struggle. As the 9/11 attacks unfolded, an aide to bin Laden watched the coverage on an Arab news channel. He recalled: “The scene was showing an Egyptian family sitting in their living room, they exploded with joy.” When the aide looked to the bottom of the TV screen, he noticed a subtitle that read: “In revenge for the children of [Palestine], Osama bin Laden executes an operation against America.” He rushed to bin Laden, who was conferring with fifty people in a room nearby. “I tried to tell him about what I saw,” the aide said, “but he made a gesture with his hands, meaning: ‘I know, I know.'” What bin Laden did not know was the limitations of vengeance, the ephemeral nature of its satisfaction, the inherent bankruptcy of its form of redress. Vengeance is an unstable foundation for a movement because, like a centrifuge, it propels the aggrieved to the furthest extremities of violence (a problem that Al Qaeda’s leadership began to recognize when it admonished Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq for his gruesome beheadings). Vengeance is shortsighted, blinding. It matches injustice with more injustice. And when vengeance is met with an opposite force of vengeance, as history and literature tell us, the result, inevitably, is tragedy.