What Actually Motivated Osama bin Laden

Americans have become far too willing to be led into conflicts they haven’t troubled themselves to properly understand.

After 10 years of waiting, billions of dollars spent, and thousands of lives lost, there was something anticlimactic about Osama bin Laden’s violent demise.

He went down in a torrent of lead in a seedy fortified compound, more like the doomed bête noire in a Hollywood gangster film than the world’s terrorist mastermind. The operation, as one might expect, was hailed by U.S. officialdom as redemption for one of the nation’s darkest days as well as a reminder that the danger posed by Islamist militants resonates as much today as it did in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Most predictably— and significantly, given how it relates to national security—there was no talk of what motivated bin Laden’s war on America in the first place. It is a public discussion that has yet to be held, and we neglect it at our peril. Otherwise, the war declared by President Obama’s predecessor may well become what it already looks like to much of the world: an endless, U.S.-led war on Islam.

The September 11 attacks, however obscene and inexcusable, were by bin Laden’s own account neither unprovoked nor inspired by some radical interpretation of the Muslim faith. Instead, they were a most extreme expression of widespread antipathy for America’s Middle East policies. Bin Laden laid out the basis for his animus against America as early as August 1996 when he lamented in a fatwa published by a London-based newspaper how “the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity, and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance,” a reference to America’s close relations with Israel as well as pliant but oppressive Arab regimes. He condemned what he said were U.S.-abetted massacres done to Muslim communities from Palestine to Chechnya and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who died from lack of food and medicine due to the “unjustifiable” U.S.-led sanctions on the country during the 1990s. The deployment throughout the Gulf states of U.S. forces, particularly in Saudi Arabia, he argued, is “the greatest of … aggressions incurred by the Muslims since the death of the prophet.” (The Pentagon tacitly acknowledged the provocative quality of its troop presence in the Saudi kingdom by dissolving it in 2003.) In the years that followed, bin Laden also excoriated Arab leaders—the very autocrats who now face popular uprisings against their rule—as corrupt apostates and traitors for bartering away control of their oil fields to western energy companies, as well as past and current U.S. embargoes on such Muslim countries as Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia.

By the time of the September 11 attacks, bin Laden’s opposition to U.S. policies—though not his embrace of violence as a means of resistance—was shared across a broad spectrum of humanity, both Muslim and non-Muslim, and secular as well as religious. Anyone whose job it was to anticipate the al Qaeda leader’s next move understood what drove him. No less an authority than Michael Scheurer, the CIA’s top Middle East specialist and who spent much of his career advocating for bin Laden’s liquidation, wrote in a 2004 book, “Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world.”

Scheurer, of course, was responding to a speech delivered to Congress by then President George Bush weeks after the September 11 attacks. In it, Bush declared that the country had been targeted, not as a combatant in the Middle East’s 60-year war, but by “enemies of freedom.” Al Qaeda leaders, he said, “hate … our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Peter Bergen, an expert on bin Laden and Jihadism, has vigorously disputed this. In his 2006 book, The Osama bin Laden I Know, he writes how the al Qaeda leader “has been pretty consistent about why he’s attacking the United States. It’s because of America’s foreign policies. ... It’s about what America has been doing in his backyard, as he sees it.” By grossly distorting bin Laden’s motives, however, Bush earned for himself a popular mandate to wage a global war against terrorism as if it were a symmetrical adversary in itself and not a tactic waged by the weaker side in an asymmetric struggle. The unintended consequences of such a ham-fisted approach—the calamitous invasion and occupation of Iraq, a national security state of unknown scope and depth, the moral tragedy of Guantanamo—are with us still.

Threat inflation, to say nothing of fabrication, was certainly not unique to the Bush White House. For more than six decades, American presidents have committed the nation to war against one grossly inflated or imagined threat after another, largely to meet imperatives of domestic politics rather than to protect core U.S. interests. The War on Terror, meanwhile, was the byproduct of George Bush’s profound contempt for the realities of the Middle East and America’s role in it, a hostility he extended to regional experts in his own government who may have counseled him away from disaster. [See a slide show of six potential terrorist targets.]

Parochialism and ignorance are not the stuff of conspiracy, however, and Americans have become far too willing to be led into conflicts they haven’t troubled themselves to properly understand. We should, by now, expect our elected officials to liberally lie, dissemble, and deceive. It is the citizen’s duty to be curious about the world he inhabits, to understand it for its own sake, and to dissent when politicians and pundits manipulate it for theirs. When powerful nations refuse to honestly account for the things they do, it degrades the public capacity for self-examination and correction. The people become complicit in a corrosive culture of denial.

If, as Lord Acton put it, absolute power corrupts absolutely, hegemonic power deludes lethally.