Distributed September 13, 2001
Copyright ©2001 by William O. Beeman
Op-Ed Editor: Janet Kerlin
About 800 Words


William O. Beeman

Understanding Osama bin Laden

A despicable act of mayhem such as those committed in New York and Washington is a measure of the revulsion that others feel at U.S. actions. If we perpetuate a cycle of hate and revenge, this conflict will escalate into a war that our great-grandchildren will be fighting.


The United States risks a severe miscalculation in dealing with the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. This event is neither an isolated instance of violence nor an “act of war.” It is one symptom of a cancer that threatens to metastasize. The root cause is not terrorist activity, as has been widely stated. It is the relationship between the United States and the Islamic world. Until this central cancerous problem is treated, Americans will never be free from fear.

Merely locating and hunting down a single “guilty party” in this case will not stop future violence: Such an action will not destroy the organization of terrorist cells already established throughout the world. Of greater importance, it will do nothing to alleviate the residual enmity against America that will remain at large in the world, continuing to motivate violence. The perpetrators of the original attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 were caught and convicted. This did not stop the recent attack.

The chief suspect is the Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden or his surrogates. He has been mischaracterized as an anti-American terrorist. He should rather be thought of as someone who would do anything to protect Islam. Bin Laden began his career fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 when he was 22 years old. He has not only resisted the Soviets but also the Serbians in Yugoslavia. His anger was directed against the United States primarily because of the U.S. presence in the Gulf, more particularly Saudi Arabia, the site of the most sacred Islamic religious sites.

According to bin Laden, during the Gulf War America co-opted the rulers of Saudi Arabia to establish a military presence in order to kill Muslims in Iraq. In a religious decree issued in 1998, he gave religious legitimacy to attacks on Americans in order to stop the United States from “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places.” His decree extended to Jerusalem, home of the al-Aqsa Mosque. The depth of his historical vision is clear when, in his decree, he characterizes Americans as “crusaders” harkening back to the medieval Crusades in which the Muslim-occupied Holy Lands were captured by Christians.

He will not cease his opposition until the United States leaves the region. Paradoxically, his strategy for convincing the United States to do so seems drawn from the American foreign policy playbook. When the United States disapproves of the behavior of another nation, it turns up the heat through embargoes, economic sanctions or withdrawal of diplomatic representation. In the case of Iraq following the Gulf War, America employed military action resulting in the loss of civilian life. The State Department has theorized that if the people of a rogue nation experience enough suffering, they will overthrow their rulers or compel them to adopt more sensible behavior. The terrorist actions in New York and Washington are a clear and ironic implementation of this strategy against the United States.

Bin Laden takes no credit for actions emanating from his training camps in Afghanistan. An ideologue, he believes that his mission is sacred, and he wants only to see clear results. For this reason, the structure of his organization is essentially tribal-cellular in modern political terms. His followers carry out their actions because they believe in the rightness of their cause, not because of bin Laden’s orders. Groups are trained in Afghanistan and then establish their own centers in places as far-flung as Canada, Africa and Europe. Each cell is technologically sophisticated and may have a different set of motivations for attacking the United States.

Palestinian members of his group see Americans as supporters of Israel in the conflict between the two nations. In the Palestinian view, Ariel Sharon’s ascendancy to leadership of Israel has triggered a new era, with U.S. officials failing to pressure the Israeli government to end violence against Palestinians. Palestinian cell members will not cease their opposition until the United States changes its relationship with the Israeli state.

The Mujaheddin fighters in Lebanon also direct their hostility against Israel and the United States. They also operate against the Maronite Christian community in their own country, who were supported by the French from World War I until the end of World War II. They will not cease their operations until the region is firmly in Islamic hands.

Above all, Americans need to remember that the rest of the world has an absolute right to self-determination that is as defensible as our own. A despicable act of mayhem such as those committed in New York and Washington is a measure of the revulsion that others feel at our actions that seemingly limit those rights. If we perpetuate a cycle of hate and revenge, this conflict will escalate into a war that our great-grandchildren will be fighting.


William O. Beeman teaches anthropology at Brown University in Providence, R.I. A specialist on Mideast culture, he has written extensively on fundamentalism and terrorism. He has worked for the last four years in Tajikistan, where he has been able to monitor developments in Afghanistan.

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