December 1, 2005  

Osama bin Laden: a ‘worthy enemy’

America is engaged in a war of survival against an enemy unlike any our country has fought. We have been so engaged for the best part of a decade, and yet we have not begun to understand our opponents.

Led and personified by Osama bin Laden, our enemy is at once more complicated and more simple than has been recognized. Religion is the key to understanding our enemy, and so far we have fought shy of making that judgment.

Bin Laden and those he leads have presented to us a struggle we cannot avoid, a conflict in which the choices are not between war and peace, but between war and endless war. We cannot talk our way out of this war. And we cannot — and must not — try to appease our way out of this war. At the same time, we cannot win and survive if we use the only two tools now available to us: intelligence operations and military actions, although harsher and more prolonged applications of each will be required.


The stage was set for our present dilemma more than 15 years ago. Mikhail Gorbachev held power in a Soviet Union that was failing economically at home, militarily in Afghanistan and as an imperial power in Eastern Europe. The winds of political change blew strongly, surprisingly, as though nature itself had embraced the cause of human liberty, and through most of the 1990s the United States and the West sidelined reality in favor of cant about the “end of history” and the approaching triumph of globalization. We said we believed in the inevitable spread of democratic political systems, capitalist economics and secularism.

On the eve of “history’s end,” in 1988, an expatriate Saudi named Osama bin Laden and a few confederates formed an organization they called “al-Qaida” — in English, “the Base.” The Western media took no notice of this new entity, the men who formed it or the goals they established. But Western intelligence services did no better than the media, and that’s a pity.

Bin Laden and his associates, Islamic zealots all, formed al-Qaida to ensure there would be no dissipation of the momentum emerging from what clearly was the Soviet Union’s coming defeat in Afghanistan. These men acted to institutionalize the organizational networks that provided manpower, money and expertise to the Afghan mujahidin and their non-Afghan Muslim allies. They sought to make al-Qaida the central source from which Islamic resistance groups and insurgencies around the world could draw military training, funding, combat veterans, travel and identity documents, religious guidance and other sinews of war. Bin Laden and his lieutenants also meant al-Qaida to be the point around which Islamist groups would rally and find strong inspiration, leadership and, over time, an enduring and historic symbol of resistance, perseverance and piety.

This vision for al-Qaida can be compared to an inspiring symbol that arose serendipitously during our own Civil War. That symbol was born when several South Carolina regiments rallied on the “Stonewall” Brigade commanded by the Virginia-born, Presbyterian zealot Thomas Jonathan Jackson at the battle of First Manassas in July 1861. Al-Qaida’s leaders built their group to be the same sort of rallying point, one from which other Islamists would draw inspiration and, as Gen. Robert E. Lee might have said, to decide themselves to “assume the aggressive” against the United States.

Today, al-Qaida stands as an unqualified success in the role it sought as an inspirer and facilitator of Islamist insurgencies. Al-Qaida veterans are assisting Islamic insurgencies around the world as combat soldiers, military trainers, financial experts, medics and logisticians. The scope of al-Qaida’s activities can be seen as a simple recitation of some of the places where its members are supporting Islamist insurgencies: Kashmir, Somalia, Chechnya, Eritrea, Iraq, Algeria, Mindanao, southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, western China and Afghanistan.

Al-Qaida also has succeeded in serving as a rallying point and as a source of inspiration for Islamist militants across the Muslim world. Just consider the events of recent months:

• Islamist violence continues to escalate in southern Thailand. Confrontations between the Thai government and Muslim separatists — perhaps supported by other regional Islamist insurgents — have left over a thousand dead in the last 18 months.

• In Saudi Arabia, not long ago one of the world’s safest countries, security forces engaged in a multiday gun battle with al-Qaida insurgents in Rass, 220 miles north of Riyadh. In addition, Saudi security forces in the industrial town of Jubayl engaged in a firefight with the first reported group of veteran insurgents who had infiltrated into the kingdom from Iraq.

• In Indonesia, three Islamist fighters detonated explosive charges in several evening spots in Bali, killing themselves, 26 tourists and locals, and wounding 103 others. Reports suggest that the Jamaat Islamiyah — a longtime associate of al-Qaida — is responsible for the attack

These events are, of course, in addition to the day-to-day, internationally televised violence in the Iraq, Afghan and Israel-Palestine theaters.

Beyond its facilitating, inspiring and instigating roles, al-Qaida’s founders wanted their organization to be the engine that would, after the Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan, refocus the Muslim world on the United States as the main and most lethal threat to Islam’s survival. By depicting the United States in this manner, al-Qaida hoped to prompt ever-larger number of Muslims to oppose America with violent means wherever and whenever possible. This remains a work in progress, just begun, but with serious prospects of success.


