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Osama Bin Laden as the new ‘Saladin’: Two great parallels in Arab history

Two of the greatest parallels in Arab history : ‘Saladin’ and ‘Osama Bin Laden’, can be studied to gain an understanding of the Arab intellect toward terrorist operations and their underlying motivations.
Osama Bin Laden – “ A unique mixture of twelfth century cleric and a model executive director from the twenty first century.”
(Schuer, 2005)

Two of the greatest parallels in Arab history : ‘Saladin’ and ‘Osama Bin Laden’, can be studied to gain an understanding of the Arab intellect toward terrorist operations and their underlying motivations. We can study history to identify the fundamental beliefs which support theological terrorism, but to identify its modus operandi in current times we must holistically approach the subject with both historical and modern appreciations.

From the outset, let me be clear – I do not believe that ‘terrorists’ accurately represent their respective religious and cultural socio-demographic groups throughout the world. History has shown that nearly all humans from every race and religion have at some time used politically and/or religiously motivated violence to aid their beliefs and assert their freedom or to fight against their perception of oppression and injustice.

“ Hundreds of wars and attempts at extermination of certain groups of people have stemmed from religious, ethnic and tribal differences since the Crusades. Catholics against Protestants, Jews against Arabs, Sikhs against Hindus, Hindu’s against Muslims, Tutsis against Hutus, communism against democracy, Kosovo against Serbia, Khmer Rouge against republicans…” (Simonsen & Spindlove, 2004)

For the purposes of this assignment, I use the Arab World as an example of how historical ‘terrorist’ operations have relevance in today’s world – Terrorism, is not a new phenomena.

The legacy of ‘Saladin’ (born Yusuf Ayyub, c.1138) within the Arab world has striking parallels to the life and public persona of the worlds’ most famous Anti-American leader, Osama Bin Laden.

Whilst Saladin is most famously known for his siege over the Kingdom of Jerusalem, defeating the Christian Crusaders in c.1187, Bin Laden’s fight for liberation from a perceived Zionist led Western world has similarly strong religious and politically overtones, resulting in the 2001 attacks on the United States of America. Two defining moments in history – both of which continue to have repercussions for Muslims, Christians and Jews throughout the world today.
Like Saladin, Bin Laden made history for his uprising against the West.
“ In contrast to Saddam Hussein, who Muslims hated for his brutality and non-Islamic behaviour, but applauded for spitting in America’s eye, Bin Laden is seen by millions of his coreligionists- because of his defense of Islam, personal piety, physical bravery, integrity and generosity – as an Islamic hero, as that Faith’s ideal type, and almost a modern day Saladin, determined to defend Islam and protect Muslims.” (Scheuer, 2005)

To understand the Muslim terrorist intellect we must first understand Muslim identity. Fundamental concepts in this appreciation include ;

1. There is no legal separation between the State and Religion in Arab countries. They are one and the same.

2. Everything occurs (or doesn’t occur) according to the will of Allah.

3. The Muslim mind thinks associatively – that is individualism as occurs in the West, in not a common phenomena within Arab countries. Everything within the Arab world is based on relationships; beginning with ones relationship with Allah, followed by family and community.

4. Muslims are inherently superstitious – they will readily accept beliefs in conspiracies, psychic phenomena and magic. This can be attributed to cultural beliefs, as well as religious scripture.
(Scheur, 2005) (NCIS, 2005)How then, do these traits provide us with the ability to detect motivators for Terrorist acts in today’s world ?
To what extent has the historical legacy of ‘Saladin’ influenced and supported Bin Laden’s rise to infamy ?

The core characteristics which can be identified for religious terrorists are not unique to Islam. The study of fanatical terrorism in all faiths can provide similar core values, systems of belief and religious rhetoric.

History, can be seen to repeat itself. The cyclical nature of terrorism continues ;
“Terrorist acts have too often created a cycle of violence, with those against whom the terror-violence is first carried out becoming so angered that they resort to terrorism in response…” (Simonsen & Spindlove, 2004)

In his audio visual message to the United States of America after American air strikes began pounding Afghani soil on October 7th 2001, Osama Bin Laden’s message to the world was this ;
“ Praise be to God and we beseech him for help and forgiveness. We seek refuge with the Lord of our bad and evildoing. He whom God guides is rightly guided but he whom God leaves to stray, for him wilt thou find no protector to lead him to the right way… God Almighty hit the United States at its most vulnerable spot. He destroyed its greatest buildings… Here is the United States. It was filled with terror from its north to its south and from its east to its west. Praise be to God… As for the United States, I tell it and its people these few words : I swear by Almighty God… that neither the United States nor he who lives in the United States will enjoy security before we can see it as a reality in Palestine and before all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him.” (Hoffman, 2006)

Just as Saladin had mounted a crusade for the holy land, so too has Bin Laden.

