Since 9/11, the War on Terror has created no greater cult of personality than that surrounding Osama bin Laden. The late Saudi has become part political icon, part terrorist extraordinaire, and part myth in the folkloric whirlwind of American discourse on Middle Eastern political figures. He is a figure everyone knows, who no one actually understands. If extracted from the strange persona concocted by American media coverage of videos shot in caves and al-Qaeda’s global acts, bin Laden still proves to be an interesting figure. His theology provides an authorial challenge to quietist forms of Salafism through a very specific, and often selective, method of Quranic engagement. He is immensely knowledgeable about particular portions of Islamic intellectual history. His communiqués, whether interviews with outside media, speeches to the Umma or scathing indictments of the Saudi royal family in letters to the King, are rife with Quranic allusions and references to Muslim scholars. Bin Laden’s religiosity, while it can be argued that he is ill-trained or that his tradition is unequipped to deal with modern Muslim issues, undeniably extends beyond simple warfare against non-Muslims.
Alternatively, bin Laden represents a mode of being political that is often left out of normative political discourse. His modus operandi did not begin or end within the bounds of the modern nation state, a fact that Engseng Ho strongly attributes to his background in the Hadrami diaspora in “Empire Through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat.” Here Ho makes the case that bin Laden is a particular figure whose “cultural memory,” grounded in the Hadramaut diaspora, contributes to his understandings of power, nationhood, and the notion of a united people. It is through this lens that al-Qaeda took on its enemies. Few of al-Qaeda’s opponents have been equipped to understand the logic of a diasporic Muslim network that relied on few concrete political structures.
Unfortunately, these characteristics of bin Laden’s theology and political identity have been lost in the midst of the “wall-to-wall nonsense about terrorism” that has monopolized the late leader’s image in the years since his turn against the US. When Edward Said wrote that line, he was not talking about bin Laden. However, equating bin Laden with every single Muslim “terrorist” that has come up for air since the 9/11, as well as some who acted before al-Qaeda’s foundation and were labeled retroactively, would certainly be included in Said’s critique. Why and how has Osama bin Laden become a synecdoche for all Islamic “terrorism,” and what important aspects of bin Laden have we allowed to fade into the ether through constant and unfounded equations?
The muddle about al-Qaeda began long before 9/11. As late as 1993, respectable Western media outlets were running articles that generally spoke well of bin Laden, though they displayed some uneasiness regarding the future of his Mujahideen fighters in Sudan—or Algeria, if bin Laden was indeed sending them there as was rumored.
In December of 1993, the UK-based Independent ran an article by Robert Fisk detailing his first interview with Osama bin Laden. He would go on to interview bin Laden at least twice, writing articles for the Independent each time. Unlike other writers whose work on bin Laden I will analyze in this paper, Robert Fisk is not uninformed or unintelligent concerning either al-Qaeda or bin Laden. Fisk generally deals with bin Laden with a relatively even-handed approach. Bin Laden knew and appreciated this, and once recommended to the White House that they read the work of Fisk to better understand al-Qaeda and activist jihadism at large.
With that said, I argue that Fisk’s 1993 article on bin Laden is imbued with a level of intrigue that sets the table for future conflation of bin Laden and al-Qaeda with other groups by lesser journalists. The article presents bin Laden with the usual meandering, problematic Orientalist stage-setting: his men are all “taciturn” and he is presented as not being concerned with “profit.” Fisk also notes that bin Laden has four wives back home and that he was brushing his teeth with a switch of Miswak just before the interview. The association of bin Laden with miswak, polygamy and other Arabist tropes, however, is less analytically dangerous than the association of bin Laden with any and all Islamic terrorism in the world, which other journalists would go on to make.
Michael Moran’s 1998 article “Bin Laden Comes Home to Roost” is guilty of this latter problem. The gist of Moran’s 1998 article is that the US never should have armed bin Laden, boldly proclaiming this nearly a month after the Nairobi and Tanzania bombings claimed by al-Qaeda. Ignoring the fact that Moran makes this claim in the wake of the single most heavily-covered attacks claimed by al-Qaeda at the time, one line in particular speaks towards the larger problem of conflation concerning al-Qaeda.
After claiming that the US necessarily had to work with Joseph Stalin during WWII, and could not have weathered the Cold War without supporting Lon Nol (opposed to Pol Pot) in Cambodia, Moran declares that there are certainly periods during which the US must necessarily “hold its nose and shake hands with the devil for the good of the planet.” In Moran’s mind bin Laden, however, should not have been counted among these expedient devils. As evidence, he offers the following:
“But just as surely, there are times when the United States, faced with such moral dilemmas, should have resisted the temptation to act. Arming a multi-national coalition of Islamic extremists in Afghanistan during the 1980s – well after the destruction of the Marine barracks in Beirut or the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 – was one of those times.”
-Michael Moran, “Bin Laden Comes Home to Roost.”
