The Motives of Osama Bin Laden for the September 11 Attack
The 9/11 attack on September 11, 2001 remains the worst terrorist act on American soil ever – both in terms of casualties and impact on the American people. There are countless theories as to what Osama bin Laden’s motives were. Osama bin Laden’s motives for the 9/11 attack on the United States were triggered by multiple factors. Some of the factors included the clash within Islam, the decline of the Middle East after World War One, and the radicalization of Muslims caused by the Afghan jihad. I believe that Osama bin Laden was trying to seek revenge over the West for its treatment of Muslims and policies in the Muslim World.
Background of Muslims in the Middle East
The religion of Islam has over one billion followers. Islam itself does not present a united face and is practiced in a variety of ways. The question is which Islam do they represent?
David Plotz, (2001) in his article “What does Osama bin Laden Want?” describes the growth of the extremist in the Muslim world over the last 30 years. He states that the extremists believe that their Muslim World is being destroyed by a variety of factors such as infidels within the Muslim World and outside, such as countries like the United States. He states that even governments of some Muslim countries such as Egypt and Jordan are not remaining true to the strict Islamic principles and that Jihad is necessary to drive out the infidels. Plotz also states that Bin Laden wants to re-establish The Caliphate which would mean one government for all Muslim countries.
Three events in the Middle East in 1979 served as a turning point for Muslims, as Muslims began to question the position of their faith. The three events are - the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in January, the Egypt-Israel Peace deal in April and in December the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Overthrow of the Shah of Iran
In 1979, Iran was ruled by a monarchy and the leader was the Shah of Iran. The Shah had friendly relations with the United States and supported promoting growth of the economy, women’s rights and the education of women. However, his government was also very strict and had become a police state. The United States maintained their interest in the government of Iran because it had hoped to stop the spread of Communism from the Soviet Union. Many Shia clerics did not agree with the Shah’s government. Protests gradually gave way to revolution and eventually the Ayatollah Khomeini, an exiled religious leader living in France, was brought to power. (Szczepanski, 2017) This example demonstrated a change in one Muslim country that was trying to cut ties with the US and at the same time brought a Muslim government to power that would be truer to Islamic faith.
Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to help the Communist government defeat guerrilla Muslim troops. Communist governments controlled Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s. The Soviet Union supported and encouraged the practice of communism in other governments, and lent a helping hand to nearby Afghanistan to quell anti-Communist actions.
In 1989, the Soviets left Afghanistan and the Taliban was able to take control. Taliban is the plural of “talib” and it means “religious student”. (Bergen, 2002) The Taliban did make the country safer and restored order, despite the harsh treatment of women.
Egypt and Israel Peace Deal
The relations between Israel and Egypt had been very tense since Israel’s establishment in 1948. The Americans helped to bring about a Peace deal between the two countries, ending 30 years of hostilities between Egypt and Israel. Unfortunately, the peace deal wasn’t popular with Muslim extremists. Egypt was suspended from the Arab League and in 1981 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by Muslim extremists. This demonstrates the Muslim extremists’ dislike for both American and Jews in the Middle East.
The life of Osama bin Laden
Bin Laden’s father was very wealthy. The family was one of the wealthiest in Saudi Arabia, as he made millions through construction. The family originated in Yemen but moved to Saudi Arabia approximately 1930. The company was able to diversify by buying land and many other businesses. (Taylor, 2013)
Osama bin Laden was born in 1957. He was the seventeenth son of Mohammed bin Laden. Osama’s father was very religious. His father encouraged “piety and respect for family business” (Bergen, 2001). Osama bin Laden first married at the age of 17. At University, he studied economics. He showed an early interest in religion.
Influences of Osama bin Laden
At University in Jeddah, he became associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. He came under the spell of two prominent teachers of Islamic Studies. One was Abdullah Azzam and the other was Mohammed Qutb. Azzam created the first internet Jihadist network. Qutb was an interpreter of the Jihadist Network movement. Azzam stated that the Muslim people needed to free themselves from ignorance. It was in the Islamic order to make jihad against enemies of Islam (Bergen, 2001).
The Formation of Al-Qaeda
In 1989, Osama bin Laden founded Al-Qaeda, which means “the base” in Arabic. Bin Laden applied business principles to his organization. His top aides were all well-educated; they included a physician, an entrepreneur, an accountant, a psychologist and an electrical engineer. He had many different committees, such as a finance committee and a media committee but Osama bin Laden was the director or chairman of all facets of the organization.
Helped in large part by the internet, it was easy to recruit people for his holy war. The internet also allowed bin Laden’s message to be widespread. There were websites where militants could swap tips for information on how to get jihad training. (Bergen, 2001) Having now formulated his plan, it soon became time to put his plans into action.
The 9/11 Attack
On the morning of September 11, 2001, nineteen men from a variety of Arab countries had a mission to overtake four US flights and fly the planes into four American landmarks. These landmarks were the North and South tower of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a fourth unknown target that could possibly have been the White House. The fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, likely due to the passengers onboard overtaking the terrorists. The earth shattering mission resulted in approximately three thousand fatalities.
