Providence Magazine

Misunderstanding bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America”

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Osama bin Laden. (Wikimedia Commons)

Recently TikTok has posted and highlighted Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to Americans.” This letter was originally intended to appeal to Western audiences but failed spectacularly when it was first promulgated. However, it has now drawn much attention especially from those now trying to re-interpret him in their own truncated image as a representative of anti-colonialism. 

This is yet another example of “mirror-imaging” wherein many Westerners project their parochial interpretation of world events onto very different actors and interpret those other’s actions into preconceived secular categories. But bin Laden’s view of the world draws on a very different conceptual universe that can only be understood in terms of its deep religious roots.

The name usually given to bin Laden’s organization is “Al Qaeda,” but this is merely a nickname for an organization that has styled itself officially as the “World Islamic Front for Holy War against Jews and Crusaders.” The attacks perpetrated by this network have usually been accompanied by a plethora of videotapes, audiotapes, declarations, books, letters, fatwas, magazines, e-mails, and websites that present and explain its theology, its view of history and the political order, and its understanding of contemporary events, to explain and justify its actions in terms of its version of Islamic teaching, law, history, and practice.

These materials, now collected in several volumes, consistently expound a religiously shaped program that announces as its goal to unite Muslims worldwide into one people, the ummah, with one divinely sanctioned leader, a caliph, governed by a reactionary version of sharia (Islamic law), and organized to wage jihad on the rest of the world. It targets Muslim regimes in the Middle East that it regards as “apostates” from Islam, and opponents further afield, usually described as “Crusaders,” “followers of the cross,” “Jews,” or “infidels.”

Consequently, Al Qaeda’s attacks have not been confined to America or “the West.” Its members have sought to kill or silence those opposed to its version of Islam, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, on the Left or the Right, American, British, Israeli, Australian, French, Indian, Algerian, Sudanese, Indonesian, Thai, Timorese or Filipino. Most of its killings are now in West Africa, especially Nigeria, where it has contributed to deaths in the tens of thousands, whose lost Black Lives to terrorism are mostly ignored in the West.

Al Qaeda’s very own training manual begins not by recalling by American concerns such as the birth of Israel or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but an event little noted in America: “the fall of [the] orthodox Caliphates on March 3, 1924.” That this same event and historical period is a source of continuing grievance is shown in Osama bin Laden’s November 3, 2001, videotape–his first statement after the September 11 attacks–which similarly proclaims: “Following World War I, which ended more than 83 years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the Crusader banner.” For bin Laden, his followers, and his imitators, a key turning points in history was the ending of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent shattering of the Muslim ummah by Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk through his creation of modern secular Turkey and his abolition of the caliphate, the nominal leader of all Muslims. 

This 2001 proclamation also declared his basic belief: “This war is fundamentally religious. . .. Those who try to cover this crystal-clear fact, which the entire world has admitted, are deceiving the Islamic nation. This war is fundamentally religious. . . . This fact is proven in the book of God Almighty and in the teachings of our messenger, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him. This war is fundamentally religious. Under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us and the infidels. For, the enmity is based on creed.” 

Also, apart from Middle East concerns, he also castigated the United Nations for its worldwide support for a purported attempt “to divide the largest country in the Islamic world. . . . This criminal, Kofi Annan [UN Secretary-General], was . . . putting pressure on the Indonesian government, telling it, you have twenty-four hours to divide and separate East Timor from Indonesia by force. The crusader Australian forces were on Indonesian shores, and, in fact, they landed to separate East Timor, which is part of the Islamic world.”

These proclamations received support among some Muslims, but clearly, they failed at convincing many in the West. Hence, for a brief time thereafter, bin Laden tried a different tactic in his “Letter to Americans,” posted on the internet in October 2002.

This was a very marked departure from his many previous statements as in this case he attempted to appeal to Westerners by submerging his clear and explicit religious agenda and instead temporarily harped on some peculiarly Western grievances. He mentioned the Kyoto accord on global warming, environmental problems, election campaign finances, and the use of nuclear weapons on Japan—matters he had consistently ignored in his numerous statements over the previous decade. He also mentioned President Clinton’s “immoral acts” in the Oval Office, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, charging interest, and using women in advertising. So far these latter “moral” matters have drawn little attention from those attempting to recruit bin Laden as a posthumous ally in an anti-imperialist agenda.

But, even in this crude attempt to play to American prejudices, he still returned to his basic religious message and, above all, condemned the U.S. Constitution for not enshrining Islamic sharia and instead allowing the American people to make their own laws. He makes a fervent appeal to Americans to repent and become Muslim: “The first thing we are calling you to is Islam.”

This was the short-lived propaganda effort that is now gaining attention from those who now want to enlist bin Laden in their own very different political agenda. It failed in 2002 but recent attention to it shows our growing historical ignorance. 

This brief 2002 attempt to appeal to Western sensibilities went nowhere, and so bin Laden then reverted to reiterating his fundamental beliefs.  His January 2004 message not to the West but “to the Muslim nation” emphasized that because the West “invaded our countries more than 2,500 years ago[sic],” “It is a religious-economic war. . . . Therefore, religious terms should be used when describing the ruler who does not follow God’s revelations and path and champions the infidels by extending military facilities to them or implementing the UN resolutions against Islam and Muslims. Those should be called infidels and renegades. . . . [T]he confrontation and conflict between us and them started centuries ago. The confrontation and conflict will continue because the conflict between right and falsehood will continue until Judgment Day.”

Later, at the end of 2004, he warned Iraqis not to participate in the January 30, 2005, elections because the Iraqi constitution is “a jahiliyya [pre-Islamic] constitution that is made by man,” and Muslims may elect only a leader for whom “Islam is the only source of the rulings and laws.” On similar grounds, he forbade voting in Palestinian Authority elections because “the constitution of the land is a jahili made by man,” and added the religiously loaded claim that the then Fatah candidate, and now President, Mahmoud Abbas “is a Baha’i.” Since he regards Baha’is as apostates who should be killed, this was an especially damning view of the PLO.

Bin Laden and his cohorts were indeed concerned about the United States, Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But they have an explicit and highly developed religious worldview and so are especially concerned about Saudi Arabia’s holy sites and the Al-Aqsa mosque, and continually point to attacks by infidels in Lebanon, Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, “Fatani,” “Ogadin,” Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, Bosnia, “Bokhara,” Bangladesh, Turkey, Chad, Mauritania, South Sudan, Darfur, Algeria, the Philippines, Yemen, “Tashkent,” Indonesia, and East Timor.

Religious beliefs and ideology are not the only things we need to know to understand al Qaeda’s goals and actions. But we cannot understand these unless we take their religious beliefs seriously. Yet many in the West are fixated on their more familiar categories of globalization, ethnicity, the “West,” colonialism, and Middle Eastern nationalism, and thus miss the nature of terrorists’ beliefs, strategy, tactics, justifications, and goals. Hence, to the degree that we ignore the clearly articulated nature and goals of Islamist terrorism, we consistently misunderstand the nature of our conflicts.

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