For the West, it’s time to learn from Osama bin Laden

Despair for America’s future security is a difficult sentiment to subdue as events in the Middle East continue unfolding. The U.S. military can neither win wars — hopefully because of political restraint — nor effectively train Arab armies. The leaders of both U.S. political parties refuse to recognize that ISIS, al-Qaeda, and like organizations are indeed — according to 20-years of their own public words and a quick check of the Koran — waging an increasingly popular religious war against the United States, in large part as a response to Washington’s relentless intervention in the Muslim world. The same political leaders and President Obama and his administration have set themselves up as expert Islamic theologians to endlessly assert that the Islamists are madmen and nihilists who have nothing to do with Islam, which is, more than anything else, a signal that they are determined to help the United States commit suicide by refusing to level with Americans and tell them that they are up to their hips in a deadly religious war in which their own government is the enemy’s main motivator.

Since 2002, I have written four books dealing with Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Islamist movement in general. Each of them is primarily based on the words of writings of bin Laden, his lieutenants, and other important Islamist fighters and leaders. One of the goals of each book was to correlate the convergence of the Islamists’ words and deeds; that is, did bin Laden et al. do what they said they were going to do. Each book found a very high correlation between words and deeds; indeed, it seems likely that the United States has never had an enemy that was and is so willing to tell us in advance what he is going to do, why he is going to do it, and what ends he means to attain. Because of this reality, the Islamist enemy is not at all difficult to understand. When Western political leaders speak of what a complex problem we are facing in the war the Islamists are waging, you can be sure they have either not read what the enemy has publicly said and taken it seriously — a repeat of their predecessors’ catastrophic failure to take Mein Kampf seriously — or that for reasons of political necessity, ideology, or, most likely, faulty educations they simply cannot credit the idea that anyone would be willing to fight and die for their faith in the “enlightened” 21st century.

Because the Islamist leaders have detailed their movement’s motivation, and have then proceeded to do what they said they would do, there is no such thing as “unintended consequences” in this war. The impact of every major post-2001 action taken by both sides in this war was perfectly predictable. For the West that means each of its decisions and actions have yielded perfectly predictable negative consequences. Those consequences could be detailed at length, but it is enough to say that the Islamists’ war against the United States and the West is largely motivated by their interventionist policies and actions in the Muslim world, and the U.S. and Western response to the war the Islamists started has been increased intervention undertaken without any intention of winning and with a willingness to curtail civil liberties in the West in the name of internal security  — a response quietly predicted in the speeches and writings of bin Laden.  The West, in essence, has followed to the letter a script written for its demise, one that has been easily available for reading by all Western leaders since late-summer 1996.

While it is quite late in the game it is worth recalling what bin Laden believed was the one factor that could derail the Islamists’ war against the United States, and perhaps their whole agenda. Bin Laden was very clear that the strategy the mujahideen had to follow to victory could be divided into three parts. First, to cause enough human and especially economic pain to the casualty-averse, legally hamstrung, and radically impatient United States to drive it as far as possible out of the Islamic world. Second, to thereafter focus on destroying the Arab tyrannies and Israel. Third, to settle the scores with the Shia Muslim heretics. Today, driving the United States from the Islamic world is goal that is close to being accomplished; America has lost two wars there, will lose Obama’s re-intervention in Iraq, and anti-U.S.-Government hatred has grown across the region. On the second point, several of the Arab tyrannies, with U.S., UN, and EU help, are gone, and Jordan and Lebanon probably will be the next to go. These Western-aided victories for the Islamists — and the ones to come — have substantially eroded Israel’s security and yielded a steady flow of new fighters and enormous quantities of modern weapons from the tyrants’ emptied arsenals. Third, in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon it appears that a regional Sunni-Shia sectarian war is being kindled. And that fact would be the great and deeply troubling rub for bin Laden if he was still alive.

For the three-part strategy described above to succeed, bin Laden argued, the parts had to be accomplished seriatim, not in parallel. In short, the al-Qaeda chief believed that the Arab tyrants’ power and ability to rule depended on them continuing their half-century-plus de facto alliance with the United States and its European allies. Thus, the Islamists should push the United States as far out of the region as possible and then turn and work to destroy the Arab tyrannies and Israel. The first part of the strategy is largely complete, and the second is now underway and, I suspect, is further along than the mujahideen themselves can believe.

