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14th-century text: A primer for Bin Laden?

Osama may have used it as a kind of roadmap for his terror campaign

This article was first published in The Boston Globe on Dec. 16, 2001.

Who knows if Osama bin Laden is now trembling in a Tora Bora cave or skulking around Pakistan in disguise. But wherever he is, it is easy to imagine him thumbing through a worn copy of a text by a 14th-century Islamic historian, desperately seeking guidance out of his current mess.

Unnoticed in all the tea-leaf reading of scraps found in abandoned caves and pop psychology of what went wrong in his childhood is this tantalizing fact: Bin Laden may have waged his war following the methodical analysis of revolution outlined in a 1377 text.

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The historian was Ibn Khaldun. The text is “The Muqaddimah” (“The Introduction”), his three-volume primer to a much bigger, though less influential, historical overview.

But if bin Laden is searching for reassurance from Ibn Khaldun at this point, he will be hard-pressed to find it. A rereading will more likely make the big question throb more insistently in his head: How could a determined rebel who waged war against an enemy he was sure had lost its will to fight back collapse so quickly, taking on Ibn Khaldun’s characteristics of a failing state rather than a fervent revolution?

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Ibn Khaldun, statesman and scholar, was a sort of Machiavelli of the Muslim world, part of the power structure but dispassionate and diagnostic enough to see well beyond it. His life - he was born in North Africa, raised in Moorish Spain, served as a senior adviser in far-flung Muslim dynasties, and died in Egypt - was a wide window onto medieval Islam. It’s a telling period in Muslim history, and one exceedingly important to bin Laden. This is, after all, a man whose al-Jazeera diatribes show he is still nursing 500-year-old wounds like “the tragedy of Andalusia” (the fall of Spain to the Christians).

We have no way of knowing for sure that bin Laden is a devoted reader of Ibn Khaldun. But given his obsession with Muslim history, and the respect that Ibn Khaldun - little known in the West - commands among Islamic scholars, it’s likely that he is. What’s more, although Ibn Khaldun is associated with North Africa, his lineage goes back to the Hadramaut region of modern-day Yemen, according to Franz Rosenthal, who did the authoritative translation of “The Muqaddimah.” That’s the same region where bin Laden’s father was born.

Most important are the undeniable parallels between Osama’s method and Ibn Khaldun’s political science on how Islamic states come into being. In broad strokes, this is what Ibn Khaldun says: After a regime has been in place for a while, it starts to get lazy and enamored with the trappings of luxury, losing the “asabbya,” or group solidarity, that propelled it into power. This sedentary, more urban power becomes most vulnerable on its frontiers, where fringe tribes wage brutal desert battles with each other until a dominant group led by a charismatic figure emerges. Smelling success, most of the factions line up behind him and begin focusing their energies on toppling the corrupt regime.

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As the rebel group gets bigger, though, the members have less contact with the charismatic leader, and he needs more than old kinship alliances to keep them in the fold. He needs to create loyalty through some form of ideology - in Ibn Khaldun’s Muslim world, this usually meant some attempt to wrest Islam back from corrupt backsliders and purify it. Often the rebel leader teams up with a religious reformer, giving the movement legitimacy and new followers.

After many strategic battles chipping away at the regime’s power base, the morally-decayed regime enters a period Ibn Khaldun calls senility. The rebel movement becomes an unstoppable force and eventually takes over the state (only to fall victim to the same senility-inducing mistakes in a few generations).

“And Osama bin Laden followed the same pattern,” said Andrew Hess, director of the Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

How so? For starters, there’s the Saudi millionaire’s choice of Afghanistan. Not only is it a punishing frontier, but this country where he found such success in helping to repel the Soviets in the 1980s is probably the closest place we have today to the 14th-century civilization Ibn Khaldun described. “He goes there because it is an area that hasn’t succeeded in modern nation-state terms,” said Hess, “an area where the influence of the big nations really doesn’t extend.”

It’s so primitive that he is able to buy cover from the repressive Taliban regime for short money and begin letting his revolution ripen undisturbed. Afghanistan allows bin Laden to establish a social and religious basis for his political movement. He expands his network by joining up with like-minded revolutionaries and exports his message of hostility to the big external powers. This resonates especially well at the bottom of the economic scale, where many contemporary Muslims find themselves. For his religious partner, at least temporarily, bin Laden turns to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who he suggests is the “new caliph.”

“Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia were all places in which this network began to take hold,” said Michael C. Hudson, a professor with Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. “In a sense, they’re all peripheral to the Middle East.”