Whether or not bin Laden was the right “devil” for the job is an argument to be had by policymakers. Retroactively connecting the ideologies of Hezbollah attacks in 1983 and 1984 and al-Qaeda’s embassy bombings in 1988 is rhetorical trickery. How could the acts of a Lebanese militia responding to Israeli aggression forewarn the US about a Saudi engineer’s impending attacks in Kenya and Tanzania? When Hezbollah carried out the bombing of the Marine barracks and the hijacking of TWA Flight 847, al-Qaeda had yet to be formed. Hezbollah was a Shia’ militia acting specifically to oppose Israeli aggression in Southern Lebanon and to free Shia’ captives taken by Israel during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. It should be noted that the acts responded to a series of Israeli aggressions, including the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, which were referenced in Osama bin Laden’s writing. However, that does not merit Moran’s connection between Hezbollah and the then-unborn al-Qaeda, as the massacres at Sabra and Shatila appear in the writings of myriad public figures. If Hezbollah’s acts should have warned the US that Osama bin Laden’s anger over Sabra and Shatila would drive him to launch attacks, the US should also be wary of Robert Fisk’s imminent terrorist activities, considering that he wrote much more on the massacre than bin Laden did. To imply otherwise is to state that all Islamic terrorism is the same, or at least springs from the same place, and to ignore differences between various groups. This is retrospective association, unusable in real-time and made by a commentariat taking advantage of the public’s general disregard for variance between Muslim groups.
This retroactive association of the acts of different Islamic groups through their common religion repeats itself almost every time an act of “international terrorism” occurs. On occasion, this trope is employed through other means. After the death of bin Laden, Johnathan Schanzer wrote an article in the Weekly Standard claiming that Hamas and al-Qaeda were strategically and materially linked. The base of his argument is that Ismail Haniyeh mourned the assassination of bin Laden, a development with which Schanzer says “most of the world” was profoundly happy. Schanzer offers no survey evidence or poll data to show that this is true. As further evidence of Hamas’s ties to bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Schanzer notes that members of both groups attended “Islamist” conferences in Sudan in the “early and mid-1990s.” These conferences are not detailed or named. Additionally, Schanzer offers the fact that both al-Qaeda and Hamas had founding members who were tangentially involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, a claim that at one time could have been leveled at over 2 million people in Egypt alone.,  The evidence Schanzer provides as proof of Hamas and al-Qaeda’s material ties is paper-thin.
Serious studies of any Islamic group stand only to lose through such spurious claims, which hamper analysis of the actual strategies, aims, theologies, and methodologies of these groups. The aims of Hamas, for example, are very much at odds with bin Laden’s global view of empire. Diluting the message of al-Qaeda, which was one of global resistance to a complex skeleton of American empire, by equating it with the singularly nationalist aim of Hamas handicaps understanding of both. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a prominent Hamas figure assassinated by Israel, firmly insisted that Hamas limit its operations to historic Palestine. Leaders since his death have upheld this position, which sharply contrasts with bin Laden’s global goals for resistance to American hegemony. Hamas is a Palestinian nationalistic enterprise, and an extensive comparison between it and al-Qaeda cannot be taken seriously.
Al-Qaeda has similar ideological disagreements with other groups. Currently, one en vogue comparison is that of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Recent strategic and ideological fissures between the two groups have gone largely ignored in favor of a much simpler strategy of simply dealing with them as if they are still both under the branch of al-Qaeda’s High Command. President Obama declared in October of 2014 that for all intents and purposes, they were essentially the same group. Earlier that year, however, al-Qaeda officially announced a split from ISIS. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted al-Qaeda’s objection to ISIS turning towards pronouncing takfir, or leveling accusations of apostasy against other Muslims, rather than targeting entities antagonistic towards Muslims.
This is not the first time al-Qaeda has renounced ties with a group over the issue of takfirism. Just as with the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) before, al-Qaeda found the massacre of other Islamist entities unconscionable. It is this rift that led to the formation of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which was started by bin Laden and originally named “The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat,” a “less radical” group than the GIA. Bin Laden’s rejection of takfirism is referenced in his interview with with Taysir Alluni, in which bin Laden asks that al-Qaeda “seeks God’s refuge” from such practices. Bin Laden received no pats on the back from Western diplomats for minimizing the reach and power of the GIA in this move, because the differences between the groups went unrecognized by Western governments. Nearly 25 years have passed since then, yet Western commentators often still do not care to pick up on ideological rifts within Islamic militant communities.
Al-Qaeda fulfilled the same role as Osama bin Laden; each was an easy target for lazy association. As commentators ignored the specificity of bin Laden’s background and worldview, al-Qaeda’s specific global directives were ignored and tied to militant groups ranging from ISIS to Hamas to Hezbollah and back again. Just as it is dangerous to ignore the Hadrami background that assists in shaping bin Laden’s view of global empire, his position within the Saudi state, and his particular theological outlook, it is dangerous to ignore the particular context of al-Qaeda’s growth, its strategic practices, and its unique theological principles. Military action taken against one militant group will not have the same effect as military action against a separate militant group. Unfortunately, any political heed for such rifts seems far away, despite the obvious material toll that has been paid and will be paid for such ignorance in the future. Policy should be tailored to the individual tendencies of each group, whether they affect military action, intervention policy as pertaining to hostages and civilians, or broader political negotiation. As a pertinent example, al-Qaeda affiliates have proven to be willing to negotiate the release of hostages while ISIS has been more hesitant. It is far too fitting that Jabhat al-Nusra (now named Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and removed from the al-Qaeda fold) released Peter Theo Curtis just days after ISIS beheaded James Foley. The notion of pinprick political action is impossible to implement without serious considerations of variance between militant groups. Osama bin Laden’s placement as the universal bogeyman for all “Islamic terrorism” has blocked any serious discussions about how best to understand the ideologies of such groups, not to mention that of the late bin Laden himself.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ackerman, Spencer. “Obama Maintains Al-Qaida and Isis Are ‘one and the Same’ despite Evidence of Schism.” The Guardian. 2014. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/02/isis-al-qaida-obama-administration-argument-same-strikes-break.
