Inside the Mind of Osama Bin Laden
Strategy Mixes Long Preparation, Powerful Message Aimed at Dispossessed

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2001; Page A01

Several months after Osama bin Laden declared holy war on the United States in August 1996, an Arab journalist trekked up to his hide-out, 8,000 feet high in the mountains of southern Afghanistan. Why, he asked the fugitive Saudi millionaire and terrorism financier, had there been no immediate attacks to back up the threats?

"If we wanted to carry out small operations, it would have been easy to do," bin Laden told the reporter. "The nature of the battle requires good preparation."

In the 10 years before his emergence last week as the prime suspect in the deadliest terrorist attack in history, bin Laden, 44, has described his goals, grievances and tactics in great detail in a series of statements and interviews. Taken together, these statements provide insight into an ideology that seems abhorrent and even crazy to the vast majority of Americans but has been carefully crafted to appeal to the disgruntled and dispossessed of the Islamic world.

Elements of the attacks in New York and Washington were foreshadowed by bin Laden's explanations of his vision and methods. One of his themes, for example, is the importance of guerrilla warfare, as opposed to frontal combat with a more powerful enemy. Another is the need for lengthy preparation. Meticulous planning -- sometimes for as long as three or four years -- has been a hallmark of terrorist operations associated with bin Laden, including the 1998 bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa and the destruction of the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, last year.

At the heart of the bin Laden opus are two declarations of holy war -- jihad -- against America. The first, issued in 1996, was directed specifically at "Americans occupying the land of the two holy places," as bin Laden refers to his native Saudi Arabia, where 5,000 U.S. troops have been stationed since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The two holy places are Muslim shrines at Mecca and Medina.

In 1998, he broadened the edict to include the killing of "Americans and their allies, civilians and military . . . in any country in which it is possible to do it."

Although the first attacks directly associated with bin Laden took place in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, East Africa and Yemen, he made clear all along that he planned to bring his war to the American homeland. The battle will "inevitably move . . . to American soil," he told ABC News reporter John Miller in May 1998, shortly after publication of the second edict.

In return for joining the jihad against America, bin Laden promises his followers an honored place in paradise, in accordance with the statement in the Koran that "a martyr's privileges are guaranteed by Allah." True Islamic youths, bin Laden argued in his 1996 decree, know that their rewards from fighting the United States will be "double" their rewards from fighting other countries. Their only aim in life, he has told Americans, is "to enter paradise by killing you."

Against U.S. Presence

The pivotal date in bin Laden's emergence as a sworn enemy of the United States is 1991, the year of the Persian Gulf War. The son of a fabulously wealthy Saudi construction magnate, he had just returned home to Saudi Arabia after a decade fighting alongside the Afghan mujaheddin in their CIA-funded insurrection against the Soviet army. He was enraged to discover that "American crusader forces" were "occupying" his homeland.

In the American view, U.S. troops were in Saudi Arabia to liberate the neighboring state of Kuwait, which had been invaded by the armies of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. After the Gulf War ended, U.S. forces, which had not been stationed in Saudi Arabia before the war, remained on a semi-permanent basis to train the Saudi air force and police forces and protect the kingdom from further Iraqi mischief.

Bin Laden, along with an increasingly vocal Saudi opposition, saw the matter quite differently. In their view, the presence of foreign forces was an intolerable affront to 1,400 years of Islamic tradition, dating back to an injunction from the prophet Muhammad that there "not be two religions in Arabia." They argued that responsibility for defending the kingdom should fall on the Saudi government, which had poured billions of dollars into the military, rather than on Western "crusader forces."

Despite controlling 11 percent of the world's oil supply, Saudi Arabia was beginning to feel the effects of an increasingly serious economic crisis, caused by falling oil prices and widespread corruption. Bin Laden tied all this to the presence of foreign troops on Saudi soil and the "unjustified heavy spending on these forces" by the Saudi government. "The crusader forces became the main cause of our disastrous condition," he wrote in his 1996 declaration of jihad.

Two years later, in the 1998 decree, described by Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis of Princeton University as "a magnificent piece of eloquent, at times even poetic Arabic prose," bin Laden charged that Americans had declared war on Muslims. "For more than seven years the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic peoples."

In bin Laden's war, the goal of expelling the "Judeo-Christian enemy" from the holy lands of Islam should be met first on the Arabian peninsula. His next priority is Iraq, which for 500 years was the seat of the most powerful Islamic state, or caliphate. A distant third on this agenda is Palestine, site of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, which Muslims believe was the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Bin Laden's view of America is almost the mirror opposite of America's view of him. In his opinion, he and his supporters are waging a just war against American "terrorism." Terrorist acts committed by Americans, according to bin Laden, include the "occupation" of Saudi Arabia, the "starving" of up to a million Iraqi children because of U.N. sanctions, the withholding of arms to Bosnian Muslims in their war against Christian Serbs, and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II.

Terrorism, bin Laden told ABC News in 1998, can be both "reprehensible" and "commendable."

"In today's wars," he said, "there are no morals. [Americans] rip us of our wealth and of our resources and of our oil. Our religion is under attack. They kill and murder our brothers. They compromise our honor and our dignity and dare we utter a single word of protest against the injustice, we are called terrorists."

Bin Laden's declarations of jihad draw on a radical interpretation of Islam that is contested by most Muslims. In medieval times, Islamic jurists differed on the moral permissibility of using poisoned arrows and poisoning enemy water supplies, what Lewis describes as "the missile and chemical warfare of the Middle Ages." But at no point, Lewis wrote in a 1998 article for Foreign Affairs, do basic Islamic texts even consider "the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders."

Traditionally, responsibility for declaring a jihad rested with a community of scholars and theologians known as the ulema. But according to Khaled Abou el Fadl, an Islamic law expert at UCLA, the collapse of centralized authority in the Islamic world has led to a "moral and political vacuum" in which virtually any Muslim can declare a jihad. He added, however, that according to Islamic tradition, a religious decree, or fatwa, of the kind issued by bin Laden is "nonbinding" on other believers.

'Myth of the Superpower'

What Americans view as bin Laden's megalomania -- the conviction that he and a relatively small band of followers can defeat a superpower -- has its origins in the humbling of the Soviet superpower in the mountains of Afghanistan. In a CNN interview in 1997, he said that "the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims" as a result of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of mujaheddin.

Bin Laden's contempt for America seems even greater than his contempt for the Soviet Union. "The Russian soldier is more courageous and patient than the U.S. soldier," he told the London-based Arab newspaper, al-Quds al-Arabi, in 1996. "Our battle with the United States is easy compared with the battles in which we engaged in Afghanistan."

As examples of alleged American cowardice, bin Laden frequently cites the case of the withdrawal from Lebanon after the 1983 truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the withdrawal from Somalia after the 1993 killings of U.S. servicemen in Mogadishu. Bin Laden also has paid a great deal of attention to the symbolism of his targets. In a video that circulated widely in the Arab world earlier this year, he bragged of the attack on the USS Cole by a boat filled with explosives in Aden harbor in October 2000. The destroyer had the "illusion she could destroy anything," but was itself destroyed by a tiny boat, bin Laden said.

"The destroyer represented the West, and the small boat represented Muhammad," he boasted, according to a transcript of the videotape supplied by Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War Inc.," a forthcoming book about bin Laden.

2001 The Washington Post Company