Results from “Examining Bin Ladin’s Statements: A Quantitative Content Analysis from 1996 to 2011”

Examining Bin Ladin’s Statements: A Quantitative Content Analysis from 1996 to 2011


Our research covered 49 statements dated from 1996 to 2011 and totaling 124,571 words. Overall, we found Usama bin Ladin spoke about policy grievances the most, 36% of the time. Next came “other” at 18%, followed by religious justification and religious appeal, evenly split at 17% each. This means the ratio of policy grievance-justifying language to religion-based justifying language is nearly 2 to 1, that is, the Justification Index [JI, the ratio of policy justifications to religious justifications] is slightly below 2.0.

We then broke down our findings by audience. A plurality of bin Ladin’s statements appear to be addressed to Muslims in general (18%), followed closely by Westerners (16%), and Irhabis (8%). Seven% were unclear as to the target.

When addressing audiences classified as “Unclear,” bin Ladin spoke about policy justifications most of the time (32%), followed by Religious Justification (24%) and “Other” (23%). The Justification index is thus 1.3.

When speaking to Western audiences, bin Ladin overwhelmingly cited policy grievances in his speeches, 69% of his words. This is followed by Religious Appeal at 13%, Other at 11%, and Religious Justification at 3%. This represents a Justification Index rating of 22.6.

However, as already noted, the majority of statements in our dataset are directed at general Muslims. Even when directed at Muslims the majority of bin Ladin’s words focused on policy grievances. We find bin Ladin’s words focus on Policy Grievances, 38%, followed by Other at 19%, Religious Justification at 15%, Religious Appeal at 12% and Strategy and Tactics at 7%. This represents a Justification Index score of 2.5. This clearly contradicts claims that bin Ladin focused on religious justification (or “religious exegesis” as Raymond Ibrahim phrases it), more than policy grievances with Muslims.

With Irhabi audiences, religious justification plays a significantly larger role. In fact it is the only category where religious justifications are more prevalent than policy justifications. According to our findings, bin Ladin cited Religious Appeal the most, 30% of the time, followed by Religious Justification at 23%, Other at 17% and Policy Justification at 16%. This represents an overall JI of 0.7.

In order to ensure our findings were not skewed by a small number of statements containing a disproportionately large number of words, we examined the distribution of Justification Indices across all individual statements unweighted for word number. Out of the 47 statements in our dataset, only 10 had a JI score of 1.0 or less. In other words, slightly more than one-fifth (21.3%) of the total statements in our dataset had bin Ladin spending an equal or greater amount of time on religious justifications as opposed to policy justifications.

Furthermore we analyzed each category of statements based on their frequency and JI rating. This helps us to identify any communication trends toward specific audiences. This distribution would highlight any distortions demonstrating the degree of scatter within groupings according to intended audience. The result depicted in the histogram below clearly demonstrates bin Ladin’s emphasis of policy justifications over religious justifications for violence.

The distribution of each category in this chart shows interesting trends. Irhabi audiences trend toward employing the least amount of policy-justification statements, yet even to this constituency a majority of his statements (5 out of 8, unweighted) have a JI score equal to or greater than 1.0. Western audiences have the highest average of policy justifications and in between are Muslim and unclear audiences.

Though presentations to Muslim audiences show a distribution of a lower JI score, this is due to the fact that the lowest scores in presentations to Muslim audiences occur in the shorter pieces (see Appendix). A graph with the distributions weighted by the number of words in each statement (instead of giving each statement equal weight) would push the distribution of statements to a Muslim audience to a higher range.


As our results show, bin Ladin spent a preponderant amount of words discussing policy issues. Even when breaking down the data further along Muslim/Western lines, we find bin Ladin discussed policies more than any other subject in both cases.  On the other hand, bin Ladin devoted a greater volume of words to policy grievances when speaking to Westerners (68%), as opposed to Muslims (40%). The lower percentage of policy justifications in statements toward Muslims, however is not indicative of “doublespeak.” In our view, the reason bin Ladin resorts to more religious language when speaking mainly to Irhabis is to maintain his base of support. This appears to indicate Bin Ladin was cognizant of the hostile marketplace of ideas he faced when reaching out to Muslims. This conclusion follows directly from several vulnerabilities afflicting bin Ladin. First, he lacks religious scholarly credentials. Thus he needs some defense against his second vulnerability: many prominent religious figures have denounced him.

