Foreign Policy Blogs

The Genesis of Bin Laden

It is easy, indeed customary, for contemporary politicians and pundits to dismiss Osama bin Laden as "insane', "illogical', and "evil'. If this were true, the man and his movement would be far easier to dismantle. Instead, OBL is a result of a methodological, organized movement based in decades of Islamic thought. This article outlines the roots of bin Laden, and the various ideologies that make his brand of violent fundamentalism so dangerous and pervasive.

Osama bin Laden's philosophy is deeply rooted in the Saudi tradition of Wahhabism. The movement, created by Mohammed bin Abd al Wahhab in the eighteenth century, aims to "purify' Islam, and rejects any innovations or practices that stray from the 7th century teachings and practices of the prophet Mohammed. The movement is often referred to as Salafiyya, with Wahhabism regarded as the specifically Saudi, Sunni version of the ideology. The use of violence in this ideology is not uniformly accepted, but has gained greater legitimacy during the Afghani conflict against the Soviet Union, and its use has become increasingly supported. As such, Salafist organizations, such as bin Laden's al Qaeda aim to utilize violence to overthrow various modern governments of the region in an attempt to install states based on puritanical, traditional conceptions of Islamic law. This
tradition greatly influences bin Laden's attitudes towards the states of the Middle East, seeing governments as illegitimate in their rejection of "pure' Islam, and the legitimate use of jihad in their destruction. Stemming from this tradition, various individuals have had a profound impact on bin Laden, specifically Sayyid Qutb, Abdallah Azzam, and Abdel Salam al-Farag.

Having been taught by his younger brother at a university in Jeddah, Sayyid Qutb is deeply influential in the ideas of bin Laden, and can be considered the grandfather of the modern terrorist movement. He was pivotal in articulating fundamentalist ideology and goals, and helped create the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt. The fundamental idea of Qutb is best expressed in his work ‘Milestones on the Road’ (1965), where he argues that the Qu'ran is to be used as a blueprint for creating a greater "Islamic' state in the Middle East. For Qutb, the path towards this state will be recognized in stages, or milestones. It will culminate in a rejection of all contemporary societies and a separation from the infidels, a symbolic recreation of Mohammed's exodus from Mecca in the 7th century. Prior to Qutb, Islamic fundamentalist goals were limited and non-cohesive. Now they were revolutionary and clearly defined, both in aims and practice.

Another of bin Laden's professors, Abdallah Azzam, was greatly influential. One of Azzam's articles, specifically ‘Defending the Land of the Muslims is Each Man's Most Important Duty’, is seen as pivotal. The article, published in 1985, calls for jihad not simply against the local leaders and "apostates', but the west in general. For Azzam, jihad is a duty, arguing that because modern Islamic societies have rejected this call, modern Muslims "have become as rubbish of the flood waters.' He divides this duty in to two separate camps, both pivotal in the writings of bin Laden: defensive jihad and offensive jihad. Uniquely, offensive jihad justifies the use of violence against those that have not invaded Muslim territories, calling for "the sending of an army at least once a year to terrorize the enemies of Allah. Equally influential, Azzam justifies the killings of innocent Muslims in striking at the infidels. If the enemy is willing to "use Muslim captives as human shields in front of them in an advance to occupy a Muslim land,' he writes, "it remains an obligation to fight the ‘Kuffar’ (nonbelievers) even if this leads to the killing of the Muslim captives.'

Stemming from this dutiful conception of jihad is Muhammad Abdel Salam Aj-Farag, an Egyptian radical. His primary contribution to bin Laden's ideology was his division of the near-enemy from the far-enemy. In his lesser known work, 'the Neglected Duty’, he argues that jihad should be considered the sixth pillar of the Islamic faith, and that this duty should be discharged first at home and then abroad. He writes, "We must begin … by establishing the rule of God in our nation…. [T] he first battlefield for jihad is the uprooting of these infidel leaders and replacing them with an Islamic system from which we can build.' Bin Laden reverses the two enemies, envisioning local victories only when global enemies have been eliminated.
He formulated this plan during the Yom Kippur war, where he saw American support as ensuring Israeli victory over Syria and Egypt. As a result, the west needed to be defeated if support for both Israel and local, "puppet' regimes were to be stopped. Only then could real victory be achieved at home.

While the emphasis on the far enemy is fundamental for bin Laden, the distinction between near and far as outlined in Farag's article is paramount to bin Laden's ideology. Bin Laden writes, "I did not fight against the communist threat while forgetting the peril from the West…. I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts against communist or Western oppression. The urgent thing was communism but the next target was America…. This is an open war up to the end, until victory.' The Salafist tradition coupled with radical writings have had a profound impact in the ideas of bin Laden, but as seen during the Yom Kippur war, political realities are also important.

The harsh realities during bin Laden's formative years indeed shaped his philosophy towards the world around him. The governments of the greater Middle East, at least in the eyes of bin Laden, lacked any form of legitimacy. As such, a crisis of identity emerged across the region. What was Middle East's role in the world? What was the individual's role in the state? And what was religion's role in both? In answer to these questions, Islamic fundamentalists rejected the practice of the secular nation-state as hulul mastawrada, or "imported solutions'. The region became increasingly sympathetic to bin Laden's charisma, his philosophy towards the west, and his goal of a strong and religiously devout greater Middle East.

The crux of bin Laden's philosophy exists in the divine nature of man, and the instruction and obedience to Shari'ah. The abandonment of these ideals has led to the plight of modern Muslim societies, and can only be corrected through a stringent return to the teachings of the Prophet. As he blames contemporary society, mainly the Americans and Jews, for coercing Muslim society in to this abandonment, the only solution can be the total defeat of the far enemy accompanied by the collapse of the American-sponsored near enemy. Due to this divine understanding of human nature and international society, it becomes all Muslim's "duty' to protect their religion or die in the process. Indeed, it is the willingness, and in some sense fetishization of martyrdom that makes this ideology so unique. While other societies would regard these defeats as possible failures, bin Laden and his followers see their deaths as a great religious success, and one that has practical implications in their eventual victory. As such, the goal exists within the struggle, and is often the reason that bin Laden never truly articulates the vision of his victory.

For more information on the topic, I HIGHLY recommend reading ‘Messages to World’, available at The book, edited by Bill Lawrence, is a catalogue of bin Laden's most important speeches, interviews, and publications.



Josh Hammer

Josh Hammer is an International Relations theorist, with expertise in terrorist ideology, American foreign policy, and war / conflict resolution. He currently holds a Master's of Science degree in International Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the George Washington University. Josh's most recent work, his M.Sc. thesis, is a comparative analysis between Marxist / Leninist ideology and Osama bin Laden's global jihadi movement. He currently resides in New York.

Areas of Focus:
Terrorist Idealogy; American Foreign Policy; Conflict Resolution;


Great Decisions Discussion group