Armed Hostilities

Osama bin Laden’s Letter to America

Bin Laden’s letter to America in November 2002 is an attempt to justify his intention to attack and wage war on the United States, based on his belief system. As such, it is highly biased. Bin Laden lays out his views of Allah, Islam, the Quran, the USA’s corruption, and wrongs imposed on Muslims over the past 1400 years. His perspective is drawn nearly entirely from a document (the Quran) dating from the 7th century. Thus, his views do not take into account the evolution of sovereign nation-states, the general movement away from religious governments, and the development of international laws governing relations between countries. Bin Laden also shares his conviction that Sharia law should be imposed worldwide, and his resentment of the resistance of governments to its immediate implementation. Bin Laden positions his letter as the ‘truth’ to counter American journalist’s falsehoods, to warn Americans, and to answer two questions; “(Q1) Why are we fighting and opposing you? Q2) What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?” (Bin Laden). Bin Laden’s views do not acknowledge centuries of the historical development of the sovereign secular nation-state, democracy, religious tolerance, humanitarian principles, and progressive governance. Bin Laden’s goals seem more appropriate to a religious community than to a nation or state.

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However, unlike, for example, the Pope, Bin Laden is not a recognized spiritual leader of Islam, a religion that explicitly rejects hierarchy. Thus his claim to speak for all Muslims reflects radical ideals rather than reality. Additionally, Bin Laden is neither elected or appointed as a leader, so he has no standing to speak for the citizens of any nation in declaring war. In applying the Just War Theory to Bin Laden’s letter, his rationale and proposed actions do not align consistently with the requirements outlined in the twelve jus ad/in bello principles. According to the rules of jus in bello, (Just Cause, Right Intention, Public Declaration by Proper Authority, Last Resort, Probability of Success, Proportionality), Bin Laden lacks proper justifications to declare war. Additionally, when applying the jus in bello rules ( Discrimination and Noncombatant Immunity, Proportionality, Obey all International Laws on Prohibited Weapons, No Means “Mala in se”, Reprisals, Benevolent Quarantine) how he proposed to fight his war fails to fit the international standard of wartime behavior These first three jus ad bellum principles are Deontological. Viewed in light of the first jus in bello principle, Just Cause, Bin Laden’s letter does not articulate an acceptable reason to declare war. Though he makes his religious beliefs clear, they are based on his Quranic interpretations, rather than any modern legal, religious, or international humanitarian standards. His primary justification for the war on the USA is a Quranic verse permitting Muslims to fight non-Muslims.

“Permission to fight (against disbelievers) is given to those (believers) who are fought against, because they have been wronged and surely, Allah can give them (believers) victory” [Quran 22:39]. “Those who believe, fight in the Cause of Allah, and those who disbelieve, fight in the cause of Taghut (anything worshipped other than Allah e.g. Satan). So fight you against the friends of Satan (Bin Laden). He believes that he, speaking for all Muslims globally, has been “fought against” and that the USA has “attacked us and continue to attack us” (Bin Laden). He also alleges that the USA was responsible for the creation of the state of Israel from Palestine, the military occupation of Palestine, and continued support of Israel. This rationale does not constitute Just Cause because it is directed at the USA alone. If the British were the original offenders, then why is Bin Laden not proposing to attack the United Kingdom? If Bin Laden’s motives were clear and logical, he would also be attacking the UK based on their primary role in the division of Palestine, and their attempt to resolve the problem of the Jews after WWII. Logically, he would also be attacking all other nations that participated in keeping peace in the Middle East.

