What Al Qaeda Wants: A Debate with Michael Scheuer

by Raymond Ibrahim

Jihad Watch

I recently wrote something of a lengthy exposition regarding ex CIA analyst Michael Scheuer’s continuous characterizations of Osama bin Laden as at once Robin Hood, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Thomas Jefferson — that is, a man fighting oppression and tyranny, that and nothing more. Mr. Scheuer was kind enough to respond here. Now, it is not my custom to engage in back and forth feuds and diatribes, but I bear no ill will towards Mr. Scheuer and believe his response to be sincere. So I write again.

For the record, our main quarrel revolves around the nature of men like bin Laden: are they motivated simply by grievances against U.S. foreign policy, or is it something more abstract — something, dare I say it, more existential, that motivates them? In my original article, I quoted a number of statements made by al Qaeda that unequivocally demonstrate the latter point — that, all grievances aside, certain theological doctrines held by al Qaeda oblige it to see the U.S. as an enemy for nothing less than its religious freedom. This is a point Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri — not to mention the thousands of nameless jihadists — have made on numerous occasions.

Conversely, Mr. Scheuer seems to think their animus is wholly predicated on U.S. foreign policy — a point I have never discounted.

If so, why do I rarely spend time discussing Islamists’ grievances against the West, and instead focus on their theological arguments? Is it because, as Mr. Scheuer argues, I am a “neo-con” and am trying to cover up or at least minimize their complaints in order to further some sort of political agenda? Not at all; I am an apolitical man — despite Aristotle’s contentions.

Still, if I do not dwell on their grievances, I have also never discounted them as false — except on those occasions when al Qaeda fumes against the U.S. because of its failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol (I explicitly stated this in my book. (p. 284)). The ultimate reason, however, that disinclines me from factoring the Islamists’ grievances is the fact that, as they plainly declare over and over — when addressing Muslims, that is — political grievances or not, we, the infidels, are de facto enemies. It’s a matter of priority, then: being hated for temporal grievances is secondary to being hated for existential realities. When the latter issues are addressed, then, and only then, will I consider the veracity of the former.

At any rate, in his response to me, Mr. Scheuer continues to ignore al Qaeda’s straightforward, hate-infidels-for-being-infidels quotes (which, incidentally, are what the debate is all about). Instead, he writes:

In this highly selective collection, Mr. Ibrahim picks and chooses from the enormous corpus of writings, statements, and interviews by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to produce a slim volume which he claims will once and for all prove that al Qaeda and its allies are bent on imposing a worldwide Caliphate to be governed by what the Neocons are pleased to call Islamo-fascism.

To be sure, I never once claimed that my book is a comprehensive compendium of al Qaeda’s statements (see p. 5). However, to state that The Al Qaeda Readeris “highly selective” and that I willfully selected “certain” documents and statements in order to “deliberately mislead an American public that is already lied to about the nature and goals of al Qaedaism” is demonstrably false. If this were true, would I have included the material that makes up half the book — the “Propaganda” section, which is basically dedicated to making the sort of anti-American policy arguments Mr. Scheuer has been making, sometimes even more skillfully?

Obviously, if I wanted to make Muslims appear as wild jihadists with no grievances, I would have totally excluded such communiqués from my book. In the interest of objectivity, however, and to make the book as holistic as possible, I did include these arguments. More importantly, by including both sets of writings — theological treatises written for Muslim eyes only, and propagandistic speeches for infidel ears, either way, both their words, not my conjectures — the careful reader will see stark contradictions; namely, that no matter what political concessions the West makes to Islam, nothing short of the former’s submission to the latter can ever lead to peace. (See here for more onthis issue.)

The only way my book could fairly be accused of being selective or biased is if there exist al Qaeda writings out there that clearly repudiate the Islamic concepts (that they otherwise support) of offensive jihad, the doctrine of loyalty and enmity, the need for a caliphate and sharia, etc. In other words, nothing short of al Qaeda writings, directed to Muslims and insisting that the conflict has absolutely nothing to do with Islamic directives to place the world under Islamic authority, can ever demonstrate that my book is “selective.”

Does Mr. Scheuer know of such documents?

Odd, too, that immediately after making his above statement — that I insist “that al-Qaeda and its allies are bent on imposing a worldwide Caliphate” — Mr. Scheuer immediately goes on to agree by saying “the Caliphate is certainly a goal of bin Laden and other Islamists.”

If the Islamists are indeed motivated by the creation of a caliphate, and one of the caliphate’s primary functions is to wage jihads against the non-Islamic world, and Mr. Scheuer himself affirms this, what exactly is the logic of making political concessions — even if they are warranted? If you know for a fact that your weaker neighbor has complaints against you, but at the same time, hates you because you do not follow his religion, and, the day he grows sufficiently strong enough, he will undoubtedly attack you because of this theological point, why would you make any concessions to him now, when he is weak — especially considering that these concessions will only empower him that much quicker?

These are the questions Mr. Scheuer needs to respond to. His response so far seems to be that, though Islamists are feverishly seeking to resurrect the caliphate, they also “know that it is as unlikely to appear in their or their grandsons’ lifetimes.”

Indeed, this is apparently Mr. Scheuer’s response to all the above, which he even makes clear in his book Imperial Hubris. After acknowledging the concept of offensive jihad to subjugate the world, he wrote, “At this point in history, we need worry little about the threat of an offensive and expansionist jihad meant to conquer new lands for Islam and convert new peoples to the faith” (p. 7).

This is where we differ. I do not claim to know when Islamists will be capable of creating a caliphate and wage offensive/expansionist jihads. But I do not think we should passively wait around, or worse, make the sorts of political concessions Mr. Scheuer advocates — abandon support for Israel and other “friends” of America (even if they are autocratic), make land concessions, grant mullahs nuclear power, etc. — all things which would obviously only speed up the creation of a caliphate.

In fact, Mr. Scheuer seems to acknowledge that the U.S. will always be, at least theoretically, an enemy for nothing short of its religious freedom. There we agree. However, he doesn’t seem to think this warrants any attention, since, “at this point in history, we need worry little about the threat of an offensive and expansionist jihad.”

If ever any statement was deserving of the epithet “hubris,” surely this is it.

Raymond Ibrahim is the editor of the Al-Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda.

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