Al-Qaida’s promising prospects originate with bin Laden himself. He is by any standard a “great man” — great not in any positive sense as far as Americans are concerned, but in the sense of changing the course of history. How many individuals can be said to have truly changed history in the last half-century? Ronald Reagan and, with Reagan’s help, Gorbachev? Certainly. Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II? Of course. Bill Gates. You bet. What about bin Laden?

For Americans, this man’s course-altering impact on history is painfully apparent. Try boarding an aircraft, entering a federal building or taking your child’s grammar school class to a museum. Note the concentric rings of defense around the White House and Washington’s feel of a city under siege. Franklin Roosevelt did not have a quarter of that security when he led America to victory over two fascist empires. And note the so-called “sterile zone” that was in place in the nation’s capital for the inauguration, a system so invasive and militarized that one might imagine it more suitable for the Archduke Ferdinand’s 1914 visit to a hostile Sarajevo rather than for the celebration by Americans of their president’s inauguration.

Track the spiraling federal deficit, much of which can be attributed directly or indirectly to bin Laden and al-Qaida. Analyze polls that show Americans strongly worried — for the first time — about devastating domestic terrorist attacks and the slow erosion of civil liberties.

Osama bin Laden must be judged a remarkable and a remarkably dangerous man.

He is a veteran soldier, thrice wounded; a construction engineer; a modern chief executive officer; a devout Muslim, family man and humanitarian; a soft-spoken but eloquent orator; and an implacable enemy of America. He is in many ways cut from the same cloth as other heroes of Islamic history. He is what Americans and Britons in the 19th century would have called a “worthy enemy,” an enemy so dangerous and talented that he had to be respected and whose measure had to be precisely taken before he could be utterly defeated. In the 20th century, he might well have been called a “freedom fighter” and invited to dine at the White House if he was on our side.

Adding to bin Laden’s stature as a history-changer is the fact that for many Muslims he is a combination of Robin Hood and St. Francis of Assisi, risking his life to defend his people while assisting those in need. Perhaps most notably, bin Laden is one of the only world leaders — Muslim or Western — who consistently matches his words to his deeds.

A second factor in al-Qaida’s success is that bin Laden’s talents are especially distinct in a Muslim world that is an utter wasteland in terms of political leadership and heroic figures. No better validation of this can be had than by recognizing that Saddam Hussein — until scooped from his mole hole — was bin Laden’s only rival as a hero and leader in the Muslim world. In Saddam, we had a gangster, an apostate and a mass murderer, who, on those counts, was despised overwhelmingly by Muslims. Yet he was respected and cheered on as the one Arab leader who defied the United States.

Beyond Saddam, moreover, lay a Muslim world led by corrupt, tyrannical and often effete kings, princes, dictators and coup-installed generals. These men pay lip service to Islam, but rule their police states as wholly owned family businesses, complete with an opulence in palaces and mansions that would make France’s Sun King look like a backwoodsman on a tight budget. Potemkin Muslims at home, these rulers are really more at home in Zurich, Monte Carlo, the south of France, Kentucky’s horse country and the upscale flesh markets of Southeast Asia.

In the midst of this Muslim leadership desert, bin Laden took center stage in 1996 by declaring war on the United States. He quickly turned out to be much more than an angry, unusually tall Saudi. He is, from his first public words, a speaker of eloquence and, as professor Bernard Lewis has noted, an almost poetic Arabic. That is an invaluable gift in a culture that prizes oral communications skills. He is also a son of the wealthiest nonroyal family in Saudi Arabia, yet he chose to abandon his family and its secure and luxurious lifestyle for a life of danger and uncertainties as a “holy warrior” in Afghanistan and Sudan. Indeed, it is hard not to have some respect for a man who not only volunteers to fight, but also lives a life that requires him to drink Afghan and Sudanese water for a quarter-century.

Lacking rivals and blessed with eloquence and, literally and figuratively, intestinal fortitude, bin Laden also is a man whose character traits are the stuff from which the heroes of Islamic history are made. He is — and equally as important, is seen to be — a quiet, pious man who speaks without bravado, dresses without show and, despite his noble birth, has fought and bled in the trenches of the mujahidin. He has a common touch with the common man and shows deference to his elders and Islamic scholars and jurists. Like Saladin, bin Laden has in the eyes of Muslims defended Islam against Christendom’s attack when no other Muslim leader dared to act. His words and actions strike chords of historical memory among the extraordinarily historically literate Muslim masses, and their sustained reverberations contribute to his growing influence across the Islamic world.

A third factor behind al-Qaida’s influence lies, quite simply, in the opaqueness of America’s political leaders and elites. Indeed, bin Laden really has only one indispensable ally: U.S. policy toward the Islamic world.

