, Nov 1998 p14(1) License To Kill. Usama bin Ladin's Declaration of Jihad
On February 23, 1998, Al-Quds al-Arabi, an Arabic newspaper published in London, printed the full text of a "Declaration
of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders." According to the paper, the statement was faxed
to them under the signatures of Usama bin Ladin, the Saudi financier blamed by the United States for masterminding the August
bombings of its embassies in East Africa, and the leaders of militant Islamist groups in Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The statement--a magnificent piece of eloquent, at times even poetic Arabic prose--reveals a version of history that most
Westerners will find unfamiliar. Bin Ladin's grievances are not quite what many would expect.
The declaration begins with an exordium quoting the more militant passages in the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet
Muhammad, then continues:
Since God laid down the Arabian peninsula, created its desert, and
with its seas, no calamity has ever befallen it like these
Crusader hosts that have spread in it like locusts,
crowding its soil,
eating its fruits, and destroying its verdure; and this at a time when the
nations contend against the Muslims like diners jostling around a bowl of
goes on to talk of the need to understand the situation and act to rectify it. The facts, it says, are known to everyone and
fall under three main headings:
First--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.
Though some in the past have disputed the true nature of this
occupation, the people of Arabia
in their entirety have now recognized it.
There is no better proof of this; than the continuing American
aggression against the Iraqi
people, launched from Arabia despite its
rulers, who all oppose the use of their territories for this purpose
Second--Despite the immense destruction inflicted on the Iraqi people at
the hands of the
Crusader-Jewish alliance and in spite of the appalling
number of dead, exceeding a million, the Americans
nevertheless, in spite
of all this, are trying once more to repeat this dreadful slaughter. It
seems that the long blockade following after a fierce war, the
dismemberment and the destruction are not
enough for them. So they come
again today to destroy what remains of this people and to humiliate their
Third--While the purposes of the Americans in these wars are religious
and economic, they
also serve the petty state of the Jews, to divert
attention from their occupation of Jerusalem and their
killing of Muslims
There is no better proof of all this than their eagerness to destroy
Iraq, the strongest of the neighboring Arab states, and their attempt to
dismember all the states of the region, such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia and
and Sudan, into petty states, whose division and weakness would
ensure the survival
of Israel and the continuation of the calamitous
Crusader occupation of the lands
These crimes, the statement declares, amount to "a clear declaration of war by the Americans
against God, his Prophet, and the Muslims." In such a situation, the declaration says, the ulema--authorities on theology
and Islamic law, or sharia--throughout the centuries unanimously ruled that when enemies attack the Muslim lands, jihad becomes
every Muslim's personal duty.
In the technical language of the ulema, religious duties may be collective, to be discharged by the community as a whole,
or personal, incumbent on every individual Muslim. In an offensive war, the religious duty of jihad is collective and may
be discharged by volunteers and professionals. When the Muslim community is defending itself, however, jihad becomes an individual
After quoting various Muslim authorities, the signatories then proceed to the final and most important part of their declaration,
the fatwa, or ruling. It holds that
To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an
of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is
possible, until the Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem]
and the Haram Mosque [in
Mecca] are freed from their grip and until their armies, shattered and
broken-winged, depart from all the lands of Islam, incapable of threatening
citing some further relevant Quranic verses, the document continues:
By God's leave, we call on every Muslim who believes in God and hopes
to obey God's command to kill the Americans and plunder their
possessions wherever he finds them and whenever
he can. Likewise we call on
the Muslim ulema and leaders and youth and soldiers to launch attacks
against the armies of the American devils and against those who are allied
with them from among the helpers
The declaration and fatwa conclude with a series of further quotations from Muslim scripture.
Bin Ladin's view of the Gulf War as American aggression against Iraq may seem a little odd, but it is widely--though by
no means universally--accepted in the Islamic world. For holy warriors of any faith, the faithful are always right and the
infidels always wrong, whoever the protagonists and whatever the circumstances of their encounter.
