Osama Bin Laden's Global Jihad: Myth and Movement

By Jandora, John W. | Military Review, November/December 2006 | Go to article overview

Osama Bin Laden's Global Jihad: Myth and Movement


Jandora, John W., Military Review


ASSESSING THE SOUNDNESS of Osama bin Laden's global jihad concept by analyzing the movement and its myth has implications for U.S. information operations and counterinsurgency strategies and demonstrates the importance of cultural understanding. Much has been written already on the topic of global jihad, but my analysis is quite different from those that interpret Bin Laden's endeavors on the basis of Western thought. My analysis takes an inside-out (vice an outside-in) approach that is based on my interpretation of Arab-Islamic thought. Before engaging in this effort, though, we must first define key terms.

Definitions

In American society, the word "myth" is too often taken to mean "fictitious story" or "fable"-something to be discredited in rational and scientific pursuits. Thus, if the global jihad concept is a myth, it can be readily dismissed. This interpretation, however, runs counter to my intent. I use myth in its technical, anthropologie sense: a partly fictional story (or image) with some historic basis that imparts a lesson to society. In this sense, mythmaking is a culturally unique, effective means of influencing behavior, not something to be easily dismissed. With respect to Bin Laden's movement, the behavior sought is resistance to or rebellion against governmental authority, and the main mythic theme is grievance against that authority.

Myth of grievance. Many students of insurgency recognize the importance of the myth of grievance, although they do not all use this term. Some authors prefer "grievance narrative."1 In one of the more comprehensive works on insurgency, Bard O'Neil addresses the same concept in terms of "esoteric appeal."2 The difference in terminology, however, should be no distraction: it merely reflects difference in educational backgrounds, prospective audiences, references, and other influences. Regardless of which term is used, the significant point is that the myth is complex and adaptable and consists of many elements that might change in their use or emphasis over time.

Insurgency movement. Any use of "myth" warrants clarification, and so too does the use of movement. One of the basic meanings of the latter word is "an organized effort to attain some end." Expanding that definition, we can characterize Bin Laden's movement as militant and its end as political. Thus, we are dealing with insurgency or something akin to it.

In the U.S. Department of Defense's Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, insurgency is defined as "an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict."3 A resistance movement is defined as "an organized effort by some portion of the civil population of a country to resist the legally established government or an occupying power and to disrupt civil order and stability."4 There is considerable debate over how to classify Bin Laden's movement, but any movement has methods, strategies, and goals, and we can analyze these.

With key terms defined, we can move on to the substance and method of analysis. Most observers of contemporary jihadism agree that, with the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the movement now has two prominent leaders, Bin Laden and Ayman alZawahiri, and numerous advisers and ideologues who influence them. Observers also agree that the movement is not fully cohesive because the spokesmen's words convey different immediate objectives and emphases. To examine all of these differences and underlying motives and influences would require writing a book, so I am focusing on Bin Laden's concept, pointing out variances where they seem significant.

Articulating Jihad

Where does Bin Laden articulate his global jihad concept? It is not found in any one text, but rather in a series of public statements he has made since the early 1990s. The task of acquiring the text of these statements is more complicated than it might seem. Multiple, slightly different versions of Arabic "originals" exist, all with variant English translations.

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