In 1999, House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare director Yossef Bodansky noted that “starting in the late 1970s, Islamist thinkers could see no way out of the crisis of Islam except for an all-out confrontation with the West.” His pre-9/11 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, remains revealing and prophetic two decades later in explaining the wider context of Osama bin Laden’s jihad.
Bodansky introduced his book by defining the “term Islamist” that was then relatively obscure but has since become mainstream. Perhaps overoptimistically distinguishing this phenomenon from a historically inherently political Islam, he did not thereby
refer either to someone who might be labeled ‘Muslim’ because of inherited religious beliefs and culture or to aspects of Islam, such as Islamic belief or the Islamic state. The term Islamist denotes the overwhelming prevalence of the political aspect—particularly radicalism, extremism, and militancy—pursued and perpetrated under the banner of Islam as interpreted by the practitioners. While commonly used in professional literature, the term Islamist is not often used by American journalists and other writers, who prefer such terms as Islamic intellectual, Islamic fundamentalist, or Islamic militant. Such usage, however, blurs the distinction between the majority of Muslims, and a minority, comprising extremist terrorists.
“To comprehend Islamist terrorism, one must address its theological-ideological roots,” Bodansky analyzed based on his definition:
Radical militant Islamism—the driving force behind and the ideology justifying international terrorism—emerged from Islam’s conflict with Westernization and modernity. The antagonism between Islamic and Western civilizations has festered for several centuries.
Bodansky described a culture clash between Islamic sharia law and non-Muslims, which the modern world only accentuated:
This crisis reached its first boiling point in the mid-1970s, when the Muslim world, empowered by new petrodollar wealth, was exposed to Western civilization as never before through graduate studies in the West, leisure travel, and satellite TV, still in its infancy. The shock was immense. Leading Islamist intellectuals, who had experienced life in the United States as graduate students, concluded that the personal liberties and materialism they had experienced in the West constituted a mortal threat to traditional Islamic society, which is regimented and bound by strict codes of behavior.
Globalizing technologies only accelerated these confrontations, Bodansky observed:
Today this crisis is escalating because of the widening gap between the West and the Muslim world and the intensifying exposure of the Muslim world to Western civilization through electronic media—from satellite TV to the Internet. The Islamists consider this exposure an onslaught against their way of life, a constant and flagrant reminder of backward Islam’s failures in science and technology.
Simultaneously, “Islamists are convinced that this deviation of Western society (particularly American society, where the separation between church and state is so strongly enforced) from the Islamic divine order of authority is the root cause of its social malaise,” Bodansky wrote. Especially “Bin Laden hates the United States passionately and considers it his principal enemy. He accuses the United States—the locus of Westernization and modernity—of being the source of all crises and trouble afflicting the Muslim world.”
For jihadists such as bin Laden, a “fertile ground exists for anti-Western terrorism” in Muslim societies that can “compel governments to take notice,” Bodansky noted. The “onslaught of Westernization through the electronic media and the growing dependence on imported goods has created a backlash in the Muslim street that the Islamists incite and manipulate to create grassroots hostility.” Meanwhile in many Muslim countries “regimes face internal problems that are nearly impossible to reconcile and resolve,” he added. Therefore, “determined to placate their own citizenry and under growing pressure from the West, more and more regimes…found it expedient to sponsor international Islamist terrorism.”
Bin Laden and allies sought redemption in purging Western influence from Muslim countries. As Bodansky wrote, these jihadists “are convinced that it is only the West, as was so clearly demonstrated during the Gulf War, that saves and sustains subservient Muslim regimes while punishing those that stand up to the West.” Thus
it will be impossible to establish genuine Islamic governments and at once resolve all the problems presently afflicting the Muslim world. Islamist leaders may differ on the fine details of what constitutes a genuine Islamic state, but they all agree that the United States and Western civilization must first be evicted from their midst.
“Since a frontal assault is out of the question, the United States must be terrorized into withdrawing from the Muslim world,” Bodansky noted. Accordingly, “Islamist international terrorism will only escalate.” As he elaborated,
Bin Laden, his colleagues, and the states sponsoring them are all key components of the dominant megatrend in the Muslim world—the rise and spread of radical militant Islamism. They are all theologically motivated and driven, killing and dying in pursuit of an Islamist jihad against the rest of the world.
Appropriately, Bodansky placed bin Laden in a broader Islamic framework:
The story of Osama bin Laden is not just that of an impressive leader and an irreconcilable foe—it is also the story of the events he was part of and the overall dynamics and circumstances within which he strives. It is the story of dedicated zealots driven by hatred unacceptable and incomprehensible to a Westerner.
Bodansky’s book has remained a treasure trove of insights since he first wrote during an era before bin Laden became a household name. A highly important recurring theme in Bodansky’s writing is the ideological nature of jihadist threats, which Western material blandishments, such as development aid programs, cannot defuse, and in some ways might even make worse. Mining his writings on bin Laden’s life for better understanding of jihadism past and present will form the basis for a forthcoming series of articles.