But how does bin Laden’s enemy fit into the Ibn Khaldun model? Sure, the United States has been accused of being fat, lazy, and addicted to material things, especially in the high-flying Nasdaq days of the late 1990s when bin Laden was solidifying power. And bin Laden has said he was convinced that, for all its status as the last superpower, America was a paper tiger, too allergic to casualties to risk truly defending itself. There’s every indication he thought President Bush’s response to Sept. 11 would resemble President Clinton’s retaliation for the bin Laden team’s 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa: a few cruise missiles launched, and then everybody moves on.

Still, the United States doesn’t fit too neatly into the Ibn Khaldun model. It’s not a Muslim power and is unfamiliar with the tribal ways of the Arab world.

But here’s the thing: America is not bin Laden’s primary enemy. As hard as it might be for us to grasp this since we’re so engaged in the full-throttle campaign to make him pay for the carnage, the fact is we are only a means to an end for bin Laden.

He wants Saudi Arabia.

And if ever there was a dynasty that fit Ibn Khaldun’s profile of one well on its way to senility, it is the Saudi royal family that now rules bin Laden’s homeland. The Saudi state was once the embodiment of unstoppable asabbya and religious right-eousness, and the consolidation of power by founding ruler Abdul-Aziz (or Ibn Saud) in the 1920s was textbook Ibn Khaldun. Abdul-Aziz married his military and political movement to the puritanical strain of Islam called Wahhabism and seized control of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam, from a weak Western-backed regime. Ibn Khaldun had observed centuries earlier that a deteriorating state “usually comes to a point where royal authority is compromised and it is controlled by an outside power.” Abdul-Aziz’s ability to topple an outsider-backed regime on Islam’s most sacred ground made him the Arab world’s most popular leader.

Bin Laden has more than passing knowledge of the story of Adbul-Aziz. Bin Laden’s father, an illiterate Yemenite, managed to win the graces of the Saudi ruler early on in his reign. That made possible the rise of the bin Laden family construction business, which would play a dominant role in the building of the modern Saudi state. When the bin Laden patriarch died in a plane crash in 1967, Saudi King Faisal became almost a surrogate father to Osama and his 53 siblings.

Though the close ties between the bin Ladens and the Saudi royal family continue to this day, Osama’s increasing radicalization eventually left him ostracized by both. When Saddam Hussein toppled Kuwait in 1990 without breaking a sweat, the Saudi royal family was convinced it was next. Still glowing from the triumph over the Soviets in Afghanistan, bin Laden told Saudi leaders he wanted to assemble a force of Muslim fighters to protect Saudi Arabia. But they opted for the surer bet, turning to America for protection.

In a nation where the ruler’s most important role has traditionally been as “Protector of the holy places,” this move seemed to bin Laden to be the ultimate display of hypocrisy. He began railing against the royal family, which he complained had become profligate through the passage of time and the corrosive impact of oil revenue. His criticisms only intensified after he was kicked out of the country, and he increasingly found a receptive audience among the rank-and-file Saudis appalled at the royal family’s unapologetic corruption, which they blamed for the government’s ballooning deficit.

According to Ibn Khaldun’s calculus, Saudi Arabia, with its financial problems and loss of public support, would seem ripe for the toppling: “It should be known that any royal authority must be built upon two foundations,” he wrote. “The first is might and asabbya. . . . The second is money, which supports the soldiers and provides the structure needed by royal authority. Disintegration befalls the dynasty at these two foundations.”

Except bin Laden knows the United States, with its unquenchable thirst for Saudi oil, would automatically rush to the aid of the Saudi government. So he may have determined that only an unprecedented attack on American soil could scare the United States into isolationist submission. After trumping a superpower, he would find taking over an unprotected Saudi Arabia to be easy work and then enjoy the Muslim world’s acclaim for being the first truly independent protector of the holy places since Abdul-Aziz.

It must have seemed like such a brilliant plan back then, before the asabbya of bin Laden’s own followers seemed to dissipate so abruptly, before they were routed so profoundly, before the global clampdown drained his finances and ability to buy additional support.

In his sadistic performance on the grainy videotape released last week, bin Laden said, “When people see a strong horse and and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” What bin Laden must realize now is that he desperately needs some sort of victory. But even if the cornered megalomaniac makes another dramatic strike, Ibn Khaldun reminds us that it will likely be little more than the last gasp of a failed movement, “like a burning wick, the flame of which leaps up brilliantly a moment before it goes out.”

Or maybe that happened on Sept. 11.

Neil Swidey is the Globe’s Sunday metro editor. He can reached at nswidey@globe.com.
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