Major Events in the Muslim World after the 9/11 Attack
US Invasion of Afghanistan
The backlash from the unthinkable attacks came fast as US President Bush declared war on Afghanistan. At this time it was believed that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden. On October 7, 2001, the Taliban refused to hand bin Laden over. In response, the US and UK military forces, supported by NATO, began a massive bombing attack on major Afghan cities. By mid-November, the capital of Afghanistan had fallen and it was presumed that bin Laden had escaped to Pakistan in December of 2001. (Habeck, 2005)
US Invasion Iraq
Later, the US turned its focus to Iraq. In March of 2003, the Americans invaded Iraq and the Iraq War began. The Americans believed that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction that the UN had not permitted. The capital city of Baghdad fell by April and later that year the president Saddam Hussein was captured and eventually killed by the Americans.
The Motives of Osama bin Laden
Decline of the Middle East
Many scholars would argue that the Muslim World is in a crisis. After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was disbanded by the Sykes-Picot agreement. The Ottoman Empire had united the Muslim world for centuries. This lead to the Muslims feeling degraded. Just as the Treaty of Versailles had divided and humiliated Germany after World War I, Osama bin Laden felt that the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 had the same effect on the Muslim world. For this reason, Osama bin Laden stated that what America experienced on September 11, 2001 was a fraction of what the Muslims had been feeling for 80 years. (Bergen, 2006)
US Foreign Policy in the Middle East
According to Plotz (2001) bin Laden “is furious about American support for Israel”. To begin with, the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948 was problematic for Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East. The American support for Israel was unbearable to militants such as Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden had a hatred for the Jewish people and now they were being supported by the Americans.
In 1990, the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq for violations against the United Nations. By May of 1996 there was an estimated 500,000 children who had died as a result of the sanctions imposed on Iraq (Bergen, 2001; Crossette, 1995) Bin Laden was angry by the large numbers of innocent Muslim children who died from malnutrition.
According to the book Holy War, Inc. by Peter Bergen, Bergen delivered an intriguing interview of Osama bin Laden that stated bin Laden had said, “Our main problem is the US government”. This articulates the idea that bin Laden believed that the American government should not have a presence in any Muslim country. (Bergen, 2001)
A Clash within Islam
Despite Muslim countries sharing a common religion, this did not mean their political views were all in harmony. For instance, bin Laden, who was from Saudi Arabia, did not agree with the government of Saudi Arabia. A source close to bin Laden described bin Laden saying he was “violently opposed to the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia”. (Bergen, 2001) Bin Laden believed that being loyal to the US regime meant that Saudi Arabia had committed an act against Islam. (Bergen, 2001). This demonstrated a clash between different groups of Muslims. Another example would have been when bin Laden pointed out that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait for its oil. Bin Laden was critical of Suddam Hussein and remarked in his interview that Hussein was not a true Muslim leader (Bergen, 2001)
Radicalization of Muslims
In “The Religious Sources of Terrorism” the author Schmuel Bar argued that the modern Muslim societies have “strayed from the straight” and the solution was to return to the original mores of Islam. He further stated that The West was not to blame but had served as a trigger for the Islamic awakening. (Bar, 2004) In this context, jihad was against apostate infidels within the Middle East. The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets in 1979 was “a watershed event” that revived the concept of jihad as a personal duty to evict infidels in a Muslim country. Bar argues that this duty is like a sixth pillar of Islam and that those that ignore it “will inherit hell”.
Osama bin Laden’s brand of Islam
Doran noted in “Someone Else’s Civil War” that terrorism was used to create fear. In the case of Osama bin Laden it was designed to provoke a reaction from the Americans as a result of the fear created by the 9/11 Attack. He wanted to get a reaction from the Americans and that the American military reaction would bring about harm brought to innocent Muslim civilians. He wanted to unify the Umma (the universal Muslim community) with the message that Americans were willing to begin a military campaign against Muslims.
Bin Laden’s goal, according to Doran, was to further the Islamic revolution within the Muslim World, especially in Saudi Arabia. He did not intend to defeat America, but to “help his brand of extremist Islam survive and flourish” (Doran, 2002) among the believers.
Further, Doran discussed the purpose of the Al Qaeda organization, which was to return Islam to the generation of Mohammed. He stated that bin Laden believed that “Muslims have deviated from God’s plan and he proposes to return Muslims to the proper state consistent with Mohammed”. The Islamic beliefs from this era placed great emphasis on jihad.
The results of what took place in the Muslim World before 2001 helped shape animosity between the Muslim World and the West. This created a vigorous tension that imploded on September 11 when Osama bin Laden, with the help of his Al Qaeda organization, put together an unforeseen attack that has created a harsh reality between the two groups. While no singular motive may exist, the motives may have come from a variety of factors. In my opinion, the most credible explanations for Osama Bin Laden’s attack on 9/11, came from the decline of the Middle East over the last eighty years, US Foreign Policy in the Middle East, a clash within Islam and the radicalization of Muslims.