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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Israel is Not the Issue: Militant Islam and America

Filed under: Israel, Radical Islam, The Middle East, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 463    October 2001

Did Support for Israel Trigger Islamic Fury?

After the September 11 terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many American analysts have been seeking to understand the source of the intense hatred against the United States that could have motivated an act of violence on such an unprecedented scale. In that context, a new canard is beginning to run through repeated news reports and features: that somehow America’s support for Israel is behind the fury of militant Islamic movements, like that of Osama bin Laden, towards the United States. Indeed, a Newsweek poll conducted on October 4-5, 2001, found that 58 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. relationship with Israel is “a big reason terrorists attacked the United States.”1

These attitudes had to come from somewhere. For example, Caryl Murphy wrote in the Washington Post: “If we want to avoid creating more terrorists, we must end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly.”2 Similarly, Gary Kamiya, Salon magazine’s executive editor, added: “A sword will hang over the U.S. until we convince Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.”3 Appearing on ABC with Peter Jennings, Hanan Ashrawi also charged that the U.S. alliance with Israel was to blame for the September 11 attack.4

This argument, unfortunately, has also found particular currency in Europe. Thus, British Foreign Minster Jack Straw told an Iranian newspaper: “One of the factors that helps breed terror is the anger that many people in the region feel at events over the years in the Palestinian territories.”5 Egyptian diplomacy has clearly found this theme to be useful; thus President Mubarak asserted during a trip to Germany: “Without solving the Palestine problem with U.S. and European help we will see a new generation of terrorists threatening world security.”6

One significant exception to this trend was the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who frankly answered a question posed by CNN’s Larry King as to whether the sentiment that caused the attack came from frustration over the failure of the peace process: “As a cause of it, I don’t think so.”7

Bin Laden himself only placed the Palestinian issue front and center among his grievances against the West during a video clip broadcast after Anglo-American Forces began their retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan on October 7, 2001: “America will never dream nor those who live in America will never taste security and safety unless we feel security and safety in our land and in Palestine.”8

Yet a careful examination of the ideology and organization of bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network demonstrates that these disturbingly ubiquitous assertions about the centrality of Israel as the cause of the fury of militant Islam are seriously flawed. In fact, state-supported media in parts of the Arab world continually engage in incitement of the Arab civilian population against the United States, regardless of the Israeli factor. Unless the sources of anti-Americanism are correctly understood and addressed, policy-makers are likely to fail to deal with the true motivating factors behind the attack on the United States.



Ideological Sources of Bin Laden’s Anti-Americanism

A 1998 fatwa (religious ruling) issued by bin Laden jointly with militant Islamic leaders from Egypt, Pakistan, and Bangladesh provides an insight into the sources of his anti-Americanism.9 The document calls “on every Muslim…to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.” True, bin Laden uses language like “the Zionist-Crusader alliance” that sweeps in the issue of Israel, but the primary justification for doing so is that “for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, [and] terrorizing its neighbors.” Having helped to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s with other Arab volunteers, bin Laden has now turned his attention to the remaining superpower, the United States. U.S. forces are specifically described as “Crusader armies spreading…like locusts.”

A second bin Laden grievance is “the continuing aggression against the Iraqi people.” The “guarantee of Israel’s survival” appears only as the third reason for criticizing U.S. policy. Bin Laden also refers to the Jews’ “occupation of Jerusalem,” but gives no indication whatsoever of accepting Jewish statehood within any borders. In fact, in 1998 he was critical of the Saudis for their support of “Yasser Arafat’s regime” against Hamas.10 Israel’s very existence is the issue — not the status of the peace process. It is not surprising that the planning and training for the September 11 attack is believed to have begun several years ago, well before the current Palestinian intifada and the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. There simply is no correlation between the new terrorism facing the U.S. and the Arab-Israeli peace process.



The “Holy Land” is Arabia


Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton University also noted bin Laden’s prioritization in his analysis of bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa in Foreign Affairs:

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….Thereafter, except for a brief interlude in Syria, the center of the Islamic world and the scene of its major achievements was Iraq….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 Iraq….Of those two, Arabia is by far the more important (emphasis added).11

Bin Laden issued an earlier document in 1996 called a “Declaration of War Against the American Occupying of the Land of the Two Holy Places” (referring to Mecca and Medina). Here, too, bin Laden demonstrated that his priorities focus first and foremost on the Arabian peninsula: “If there is more than one duty to be carried out, then the most important one should receive priority. Clearly after Belief (Imaan), there is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land (i.e., Arabia) (emphasis added).” Bin Laden made the same point in a 1998 interview with ABC News: “Allah ordered us in this religion to purify Muslim land of all non-believers and especially the Arabian Peninsula, where the Ke’ba is (emphasis added).”12