This connection between historical and current terrorism shouldn’t be seen as a new discovery. The Crusades themselves were acts of religious warfare , ‘holy warfare’ with both the Christians and Muslims fighting for the same thing – control over the land of Jesus and of Muhammad. The Crusades were sanctioned by the Catholic Vatican, which can now be viewed ironically as a Christian clergy sanctioned ‘jihad’, or ‘terrorism’.

The clash between Islam and the West can be seen clearly in the political ideals of the State. For many Arabs, it is incomprehensible to separate Islam and Government. Allah set down the laws through the prophet Muhammad, the Government simply enforces them. To many Arabs this distinction between the State and Islam may seem as if they are losing their identity – how can one adopt the modernity of the West without selling out their fundamental religious beliefs ?

Extremists views of the Western world both frightens and repulses traditional peoples – homosexuality, falling birth rates and the decline in family values, legalized abortion – in this sense, religious extremists feel the need to fight against Western modernization of their country, fearing the same social corruptness would permeate their society, forever tarnishing their ability to please Allah and be received into heaven.

In Arab society, through the recognition of associative thinking and the individual’s desire for community acceptance, we can begin to study the leap from moderate religious adherence to fanatic observance.
“All human beings are sensitive to threats to their values and beliefs, which they identify themselves. These include language, religion, group membership, and homeland or tribal territory. The possibility of losing any of these can trigger defensive, even xenophobic, reactions. Religion may be the most volatile of cultural identifiers because it encompasses values and beliefs so deeply rooted in cultural paradigm.” (Simonsen & Spindlove, 2004)

Bin Laden has adopted the much liked and highly respected figure of Saladin within the Arab world and represented himself as the present generations’ leader against the Crusaders. Using Saladin as the bridge between the past, present and future, Bin Laden can justify his actions as they can be perceived to be steeped in historical heroics and martyrdom.
“… Saladin remains a preeminent hero of the Islamic World. It was he who united the Arabs, who defeated the Crusaders in epic battles, who recaptured Jerusalem, and who threw the European invaders out of Arab lands. In the seemingly endless struggle of modern day Arabs to reassert the essentially Arab nature of Palestine, Saladin lives vibrantly, as symbol of hope…” (Reston, 2001)

How has Bin Laden successfully adopted and stayed true to the highly revered Saladin ideal whilst moving his modus operandi into the twenty first century ? The reasons given in justification for ‘terrorism’ haven’t changed – but the means in which terrorists can execute their attacks have. Instead of fire, rocks and cannons, weaponry is now sourced from every commodity known to man.

Bin Laden has successfully moved Terrorism into the modern era, exploiting all the materialistic accomplishments of the modern West.

The 8th Century traditional Hawala system is used by terrorist organizations to get money from country to country. This traditional practice is being exploited by terrorist groups, circumnavigating the many layers of financial transaction reporting and analysis used in Western countries to detect and counter money laundering and organized crime. As the Hawala system is based on the honor of the brokers involved, no documentation is kept and no money physically crosses borders, making it impossible for law enforcement to detect.

Another modern adaptation of a traditional practice is that of military training. Traditionally, in many countries across the world including the Arab nations, young men and women have been trained to defend their ‘King and Country’ in the form of national conscription. They are trained in basic warfare, combat and survival skills.

Terrorists have adapted these principles of basic soldier training to a new level, and the fact that a large proportion of young Arabs have this training, specifically training recruits to complete specific tasks. The advent of the suicide bomber, although not unique to Islam, shows to what extent followers of a religious ideology will go, to prove their belief in God.
“ The decision to rely on suicide bombing … was neither irrational nor desperate, but rational and calculated. As the terrorists themselves have pointed out, suicide bombings are both inexpensive and effective.” (Hoffman, 2006)

The Hamas further perpetuate this modus operandi by recruiting and grooming disadvantaged children and adolescents ;
“Hamas continues to indoctrinate its followers via its religious and social institutions which include clinics, orphanages, colleges, summer camps and sports clubs… We like to grow them from kindergarten to college.” (BARSKY, 2006)

Bin Laden’s use of suicide bombers has again made the leap from roadside IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) to Public Transport systems and the Aviation Industry.

From 9/11 we now know the lengths to which suicide bombers will go. The plane hijackers of 9/11 had spend time learning to pilot aircraft to enable them to effectively carry out their mission. The suicide train bombers in London had conducted detailed planning and reconnaissance before July 7th 2005.

