Islam’s “Neglected Duty”
The selection of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as targets on August 7, 1998, for bombings
allegedly arranged by Osama bin Laden followed a macabre tradition. Symbols of secular political power were
also chosen—perhaps again by bin Laden—when an American military residence hall in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia,
was bombed in 1996 and when a truckload of explosives was ignited in the parking garage of New York City’s
World Trade Center in 1993. Although many of the bombing sites chosen by the Lebanese Amal and Hizbollah
movements in the 1980s and 1990s were military, the actions of bin Laden—along with Hamas in Palestine and
the al Gamaa-i Islamiya movement in Egypt in the 1990s—were aimed more broadly. They were directed not only
at symbols of political and economic power, such as embassies and trade centers, but also at other centers of secular
life: residence halls, office buildings, buses, shopping malls, cruise boats, and coffeehouses. In Algeria the
inhabitants of whole villages were slaughtered, allegedly by supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front. All of these
incidents were assaults on society as a whole.
This series of terrifying events raises a complicated question: why have these three things—religious conviction,
hatred of secular society, and the demonstration of power through acts of violence—so frequently coalesced in
recent Islamic activist movements? To begin to search for answers to this question, I talked with one of the men
convicted of the bombing of the World Trade Center, Mahmud Abouhalima.