The three areas of grievance listed in the declaration--Arabia, Iraq, and Jerusalem--will be familiar to observers of the
Middle Eastern scene. What may be less familiar is the sequence and emphasis. For Muslims, as we in the West sometimes tend
to forget but those familiar with Islamic history and literature know, the holy land par excellence is Arabia--Mecca, where
the Prophet was born; Medina, where he established the first Muslim state; and the Hijaz, whose people were the first to rally
to the new faith and become its standard-bearers. Muhammad lived and died in Arabia, as did the Rashidun caliphs, his immediate
successors at the head of the Islamic community. Thereafter, except for a brief interlude in Syria, the center of the Islamic
world and the scene of its major achievements was Iraq, the seat of the caliphate for half a millennium. For Muslims, no piece
of land once added to the realm of Islam can ever be finally renounced, but none compares in significance with Arabia and
Of these two, Arabia is by far the more important. The classical Arabic historians tell us that in the year 20 after the
hijra (Muhammad's move from Mecca to Medina), corresponding to 641 of the Christian calendar, the Caliph Umar decreed that
Jews and Christians should be removed from Arabia to fulfill an injunction the Prophet uttered on his deathbed: "Let there
not be two religions in Arabia." The people in question were the Jews of the oasis of Khaybar in the north and the Christians
of Najran in the south. Both were ancient and deep-rooted communities, Arab in their speech, culture, and way of life, differing
from their neighbors only in their faith.
The saying attributed to the Prophet was impugned by some earlier Islamic authorities. But it was generally accepted as
authentic, and Umar put it into effect. The expulsion of religious minorities is extremely rare in Islamic history--unlike
medieval Christendom, where evictions Compared with European expulsions, Umar's decree was both limited and compassionate.
It did not include southern and southeastern Arabia, which were not seen as part of Islam's holy land. And unlike the Jews
and Muslims driven out of Spain and other European countries to find what refuge they could elsewhere, the Jews and Christians
of Arabia were resettled on lands assigned to them--the Jews in Syria, the Christians in Iraq. The process was also gradual
rather than sudden, and there are reports of Jews and Christians remaining in Khaybar and Najran for some time after Umar's
But the decree was final and irreversible, and from then until now the holy land of the Hijaz has been forbidden territory
for non-Muslims. According to the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, accepted by both the Saudis and the declaration's
signatories, for a non-Muslim even to set foot on the sacred soil is a major offense. In the rest of the kingdom, non-Muslims,
while admitted as temporary visitors, were not permitted to establish residence or practice their religion.
The history of the Crusades provides a vivid example of the relative importance of Arabia and other places in Islamic perceptions.
The Crusaders' capture of Jerusalem in 1099 was a triumph for Christendom and a disaster for the city's Jews. But to judge
by the Arabic historiography of the period, it aroused scant interest in the region. Appeals for help by local Muslims to
Damascus and Baghdad went unanswered, and the newly established Crusader principalities from Antioch to Jerusalem soon fitted
into the game of Levantine politics, with cross-religious alliances forming a pattern of rivalries between and among Muslim
and Christian princes.
The great counter-Crusade that ultimately drove the Crusaders into the sea did not begin until almost a century later.
Its immediate cause was the activities of a freebooting Crusader leader, Reynald of Chatillon, who held the fortress of Kerak,
in southern Jordan, between 1176 and 1187 and used it to launch a series of raids against Muslim caravans and commerce in
the adjoining regions, including the Hijaz. Historians of the Crusades are probably right in saying that Reynald's motive
was primarily economic--the desire for loot. But Muslims saw his campaigns as a provocation, a challenge directed against
Islam's holy places. In 1182, violating an agreement between the Crusader king of Jerusalem and the Muslim leader Saladin,
Reynald attacked and looted Muslim caravans, including one of pilgrims bound for Mecca. Even more heinous, from a Muslim point
of view, was his threat to Arabia and a memorable buccaneering expedition in the Red Sea, featuring attacks on Muslim shipping
and the Hijaz ports that served Mecca and Medina. Outraged, Saladin proclaimed a jihad against the Crusaders.
Even in Christian Europe, Saladin was justly celebrated and admired for his chivalrous and generous treatment of his defeated
enemies. His magnanimity did not extend to Reynald of Chatillon. The great Arab historian Ibn al-Athir wrote, "Twice, [Saladin
said,] I had made a vow to kill him if I had him in my hands; once when he tried to march on Mecca and Medina, and again when
he treacherously captured the caravan." After Saladin's triumph, when many of the Crusader princes and chieftains were taken
captive, he separated Reynald of Chattillon from the rest and beheaded him with his own hands.
