In February 1998, Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa titled “Jihad against Jews and the Crusaders”. It was a declaration of war against the United States: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four American passenger planes and the rest is history. The origins of the 9/11 attack, if we focus on Osama bin Laden’s motivation, are to be found in four equally critical elements: a childhood spent in a pious or passive Salafist household in Saudi Arabia; the activist Salafism that inspired him as an impressionable young adult; his first-hand experiences with the mujahideen during the Afghanistan War (1979–87); and his fury, in 1990, at the Saudi government’s rejection of his offer to protect the kingdom against Saddam Hussein.
This essay appears in September’s Quadrant.
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Bin Laden grew up in a Saudi household as devoutly Salafist as it was privileged and wealthy. Salafism or Wahhabism is a form of Islamic revivalism that has its origins in the eighteenth century when the impact of European civilisation on the Greater Middle East was on the rise. The Islamic scholar Muhammed ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab believed a renewal of the Islamic world required Muslims to re-engage with the fundamentals of their religion, such as personally reading the Koran and taking seriously the words and deeds of Muhammad, his companions and the next two generations of designated successors. Piety, from the perspective of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, meant purging Islam of some of the embellishments that had accrued over the centuries, including home-grown traditions of magic, the veneration of nature and excessive esteem for Muslim saints (and their tombs). Just as importantly, however, it was a rejection of the secular humanism that emerged from Europe’s “new thinking”, a period that would be later referred to as the Renaissance.
One of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s early puritanic undertakings against so-called idolatry was to arrange for the levelling of the grave of Zayd ibn al-Khattab, a companion of Muhammad. It was a site that had been revered by the locals. Another early initiative was to organise the stoning of a woman who confessed to adultery. Where others—not least Muslims—would point to the narrow-mindedness of this kind of Islamic revivalism, Wahhabis in all their different guises believe their strait-laced pedantry purifies the faith by avowing tawhid (the oneness or interconnectedness of all things) and thereby bringing a clerical interpretation of right and wrong to bear on everything in life. Wahhabis, or at least passive Salafists, have a long tradition of banding together and insisting on the excommunication of anyone who disagrees with them. Their revivalism has pitched fanatical religiosity against Islamic humanism—or just plain humanism, if you like—and nowhere has that been more enduring than in Saudi Arabia.
Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab bequeathed Islamic revivalism another attribute when, in 1744, he signed a mutual oath of loyalty with Muhammed bin Saud in what was then the Emirate of Diriyah. The two promised to work together to return the entire Arabian Peninsula to “true” Islam. The Saud family was to retain a monopoly on politics and the military, while Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his clerical successors were to be the guardians of religion. The alliance has experienced some setbacks, including defeat in the Ottoman-Saudi War (1811–18), but also great triumphs, especially after the defeat of the Ottomans in the First World War and the dissolution of their Caliphate in 1924. In 1957, at the time of bin Laden’s birth, King Saud’s idea of social reform was to permit selected young women to attend a religious university to improve their piety. To this day, capital punishment—in the spirit of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab co-ordinating the stoning to death of an adulterous woman—covers not just adultery but also apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality and theft. The cruelty of it all is only underscored by the public nature of the beheadings, always performed by a swordsman.
Osama bin Laden’s state of mind was further affected by the fact that his father, the astonishingly wealthy Mohammed bin Laden, had amassed ten or eleven wives and ex-wives by the time of his death in 1967. Osama, according to Adam Robinson’s Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of the Terrorist (2011), was one of fifty-four children. Despite all the affluence and privilege, Osama was estranged from his father and siblings as the one son of a wife only briefly in favour.
