Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Back to al-Qaida's Roots

NEW YORK -- As much as Hitler during World War II or Nikita Khrushchev in the Cold War, Osama bin Laden has emerged as the enemy incarnate for an America fighting Islamic terrorism.

Soon after President George W. Bush declared he wanted bin Laden "dead or alive," in cowboy parlance, shooting ranges in the United States began selling targets of this bearded, turban-clad villain. Bin Laden appeared to relish the role, judging by the tape of himself declaring holy war that was broadcast by the Pan-Arab al-Jazeera cable network after American and British forces launched air strikes on Afghanistan.

The intense focus on bin Laden, however, may be not only inflating his importance but obscuring the deeper, broader and thus less eradicable roots of radical Islam's assault on the West. That is the implicit and unmistakable lesson to be taken from the documentary "Looking for Answers," shown on PBS Tuesday night.

Jointly produced by "Frontline" and The New York Times, the hour-long documentary clearly and disturbingly traces the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon back more than 70 years to the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Rather than emphasizing the causes that bin Laden has offered for his jihad -- American support of Israel, sanctions against Iraq and a military presence in Saudi Arabia -- the documentary argues persuasively that the terror network has arisen largely in reaction to alleged corruption and oppression by Arab governments themselves.

This conclusion hardly amounts to a dismissal of bin Laden's prominence. The documentary depicts bin Laden's Qaida organization as the most recent and aggressive strain of a decades-old phenomenon in the Arab Muslim world.

"The American government doesn't get it," says Ahmed Sattar, an aide to the fundamentalist imam, Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, who is serving a life sentence for attempted terrorist acts. "You can kill Osama bin Laden today or tomorrow. You can arrest him or put him on trial. This will end the problem? No. Tomorrow you will get somebody else."

Moving across decades and nations, "Looking for Answers'' connects disparate events into a coherent line of descent leading to bin Laden and al-Qaida. The Muslim Brotherhood, brutally suppressed by the secular government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and '60s, resurged under the relative freedoms granted by Anwar el-Sadat. The Islamists, defined by their vision of a fundamentalist theocracy, exploited legitimate economic grievances: high prices for staple foods, little employment for the educated.

In Saudi Arabia, the documentary contends, the corruption of the ruling House of Saud inspired Islamist opponents. "Who can believe that a country pumping 9 billion barrels a day with a small population between 15 and 20 million is in a $200 billion debt now?'' asks a Saudi dissident based in London, Saad al-Fagih. "Why would this happen unless there is a massive loot of our resources by a conspiracy between the royal family and the Americans?"

The different strands of Islamist opposition came together in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. They did so with arms and money from the United States. Although that point could have been made even more forcefully, "Looking for Answers" does include one painful image of American naivete -- film of George Bush Sr., then vice president, hailing the Islamist mujahedin for having "earned the admiration of free men everywhere."

The victory over the Soviets left the Islamic radicals believing, as Sattar puts it, "If I can defeat the evil empire, I can defeat anybody else." The evolving coalition of Islamist terror groups soon made its mark on the West, bombing the World Trade Center in 1993, gunning down tourists in Egypt in 1997 and destroying American embassies in Africa in 1998. None of this information is new, of course, but the documentary marshals it into an effective, chilling chronology.

If the United States may be fixating on bin Laden and al-Qaida too exclusively now, then "Looking for Answers" maintains that America and its allies probably focused on him too little until it was too late. The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, at one point recalls a missed opportunity to have seized bin Laden in 1996, when he was forced to leave his sanctuary in Sudan for Afghanistan.

"To be honest," says Ambassador Sultan, "we never gave him the weight that now everybody is giving him. We thought he was a nuisance, and he was bad for the image of Saudi Arabia, of Islam, his family. We never thought of him as the bin Laden who is doing all this. Just get rid of the guy. Just go away and disappear."

Samuel G. Freedman, professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is the author, most recently, of "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry." He contributed this comment to The New York Times.