Bin Laden has adapted the basic principles of national military conscription and training and placed them into the modern context, using people as bombs and public transport as devices of horror and destruction. Training young men and women in warfare, when their respective countries have done the initial indoctrination into military life and weapons, is therefore an easy task.

Can we gain an understanding of the terrorist modus operandi from history ?

Yes we can. We can see how relevant history is to their ideology and theological doctrine. How important tradition and culture is to the very fabric of their being.

Can we use this knowledge to combat terrorism today – to predict attacks in the future? To a limited extent, yes.

Law enforcement can utilize this knowledge as a basis for profiling, intelligence gathering and surveillance activities. More recently we have seen many successful Police and Intelligence Agency interventions halting terrorist activities. I would argue that this is because we have learned enough Muslim history and theology to understand the terrorist mind. We now have a large list of indicators which will bring these people to notice at a much earlier stage in their illicit activities.

However we still don’t know why people are drawn to such fanaticism and why it leads them to undertake acts of extreme violence, which almost always result in their own deaths.

The social and theological aspect of Islam, or any religion, isn’t enough to produce a ‘terrorist’. There are factors, such as social conditioning, psychological issues and brainwashing which are common to all types of religious cults, which we can see in studying known terrorists – apocalyptic/reward upon death style beliefs, charismatic leadership, social encapsulation and extreme paranoia regarding non-believers.

In studying the past, terrorists justify their extreme actions and the deaths of thousands of people. In studying the historical aspect of extremist terrorists we can effectively build systems to combat their actions through good intelligence gathering and information sharing. Our next step needs to be focused on preventing the leap from pious religious devotion to fanatical extremism, how to detect this, how to reasonably combat such beliefs, and how best to bring followers from these ‘cult like’ religious factions back into the world harmoniously.

Definitions of terrorism are important because they have social and political consequences.
“Terrorism cannot be overcome by the use of force because it does not address the complex underlying problems. In fact the use of force may not only fail to solve the problems, it may exacerbate them and frequently leaves destruction
and suffering in its wake.” ( His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, 2001)

What is terrorism ?

The answer to that question will largely depend on who you ask.

How do people distinguish between a ‘Terrorist’ and a ‘Freedom Fighter’ ? Again, the definition of both will depend on whom you ask.

I decided to put these questions to some personal friends and work colleagues. Personal friends being outside of the law enforcement arena, and work colleagues within. The answers I received varied;

“The use of deadly force against a certain group of people to attain political or religious dominance.”
“ Any idea/thought that hence goes against the prevailing dogma of that society..” And ;

“ In Iraq for example, you could be a freedom fighter and a terrorist at the same time – a freedom fighter conducting a bombing for your (Iraqi) side, but you are then a terrorist to your victims.”

Just as different people have varying perspectives on terrorism, so too does Governments around the world. For example, in the United States the official definitions of Terrorism differ between Government agencies ;
– State Department
– Vice President’s Task Force
– United Nations
– Defense Department
– Defense Intelligence Agency

In Australia, our definition of terrorism is structured in the legislative framework of the Criminal Codes Act 1995 and the more recently updated Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act 2005.

“ There is no internationally accepted definition of terrorism. Not even the United Nations has been able to achieve consensus on this contentious issue… In Australia, what constitutes an act of terrorism is defined in Commonwealth legislation. The Criminal Code Act 1995 states that a terrorist act means an action or threat of action where the action causes certain defined forms of harm or interference and the action is done or the threats made with intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause. Further, the Act states that ‘the action is done or threat is made with the intention of ;
i. coercing or influencing by intimidation, the government of the Commonwealth or a State, Territory or foreign country, or part of a State, Territory or foreign country, or
ii. intimidating the public or section of the public …” (DFAT, 2004)

This definition then goes on to include the use of electronic systems, telecommunications, transport systems for the purposes of defined terrorism resulting in serious injury or death.

This legislation not only tries to encompass the ‘act’ of terrorism itself, but also the means to which the ‘act’ can be perpetrated, supported or aided. This critical inclusion allows for Police and Intelligence Agencies to execute search and detention powers based on circumstantial evidence.

Why is it important to have a universal definition of terrorism ?

“ Terrorism is a political as well as legal and a military issue, its definition in modern terms has been slow to evolve. Not that there are not numerous definitions available – there are hundreds. But few of them are of sufficient legal scholarship to be useful in international law, and most of those which are legally useful lack the necessary ambiguity for political acceptance.” (Combs/Simonsen & Spindlove, 2004)

In this perspective, the indefinite boundaries of the word ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorism’ undermines the scope and efforts of law enforcement in attempting to combat it.
Without defined parameters and legislation which reflect the Government’s stance on terrorism, the legal profession is at a loss to effectively prosecute those who would plan or support, or participate in acts of terrorism.