Notwithstanding this astonishing success, the problem that bin Laden appeared to fear most and believed could be fatal to the Islamists — taking two steps in the strategy at the same time — also is now underway. Bin Laden constantly preached that settling scores with the Shia had to wait until America was driven from the region and Israel and the Arab tyrannies were destroyed. His words of warning took on substance in 2005-2006 when al-Qaeda’s commander in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, began a campaign that focused on indiscriminately murdering Iraq’s Shia, as well some Sunnis, especially those who worked for the U.S.-led occupation and others who would not obey Zarqawi’s orders. Zarqawi’s murderous behavior — including videotaped decapitation — earned him and al-Qaeda enormous enmity from much of the Sunni Muslim world; indeed, the negative Muslim reaction to Zarqawi’s actions has been the only serious strategic threat to al-Qaeda since 2001, for more dangerous than any action that the United States and its allies have been able to generate against it. Fortunately for al-Qaeda, U.S. forces killed Zarqawi. They saved al-Qaeda from having to do so, and allowed bin Laden and his lieutenants to begin a remedial campaign to retrieve Muslim sympathies and support. (NB: It is important to note, I think, that there has been very little outcry in the Sunni Muslim world about the ISIS attacks on Shias in Iraq. There has been much Muslim gnashing of teeth and weeping over the beheading/burning of Western prisoners and the Jordanian pilot — some part of it posturing to placate the West — but nothing similar to the protests that greeted Zarqawi’s binge of Shia slaughter a decade ago. Perhaps times have changed, perhaps ISIS has deliberately refrained from killing Sunnis at the pace practiced by Zarqawi, or perhaps there is support in the Sunni world for finally eradicating Islam’s hated heretics.)

Today, as noted above, the fire has been lit — and lit by Muslims — for a Sunni-Shia war that has been a millennium in the making and will be far larger than anything Zarqawi could have managed. Bin Laden believed that such a sectarian war would derail the jihad against the United States and its allies because: (a) Sunni fighters — especially Salafis and Wahhabis– consider the killing of Shia heretics as an extraordinarily worthy and Allah-pleasing endeavor, and (b) the Sunni Arab governments would become the much-needed sources of the funds, armaments, and safe havens for the Islamist groups fighting the Shia, something that the tyrants are as much in favor of as the mujahideen. These two factors, bin Laden knew, would turn Muslim eyes, efforts, and resources inward toward the Islamic world and so could leave the Arab tyrannies intact and perhaps stronger and even popular if their support allowed the Sunni Islamists to prevail.

Given the combination of the West’s inability to recognize the obvious, that there can be nothing but a military solution to the religious war started by bin Laden and the Islamists, and bin Laden’s well-grounded fear of the mujahideen moving against the Shia while still at war with the West, Israel, and the Arab tyrants, the developing Sunni-Shia war may well be a God-send for the security of the United States and the West. President Obama momentarily slowed the development of the war by re-intervening in Iraq in 2014, but a second chance has now appeared in Yemen, just as ISIS has resumed its offensive. The Sunni mujahideen and the Sunni Gulf tyrannies will not tolerate a Shia state in Yemen. And Iran, while knowing that the Houthis — crammed in northwestern Yemen and only a third of Yemen’s population — will eventually be destroyed, will now have to bear the cost of its rhetoric about being the protector of Shia by supporting an undeniably lost cause in Yemen (along with those in Iraq and Syria).

The stage is thus set for a regional sectarian war, which after nearly twenty years of U.S. and Western Islamist-motivating intervention accompanied by military, diplomatic, and political incompetence, may be the best near-term means for improving U.S. and Western security. For now, the U.S. and NATO governments ought to step aside, let the Sunni-Shia sectarian war take its course, and urgently address the pathetic and steadily worsening mess they have made of civil liberties and domestic security in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Author: Michael F. Scheuer

Michael F. Scheuer worked at the CIA as an intelligence officer for 22 years. He was the first chief of its Osama bin Laden unit, and helped create its rendition program, which he ran for 40 months. He is an American blogger, historian, foreign policy critic, and political analyst.