The Connection Between Osama bin Laden and Jihad

Modern Jihadis get their start in Afghanistan

Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri
Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview. Hamid Mir/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Jihadi, or jihadist, refers to a person who believes that an Islamic state governing the entire community of Muslims must be created and that this necessity justifies violent conflict with those who stand in its way.

Modern Jihad

Although jihad is a concept that can be found in the Quran, the terms jihadi, jihadi ideology, and the jihadi movement are modern concepts related to the rise of political Islam in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Political Islam is also called Islamism, and its adherents Islamists.)

There are many contemporary Muslims and others who believe that Islam and politics are compatible, and a wide spectrum of views about how Islam and politics relate. Violence plays no part in most of these views.

Jihadis are a narrow subset of this group who interpret Islam, and the concept of jihad, to mean that war must be waged against states and groups who, in their eyes, have corrupted the ideals of Islamic governance. Saudi Arabia is high on this list because it claims to be ruling according to the precepts of Islam, and it is the home of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam's holiest sites.

Osama bin Laden

The name most visibly associated with jihadi ideology today is Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. As a youth in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden was highly influenced by Arab Muslim teachers and others who were radicalized in the 1960s and 1970s by the combination of:

  • The Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel
  • Oppressive and corrupt Arab governments
  • Rapidly urbanizing and modernizing society

Some saw jihad, a violent overthrow of all that was wrong with society, as a necessary means to create a properly Islamic, and more orderly, world. They idealized martyrdom, which also has a meaning in Islamic history, as a way to fulfill religious duty. Newly won-over jihadis found great appeal in the romantic vision of dying a martyr's death.

Soviet-Afghan War

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Arab Muslim adherents of jihad took up the Afghan cause as the first step in creating an Islamic state. (Afghanistan's population is Muslim, but they are not Arabs) One of most vocal Arab voices on behalf of jihad, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to fight in Afghanistan as a religious duty. Osama bin Laden was one of those who followed the call.

Lawrence Wright's recent book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, offers an exceptional and fascinating account of this period and, as he observes of this formative moment of contemporary jihadi belief:

"Under the spell of the Afghan struggle, many radical Islamists came to believe that jihad never ends. For them, the war against the Soviet occupation was only a skirmish in an eternal war. They called themselves jihadis, indicating the centrality of war to their religious understanding. They were the natural outgrowth of the Islamist exaltation of death over life. "He who dies and has not fought and was not resolved to fight has died a jahiliyya (ignorant) death," Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brothers, had declared….​
Yet the declaration of jihad was tearing the Muslim community apart. There was never a consensus that the jihad in Afghanistan was a genuine religious obligation. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood refuted the demand to send its members to jihad, although it encouraged relief work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those who did go were often unaffiliated with established Muslim organizations and therefore more open to radicalization. Many concerned Saudi fathers went to the training camps to drag their sons home."