The men and women who make policy know little about America. They have jettisoned — assuming they know of it — George Washington’s brilliant, nation-preserving foreign policy formula of nonintervention and adopted the mindless internationalism that originated with Woodrow Wilson. Not satisfied to be a democratic example for the world, these men and women — to paraphrase that quintessential Marine, Smedley Butler — have opted to become “bully boy, hit men” who act in the name, but ignore the substance of the legacy left by Washington, Jefferson and John Quincy Adams.

Second, these men and women believe their own rhetoric. For them God is on our side; a worldwide, secular democracy is inevitable and yearned for by all the Earth’s peoples; those who resist the beneficial tide of history are medieval criminals; and those obscurantists who oppose America’s enforcement of God’s will and democracy’s inevitability must and will be easily and utterly smashed by America’s technologically superior military, which alone — without effective political, economic, diplomatic and propaganda polices to complement the use of force — will carry the day.

Filled with this smug confidence, and still stung by the rhetorical lashing America received at the hands of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, our elites are not listening to bin Laden’s words. They assume that he is ranting about the Great Satan-ness of American society, its debauchery, lack of morals, man-made laws, pornographic movies and gender equality. Because they are not truly hearing bin Laden’s words, our leaders assert that he and al-Qaida are driven by an apocalyptic vision that demands the complete destruction of America’s democracy, freedom and liberties. There could not be a more inaccurate assessment of bin Laden’s purposes, nor one that is more certain to lead to America’s eventual defeat.


Bin Laden’s gripe, if you will, has little to do with the vague but incendiary rhetorical attacks made against U.S. culture and society by Khomeini. While he shares the grouchy old Iranian’s distaste for our culture, bin Laden has taken the more effective tack of focusing on specific U.S. policies toward the Islamic world in his effort to focus Muslim hatred on the United States. On bin Laden’s indictment sheet are just six items:

• Unqualified U.S. political, economic and military support for Israel.

• U.S. military and civilian presence on the Arabian Peninsula.

• The U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and its military presence in other Muslim countries.

• The ability of Washington to press Muslim oil producers to keep oil prices at levels acceptable to Western consumers, thereby denying Muslims greater revenue from energy sales.

• Decades-old U.S. support for apostate and tyrannical governments across the Islamic world, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria and others.

• U.S. support for regimes that are suppressing Muslims, including Russia in Chechnya, India in Kashmir and China in western China.

Bin Laden has tailored his policy agenda precisely: He wants to hit us where it will hurt. By doing so he tapped a well of anti-American sentiment that spans the Islamic world’s ideological spectrum, from whiskey-drinking Pakistani generals to Salafist missionaries preaching among the Moros of Mindanao.

In addition, in an Islamic world that is divided by sectarian differences — as well as by theological differences within sects — bin Laden’s focus on U.S. foreign policy has acted as something akin to a “glue of unity” allowing many Muslims to temporarily downplay sectarian, cultural and ethnic arguments and focus on the United States. Opposition to each of these policies has become a gut religious issue for Muslims. Far more Muslims, for example, are willing to sacrifice their lives to defeat U.S. policies than ever were willing to attack the so-called U.S. cultural threat identified, demonized and railed against by the Ayatollah.

It is time for Americans to debate these policies, not to blame, denigrate or fault America, but rather to review these Cold War-era policies to make sure they still do serve their first purpose: protecting America. Our future and its meaning as a nation must be decided by its people, not the bipartisan aristocracy of power that now controls the reins of foreign policy and brooks no debate about their decisions and actions.

Bin Laden’s personality and character, the lack of credible Muslim leaders and hatred for U.S. foreign policies have combined to yield a growing threat to America, one that is underestimated because our leaders blindly assert that al-Qaida’s target is our way of life. Frankly, time is not on America’s side. We and our allies are in a truly momentous race, one that at the moment we are clearly losing.

We are at a point in history where al-Qaida and bin Laden are changing into “al Qaidaism” and “bin Ladenism,” a philosophy and a movement rather than a man and an organization. This movement is a geographically diverse assortment of Islamic groups that have set aside their plans to destroy national governments, be they in Egypt, Algeria or Saudi Arabia, and are gradually adopting bin Laden’s three-part strategy of attacking American citizens, our interests and our economy, thereby creating costs that will drive America from as much of the Islamic world as possible, and thereby depriving Israel and Muslim tyrannies of the U.S. support that ensures their survival.


For nearly a decade, the United States has faced a formidable foe in al-Qaida and bin Laden, a foe that is far from defeated. Now we are about to face — indeed, may already be facing — a much larger and more formidable foe in the worldwide movement that has been engendered and inspired by bin Laden’s leadership and eloquence, al Qaida’s attacks and Muslim hatred for quarter-century-old U.S. policies toward the Islamic world.