Mohammed bin Laden, who endowed a multitude of religious-based charities, was considered by his contemporaries to be pious. The psychological scars that such “piety” inflicts upon women and children can be easily imagined. Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote about the mental and emotional damage of polygamy in her memoir Nomad (2010). Salafism, as practised in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, was always something of a civilisational impasse. Nevertheless, there is no direct connection between exposure to the grimly aberrant world of pious Wahhabism and Osama bin Laden becoming a radical Islamic terrorist. There is nothing inevitable about the former metamorphosing into the latter. The intermediary step, for Osama bin Laden and many of his contemporaries, was the activist Salafism of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt in the late 1920s. Bin Laden is said to have joined the Syrian chapter of the Brotherhood as a young adult.
Robert G. Rabil’s Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014) provides an excellent account of the likenesses and differences between Saudi-style Salafism and the activist Salafism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Activist Salafi ideology, as outlined by Rabil, is a kind of halfway house between quietist Salafism and the Salafi jihadism of Al-Qaeda. The connection between Saudi Wahhabism and the Brotherhood is a rejection of modernity (including Muslim “moderns”) and “emulating the first three generations in Islam” or the “pious ancestors”. Traditional Wahhabism and the Brotherhood, however, have an entirely different attitude to politics. This might be summarised as follows: Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his heirs maintained their political fidelity to the Saud dynasty without the endorsement of the Ottoman Caliphate; Hassan al-Banna, in contrast, devised his brand of Islamism after the “calamity” of the Caliphate’s official dissolution in March 1924. The upshot? Hassan al-Banna—but not Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his successors—was a Caliphist.
Caliphism, as delineated by the Brotherhood’s original Supreme Guide and his successor Sayyid Qutb, envisioned a restored Caliphate, a unified Muslim empire with a suitable religious elite serving as the guardians of the Islamic nation-community (ummah). This Caliphate would ensure “true” Muslims were no longer ruled by non-believers or humble themselves before Western interests. And how, exactly, is this fantasy Caliphate to be brought into existence? Apologists for the Brotherhood, not least in America, Australia and Europe, speak earnestly about the “jihad of the heart”, and yet “jihad of the sword” is always the elephant in the room. In 1943, for instance, Hassan al-Banna formed a commando or militia group known as the Secret Apparatus. It attacked not only British military installations, but also Egyptian police and government targets. Al-Banna sent his military units off to fight in Israel’s War of Independence, though his Secret Apparatus killed more Jews in the homespun Egyptian pogrom of 1948. The Brotherhood, that erstwhile religious and charitable society, became gun-crazy at this point, one of its members murdering Egyptian Prime Minister Nuqrahi Pasha in cold blood. Al-Banna, in turn, was assassinated the following year.
The Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda both seek to restore the Caliphate and secure the unity of the Muslim community against the House of War (Dar al-Harb). Nevertheless, at some point bin Laden came to scorn Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for its (ostensible) rejection of violence during the Mubarak era (1981 to 2011). Bin Laden, increasingly involved as a financier and organiser for the “Arab mujahideen” in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979 to 1989), became intoxicated with what Richard Landes, in Heaven on Earth (2011), calls active, violent, apocalyptic millenarianism. Much later, as the Muslim Brotherhood began to take advantage of the fall of President Mubarak in the January 25 Revolution in 2011, the founder of Al-Qaeda began to re-evaluate his opinion of the Brotherhood. Thomas Jocelyn, writing for the Long War Journal in 2012, disclosed a missive penned by bin Laden, living out his final days in a bolthole in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It was written a week before “The Sheik” was terminated with extreme prejudice by US Navy Seals:
It would be nice to remind our brothers in the region to be patient and deliberate and warn them of entering into confrontations with the parties that belong to Islam … current conditions have brought on unprecedented opportunities and the coming of Islamic governments that follow the Salafi doctrine is a benefit to Islam.
The inference, clearly, is that ultimately only methodology distinguishes the Muslim Brotherhood from the likes of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Boko Haram and so on.