Both law enforcement and their supporting legal departments cannot hope to organize the deportation of a terrorist from one country to another unless the definition of terrorism can be seen as complementary in both countries. By legally making the distinction between terrorists and other criminals we are able to effectively investigate and prosecute those who would engage in terrorist activity of any kind.
“Once we accept that terrorism is simply a means to an end – nothing more and nothing less – we can apply the term without inclusion of moral beliefs and sociological-political mumbo jumbo.” (Simonsen & Spindlove, 2004)

Not only is it critical to the success of law enforcement and the legal profession to have the word ‘terrorism’ defined universally, but social conventions would also more accurately reflect on the term when used in the media, within communities and educational environments.

Social consequences of the word ‘Terrorism’ imply :
“ Religion transcends normative political and social boundaries, increasing violence and decreasing opportunities for negotiation.” (White, 2006)

Socially we can see from the recent events surrounding the Australian Federal Police (AFP), The Department of Immigration and Citizenship, and Dr. Mohamed Haneef how the word ‘terrorist’ can permeate the justice system, social perception and mass media.

What initially began as the detection of a terrorist in the public health system quickly turned into a witch hunt with both Australian and Indian Governments drawn into the fiasco – with opposing views. Dr. Haneef was subsequently released without charge from detainment however his ability to return to he pre-detainment life, although not convicted or charged with any crime, became impossible.

The Department of Immigration had cancelled his visa, stating in their reasons to the media, that his association with suspected terrorists were consider grounds enough to question his ‘good character status’. A subsequent appeal to the Federal Court of Australia, as reported by The Australian newspaper revealed ;
“ The Federal Courts decision that the Australian Government cannot cancel a person’s visa on the basis of an innocent association should be the end of the matter…” ( The Australian , 2007)

However this has not brought justice, an apology or visa back to Dr. Haneef.

From this incident we can observe ;
From the social implication of the word ‘terrorist’ with Dr. Haneef and his subsequent acquittal, he has received a hero’s welcome home by the Indian people, effectively giving him the status exactly opposite to what a suspected terrorist would normally enjoy.

“A rousing welcome for Dr. Mohammed Haneef in India – a defeat for racist Howard regime of Australia. Shame on Australia ! Shame on Prime Minister Howard and his coward racist Australian authorities….” (Chaube, 2007)

Muslims living in Australia now fully justified in their initial reservations with the Governments’ introduction of detainment powers under the new counter-terrorist bill.
“A Muslim civil rights advocate says the handling of the case… has confirmed the Muslim community’s worst fears… It was every Muslims fear that this could happen to him. They can imagine being in the same situation as Haneef was in, that they left a SIM card with a relative before leaving the country and then something like this happens a year later …” (Kadous, 2007)

The AFP have had their credibility severely tarnished through the handling of the incident, a mismanaged media and ‘trigger happy’ Immigration Minister.
“The rules of natural justice do not apply to such a decision. That was the Immigration Department’s advice to its minister, Kevin Andrews, on his power to cancel the visa of Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef, meaning he could be locked up indefinitely…” (Steketee, 2007)


“Australian Federal Police, who were severely embarrassed by the leak of the first record of interview with terror suspect Mohamed Haneef, have issued a plea to his lawyers to keep the second interview secret. Dr Haneef’s solicitor, Peter Russo, said yesterday he suspected the plea was an attempt to save the AFP and Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews further embarrassment and scrutiny over “misleading and selective” attempts to smear the Indian-trained medical practitioner.” (Thomas, 2007)

The social impact this incident has had on the Australian people and International community is still yet to be fully appreciated. The seemingly illogical course of events, evidence that was evidence and then wasn’t evidence, and the quick cancellation of a work visa certainly did not make any sense, particularly in our society which upholds the edict ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

Apparently this grace is not granted equally to all people.

The political fallout from the Haneef incident is again, yet to be fully contained. With a federal election announcement eminent, one can expect the Labour Party holding onto this example of injustice with a grip to rival Goliath.

But how has the Haneef incident changed the way in which political consequences and the definition of ‘Terrorism’ is seen ? Certainly the Prime Minister will be called into account for the actions his Chief of Federal Police and Immigration Minister have taken, however it is the Australian people whom this has left an indelible imprint.
A simple google search of ‘Howard and Haneef’ comes up with some 618 results. Topping the list is an article from the Indian-Australian community ;

“John Howard will certainly use Dr. Haneef’s case as an election ploy, I can still remember the Tampa crisis and anti refugee psychosis that was generated…” (Indialink, 2007)

From the part of our multicultural society that most directly relates to Haneef and his situation we can see a trend of distrust toward the current political administration. Indeed the remarks made regarding Howard in a previous quote, were from India itself, where many of our students, tourists and skilled migrants are sourced from.

