The Magazine

Bin Laden, Beware

Here's how to break the spirit of the holy warriors.

Sep 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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If you are an American, raised on a diet of Western rationalism, it is difficult to understand the idea of holy war. We can look back hundreds of years to the Wars of Religion, where Christians rapaciously killed each other over matters of faith. We can look at Northern Ireland’s troubles and glimpse, just barely, divinely sanctioned warfare. We can of course look back to communism and fascism—the West’s most recent attempts to bring heaven to earth—and better appreciate the ideological fire that produces a moral imperative to kill women and children.

Yet we always want to avert our eyes from such burning light and believe that there must be accessible solutions to abate the anger of two opposing sides. The liberal in us wants to believe that humanity is bound by hope. The pragmatist inside never stops searching for some deal that will allow the avaricious and sybaritic side of human nature to triumph over messy, abstract idealism. The pacifist in our hearts doesn’t want to believe that people can see violence as an expression of fraternity and love.

On September 11 American rationalism got fuel-bombed by a force whose mores are hopelessly irreconcilable with our own. For Usama bin Laden, the Saudi holy warrior, and for the true-believers who converted civilian airliners into missiles, the hand of God really did take down the World Trade Center’s twin towers. This is an obvious point that bears repeating, since, as we seriously start thinking about how we are going to reply to this horrendous assault, American rationalism is likely to reenter the debate.

In Western Europe and Canada, very neat, tidy places, we can already see what’s brewing. The call to search for "the roots of this problem"—which inevitably implies that we have done something wrong, and until that something has been corrected we can expect others to be mean-spirit-ed—will no doubt return, at least on the left-hand side of America. We can confidently expect that Israel will somehow be blamed for this mess, since the Israeli-Arab confrontation, so the State Department has always told us, is obviously the epicenter of the anti-American hostility throughout the Middle East. (This is, of course, news to Usama bin Laden, as it is to Ayatollah Khomeini’s faithful followers, who don’t seem to think that five million Jews in Israel have sufficient stature to be the "Great Satan" in their battle between Good and Evil.) We can certainly expect guilt and anxiety to return to the op-ed pages as soon as America starts to punish bloodily those responsible in the Middle East. Holy wars are exceptionally ugly because they offer no escape from a guerre à outrance—even if only one side believes that God is at their backs.

And this is definitely a fight to the bitter end, which means first and foremost that we must eliminate Usama bin Laden. As long as he lives, we have lost the war against radical Islamic terrorism. He will never stop bombing us. His magnetism within militant Islamic circles is undeniable. He will never stop recruiting others to the cause. He has made a rag-tag outfit of Islamic militants, his terrorist umbrella organization Al Qaeda, in just a few years the most celebrated holy warriors in modern Islamic history.

Bin Laden didn’t do this, of course, all by himself: He has in all probability received critical assistance from other terrorist organizations and Middle Eastern states. The bombings in New York and Washington may well confirm what the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, strongly suggested—that either or both the Hezbollah of Lebanon (which means the ruling clergy of the Islamic Republic of Iran) and Saddam Hussein helped accelerate the learning curve of bin Laden’s kamikazes.

But it is bin Laden, not the leaders of Hezbollah, Iran, and Iraq, who has become the poster boy of anti-Western hostility throughout the Middle East. Bin Laden, far more effectively than Saddam Hussein, has been tweaking the nerves of Islamic civilization, which has experienced 300 years of defeat by Western armies but vividly remembers a millennium of triumphs over Christians and Jews. He knows how to play the passions of the oldest clash of civilizations. Like Iran’s ruling clerics, the Saudi militant reminds his listeners that the West not only physically invades the Muslim world (U.S. military bases in the Persian Gulf, Israel) but culturally and spiritually pollutes the Muslim soul. Little, slavish, Westernized dictators and kings, according to bin Laden, now rule the Muslim umma, the community of believers.

And bin Laden intends to smite them both. The assaults on America’s embassies, ships, and cities and the recent kamikaze attack on Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famous (particularly in the Middle East), awe-inspiring commander of the anti-Taliban Afghan opposition, show clearly that he can do both. What hasn’t been fully appreciated in the West is the extent to which bin Laden and the other radical Islamists in his orbit have a domestic, Middle Eastern agenda. They want to drive the West, physically and spiritually, out of the Islamic world, which means at home intimidating, preferably annihilating, backsliding Muslims who are far too comfortable with Western ways.

Bin Laden has been trying to show that a band of faithful Muslims can, with the right weapons in the hands of death-wish believers, reverse the history of the Muslim world. If you can repeatedly maul the United States, the spiritual cutting edge of Western civilization, and get away with it (and the Clinton administration’s feeble attempts to punish bin Laden with cruise missiles and court cases certainly gave no impression that America was defending its turf), you simultaneously degrade the West’s ideals, which is the ultimate objective. The collapse of the World Trade Center is in this sense, for an Islamic holy warrior, the most potentially promising victory since the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople in 1453.

Only Ayatollah Khomeini rivaled bin Laden in audacity and scope of vision. And, it’s worthwhile to recall, the United States had a devilish time trying to handle Khomeini. Saddam Hussein did a somewhat better job. After eight years of World War I-style warfare against Iran, Saddam finally cracked the holy-warrior, death-wish spirit that had infected an entire nation of young Iranians. We are, indeed, fortunate that we do not have to deal with a large country that exalts young men who ride across mine fields on motorcycles. Nevertheless, Khomeini and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) are helpful reference points for us now, as we design our battle plans against bin Laden.