He makes clear that he proposes to wage war not on behalf of one nation-state, but behalf of Muslims everywhere. Bin Laden aims to establish Islamic Sharia law worldwide; and blames the USA for why all people do not accept Sharia with the same level of commitment. It should be noted that the USA has never endorsed any policy of targeting Muslims specifically, whether domestically or internationally, which means that his rationale – that Muslims have been attacked, is baseless. Further, because Bin Laden claims to be declaring war on behalf of Muslims in nations scattered around the world, who share their countries with people of many faiths and even varied Muslim traditions, and governed by leaders who did not sign this letter, this rationale does not fit the rule of Just Cause

Concerning the Right Intention principle, Bin Laden believes he has the right to fight a war “to make Sharia the supreme law and to regain Palestine” (Bin Laden). He bases his goal of imposing Sharia law worldwide and returning Palestine to those whom he sees as the legitimate inheritors of the Torah on his understanding of the Quran. He contends that “the first thing we are calling you to is Islam” (Bin Laden). The fact that the letter is addressed to the USA suggests that he would impose it on the entire US population. This would breach one of the most basic founding principles of the USA – religious freedom. He also appears to intend to implement Sharia law on all the other countries he mentions. Anywhere he was successful, this would mean imposing this religious system on people who are not Muslim or who follow a different tradition, which would infringe on their right to pursue their religious ideals. Americans would likely reject this, as would most other nations, regarding this as oppression. The USA’s actions are most often aimed at encouraging the spread of democracy and personal freedom with other nations. Bin Laden complains of the oppression of Muslims but proposes to oppress others by imposing a religious regime without their unanimous consent. This would surely lead to bloody conflict and massive suffering even after any war ceases.

Thus, Bin Laden cannot be regarded as having the Right Intention in declaring war on the USA. The third principle of the Just War Theory, Public Declaration by Proper Authority, is simply impossible for Bin Laden because he is not a head of state or leader of a legitimate government. He is simply an individual who has named himself as a religious authority with the personal conviction that Sharia is the only way of life in this world. He has no authority to declare war because he represents no government. Additionally, since he is neither elected nor appointed, he cannot inform or receive consent from citizens to wage a war. He uses the term Islamic Nation to refer to what he envisions as a global unity of Muslims, as follows “Islamic Nation. The Nation of Monotheism” (Bin Laden, 2002). Because this does not exist, Bin Laden cannot make a public declaration by a proper authority according to the Public Declaration by Proper Authority principle.

Another core element of the Just War theory is the Last Resort principle which requires that all alternatives are exhausted before the war is declared. This seems to be a straightforward principle, but Bin Laden’s letter fails to meet it. Most US citizens have minimal education or understanding of Islamic history or precepts. Few Western-born Muslims are taught history from Bin Laden’s perspective. His view of history implies that the US has been engaged in nearly continual and targeted aggression against Muslims, including in Somalia, Chechnya, India (Kashmir), and the Philippines. He even digs back 1400 years in stating that “the Muslims conquered Palestine and drove out the Romans, {and} Palestine and Jerusalem returned to Islaam” (Bin Laden). Most Americans would not understand how the USA could be associated with this and other conflicts involving Muslims. This view seems as warped as asserting that the US involvement in Vietnam was a targeted attack on Buddhism (a major religion in that region). Given this lack of information and understanding, Bin Laden seems to have other options available to address his concerns. For example, he could have urged American Muslims to nominate and vote for candidates who would support Sharia laws. Bin Laden knows and understands the concept of representative government because he states that “the American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will” (Bin Laden).

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Alternatively, he could have exploited the USA’s widely admired freedom of speech by mounting public information campaigns about Islam and Sharia in America. He could also educate the American public about the USA’s alleged corruption and the USA’s past actions that he asserts have injured Muslims over time. He knows and understands the use of media, although he largely disapproves of it since he refers to the way that he says the USA “exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools calling upon customers to purchase them” (Bin Laden). Lobbying groups from Muslim religious organizations, as well as national representatives from countries largely made up of Muslim populations, all have access to lawmakers, to help them promote their agenda. Finally, while it may be logistically challenging to deport all the Jews from Israel, it is certainly possible that Bin Laden could have lobbied the governments of all nations that support Israel to press for changes to current practices and behavior. For many of the reasons for the war listed in this letter, Bin Laden did not exhaust his options before declaring war on the United States. His declaration of war does not accord with the rule of Last Resort under the principles of jus in bello.

The Probability of Success rule under jus in bello outlines that war should only be declared if there is a likelihood that the conflict will be resolved successfully through war. It also suggests that violence without probable gain is not justified. The declaration of war that Bin Laden declares on the United States does not meet this standard for several reasons. Unlike a leader or spokesperson of a sovereign nation, he does not have a recognized or formal army to mobilize. However, he demonstrated his ability and willingness to mobilize civilian terrorists on his behalf, as evidenced by the 9/11 attack in New York. To some extent, he may have believed that this was a military victory in that he forced the United States to increase resources expended on anti-terrorism activities. The threat of terrorism has modified the behavior of most of our country’s citizens in some way. Presumably contrary to his intentions, the 9/11 attack has also precipitated some misperceptions and anti-Islamic backlash. This is not a success by any modern-day military standards. Additionally, there is little likelihood that Sharia will be widely adopted or Jews will be removed from Israel. His statement that “whoever has killed our civilians, then we have the right to kill theirs” (Bin Laden, 2002) would negatively impact Muslims as well as non-Muslims, just as the 9/11 attack killed Muslims as well as persons of every major religion. Success is simply not probable, given the number of countries where Muslims live.

The jus in bello principle of Proportionality is hard to perceive in Bin Laden’s letter proposing to wage war on America. Although Bin Laden accuses the United States of having injured all Muslims, most American citizens, military leaders, and most politicians would not even recognize what he was referring to. Modern nations at least offer lip service to the rules of war and avoid deliberately killing civilians. When these rules are broken and civilian massacres do occur, modern nations demand accountability from the responsible parties. Since Bin Laden was responsible for planning the 9/11 attack, his war strategy targets civilians. These civilian deaths do not seem proportionate to his perceived misfortunes caused by the United States. The civilian casualties from 9/11 did not benefit any nation or group and do not outweigh the negative consequences that his terrorist fighters endured in the subsequent year, and the backlash against Muslims more generally. He even refers to this when he states “when 3000 of your people died, the entire world rises and has not yet sat down” (Bin Laden, 2002). The post 9/11 actions that our military deployed indeed may have resulted in significantly more deaths, imprisonments, and hardships for his Muslim followers, suggesting that he miscalculated our aggressive actions. Ultimately, Bin Laden’s slanted views and need for vengeance lead him to misjudge the United States’ ability to tilt the principle of Proportionality in USA favor after he attacked the United States in New York.

Under the jus in bello principles, Discrimination of Noncombatant Immunity is a primary rule. This principle requires that military soldiers must understand the difference between legitimate and illegitimate targets. It also requires that force is only directed against combatants and that civilians receive immunity. Bin Laden’s letter informs its readers that American civilians are responsible for the wrongs he alleges. In this section, he justifies attacking civilians, as follows “the American people …choose their government;…pay the taxes…fund the attacks against us,…employ…the American Forces which attack us…(e) This is why the American people can be not (sic) innocent of all the crimes committed by the Americans and Jews against us…(f) Allah…legislated the permission… to take revenge….And whoever has killed our civilians, then we have the right to kill theirs” (Bin Laden, 2002 ). His statement clearly shows that all Americans, even Muslim Americans, are fair game and have no immunity. These remarks inform others that he will not adhere to the Discrimination of Noncombatant Immunity principle. His letter explains that the 9/11 attack targeted civilians and neutral targets and was not directed exclusively at military personnel. Since he has no legitimate army and represents no nation, his proposed actions constitute terrorism rather than a war waged with any effort to protect noncombatants, according to the principles of jus in bello.

