Considering that there are hundreds of millions of other Muslims who are subjected to the same U.S. foreign policies but do not commit terrorism, policy may be afactor, but it is not.
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Terrorism by its very definition is an illegal act of violence to scare, intimidate or harm others for political purposes. Because it has a political element, policy certainly has a role. GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul is right in that there is a conscious political motive, but he neglects to mention that there are also subconscious factors including the way one's life is shaped that have to be considered, too, and in doing so, overstates his case. Without considering subconscious factors, we can't understand what causes one person to commit terrorism and another person subjected to the same policy to not commit terrorism.

How 'cause' is defined is very important. If the use of the word 'cause' compels something, U.S. policy in the Middle East did not cause terrorism. If the use of 'cause' implies influencing or contributing to..., a stronger case may be made.

What Environmental Factors Contributed to Osama bin Laden's Path To Terrorism?

Osama bin Laden (OBL) said that he fought against the U.S. because of our policies. He was very explicit about this. However, considering that there are hundreds of millions of other Muslims who are subjected to the same U.S. foreign policies but do not commit terrorism, policy may be a necessary factor, but it is not sufficient. Something else is needed.

Research in criminology often suggests that the environment and its circumstantial factors are the most compelling factors in pushing someone towards crime.

For example, OBL's environment and things he experienced seems to clarify any confusion about the role of Afghanistan in his development of his motivations, as well as al Qaeda for that matter. He said:

I have benefited so greatly from the jihad in Afghanistan that it would have been impossible for me to gain such a benefit from any other chance and this cannot be measured by tens of years but rather more than that. Praise and gratitude be to Allah. We saw the brutality of the Russians bombing Mujahidin's' positions, by grace of Allah, we dug a good number of huge tunnels and built in them some storage places and in some others we built a hospital. So our experience in this jihad was great, by the grace of Allah, praise and glory be to Him, and the most of what we benefited from was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims.

OBL's time in Afghanistan is of the most significance importance in understanding his worldview. He was (minimally) involved in a fight against the atheist USSR and (the Afghans) won. Muslims from all over the Islamic world, mainly from the Middle East, came to the call of jihad, a transnational Islamic insurgency against the Soviets. Muslims fought and won in defense of a 'brother' in Islam and this was a validating factor for many that Allah and Islam are superior to Western secular military forces. That said, they do seem to forget, ignore or are just plan ignorant that U.S. Stinger missiles that played a decisive role in defeating the Soviet Hind helicopters and consequently the USSR. But this is not important in understanding how they view the world, now. Also, Abdullah Azzam who is half Palestinian, is one of the biggest influences on OBL's thinking, as OBL's readings of Sayyid Qutb and his use of jihad to reverse jahiliyyah.

The Role of Islam

Returning to what OBL said, in November 2001, he stated: This war is fundamentally religious.

On another occasion he said: Fighting is a part of our religion and our Sharia. Those who love God and the prophet and this religion may not deny a part of that religion. This is a very serious matter. Whoever denies even a very minor tenet of religion would have committed the gravest sin in Islam. Such persons must renew their faith and rededicate themselves to their religion.

To jihadis the U.S. is the 'Great Satan' killing Muslims and it should be purged from the Earth. OBL went on to say: Hostility toward America is a religious duty, and we hope to be rewarded for it by God... I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America.

To Islamists, the restoration of the Caliphate will result in real justice, submission to Allah, and Islamic lands will be prosperous under Allah as they were before the introduction of Western culture and political influence.

Osama bin Laden said: In our religion, there is a special place in the hereafter for those who participate in jihad.

A lot of followers believe this to be true. Militant Islamists use religion to incite other Muslims to fight in the way of Allah while ensuring combatants that Allah will guide them to victory. Nothing about this is political.

We are dealing with true believers, not radical politicians. To the Muslims who use terrorism, this is a religious fight to secure the survival of their religion at the hand of the Jewish-Crusader alliance. As Michael Scheuer, the former head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA from 1996-1999, stated: bin Laden [had]... the belief that their struggle is an integral part of Islam's more than 1,400-year historical continuum in which the central feature is the defense of Islam against Christian aggression.

There seems to be a trend in that a lot of al Qaeda terrorists came to be pious later in life. Muslims who are born into the teachings of Islam don't seem to turn to terrorism. It may be that they have a more fundamental and nuanced understanding of the teachings of Islam and so they do not commit terror in the name of Islam. Or it may be that Muslims who fall hard for Islam later in life (or convert later in life as with the case of Adam Gadahn find a sense of righteous purpose and a way to express frustration and don't have that nuanced understanding of the teachings of Islam. Most of the 9/11 hijackers became very religious later in life after living a fairly non-pious life early on. This is not to say that converting to Islam later in life or becoming more pious later in life will lead to terrorism. Also, we find that many children who are indoctrinated in very conservative ways in Pakistan do not go on to become terrorists. It is almost as if they 'got it out of their system' when they are youth. It still may influence a lasting sense of resentment towards U.S. policy, but does not necessarily lead one to become a terrorist later in life. We can see this in the U.S., too. Some parents who force religion on their children when they are young can grow up to be less religious than when they were a youth. Other times, people who find religion later in life, embrace it with a zeal that seems to make up for the deficit earlier in life.

Did OBL Accurately Represent Islam?

Some people think so, but the majority of Muslims don't.

For example, one Lebanese woman who has a very negative view of the U.S. role in the Middle East told me: Osama bin Laden has most definitely done badly for Islam. His views do not represent the views of the religion accurately nor the views of the majority of Muslims.

A Jordanian man critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East told me that: what Osama bin Laden did was: the worst thing that could happen to any Arab or any Muslim.

An Egyptian said to me of Osama bin Laden: If you surveyed Egypt, 99% of the people would say he is a terrorist, but they would not say that of Hamas.

An Afghan man who is very critical of U.S. policy to me that: Osama bin Laden is not a Muslim. Our [Quran] says that you don't have the right to kill anyone, because if you kill one person, it is like killing the entire humanity.

As we can see in these examples, just because someone doesn't like U.S. policy, it doesn't mean that person is an OBL sympathizer or a terrorist. Islam is not a homogenous religion.


Religion, individual life experiences, policy, and a host of other factors are all important and all contribute to an individual's decision to commit terrorism. Many factors are necessary, but no one factor alone is sufficient.

Osama bin Laden was killed on 1 May 2011. He is dead. But Al Qaeda is not dead and it is not just an organization that can be disbanded. It is much worse. Al Qaeda is an ideological movement. Ideological movements can't be beaten with guns and bombs. They can fade away, but they can't be bombed out of existence. The members can be arrested, tried and locked up for life, but ideological movements won't go away so long as international law and human rights are violated. Ideological movements aren't beaten with promises of democracy and freedom. Organically driven freedom can undermine the allure of terrorism, as we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria in 2011. But imposed from outsiders, it can be a factor in terrorism as we saw in Iraq in 2003 and for years after.

PAUL HEROUX lived and worked in Saudi Arabia in 2003, has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard JFK School of Government. He can be reached at

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