The World According to Usama Bin Laden

Article excerpt

Since 11 September 2001, a day etched in the memories of all Americans, Usama Bin Laden has replaced Saddam Hussein as Public Enemy Number One. This is hardly surprising, given the growing consensus that the Saudi fugitive and his shadowy Al-Qaeda network were responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil, the single deadliest act of terrorism anywhere to date.

For over a decade Iraq's Saddam Hussein had been perceived as a "new Hitler," a totalitarian thug with nasty weapons and an age-old quest for personal and national aggrandizement. Americans felt they understood his agenda of territorial irredentism and greed. Moreover, while he "talked the talk," he could not "walk the walk." His threat to unleash the "mother of all battles" with his vaunted army turned into the "mother of all embarrassments," the humiliating defeat of that army in February 1991.

Bin Laden, on the other hand, is terrifyingly different for most Americans. Perhaps many were vaguely familiar with him as a result of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole (DDG 67) in Aden Harbor in 2000, all of which he is suspected of masterminding. Now, as a result of terror attacks by which he "reached out and touched" the homeland, Bin Laden is known, at least by name, to every American.

The attacks were carried out against the symbols of American economic and military power, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There are indications that the White House, the symbol of American political power, was also a target. The attacks of 11 September 2001 constituted not only a political, economic, and psychological blow but also a cultural shock to Americans. Bin Laden's ideas and visions are unfamiliar to most Americans, who find the idea of a holy war in this day and age bizarre. Questions abound: "Why do they hate us?" "What does he want?" Indeed, Bin Laden's goals remain the least understood aspect of this crisis.

His methods were unfamiliar to most Americans, who have indeed suffered from acts of terror committed against them and their country's interests, but overseas. Large-scale terror attacks at home have been rare. The conspiracy to bring down the World Trade Center towers in 1993 and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995 were significant acts of terror, but they pale by comparison with the events of 11 September 2001. The latter attacks were diabolically brilliant in conception and execution. The perpetrators did not use 11 normal" weapons of war-they attacked the United States not with intercontinental ballistic missiles but with commercial aircraft used as guided missiles-and the result was the deaths of thousands of innocent people. If this was not terrorism, what is?

We can eschew a long and ultimately futile discussion of the definition of terrorism. Much ink has been spilled on this topic.' The definition used by the U.S. government (and analyzed in detail by Paul Pillar) is sufficient for the purposes of this paper: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."2

The 11 September perpetrators were not ten-foot-tall "supermen" but "ordinary," in some cases well educated, men who planned their mission well but who also made many mistakes prior to the commission of their act.3 Moreover, the hijackers were not armed with the latest in sophisticated gadgetry but with box cutters and knives. Nonetheless, and most important, they were willing to lay down their lives. They were of a breed of men that one Israeli terrorism expert has called "Islamikaze. But they are not a new phenomenon, their kind having appeared in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Suicide attacks have plagued Israel since the mid- 1990s and have caused a considerable number of casualties during the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians that erupted in October 2000. …