When our political talk seems to be about every war except the one we are in, it is important to be reminded that we really are now at war, against a brutal enemy, and millions of lives are at stake. One salutary reminder comes in Alan Cullison’s illuminating article, “Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive,” in the current issue of The Atlantic.
Cullison details the contents of an al Qaeda computer left behind when its owners fled Kabul in the face of advancing American and Northern Alliance forces. Some of the things discovered are moving, and some ironic. Some are amusing, such as al Qaeda’s advice to its undercover operatives in the West on how to identify and use aftershave, and differentiate between men’s and women’s perfumes, since “if you use women’s perfume, you are in trouble.” But some of the information on the computer is deeply chilling–for example, the repetition of the jihadists’ intent to kill four million Americans.
The computer had been used by bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, and contains an unfinished justification of the 9/11 attacks on America. This essay, “The Truth about the New Crusade: A Ruling on the Killing of Women and Children of the Non-Believers,” is written by Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who worked with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in organizing those attacks. It argues that “the sanctity of women, children, and the elderly is not absolute” and concludes that “in killing Americans who are ordinarily off limits, Muslims should not exceed four million non-combatants, or render more than ten million of them homeless.”
This is not the only time that al Qaeda has announced a target of four million. In June 2002, its spokesman, Suleiman Abu Gheith, published an article on the alneda website that claimed: “We have the right to kill four million Americans–2 million of them children–and to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands.”
Al-Shibh and Abu Gheith both arrive at their four million total by arguing that this is the number of Muslim noncombatants that have died at the hands of America and its allies. They take a very expansive view of what America is responsible for, including inflated totals for Afghanistan, Chechnya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, the Palestinian areas, Kashmir, Indonesia (including East Timor), the Philippines, Macedonia, and Bosnia. The justifications for killing two million children, making eight to ten million homeless, and crippling hundreds of thousands are established by similar false analogies.
They resort to this demonic casuistry in order to get around any Islamic prohibition on targeting non-combatants. In his November 2002 “Letter to America,” bin Laden himself took up the same question. After listing his worldwide grievances, he surmised that Americans may contend “that all of the above does not justify aggression against civilians for crimes they did not commit and offenses in which they did not participate.” He responded: “This argument contradicts your continuous repetition that America is the land of freedom…. The American people are the ones that choose their government of their own free will…. The American people are the ones who pay the taxes…. The American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us…. The American army is part of the American people…. This is why the American people cannot be innocent of all the crimes committed by the Americans and the Jews against us.”
Bin Laden’s argument is not an isolated rhetorical effort. It is part of an ongoing al Qaeda propaganda thrust designed to show why Islamic law now requires that all infidel civilians–men, women, and children–can and must be attacked, and why all Muslims, male and female alike, should attack them.
In our democracy, the pundits, the public, and the politicians will focus on the arguments and issues that concern them at the moment; our electoral process will always have its own seasons and rhythms. But in the midst of a war, the search for political advantage needs always to be sobered by the realization that we live under the threat of mass murder. We have active enemies who state emphatically that they will gladly die in order to kill millions of us and, explicitly, two million children. If our politicians and pundits fail to remind us of this fact, we must remind them. We need to keep this reality in sharp focus as we prepare to exercise our democratic rights in November.
–Paul Marshall is senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom. He is author of Islam at the Crossroads and God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics.