Osama bin Laden is back, opening American eyes to the innumerable ills of their society.
A 21-year old letter from the former al-Qaeda chief recently went viral on TikTok, prompting many of its denizens—primarily Gen Z's and not a few Millennials—to "see the light." A few reactions to reading bin Laden's so-called "Letter to Americans" (2002) follow:
"It's wild and everyone should read it. If you haven't read it yet, read it. However, be forewarned that this has left me disillusioned and I feel the same exact way I felt when I was deconstructing Christianity."
"I will never look at life the same again; I will never look at this country the same."
"I feel like I'm going through an existential crisis right now."
"I guarantee you it's going to blow your mind."
"[The letter] is actually so mind-fuc*ing to me, that terrorism has been sold as this [false] idea to the American people.
What revelations, pray tell, did Mr. Laden make in this "mind-blowing" letter? Originally titled "Why We Are Fighting You," Osama listed all of the ("official") reasons that prompted al-Qaeda to strike the U.S. on September 11, 2001, including: U.S. support for Israel at the expense of Palestinians; U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; U.S. support for dictatorial regimes throughout the Muslim world; and any number of other political and social criticisms. Indeed, not one to leave any stones unturned, bin Laden, now in the guise of a tree-hugger, even accused Americans of "destroy[ing] nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement."
Thus, al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. only because it was making Muslim life—indeed, the world's life—miserable. As bin Laden was fond of saying, "Reciprocal treatment is part of justice."
The problem with Osama's litany against America (and, in other letters, the West in its entirety) was that, true or false, none of his accusations were the ultimate reason that al-Qaeda hated the U.S. and Europe. As I have been showing since 2005, bin Laden and al-Qaeda were notorious for saying one thing to the West ("we attacked you because you attacked us") and another to Muslims ("we must hate and attack the West because it is infidel").
This was the entire basis of my 2007 book, The Al Qaeda Reader. I, like today's TikTok users, knew of bin Laden's constant accusations, including his "Letter to the Americans." In 2004, however, I came across a number of Arabic documents that were written by the al-Qaeda leader, as well as his then second, Ayman Zawahiri, while working at the Library of Congress.
[T]he documents struck me as markedly different from the messages directed to the West, in both tone and (especially) content. It soon became clear why these particular documents had not been directed to the West. They were theological treatises, revolving around what Islam commands Muslims to do vis-à-vis non-Muslims. The documents rarely made mention of all those things — Zionism, Bush's "Crusade," malnourished Iraqi children — that formed the core of Al Qaeda's messages to the West. Instead, they were filled with countless Koranic verses, hadiths (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), and the consensus and verdicts of Islam's most authoritative voices. The temporal and emotive language directed at the West was exchanged for the eternal language of Islam when directed at Muslims. Or, put another way, the language of "reciprocity" was exchanged for that of intolerant religious fanaticism. There was, in fact, scant mention of the words "West," "U.S.," or "Israel." All of those were encompassed by that one Arabic-Islamic word, "kufr" — "infidelity" — the regrettable state of being non-Muslim that must always be fought through "tongue and teeth."
To document this discrepancy, I translated and juxtaposed al-Qaeda's many Arabic writings that were meant for Muslim eyes only, with the group's writings meant for Western consumption (respectively in the "theology" and "propaganda" sections of The Al Qaeda Reader).
The "Letter to Americans" (pp. 196-208) is an example of the latter.
As for examples of the real, ultimate problem between Islam and the West, consider: soon after 9/11, an influential group of Saudi apologists wrote an open letter to the United States saying, "The heart of the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims is justice, kindness, and charity." Outraged by such a claim, Bin Laden discretely wrote to the Saudis the following:
As to the relationship between Muslims and infidels, this is summarized by the Most High's Word: "We renounce you. Enmity and hate shall forever reign between us — till you believe in Allah alone" [Koran 60:4]." So there is an enmity, evidenced by fierce hostility from the heart. And this fierce hostility — that is, battle — ceases only if the infidel submits to the authority of Islam, or if his blood is forbidden from being shed, or if Muslims are at that point in time weak and incapable. But if the hate at any time extinguishes from the heart, this is great apostasy! Allah Almighty's Word to his Prophet recounts in summation the true relationship: "O Prophet! Wage war against the infidels and hypocrites and be ruthless. Their abode is hell — an evil fate! [9:73]." Such, then, is the basis and foundation of the relationship between the infidel and the Muslim. Battle, animosity, and hatred — directed from the Muslim to the infidel — is the foundation of our religion [p. 43]
Even if the West were to do everything he demanded, short of converting to Islam, terror would still to be its lot, said bin Laden, citing history:
When the king of the Copts of Egypt tried improving relations with the Prophet by dignifying his messenger and sending him back on a beast of burden laden with clothing, and a slave-girl, did such niceties prevent the Companions from raiding the Coptic realms, forcefully placing them under Islamic rule? [p.48]
The answer is no. As both Islamic theology commands and history attests, concessions or "niceties" are never enough: submission to Islam is the price for peace. Christian Egypt, through atrocities that now boggle the mind (see Chapter 1), was violently conquered and Islamized in the seventh century.
Put differently, and despite this newfound and "life changing" shock at bin Laden's 21-year-old accusations against America, it has long been known that al-Qaeda, unlike the more forthright ISIS, was actively trying to manipulate and demoralize Western opinion through leftist talking points, while inciting Muslims through standard jihadist talk. Even Wikipedia's entry for "Motives for the September 11 attacks" (surprisingly) states that,
Raymond Ibrahim, as a researcher at the Library of Congress, found a significant difference between Al Qaeda's messages in English directed to a Western audience and al Qaeda's Arab messages and documents directed to an Islamic audience. The Western-directed messages listed grievances as grounds for retaliation employing the "language of 'reciprocity.'" Literature for Islamic audiences contained theological motivations bereft of references to the acts of Western nations.
In short, these poor TikTokers really need to catch up and get with the times.
Raymond Ibrahim, author of Defenders of the West and Sword and Scimitar is the Distinguished Senior Shillman Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and the Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.