This brings us to the seriously contested question of what role “blowback” played in September 11. If we ignore the origins of Islamic revivalism, as outlined above, and begin our narrative with bin Laden’s experiences in the Soviet-Afghan War and simply proceed from there, the “root causes” of 9/11 can be largely blamed on America’s foreign policy in the latter stages of the Cold War. It was the prototype Salafi jihadist Abdullah Azzam who persuaded the youthful Osama bin Laden to come to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and help finance the international mujahideen in its “defensive jihad” against the Soviet armed forces. And it was Azzam who popularised the idea amongst some young Muslims around the world that “one hour in the path of jihad is worth more than seventy years of praying”. The romanticised view—promoted more effectively by Abdullah Azzam than any other person while he remained alive—that a single Salafi jihadist could take out columns of Soviet troops or take down a Soviet gunship with ease was lent a certain credibility by the presence of CIA-supplied weaponry, not least Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The withdrawal of Soviet combatant forces from Afghanistan, which coincided with the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, activated a full-blown case of violent apocalyptic psychosis in the mind of Osama bin Laden, who founded Al-Qaeda (“the Base”) along with Abdullah Azzam in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1988. Abdullah Azzam was blown up by a car bomb in 1989, leaving his protégé to write the next chapter of Salafi jihadism without him.
The blowback resulting from America’s involvement in the First Iraq War also needs to be considered. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd feared that his own realm might be vulnerable and asked the US, as its longstanding Cold War ally, for protection. Bin Laden, now the commander of his very own militia, made a counter offer: Al-Qaeda, in the form of 1000 or so militia, would protect Saudi Arabia—and the holiest sites in Islam—from outside danger. King Fahd decided that the USAF might be a safer bet than a lightly armed paramilitary outfit. Nevertheless, in that instant, we can see with hindsight, America became Osama bin Laden’s number one enemy. As Imperial Japan once conceived of a plan to shock the US into quitting the western Pacific, the leadership of Al-Qaeda began to devise ways to banish the “far enemy” from the Greater Middle East to give it a freer hand to defeat its “near enemy”, which ranged from the Mubarak regime in Egypt to the traitorous Saud dynasty. An attack on the World Trade Center, symbol of American economic and financial might, was first attempted as early as February 26, 1993, under the command of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who had learned his bomb-making skills at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Peshawar. Yousef is the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind behind 9/11.
The United States, then, was in Al-Qaeda’s sights long before 9/11. It is not unfair to suggest that Washington’s my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend Cold War realpolitik played a part in bringing about 9/11, and before that the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, followed by the suicide bomb attack on the US warship Cole in 2000. With its headquarters re-established in Afghanistan in 1996, with the support of the Taliban militia, after relocating from Sudan, bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda organisation focused on how best to lay low the remaining Cold War superpower, having already—in their own volatile imagination—destroyed the Soviet Union.
The homicidal barbarity of Al-Qaeda is there for all to see in the February 1998 fatwa explicitly encouraging the murder of American (and Western) civilians in the “defensive jihad” to terrify the US into retreating from the Greater Middle East. A form of millennialist psychosis encouraged the Al-Qaeda “brains trust” to entertain even greater ambitions over the long haul, including the conquest of the Arabian Peninsula, Israel, Iran, Spain, India, the entirety of Northern Africa, Turkey, the Balkans, and so on. Different Al-Qaeda franchises have even entertained fantasies of running the jihadi black banner up the White House flagpole.
The great question, however, is to what extent Salafi jihadism, as practised by Al-Qaeda and spin-offs like the Islamic State, is the product of the backfiring of US foreign policy or something fundamentally awry with Islamic civilisation. For so much of the Western intelligentsia, including the influential Edward Said and the Middle East Studies Association of North America, the fundamental blame lies with America’s imperial arrogance. Ward Churchill’s posting of the “chickens coming home to roost” meme at the time of 9/11 encapsulates the sentiment as well as anything. Edward Said himself, in the opinion of Robert Irwin, author of For Lust of Knowing (2006), “praised Al-Qaeda’s attack with faint damns”. In other words, for these Western academics, however grotesque the 9/11 attack was, it nevertheless represented an authentic expression of Third World (or Developing World) outrage at the painful treatment meted out to them by Western imperialism/colonialism over the centuries. The absurdity of post-colonial theories about the “root cause” of Al-Qaeda’s terrorism was aptly summarised in Bernard Lewis’s memoir Notes on a Century (2011). Blaming the West for all the world’s ills is just as chauvinistic and condescending as the assertion that the West is responsible for all the good in the world. It was, as Lewis observed, “the same prejudice” but “turned inside out”.
