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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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.