Relations Internationales

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Summary : « Unholy war » from J. L. Esposito

Ecrit par 015035 le 27 mars 2015

One year after 9/11, the J. L. Esposito’s book drew the main features of the rise of a terrorist like Ossama bin Laden. Particularly, he articulates the strategic environment of the Middle East and its history with the personnal genealogy of bin Laden. As the War against fundamental Islam continues to spread among muslim countries, it is interesting to remember that the prevalence of the same conditions increase the probability to get the same results as severals decades ago. Hence, I provide a summary of the first chapter : The making of a modern terrorist


John L. Esposito: Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002. 196 pages

The key question from a national security point of view is : what happened to transform a wealthy young man from the main american allied into the american’s most wanted terrorist ?

In order to answer, you should understand how the change in the strategic environment offered opportunities to a social group to implement a plan to compel the political will of the most powerful State actors of the international society.

At the individual level, the religious component of Bin Laden’s worldview was shaped by Saudi Arabia’s deeply conservative wahhabi interpretation of Islam. At the global level, the historical component was determined by the revolutionary Islam that began to spread in the 1970s with the failure of the western and marxist nation-state ideology in the Middle East.

 The beliefs component

Islam emphasizes the following of the Will of God. Muslim are enjoined to struggle (Jihad) to implement their beliefs on the society organisation throughout the world. Hence, they should follow Muhammad example through Hijra (migration) and Jihad (struggle) to defend God’s rule. As a consequence, the Muslim community, the Ummah is the overall strategic goal which guided militant Muslims.


The various islamic societies in the Muslim world based on the Sharia implementation

 In the XIX century, Abdulaziz ibn Saud (1879-1953) reasserted his family’s claims to Arabia with the help of a religious movment, wahhabism. So, this it is the main source of the saudi dynasty legitimity upon the arabian peninsula. « Anything the wahhabi perceived as un Islamic behaviour constituted unbelief (Kufr) in their eyes, which must be countered by Jihad. » The young bin Laden was shaped by this rigid political climate and he was largely influenced by Sayyid Qutb writing, the fundamentalists main thinker in the modern age.

A strategic opportunity occurred in bin Laden life with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All the tribs, Pashtun, Uzbek, Tadjik and Hazara have coalesced in the Jihad against a common atheist enemy. Bin Laden, after collecting fund from 1979 to 1982 became a full participant in the Afghan Jihad. He created his based, Al Qaeda, to channel fighters and funds for the insurgents.


The historical component

Before he was able to seize the Afghan opportunity, bin Laden grown up in the turmoil of the Middle East. The devastating Arab defeat in the 1967 six days Arab israeli war where the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan were beaten within hours by tiny little Israel simply burried the western ideology of the nation-state in the eyes of the Saudi elite and increased its radicalization. 

Another event, the 1979 Iran’s revolution came as an inspirational example for islamic activists across the Muslim world. They wanted to return to traditional Islam. Finally, the soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 and the establishment of a sunnite islamic state in 1992 was a confirmation of the appeal of this radical islamic social movement.

In this historical content, the Afghanistan war and the invasion of Kuwait by S. Hussein established the juncture of bin Laden with the american foreign policy

Bin Laden’s war

After Afghanistan, Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. When Iraq did invade Kuwait in August 1990, Bin Laden offered to  King Fahd to bring the Arab Afghan mujahidin to Saudi Arabia to defend the Kingdom. On the contrary, the King called for Uncle Sam protection and the permanent deployment of 500 000 foreign troops, lot of them non muslims, in Islam’s holy land. The non state actor, Al Qaeda, was in a confrontation trajectory with state actors : Saudi Arabia and the United States, even if the americans were key funder of Afghan mujahidins during the Afghan war. From this time until the end, his personnal trajectory became part of history.

In 1993, he approved the first WTC bombing. He collaborated with Ramzi Youssef, 9/11 mastermind, during this period. By 1995, he found protection in Sudan and he established a training camp in Yemen. Bin Laden openly call for a Jihad against America in August 1996. When Taliban subdued 90% of Afghanistan in 1998 he found a safe haven. This theocratic State was recognized by only 3 nations : Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the UAE.

From his refuge, bin Laden turned the defense of Islam against soviet aggression into a militant Jihad strategy that target America’s icons of military and economic power. In 2000, with the help of Al Zawahiri, another 9/11 mastermind, Bin Laden announced the formation of the World Islamic Front for the Jihad against the United States : “ this is defensive Jihad, we want to defend our people and our land, if we don’t get security, the Americans too would not get security.” It is the argument for global Jihad which continue with lone wolf terrorist in western countries although bin Laden had been killed by the american special forces in may 2011.


For Bin Laden a clash of civilization took place between the Muslim world and the west. Foreign interventions in the Islamc world had activated the division of the world into the land of Islam (dar al Islam) and the land of warfare (dar al harb).

To go further, the interview of Pr. Esposito by H. Kreisler from UC Berkeley :

and the You Tube version :