Purifying Islam from Alien Innovations

In order to understand this prioritization, it is necessary to delve into the general mindset of militant Islam. Like the Wahhabis of eighteenth century Arabia, followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1787), whose doctrine was part of bin Laden’s early Saudi education, militant Islamists seek to return Islam to a more puritanical period, like the seventh century of the Prophet Muhammad, before the Islamic world was contaminated by alien ideas, especially from the West but also from within the Middle East. In their view, the sources of heterodox impurities in Islam had to be eradicated. The early Wahhabi movement, which had formed a political alliance with the Saudi family, attacked Shi’ites as heretics and even sacked the Iraqi Shi’ite holy city of Karbala in 1801, slaughtering its residents. The Taliban, who came out of Islamic seminaries in Pakistan funded by Saudi Arabia and inspired by its Wahhabi doctrine,13 actually continued this violent Wahhabi tradition through their harsh treatment of Afghan Shi’ites.

Looking beyond the adherents of Wahhabism to the wider perspective of militant Islamists more generally, the Islamic world (Dar al-Islam) at present may not be under the complete physical occupation of the West, but it is under a kind of spiritual occupation: “in Sunni terms, Dar al-Islam has returned to a state of jahiliyya (pre-Islamic darkness) even worse than the one that preceded the appearance of the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia.”14 This perspective has been associated with two of bin Laden’s militant Egyptian associates, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya.15

The response of militant Islam to this situation is to seek the overthrow of pro-Western regimes in the Islamic world and to campaign for the elimination of Western power and influence from the Middle East entirely. In the seventh century, the first Islamic state arose on the ruins of the two great empires of that era: the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, defeat of the U.S. becomes the next logical struggle. It is not surprising that the handwritten document of terrorist ringleader Muhammad Atta states: “Remember the battle of the Prophet…against the infidels, as he went on building the Islamic state.”16 Thus, the organizing principle of militant Islam is anti-Americanism; a pro-Western regime that is anti-Israel in orientation still remains a target of militant Islam.



The Organizational Priorities of the Bin Laden Network

An examination of bin Laden’s organizational network further reveals that the issue of Israel is not a top priority or focus for his brand of militant Islam. The U.S. Department of State’s Patterns of Global Terrorism — 2000 identifies Sunni Islamic extremist groups that have been linked to Osama bin Laden’s worldwide network: the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Egypt’s al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Harakat ul-Mujahidin, a Pakistan-based group operating against India in Kashmir. The Islamic Renaissance Party received support in late 1996 from “militant Arab Afghans” in Afghanistan as it trained for cross-border attacks on Tajikistan.17 Bin Laden’s organization also became involved in the Tajikistan struggle.18 Additionally, bin Laden’s network is known to reach Albania, the Philippines, Chechnya, Indonesia, India, Jordan, Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, and Yemen.

Looking at bin Laden’s organizational network, a number of concerns are evident. First, bin Laden is continuing his struggle against Russia, even after the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. This involves, as noted above, continued support for already existing Islamic movements in the independent Central Asian states of the former Soviet Union. It also entails backing movements that are seeking to dismember parts of Russia itself, beyond the obvious case of Chechnya, in the Northern Caucasus. Daghestan, which commands 70 percent of Russia’s coast on the oil-rich Caspian Sea, faced a threat from radical Islamists in 1999.19

Many commentators see Saudi-exported Wahhabism as one of the principal causes of militant Islamic fundamentalism in southern Russia. Thus, Hajj Salih Brandt, the Chechen government’s Special Envoy to Europe, claimed: “[T]he whole political agenda of Wahabbi Fundamentalism (what the West now calls Islamism)…is a deviation of Islam taught in Madinah University in Saudi Arabia, sponsored by the Saudi government and exported from there….Out of it have come Hamas, the Taliban, Usama Bin Laden, the FIS, Sudan, and now the gangs roaming Chechnya and Daghestan.”20

Consistent with his ideological position, a second concern of bin Laden’s organization involves directing efforts against the U.S., particularly against the American presence in and around the Arabian peninsula. There is no clear connection between bin Laden and attacks against Americans on Saudi territory in 1995 and 1996, which appear to have been the responsibility of Shi’ite organizations like Saudi Hizballah. However, bin Laden has penetrated Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen, which control the Red Sea approaches to the Arabian peninsula, as well as Jordan, which borders Saudi Arabia from the north. In this context, he has been supportive of the overthrow of pro-American regimes. A third concern for bin Laden is a focus on achieving Muslim independence in multi-ethnic states, like the case of Kashmir in India. Israel and the Palestinians are simply dwarfed by these other areas of concern and activity.