First, when Khomeini died in 1989, things got better. The Ayatollah’s charisma wasn’t transferable. When he passed away, the truly violent spiritual furnace of Iran’s Islamic revolution went out. When bin Laden dies, things, too, will get better. We will still have other holy warriors to deal with; and we will still have other terrorist organizations and terrorist-supporting intelligence services to confront. But if we kill bin Laden, the champion of the movement will have been defeated in battle. Bin Laden’s awe, which has primarily been built upon dead Americans, will become ours. And we shouldn’t fear bin Laden’s becoming a martyr. As Presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Hafez al-Assad of Syria, who both squashed fundamentalist threats to their power, would advise, martyrs in the Middle East are a dime a dozen.

Second, you can crack the holy-warrior spirit through combat. It took years, but Saddam Hussein did it with artillery, machine guns, land mines, and flaming oil pits. The British did it in 1898 on the plains outside of Omdurman, where they defeated the holy warriors of the Mahdist regime in Sudan, with cannon-fire and Gatling guns. The Ottomans in 1514 broke the invincible spirit of the holy warriors under the ultra-radical Iranian Shah Ismail at the battle of Chaldiran with musketry and sword. The key in these conflicts, and so many more in Islamic history, was demonstrating with frightful clarity the indefatigability of the triumphant power. The United States obviously cannot and should not dominate the Middle East in the manner of the Ottoman Empire, but it can show, as it did in 1991, that it can deploy awesome firepower. It must also show, as it didn’t in the Gulf War, its staying power.

If we are going to defeat bin Laden, his allied holy warriors, and others who have supported them, we are going to have to understand that friendship for and part-nership with the United States in the Middle East primarily hinges on American power. It does not depend on whether Washington pursues policies our Middle Eastern "allies" like. It absolutely does not depend on whether Israel makes all of the concessions that Yasser Arafat wants. Indeed, an important part of the evanescing of American power in the Middle East since 1991 has been precisely due to the impression that America and Israel were tiring of the Israeli-Arab confrontation, that they both wanted, with increasing urgency through the 1990s, an escape from the costs and unpleasantness of the cold war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

With their liberal, lonely hearts working overtime, the Israelis threw themselves into the peace process in exactly the way the Department of State had always wanted: Concessions became the sine qua non of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s negotiating style. Also, the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was a catastrophe for Israel, and by extension, us, because the Israelis demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were wearying of the fight. Barak’s concession on East Jerusalem was, of course, the coup de grâce, giving Arafat and everybody else in the Middle East the impression that Israel, and America right behind her at the negotiating table, had gone completely wobbly—or to put it in the way most often reported in the American press, Israel had shown unexpected flexibility, moderation, and courage. Israel’s loss of nerve in Lebanon and its "flexibility" in the peace process were, of course, complemented and much compounded by America’s increasingly inept handling of an ever-stronger Saddam Hussein. For bin Laden and his holy warriors, and the Middle Eastern audience to which they constantly play, it was blindingly obvious by 1998, when Al Qaeda struck the U.S. embassies in Africa, that America was on the run.

To defeat bin Laden and his kind, we have to restore our awe, and the only way you acquire and retain such majesty in the Islamic Middle East is through the use of military power. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we cruise-missile an empty pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and rock-hut training camps in Afghanistan. It doesn’t mean that we fire cruise missiles for a couple of weeks at the Taliban (though that would be a good beginning). It means that we get up-close and personal, as Winston Churchill did at Omdurman.

It also means that we have the political and cultural stamina to sustain American troops in Afghanistan for as long as necessary to track down and kill bin Laden. Logistically, we obviously cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage to the fickleness of our allies, who support us now but may not support us so enthusiastically when CNN starts broadcasting the bloody images of America’s revenge. It also means that America must be prepared to inflict immense damage on any other terrorist organization or terrorist-supporting state, even if that means we have to scorch southern Lebanon or Revolutionary Guard dormitories and depot facilities in Tehran. We may have to commit the necessary resources and manpower to topple Saddam Hussein.

As we calculate the costs, we will be inclined to deceive ourselves with easy, silver-bullet solutions. The idea of covert action will no doubt rise again. We should immediately bury the thought in the Iraqi ashes of the Agency’s last covert-action fiasco. The Central Intelligence Agency, which has probably never seen bin Laden coming unless a foreign security service, or the eavesdroppers at the National Security Agency, gave them a tip, is incapable of conducting such operations. The CIA’s problems with counterterrorism are enormous, and they are systemic; they certainly do not spring, as former President Bush recently suggested, from human-rights restrictions on clandestine operations (would that CIA case officers even saw terrorists, let alone worried about the morality of recruiting them).

"Better intelligence"—how often have we heard that hopeful phrase?—isn’t going to save us now from making the hard military decisions. Even a first-rate intelligence service, which of course takes years to build, would still have a very difficult time tracking the activities of Usama bin Laden. Unless we get extraordinarily lucky, which means the Pakistanis actually become effective clandestine allies or the Taliban lose their nerve, we aren’t going to be able to assassinate bin Laden through proxies or a Delta Force commando squad. The battle against terrorism won’t be "the new warfare of the twenty-first century"; it’s going to be nineteenth-century warfare in the twenty-first century.

As we can already tell, the war against Usama bin Laden will be for the Middle East and us a defining experience. The fate of the Bush administration, which just a week ago focused on the economy, education, and the Social Security lockbox, will surely hinge on how well it fights this war, which means at the moment whether the U.S. military can kill bin Laden.

With bin Laden dead, we will no doubt see again Americans slaughtered by Islamic holy warriors. But when we down him and take back the awe that is ours, we will have turned the tide. After that, we will just have to persevere and slowly burn the hope out of Islam’s holy warriors.

The painful integration of the Muslim and Western worlds, which has been relentlessly moving forward for more than two hundred years, will then continue, God willing, with less bloodshed on both sides.