The Benevolent Quarantine principle requires that nations remove from battle areas captured combatants or enemy soldiers who surrender until the war is over. Additionally, these prisoners of war are to be provided with basic rights, such as food, water, toothbrushes, and shelter, and not exposed to starvation, medical experimentation, rape or torture. Bin Laden states, “(e) You have claimed to be the vanguards of Human Rights, and your Ministry of Foreign affairs issues annual reports containing statistics of those countries that violate any Human Rights. However, all these things vanished when the Mujahideen hit you, and you then implemented the methods of the same documented governments that you used to curse. In America, you captured thousands the Muslims and Arabs, took them into custody with neither reason, court trial, nor even disclosing their names. You issued newer, harsher laws” (Bin Laden, 2002), and further alleges that that Guantanamo is a historical embarrassment for the United States. Bin Laden’s perspective is that Americans are hypocrites because of these actions, but he has communicated via this letter, and demonstrated via his actions, that he will eliminate anyone who does not advance his ambitions concerning the Quran, Islam, and Sharia. He does not mention taking prisoners (and perhaps converting them), because his expressed intention is to kill all American civilians.

Proportionality, another principle for jus in bello, emphasizes that once engaged in war, the need for targeted military operations is required and destruction must be appropriately balanced with the desired goal. This would prohibit the devastation of a country or a population far beyond what is needed to conquer it militarily. Bin Laden believes that he speaks for all Muslims and that his assessment of the wrongs that were committed against them by the United States warrants attacks on innocent citizens and the destruction of civilian properties. His letter states “Whoever has destroyed our villages and towns, then we have the right to destroy their villages and towns” (Bin Laden, 2002). Since the USA has a policy of not targeting civilians, this does not seem realistic or proportional. He also seems to want control of weapons of mass destruction, as suggested by the jealousy and resentment expressed in the following “(b)Your policy on prohibiting and forcibly removing weapons of mass destruction to ensure world peace…only applies to those countries which you do not permit to possess such weapons” (Bin Laden, 2002). Though he may believe otherwise, the United States has never used weapons of mass destruction against his community. Thus, his implication that he has the right to possess and use weapons of mass destruction suggests and intention to act without regard for the principle of Proportionality under the theory of jus in bello. The same concern applies to the jus in bello rule to Obey all International Laws of Prohibited Weapons.

It appears from Bin Laden’s own words that he feels that the United States is wrong to treat “ anyone else who you suspect might be manufacturing or keeping these kinds of weapons” as “criminals” and pursue “military action against them” (Bin Laden, 2002). His intentions seem to include having access to nuclear weapons. To kill every United States citizen, he would need a massive amount of lethal and widely destructive weapons. In all circumstances, the international law would prohibit any entity, especially one that is not a country, to possess such an arsenal of deadly weapons. Bin Laden’s tactics of using explosive vests or sending civilians to pilot an airplane into a building demonstrate that he is willing to deploy terroristic means to maximize civilian causalities with no regard for the survival of his followers. These followers, he asserts, constitute “The Nation of Martyrdom; the Nation that desires death more than you desire life” (Bin Laden). He wants to kill as many people with the least amount of effort possible. He does not care about what would be termed collateral damage, such as the outbreak of an epidemic among Muslims as well as non-Muslims if he, for example, used a biological weapon such as anthrax. The death of Muslims in this cause would not be a problem because, as he puts it “They rejoice in what Allah has bestowed upon them from His bounty and rejoice for the sake of those who have not yet joined them but are left behind (not yet martyred) that on them no fear shall come, nor shall they grieve” (Bin Laden). Bin Laden’s intentions are clear in his letter and actions as he would happily breach any rules regarding international law and prohibited weapons, given the chance.