In fact, Reuven Paz of the Herzliya International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism has noted that the bin Laden network has not connected with militant Islamic movements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, despite its mobilization of Palestinians from Lebanon and Jordan over the last decade.21 The U.S. Department of State noted only one case of a militant, Nabil Awkil, connected to both Hamas and Osama bin Laden. Very few other cases have been identified.22 The head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Malka, has stated that two attempts by the bin Laden organization to penetrate into Israel were prevented.23

True, a Palestinian figure from Jordan, Dr. Abdallah Azzam, played a major role in the formative years of bin Laden’s organization until he was killed in 1989 by a car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan. However, Azzam did not focus on the Palestinian issue but rather stressed Afghanistan’s troubles exclusively.24 In fact, there have been reports that bin Laden has been criticized for his indifference to the Palestinian question.25 Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of the Lebanese daily as-Safir, stated on CNN: “He [bin Laden] never served the Palestinian cause. He never did anything to help the Palestinian people. His focus was on Afghanistan and on Chechnya. Never cared for the Palestinian cause.”26

If the Palestinian issue were a high priority for bin Laden, then efforts to mobilize Palestinian militants and establish a widespread presence in the territories would have been far more extensive. Instead, the bin Laden network largely reflects the concerns of an Afghan-based organization with strong links to Pakistan; hence, its involvement in the Indian subcontinent, the former Muslim republics of the Soviet Union, and strategic points around the Arabian peninsula, especially Yemen.



The Supportive Media Environment in Arab States


One of the surprising aspects of the September attack on the U.S. is the role of nationals who come from states that are thought to be friendly to the U.S.: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Evidently, bin Laden’s anti-Americanism has considerable resonance in the government-controlled media of much of the Arab world. Even Egypt’s official media have contributed to this environment. Thus, a columnist in the state-controlled Al-Akhbar wrote in August 2001: “The conflict that we call the Arab-Israeli conflict is, in truth, an Arab conflict with Western, particularly American, colonialism….The U.S. treats the [Arabs] as it treated the slaves inside the American continent….The issue no longer concerns the Israeli-Arab conflict. The real issue is the Arab-American conflict.”27 Writing less than a month before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the columnist stated that “The Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, must be destroyed.” Unfortunately, this sort of anti-Americanism is not uncommon in the Egyptian press.

Often, Arab states with close relations to the U.S. permit media outlets that spread violent anti-Americanism. Qatar’s al-Jazeera satellite network, that broadcasts to the entire Arab world, carried a speech on May 23, 2001, by the Mufti of the Palestinian Liberation Army which praised the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen: “My blessings to those who carried out the [USS] Cole operation.”28



Israel and the Quest for a Coalition


There will be those who might accept the argument that the Israel issue is not at the core of the current anti-American rage, but nonetheless they would argue that Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic progress is necessary to assure the preservation of the anti-terrorism coalition. Yet this assumption needs careful reexamination as well. The 1990-91 Gulf War coalition against Iraq was established in the total absence of an Arab-Israeli peace process. The Madrid Peace Conference followed the coalition victory against Saddam Hussein.

Moreover, after the war, the coalition began to disintegrate even as the peace process appeared to be succeeding. For example, in the fall of 1994 after the Oslo Agreement and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty, the coalition did not hold together when Saddam Hussein massed armored units on the Kuwaiti border (the U.S. and Kuwait acted alone).

Two factors provided the glue to tie the original Gulf War coalition together: a perceived mutual threat among the coalition members, and the consensus of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The Arab world did not want to be in a position of defying what it had always called the main source of international legitimacy — the UN. Today, with Russia and China supporting the U.S. anti-terrorism effort along with Great Britain and France, the U.S. could assure itself of Arab support by gaining prior approval of a concert of great powers.



The Real Issue: Anti-American Incitement


Placing Israel and the Palestinian issue in the spotlight of the current anti-Americanism motivating the militant Islamic groups connected with Osama bin Laden is simply wrong. It can also lead to a misplaced emphasis in current U.S. policy options toward the Middle East. Political pressure on Israel to make concessions under present-day Palestinian violence could easily compromise Israeli security, but would not address either the primary or even secondary reasons behind the rage of militant Islam toward America.

In order to address the hostile environment toward the U.S. in parts of the Arab world today, anti-American incitement in government-controlled media should be examined. Eliminating terrorism requires not only purely military measures, but also diplomatic moves aimed at making sure that there is no fertile ground for mobilizing more militant operations. While press freedoms are to be respected, systematic anti-American incitement of whole populations must cease in order to create an environment that is not supportive of future attacks against the U.S. and its citizens. If these governments already selectively censor criticism of their own regimes in their state-controlled media outlets, then they can also take measures against the spread of anti-Americanism through these same official organs.

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1. Newsweek website, October 6, 2001, news/639000.asp?cp1=1.

2. Caryl Murphy, Washington Post, September 16, 2001.

3. Salon Magazine, September 17, 2001.

4. Interview with Peter Jennings, ABC television, September 13, 2001.

5. New York Times, September 26, 2001.

6. Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2001.

7. CNN, Larry King Live, October 1, 2001.

8. CNN website:

9. Al-Quds Al-Arabi, February 23, 1998,

10. The Independent, August 23, 1998.

11. Bernard Lewis, “License to Kill: Usama bin-Ladin’s Declaration of Jihad,” Foreign Affairs, 77:6 (November/December1998):14-19.

12. Interview with ABC News Correspondent John Miller, May 28, 1998.

13. Anton La Guardia, “Saudi Arabia: Why Most Important Arab Ally is Dithering,” Daily Telegraph (UK), October 3, 2001; Olivier Roy has also noted:

During the last year, [Taliban] Mullah Omar has become more and more isolated. He has not met with the Taliban government in Kabul, preferring to seclude himself in Kandahar and rule through a small inner circle of local clerics and foreign radicals, whose leading figure is Mr. bin Laden.
Many decisions taken in 2000 and 2001 bear the mark of that puritan influence: destroying the Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, requiring non-Muslims to wear insignia and arresting foreign humanitarian workers for Christian proselytizing. The growing influence of “Wahhabis,” as they are called in the region — meaning that their concept of religion is based on the puritanism of official Saudi Islam — has created a nationalist backlash among many Afghans.
Olivier Roy, “Afghanistan After the Taliban,” New York Times, October 7, 2001.


14. Emanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1985, p. 183.

15. Da’a Rashwan, “Islamism in Transition,” Al-Ahram Weekly, March 11-17, 1999, Issue No. 420.

16. Washington Post, September 28, 2001.

17. Olivier Roy, The Foreign Policy of the Central Asian Islamic Party (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1997), p. 19.

18. Walter Pincus, “Bin Laden Seeks Instability,” Washington Post, September 30, 2001.

19. Rajan Menon and Graham Fuller, “Russia’s Ruinous Chechen War,” Foreign Affairs, 79:2 (March/April 2000).

20. Hajj Salih Brandt, “Does the West Really Want to Stop this War?,” Islamische Zeitung — International.
Additionally, according to Russian General Prosecutor Vladimir Ustinov, there are 1,500 Islamic religious organizations in the Trans-Volga federal district. “With direct and indirect support from abroad, Wahabbis — the most radical Muslims — are gradually expanding their sphere of influence in these organizations.” From “The Wahabbis Reach the Volga,” Vek, July 13, 2001, p. 3 — WPS Russian Media Monitoring Agency, No. 165, July 16, 2001.
Furthermore, Deputy Minister of National Security of the Azerbaijan Republic Tofik Babaev maintains that “Over the last years 300 citizens of Azerbaijan had training in the ‘Wahabbist’ centers in Daghestan.” Kavkaz-Center News Agency, May 3, 2001,

21. Reuven Paz, “Palestinian Participation in the Global Islamist Network,” International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism, Herzliya, April 24, 2000,

22. Amos Harel, “Bin Laden’s Palestinian Connection,” Ha’aretz, September 24, 2001.

23. Semadar Peri and Alex Fishman, “A Special Interview with the Head of the Intelligence Branch,” Yediot Ahronot, September 26, 2001.

24. Robert D. McFadden, “Bin Laden’s Journey from Rich Pious Lad to the Mask of Evil,” New York Times, September 30, 2001.

25. Noted by the editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi, as cited in The New Republic, October 1, 2001.

26. CNN, October 8, 2001.

27. MEMRI, Analysis No. 71.

28. “Anti-American Statements in the Arabic Media,” MEMRI.


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Dore Gold is President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Previously, he served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations (1997-1999).