A third vulnerability is that a majority of Al-Qa’ida (and its ideological affiliates’) victims are Muslims. In 2007 the State Department and National Counterterrorism Center found at least 50 percent of victims from Al-Qa’ida attacks were Muslims; such attacks included approximately 100 mosques being targeted. A December 2009 from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center found at least 85 percent of Al-Qaeda’s fatalities occurred in Muslim-majority countries. Non-U.S. government sources, such as Europe-based terrorism expert Rik Coolsaet, find, “A very rough estimate puts the number of Muslim victims since the start of the wave of jihadi terrorism in the early 90s at some 175,000 compared to some 4000 Western victims.” Unsurprisingly this has upset many Muslims, as reflected in polls showing only a minority of Muslims now feel they are represented by bin Ladin.

A fourth vulnerability, bin Ladin and other terrorist ideologues face stiff competition from nonviolent Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Such organizations employ religious justifications to effectively channel Muslims’ frustrations into peaceful political engagement and away from militant behavior. Therefore the Brotherhood, “… is viewed by Al-Qa’ida as one of the primary threats to its long term viability.” Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that in a recent Q&A with the public, Al-Qa’ida deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri spent a significant amount of time on criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood, although only 1% of all questions asked him were on that topic.

Bin Ladin employed religious justifications to protect himself from criticism by other Muslims as a matter of short and long-term viability. He must do this as a defensive act to compete with non-violent Islamists for his co-religionists’ hearts and minds. Failing to address his Muslim critics’ and rivals’ arguments would erode his base of support.

The statements ranked as unclear need to be considered individually, since we cannot be certain as to whom they are directed. It may be that such statements are intended for Western, Muslim and Irhabi audiences all at the same time. Two of them are alleged to be “fatwas.” Setting aside the fact that bin Ladin was not qualified to issue a fatwa, and accepting this designation at face value, we would expect fatwas, by their nature as a religio-juridical opinion to contain religious justifications.

Yet, the JIs of the two fatwas are 1.0 and 0.8 showing that even in these cases bin Ladin resorted almost as much to policy justifications as religious ones. The shortest of the statements in the Unclear category contains no religious justification at all. A press interview had a high number of policy justification words (JI=4.8). Two TV interviews had relatively low JIs of 1.5 and 0.9, yet even here the policy and religious justifications are roughly equal.

Given the predominance of policy justifications, it is far-fetched to explain new recruits’ motivations to enter into terrorist activities as being based on violent interpretations of Islam. If religion gets people to join his ranks, why not focus on that more than policy? It is also untenable to advance theories that scripturally Islam tends to be more violence prone than other religions. Beyond the empirical studies we cited earlier debunking this claim, the argument flies in the face of bin Ladin’s overwhelming preference for policy arguments over religious ones when he sought to persuade Muslims not already in his ranks.

Can this failure of religion-centered explanations of terrorism be resolved by hypothesizing the majority of Muslims are simply ignorant of their faith or not practicing it? Empirical indicators based on the World Values Survey, Pew Global and Gallup Polls all indicate Muslims have a high-level religiosity. If such a high number of religious Muslims are ignorant of the allegedly violent nature of their faith, one would expect bin Ladin to have spent more time on religious arguments than policy issues in order to educate them as to why the religion to which they are pre-disposed to favor his position.

One must wonder why then the majority of Muslims and religious leaders, and even some prominent militants, oppose violence against civilians? At one point bin Ladin himself conceded, “Islam strictly forbids causing harm to innocent women, children, and other people. Such a practice is forbidden ever in the course of a battle.” Bin Ladin never has repudiated this statement. Rather, he has grasped at increasingly thin reasons why non-combatants were not really innocent—that is, he made yet more policy-based arguments.

The evidence overwhelmingly points toward the use of policy justifications to recruit new followers because that is where any hope of persuasion lies. As noted earlier, polls indicate Muslims worldwide have very unfavorable views of Western foreign policy. Bin Ladin used this public opinion to his advantage for recruitment and other means of support.

This is not terribly surprising when one compares bin Ladin to other terrorists. Michael German finds this is a typical behavior of terrorists, regardless of ideological persuasion: “The Weather Underground’s ‘Declaration of a State of War’ called for a Communist revolutionary struggle against ‘Amerikan imperialism,’ the Creativity Movement’s White Man’s Bible included a ‘Declaration of Independence against Jewish Tyranny,’ and al Qaeda issued a fatwa against the ‘crusader-Zionist alliance.’ These documents all read like criminal indictments. The terrorists list the charges against their oppressor, just as the U.S. Declaration of Independence laid out the American colonists’ grievances against King George III.”