After the success of the jihad and the recapture of Jerusalem, Saladin and his successors seem to have lost interest in
the city. In 1229, one of them even ceded Jerusalem to the Emperor Frederick II as part of a general compromise agreement
between the Muslim ruler and the Crusaders. Jerusalem was retaken in 1244 after the Crusaders tried to make it a purely Christian
city, then eventually became a minor provincial town. Widespread interest in Jerusalem was reawakened only in the nineteenth
century, first by the European powers' quarrels over custody of the Christian holy places and then by new waves of Jewish
immigration after 1882.
In Arabia, however, the next perceived infidel threat came in the eighteenth century with the consolidation of European
power in South Asia and the reappearance of Christian ships off the shores of Arabia. The resulting sense of outrage was at
least one of the elements in the religious revival inspired in Arabia by the puritanical Wahhabi movement and led by the House
of Saud, the founders of the modern Saudi state. During the period of Anglo-French domination of the Middle East, the imperial
powers ruled Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Sudan. They nibbled at the fringes of Arabia, in Aden and the trucial sheikhdoms
of the Gulf, but were wise enough to have no military and minimal political involvement in the affairs of the peninsula.
Oil made that level of involvement totally inadequate, and a growing Western presence, predominantly American, began to
transform every aspect of Arabian life. The Red Sea port of Jiddah had long served as a kind of religious quarantine area
in which foreign diplomatic, consular, and commercial representatives were allowed to five. The discovery and exploitation
of oil--and the consequent growth of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, from small oasis town to major metropolis--brought a considerable
influx of foreigners. Their presence, still seen by many as a desecration, planted the seeds for a growing mood of resentment.
As long as this foreign involvement was exclusively economic, and as long as the rewards were more than adequate to soothe
every grievance, the alien presence could be borne. But in recent years both have changed. With the fall in oil prices and
the rise in population and expenditure, the rewards are no longer adequate and the grievances have become more numerous and
more vocal. Nor is the involvement limited to economic activities. The revolution in Iran and the wars of Saddam Hussein have
added political and military dimensions to the foreign involvement and have lent some plausibility to the increasingly heard
cries of "imperialism." Where their holy land is involved, many Muslims tend to define the struggle--and sometimes also the
enemy--in religious terms, seeing the American troops sent to free Kuwait and save Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein as infidel
invaders and occupiers. This perception is heightened by America's unquestioned primacy among the powers of the infidel world.
To most Americans, the declaration is a travesty, a gross distortion of the nature and purpose of the American presence
in Arabia. They should also know that for many--perhaps most--Muslims, the declaration is an equally grotesque travesty of
the nature of Islam and even of its doctrine of jihad. The Quran speaks of peace as well as of war. The hundreds of thousands
of traditions and sayings attributed with varying reliability to the Prophet, interpreted in various ways by the ulema, offer
a wide range of guidance. The militant and violent interpretation is one among many. The standard juristic treatises on sharia
normally contain a chapter on jihad, understood in the military sense as regular warfare against infidels and apostates. But
these treatises prescribe correct behavior and respect for the rules of war in such matters as the opening and termination
of hostilities and the treatment of noncombatants and prisoners, not to speak of diplomatic envoys. The jurists also discuss--and
sometimes differ on--the actual conduct of war. Some permit, some restrict, and some disapprove of the use of mangonels, poisoned
arrows, and the poisoning of enemy water supplies--the missile and chemical warfare of the Middle Ages--out of concern for
the indiscriminate casualties that these weapons inflict. At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder.
At no point do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders.
Nevertheless, some Muslims are ready to approve, and a few of them to apply, the declaration's extreme interpretation of
their religion. Terrorism requires only a few. Obviously, the West must defend itself by whatever means will be effective.
But in devising strategies to fight the terrorists, it would surely be useful to understand the forces that drive them.
BERNARD LEWIS is Cleveland E. Dodge Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. His books include
The Arabs in History, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, and, most recently, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000