In short, the 9/11 attack owed not a little to the realpolitik of America’s Cold War and post-Cold War foreign policy. But that can only be a part of the story. The idea of the fabulously privileged Osama bin Laden as a champion of the poor and the exploited is risible. We note, too, that all the Al-Qaeda agents who took part in the 9/11 operation were highly educated and well-travelled, fifteen of them citizens of Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, one from Egypt and one from Lebanon. The enmity they felt for the United States, and the West in general, was not economic but ideological—a reality that neither a standard Marxist nor cultural relativist in the West is likely to get their head around.
Bernard Lewis began to make sense for the public of the crisis in Islamic civilisation in articles such as “The Revolt of Islam” for the November 19, 2001, edition of the progressive New Yorker and even received the George Polk Award for its insights. Lewis captured the devasting sense of humiliation Islamic intellectuals experienced at having to live in the shadow of the formerly inferior West after the developments of the European Renaissance: “Why did the great scientific breakthroughs occur in Europe and not, as one might reasonably have expected, in the richer, more advanced, and in most respects more enlightened realm of Islam?” We have, in a very real sense, returned to the subject of Islamic revivalism as pursued by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century, which turns out to be more of a cul-de-sac than a solution to the challenge posed by secular humanism. Francesco Petrarch, poet and scholar of the early Renaissance, faced the same kind of dilemma of maintaining the transcendence of faith amidst the shock of the new science and materialism. Petrarch, it might be argued, never found the perfect equilibrium, but at least he did not run from the inescapable existence of modernity (or, at least, modernity as he encountered it).
The mistake of Salafism, even the Saudi version of it, is that it pushes one religious faith—in fact, one narrowly interpreted religious faith—to the forefront of everything. Osama bin Laden’s Wahhabi upbringing did not turn him into a homicidal ideologue, but it pointed him in the general direction of fanaticism, which in turn found its expression in the anti-humanism of the Brotherhood. The machinations and happenstance of the Cold War saw “The Sheik” declare war on the United States of America. But if 9/11 was in any substantial way a consequence of US foreign policy, the larger truth is that Osama bin Laden was the product of an Islamic revivalism that failed to revive Islam. Salafism—of any variety—does not hold the answer to the Renaissance’s “lust for knowing”, as Ali A. Allawi, in Crisis of Islamic Civilisation (2009), acknowledged: “But the triumph of the Wahhabi/Salafi school has eroded the natural elasticity of the Islamic community … The closing of the Islamic mind, at least in this respect, is very much a modern phenomenon.”
Egypt’s President El-Sisi, for all his regime’s faults, asserted in October last year that an Islamic form of humanism is the best hope for the future of Egypt and the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims: “Whoever does not believe, it is their own business … Even people who say they hold other beliefs [in Egypt] … We accepted and respected it.” The reality in Egypt might not exactly reflect those open-minded sentiments, and yet better Abdel Fattah El-Sisi than a Salafi hate-monger in charge, as was the case in 2012-13. The very existence of the Abraham Accords and the growing recognition in Muslim-majority countries that Israel is not the Little Satan but a modern and forward-looking neighbour with a positive role to play suggests that Caliphism is on the decline. The irony, on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, is that key political figures throughout the Greater Middle East, from Egypt’s El-Sisi to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, understand what the political class in the West do not: the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi jihadists are something more than first cousins and both should be considered a curse not only on the West but on all humanity. Let us never forget the horror of September 11, 2001, and why it happened.
Daryl McCann, a regular contributor, has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com. He wrote on “America’s Great Awokening” in the July-August issue.