However, comparing bin Ladin to violent White Supremacists, like the Creativity Movement, may give the sense the grievances he articulates are completely fictional. A policy-based response to bin Ladin’s propaganda requires an understanding of the degree to which his grievance claims are or are not based on historical reality. Developing such responses requires first knowing whether bin Ladin should be classified with what German calls “legitimately motivated” terrorists, or “extremist terrorists.”

Legitimately motivated terrorists have well-defined political goals (typically based on protecting communal rights within a country or “a limited, well-defined, but disputed territory”. On the other hand, extremist terrorists are defined by broad political goals and aims, “…to enforce their ideologies throughout the world … [who] speak of the utopian regimes they want to establish in broad, generalized terms—a new Reich or a new caliphate.” When examining bin Ladin’s statements, we find he is an extremist terrorist who overwhelmingly cited legitimate political issues to increase support for his organization.

There is no doubt bin Ladin has made statements that would classify him as an extremist terrorist. For instance in an op-ed to the Rawalpindi-based Nawa-i-Waqt, bin Ladin argued for the establishment of a Global Islamic State. He has also said in the past he fights against non-Muslims simply because of their different faith.

Nevertheless, he much more frequently cites policy justifications for his militancy, to all audience categories, by at least a 2 to 1 ratio and Muslims by a 51 to 1 ratio. It is outside the scope of this paper to debate whether or not bin Ladin sincerely believed his arguments, including the policy justifications. As a militant leader and a charismatic and eloquent man, bin Ladin knew the value of policy justifications in persuading his target audience to support his cause—whether he believes them or not.

Bin Ladin regularly cites a litany of perceived injustices against Muslims around the world by Western governments and their local allies. These include European imperialism’s negative effects on Muslim social and political institutions and changes in the political boundaries of Muslim-majority states (such as the Sykes-Picot agreement). Such examples are well-documented and beyond dispute.However, even more questionable examples tend to have some basis in reality. Analyzing bin Ladin’s invocation of UN sanctions against Iraq during the 90s, Bruce Lawrence found while bin Ladin exaggerated the impact of the sanctions, their devastating effects are nonetheless well known.

By invoking politics rather than religion, it seems bin Ladin is taking the advice of his senior strategists who learned from other radicals’ earlier mistakes:…. In other words, people are more willing to die for their people than for some abstract Islamic State. Not only have Al-Suri and bin Ladin seemed to learn from others’ failures during the 70s to the early 90s, but they incorporated lessons from others’ successes. During the anti-Soviet struggle of the 80s, Abdullah Azzam co-founded Maktab al-Khidamat (Services Bureau) with Usama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin gave financial support and ran military affairs while Azzam raised money abroad and gave speeches promoting the Afghan cause.

Azzam preached a type of militant pan-Islamism claiming it was the duty of all Muslims to fight wherever their co-religionists were militarily under attack. His calls for foreign military assistance were based on an ideology emphasizing a pan-nationalist Muslim identity. The approach worked, quickly increasing the Maktab’s number of foreign volunteers. As terrorism analyst Thomas Hegghammer observes, “Pan-Islamism had mobilizing power because it was a macro-nationalism centered on the Muslim nation. Arabs went to Afghanistan not because they were extremely religious but because they were extremely nationalistic on behalf of the umma.”

Bin Ladin seemed to have learned from Azzam’s successes. Dealing with a hostile socio-political environment, crafting a messaging strategy largely shaped by certain historical lessons and lacking religious scholarly credentials, these three factors largely explain why bin Ladin has such a strong focus on political grievances.

It may also explain why bin Ladin spent a considerable amount of time making purely religious appeals, as opposed to religious justifications. In his context, it may be more appropriate to see his invocation of religious justifications as a subset of appeals to the (pan)“nationalism” of the Ummah. Providing religious justifications is meant to appeal to Muslims’ religious identity, as much as, if not more than, their piety.

Returning to the JI distribution graph at the end of the previous section, the data shows a greater proportion of statements to Irhabis are majority-religious justification than any other category. In other words, Bin Ladin religiously preached to the ideologically converted.