To effectively combat terrorism within Australia should the Government play terrorist themselves, such is the case of Dr. Haneef ?

Uncharged and seemingly not guilty, free to leave but unable to stay. Haneef cannot return to the life he was leading before his ‘association’ with his relatives drew him into a situation, which has through due process and investigation, found him to be free of terrorist intent or act.

The handling of this politically sensitive terrorist related investigation has only further demonstrated the wide scope of interpretation the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ imply.
“Very often it seems that the goal of terrorism is simply to create widespread fear, arousal and uncertainty on a wider, more distant scale than is achieved by targeting the victim alone, thereby influencing the political process and how it might normally be expected to function.”(Horgan, 2005)

Has the incident involving Dr. Haneef aided this definition of terrorism, effectively being the opposite outcome, to what the Government attempted to do in protecting the Australian people ?

Wide spread fear and suspicion toward skilled migrants could be a byproduct of these events. By even more so, the lack of apology or recognition of a process gone wrong only serves to make it easier for terrorists to succeed in their end-game. If for nothing else, the Haneef saga proves how a lack of legally recognized definitions by all parties involved ended up supporting terrorist agenda, by creating fear, mistrust and racial tension between Australians, migrants and our Government.

Without intent or realization, the Immigration Ministers’ actions in canceling Haneef’s working visa only strengthens the view that the justice system isn’t fair.

By lack of a proper, legally justifiable definition of the frameworks of what we recognize as terrorism and what being a terrorist involves across our Government agencies, we have shown to the world that even in error, we will not amend our definitions, and make right what we have wronged.


Reference ListHoffman, B (2006). ‘Inside Terrorism.’ New York : Columbia University Press. Chapters 1, 2 & 3.
White, J.R. (2006) ‘Terrorism and Homeland Security.’ Belmont, California : Thompson Wadsworth. Chapters 1 & 2.
Horgan, J. (2005) ‘The Psychology of Terrorism.’ Great Britain : Routledge, Chapter 1, What is Terrorism ? pp.1-22
Davies, B. (2003) ‘Terrorism, Inside a World Phenomenon.’ Kent, Great Britain : Virgin Books, Chapter 1, The History of Modern World Terrorism, pp. 3-37.
Richardson, L. (2006) ‘The Roots of Terrorism.’ Great Britain : Routledge, Chapter 5, Counter Terrorism and Repression.
Simonsen, C.E. & Spindlove, J.R. (2004) ‘Terrorism Today’. Australia : Pearson Education, Chapter 1, Defining Terrorism. Chapter 2, A brief History of Terrorism.
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Rapport, D. ‘Four Waves of Modern Terrorism.’ http://www.international.ucla.edu/cms/files/David_Rapport_Waves_of_Terrorism.pdf
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Cochrane, P. (2007) ‘Fight against funding for terrorists founders on eighth century system’. Independent News and Media, Beirut. ‘Factiva’: Document INDOS00020070211e32b00005
Barsky, Y. (2006) ‘Hamas : The Islamic Resistance Movement of Palestine.’ American Jewish Committee.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – Tibetan Buddhist Monk. (2007) quotes from his Australian Tour and historical speeches (2001). www.dalailama.org.au
Commonwealth of Australia (2004), Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ‘Transnational Terrorism : The Threat to Australia’. www.dfat.gov.au
The Australian newspaper, (2007) ‘Haneef case should end : Law Council’ , as printed August 23 2007. www.theaustralian.news.com.au
Kadous, W (2007) ABC News, July 21 2007 ; ‘Haneef predicament every Muslims worst fear’. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/07/21/1984507.htm
Chaube, K (2007) India Daily newspaper, ‘A rousing welcome for Dr. Mohammed Haneef – a defeat for racist Howard regime of Australia.’ http://www.indiadaily.com/editorial/17716.asp
Steketee, M (2007) ‘The rights we defend’ The Australian newspaper. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22095225-5013457,00.html
Thomas, H (2007) ‘AFP secrecy pleas over Haneef interview’ The Australian newspaper. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22258777-601,00.html
Anonymous author, (2007) Indialink : www.indianlink.com.au/?q=node/1101

***This paper was first published in 2007, (c) Nicole Matejic 2007-2016 as part of her Masters programme.