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An important additional rule of jus in bello is the ban against doing things during wartime that would be considered wrong at any other time. This Just War Theory principle is called No Means “mala in se” (meaning bad in and of themselves) and includes immoral and wrong acts such as rape and torture of prisoners. Additionally, it would include the deployment of biological or chemical weapons because they could not be contained effectively and devastate uninvolved, civilian, areas outside of the warzone. He also references our actions in Guantanamo which leads the reader to believe that he would not hesitate to breach prisoner of war treatment standards, if only as revenge against the USA. Bin Laden’s hate for America is clear in his letter. Comments such as, “(2) The second thing we call you to, is to stop your oppression, lies, immorality, and debauchery that has spread among you. (a) We call you to be a people of manners, principles, honour, and purity; to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling’s, and trading with interest. We call you to all of this that you may be freed from that which you have become caught up in; that you may be freed from the deceptive lies that you are a great nation, that your leaders spread amongst you to conceal from you the despicable state to which you have reached. (b) It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind:” (Bin Laden, 2002). “(iv) You are a nation that permits acts of immorality, and you consider them to be pillars of personal freedom. You have continued to sink this abyss from level to level until incest has spread amongst you, in the face of which neither your sense of honour nor your laws object.” (Bin Laden). Bin Laden’s views of American people are so harsh and his comments are so pointed, it is clear that he hates everything we stand for. His proclamation for victory for Allah is so rooted in his belief system, he would do whatever is necessary to kill United States citizens. Based on his actions and his deep hate, he would disregard “mala in se” to achieve his victory.

Bin Laden’s letter also raises major doubts that this war would be waged without Reprisals, which are also prohibited under the rules of jus in bello. He believes that the United States is already involved in a conflict with all Muslims, as evidenced by his accusation that the USA “attacked us and continue to attack us” (Bin Laden, 2002). Given his strong distaste of our government system and perceived morality shortfalls, he regards himself as already fighting this war. Any action that he would take against us could effectively be considered reprisal against the USA. He speaks of conquering “Crusade Bush…, just like the other previous Crusades in which you were humiliated by the hands of the Mujahideen…If the Americans do not respond, then their fate will be that of the Soviets who fled from Afghanistan to deal with their military defeat, political breakup, ideological downfall, and bankruptcy.” (Bin Laden). The moral differences that have created this massive wedge between America and Bid Laden are based mainly on different perspectives and values. His beliefs are based on Islamic Sharia and the United States of America’s principles are founded on the freedom of religion and modern democratic values. Both could be considered right or wrong, but neither is at a level of needing a war. Bin Laden’s views on America’s choices, both individually and nationally, do not constitute an adequate reason to kill our entire population unless all US citizens convert to Islam and follow Sharia law. However, he believes this sincerely. Thus, since he believes himself to be already engaged in a war, with wrongs already committed against his side by the USA, he feels justified in taking revenge. He has, in a sense, already begun taking reprisals against the USA. Given the shocking nature of the 9/11 attack, and his expressed intention to kill all American civilians, he cannot be said to be waging a war in accord with the rule against Reprisals.

Bin Laden is motivated in all his writing by his interpretation of a centuries-old religious document that is untouched by more modern developments. His approach to history is idiosyncratic, and he views all of history through the lens of wrongs perpetrated against Muslims, across time and the world. Even though he had an education in civil engineering, he seems to acknowledge little from the modern world in the way of science. Despite having access to the most modern media, he acknowledges little of what has developed in the last decades and centuries in technology, international humanitarian law, national sovereignty, or progressive ideals such as religious tolerance and diversity. He is neither a recognized religious leader nor a leader of a nation but he presents himself as speaking for all Muslims everywhere although they live throughout the world and within varying forms of governance. Muslims of varying traditions throughout the world live peacefully in countries with diverse religious populations and have not signed on to this letter. The stated opinions and actions from his letter suggest that he is not capable of adhering to the Just War theory, including the jus in bello and jus ad bello principles. His primary objective is to take revenge and engage in violent terroristic acts in response to what he, through his unique personal lens of religious belief and his understanding of history, perceives as a longstanding and specifically targeted attack on all Muslims worldwide by a deliberately immoral nation, United States of America. Additionally, based on Bin Laden’s track record of killing civilians and his expressed intention to take revenge against civilians because he believes that all Americans are guilty, he has no regard for any principles of modern international humanitarian law.

Works Cited

Bin Laden, Osama. “Letter to America.” The Guardian 24 November 2002: Web.

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