In short, the United States is in a box of its own making. We need room to maneuver in the Islamic world, and we need the so-called moderate Muslims, whom we assume are the Islamic world’s majority, to again give us the benefit of the doubt. The solution is a yet-to-be-determined combination of much more aggressive warfare and marked policy change, both of which we can control and thus, providentially, we hold America’s safety and destiny in our own hands. This will lead to substantial U.S. disengagement from the region and that will slow the growth there of hatred for America. This will not be a quick fix, but over time a satisfactory combination of the two will better defend America and defeat the enemy. Let me suggest a few possibilities:

• Change the rules of engagement for the U.S. military so it can make America’s might felt to the maximum extent, and this includes an approach so destructive that the local populations will demand peace. Americans need to recall that the enemy started this war and so, as Philip Sheridan once said, our opponents should be left only eyes with which to weep. This means getting serious about Iraq and Afghanistan; get brutal and effective, or get out. It takes no military genius to see that both wars are lost if each country’s borders are not closed. With open borders, every Marine killed is wasted because nothing is being done to stem the enemy’s reinforcements or supply lines.

Destroying the enemy, which must be done as assiduously and mercilessly as we eradicated the Japanese from Okinawa and drove the Wehrmacht from Normandy’s hedgerows, cannot begin while the borders are unsealed. It is criminal and fatal to American security to commit our armed forces if we have no intention of winning.

• Stop the endless congressional, presidential and media debate and whining and close our own borders until we get a handle on the extent of our immigration problem. Until this happens, little of what we do against al-Qaida and other terrorists makes America safer in terms of attacks inside the United States — unless our foes are stupid enough to use official points of entry. This has nothing to do with human rights or civil liberties; it has everything to do with national survival and giving all levels of U.S. law enforcement a fighting chance to defeat the enemy.

• Begin today to accelerate conversion to alternative energies and further develop U.S. energy sources. America has no national interests in the Persian Gulf — save freedom of navigation — and as we eliminate our energy dependency there, the lack of U.S. interests in the region will come into sharp relief. In particular, energy self-sufficiency will allow us to stop supporting the Persian Gulf’s Muslim tyrannies that now control our economic destiny, manufacture and export anti-Americanism, and make our championship of freedom appear pure, even spectacular, hypocrisy.

• If U.S. politicians genuinely want to be the leaders of the free world and not just preen and posture, they should drive the Europeans and Japanese toward alternative energies. They are greatly more dependent on Persian Gulf energy than America is, and since 1945 we have protected their access. Get something done beyond photo-ops at one of these G-8 summits. Tell the Europeans and the Japanese where America is going energy-wise, ask them to get on the train with us, and tell them if they don’t, that’s OK, but they better start building navies and expeditionary forces to assure their access to Gulf energy.

• Decide what America wants in terms of an Israel-Palestine settlement. Then call both sides in and say: “Fifty years of your feckless, infantile, brutal and utterly selfish behavior is enough for us. Here’s the deal we want implemented. If you don’t, fine, but then you are on your own and can kill each other to your heart’s content.”

• Stop building Muslim hatred by supporting the Russians in Chechnya and Beijing in western China. Regarding Russia, President Vladimir Putin will do what he must to win that war, but we contribute nothing by supporting him with rhetoric and are deeply stained by Russian barbarism in the Muslim world. If we cannot criticize, remain silent. Regarding China, Beijing is conducting genocide against Uighur Muslims in western China by inundating the region with Han Chinese, exactly as it is doing to the people of Tibet. There is no reason for America to earn Muslim hatred by supporting this silent genocide.

In thinking about this war in the Islamic world, I am constantly reminded of our own Civil War. An increasing number of Muslims are rallying to bin Laden’s forthright stand against America, just as those South Carolinians rallied on Jackson’s brigade at First Manassas. Just as that battle transformed the virtually unknown Thomas Jackson into the inspiring and invincible hero and legend “Stonewall” Jackson, so also have bin Laden’s words and actions transformed a once obscure Saudi into an inspirational Islamic leader, hero and even legend.

As U.S. military and intelligence forces try to achieve the worthy goal of killing bin Laden, it is essential that we keep one other fact about Jackson’s career squarely in view: The most vicious and bloodiest fighting of our Civil War occurred after Jackson was killed at Chancellorsville. Thereafter, the Army of Northern Virginia was surely led by the substantive military brilliance and personal example of Lee, but, just as surely, it was fueled by the inspirational legend and heroic memory of an implacably anti-United States, Presbyterian zealot — now a martyr to the Southern cause — named Stonewall Jackson.

It may well be so even if bin Laden is killed. The United States has turned a corner in its struggle with Islamist militancy, but the road on which we now travel is likely to lead to greater bleeding of Americans. Along that road, America will continue to encounter a foe inspired — in the flesh or in spirit — by an implacably hostile Islamic zealot named Osama bin Laden.