Putting the JI distribution in the context of bin Ladin’s vulnerabilities discussed earlier in this section and bin Ladin’s overwhelming preference for invoking policy justifications, it appears religious justifications are not a means of obtaining new recruits, but instead meant to maintain the loyalty and morale of his followers.

It is only after bin Ladin had attracted recruits through an extensive pan-nationalist narrative centered on an oft-repeated and extensive litany of policy grievances, that his indoctrination method switched to a more explicitly scriptural and religious legal tone (i.e. religious justification). Nevertheless, as is consistent in all audience categories—including Irhabis—policy grievances are discussed the most. They are the lifeblood of bin Ladin’s recruiting narrative and ideology.

Additionally, it is interesting to note our analysis of this study’s findings fits well with the secular backgrounds of Muslims committing themselves to international terrorism. According to Marc Sageman’s study of 500 Al-Qa’ida operatives, only 13% had any background in religious training. Sageman also notes about two-thirds of those in his dataset “grew up secular, in secular environments.” They only became religious after they became attracted to Al-Qa’ida’s cause. Terrorists’ religious knowledge tends to be extremely superficial, and revolves mostly around armed opposition to certain policy grievances.

Finally, we would like to highlight one audience for bin Ladin’ statements we have not mentioned thus far and deserves special mention, and that is researchers such as ourselves. Like anthropologists and quantum physicists we need to be keenly aware that the process of observation can affect the outcome. This is demonstrated clearly by bin Ladin’s speech of 6/3/2009, delivered just one year after publication a preliminary summary of this research project and one month after its first presentation at an academic conference. Although titled a “Speech to the Pakistani Nation,” the first half of the speech is atypical for one addressed to a general Muslim audience in that the first half is almost completely religious justification.  In the middle it abruptly shifts gears to become mostly policy justification, but before concluding bin Ladin pointedly addresses Americans (“Before we come to the end, I have some words that I wish to address America with”), specifically mentioning, “Some of the wise and righteous, at the research and investigative centers, as well as others like them, have looked into the reasons that encourage people to combat America and seek revenge against it, based on what I have relayed.” (emphasis added)

These words leave no doubt that bin Ladin was aware his words were being analyzed and suggests strongly that the statement in question is an outlier specifically so he can make the point that he can make religious justifications when he wants to. Nonetheless, in the end he returns to the standard pattern, decrying the fact that: “no one from the representatives of the major corporations gives the slightest attention to what we have said to the White House. To this, I say the free men that carried out the 11th of September will never taste the bitterness of oppression and eviction from their homes and their land, only to be sheltered in tents with very little to eat. Rather, those 19 heard what struck their brothers in Palestine in the form of American weapons and through Zionist hands.”

The timing of this statement, its wording, and the way it differs from the rest of the data analyzed demonstrates the effect of the observer on the subject and underscores the importance of taking that impact into consideration. In this particular instance it does not change our conclusions, for despite his unusual attention to religious justification in an apparent attempt to refute those who say his action are not religiously justifiable, he nonetheless returned to focus on the fact that the motivations of those who follow him are policy-based.


We find that Usama bin Ladin focused primarily on policy arguments. We encourage policymakers to move away from simplistic cultural and religion-centric theories seeking to explain the political behavior of Muslims. We have no concern for political correctness, only with the fact that such theories do not withstand scientific scrutiny, yet form the theoretical basis for many current policies. We say, “let the data lead the discourse” and lead the policies too. Just as bin Ladin focused on policy in trying to incite Muslims against the West, the West must focus on policy if it wishes to improve its relationship with the Muslim world.

Alejandro J. Beutel and Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute


2 Responses to “Results from “Examining Bin Ladin’s Statements: A Quantitative Content Analysis from 1996 to 2011””

  1. Leo Dugas says:

    Lets face it, Bin Ladin spoke mostley about killing non belivers of islam. You can call it what ever you want, it all boils down to Bin Ladin was a terrorist, believed in the law of sharia, the right of muslims to kill the so called infidels for the sake of a so called religion that was started by a terrorist.
    You can call me what every you want, but I believe in FREEDOM, and not forcing others to believe in what I do.

  2. Leo Dugas says:

    I will not moderate my opinion of islam and the evils it breeds and spreads accross the world.
    Bin Laden was a TERRORIST!!!
    He was a represenative of a terroristic so called religion.

Leave a Reply