Paul Pillar

Palestine, the Extremist Cause

The documents that were seized from the late Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and into which Washington Post columnist David Ignatius was given an exclusive glimpse included tidbits such as bin Laden talking about killing President Obama and General David Petraeus. But such tidbits were not the most interesting aspect of the documents. The papers evidently confirm that bin Laden in his latter days was not really commanding operations. The talk about killing the president was just talk and not a serious threat. More significant is what the documents say about bin Laden the propagandist—about how he saw different themes and issues working to his advantage or disadvantage.

Bin Laden saw as a disadvantage for him and his group the dropping of “war on terror” from the official U.S. lexicon. That phrase—never making sense in the first place, as a war on a tactic—had been subject to interpretations that left many Muslims confused about just who it was the United States was going after. To the extent Muslims believed the United States was going after them, that was good from bin Laden's viewpoint. Not good for him was the more recent and sharper U.S. posture that made it clear that al-Qaeda was the target of this war. Bothered by that, bin Laden mused about possibly changing the name of his group.

The one issue that bin Laden evidently stressed to his associates should be emphasized publicly above all others was Palestine. He criticized affiliates and followers for justifying their actions as responses to local matters rather than being performed on behalf of the preeminent cause for all Muslims, which was Palestine. In making such admonitions, bin Laden was recognizing the enormous salience the Palestinian issue continues to have for for Muslims generally. It has all the ingredients for a cause well suited for exploitation by extremists. At its core is the injustice of indefinite occupation by a conquering power of land that is home to Muslims. On top of that is a added religious dimension to the conflict and the perception of the occupying power as a kind of Western, Judeo-Christian imposition on the Middle East.

That bin Laden was issuing such instruction is a further indication of the power of Palestine as an extremist cause célèbre. Bin Laden's first wish probably would have been to overthrow the House of Saud in Arabia. His strategy of going after the far enemy in the form of the United States as a way of defeating the near enemies in Arab capitals was never more than a minority view in jihadist circles. In this respect he did not see eye-to-eye with his onetime mentor Abdullah Azzam, who believed the first priority of jihad ought to be the liberation of Muslim lands from non-Muslim occupiers. That is why Azzam was a leader in supporting the Afghan jihad against Soviet occupation, and why he—himself a Palestinian—believed liberation of Palestinian land from Israeli occupation needed to be given foremost priority. The Palestinian issue has the power it does not because individual terrorist leaders like bin Laden necessarily make it their first personal priority but instead because it has tremendous resonance among the Muslim populations to which they appeal. The reason that supporters and rank-and-file practitioners of anti-U.S. terrorism cite most frequently for their hatred of the United States is U.S. condoning of Israeli occupation of Palestinian-inhabited land and of other Israeli actions that involve the killing or subjugation of Muslims.

There are many good reasons not to let the Israeli-Palestinian issue fester. Its role as a readily exploitable extremist cause is one of them.