Andersen, David Abel Travis. The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), August 26, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2017. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-37109032.html?refid=easy_hf.
“Context of ‘1993: Algerian GIA Joins Forces with Al-Qaeda'” History Commons. Accessed June 29, 2016. http://www.historycommons.org/context.jsp?item=a93alqaedagia.
Durodie, Bill. “Home-grown nihilism: the clash within civilisations.” In Terrorism in the UK: a Workshop on Radicalisation, 2007. University of Bath, 2007.
Fisk, Robert. “Anti-Soviet Warrior Puts His Army on the Road to Peace: The Saudi Businessman Who Recruited Mujahedin Now Uses Them for Large-scale Building Projects in Sudan. Robert Fisk Met Him in Almatig.” The Independent. December 5, 1993. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/anti-soviet-warrior-puts-his-army-on-the-road-to-peace-the-saudi-businessman-who-recruited-mujahedin-1465715.html
Fisk, Robert. “The Forgotten Massacre.” The Independent. September 14, 2002. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-forgotten-massacre-8139930.html.
Ho, Engseng. “Empire through diasporic eyes: A view from the other boat.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 46, no. 02 (2004): 210-246.
Husain, Irfan, and Stephen P. Cohen. Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West. Arc Manor LLC, 2012.
Laden, Osama Bin, Bruce B. Lawrence, and James Howarth. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. “To the People of Europe.” London: Verso, 2005. Page 236.
Moran, Michael. “Bin Laden Comes Home to Roost.” Msnbc.com. August 24, 1998. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3340101/t/bin-laden-comes-home-roost/#.Vyk-mKMrJPM
Said, Edward W., and Christopher Hitchens. Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question. London: Verso, 1988.
Schanzer, Johnathan. “The Hamas-al Qaeda Alliance.” Weekly Standard. May 02, 2011. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-hamas-al-qaeda-alliance/article/558605.
Zelin, Aaron. “Al-Qaeda Disaffiliates with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham.” – The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. February 4, 2014. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/al-qaeda-disaffiliates-with-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-al-sham
 Ho, Engseng. “Empire through diasporic eyes: A view from the other boat.”Comparative Studies in Society and History 46, no. 02 (2004): 210-246.
 Said, Edward W., and Christopher Hitchens. Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question. London: Verso, 1988.
 Durodie, Bill. “Home-grown nihilism: the clash within civilisations.” In Terrorism in the UK: a Workshop on Radicalisation, 2007. University of Bath, 2007.
 Fisk, Robert. “Anti-Soviet Warrior Puts His Army on the Road to Peace: The Saudi Businessman Who Recruited Mujahedin Now Uses Them for Large-scale Building Projects in Sudan. Robert Fisk Met Him in Almatig.” The Independent. December 5, 1993. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/anti-soviet-warrior-puts-his-army-on-the-road-to-peace-the-saudi-businessman-who-recruited-mujahedin-1465715.html.
 Moran, Michael. “Bin Laden Comes Home to Roost.” Msnbc.com. August 24, 1998. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/3340101/t/bin-laden-comes-home-roost/#.Vyk-mKMrJPM
 Laden, Osama Bin, Bruce B. Lawrence, and James Howarth. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Laden. “To the People of Europe.” London: Verso, 2005. Page 236.
 Fisk, Robert. “The Forgotten Massacre.” The Independent. September 14, 2002. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-forgotten-massacre-8139930.html.
 Schanzer, Johnathan. “The Hamas-al Qaeda Alliance.” Weekly Standard. May 02, 2011. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-hamas-al-qaeda-alliance/article/558605.
 Husain, Irfan, and Stephen P. Cohen. Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West. Arc Manor LLC, 2012.
 Ackerman, Spencer. “Obama Maintains Al-Qaida and Isis Are ‘one and the Same’ despite Evidence of Schism.” The Guardian. 2014. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/02/isis-al-qaida-obama-administration-argument-same-strikes-break.
 Zelin, Aaron. “Al-Qaeda Disaffiliates with the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham.” – The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. February 4, 2014. Accessed May 05, 2016. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/al-qaeda-disaffiliates-with-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-al-sham.
 Laden, Osama Bin, Bruce B. Lawrence, and James Howarth. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. “To the People of Europe.” London: Verso, 2005. Page 236.
 Andersen, David Abel Travis. The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), August 26, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2017. http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-37109032.html?refid=easy_hf.