Worldwide perception of Osama bin Laden

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Osama bin Laden was fairly obscure in the West prior to 2001, but became a household name as the man behind Al-Qaida and the September 11 attacks on the USA. This was the first major incident of foreign terrorism in the United States in generations.

Despite massive military action and a reward now over $50 million, Osama bin Laden remains known worldwide for his position at the forefront of al Qaida.

World views are highly polarised. Most people in the West tend to view bin Laden as a heinous fanatic and mass killer, while many radical Muslims in the Middle East and Asia tend to view him as a righteous and principled fighter against Western (political, spiritual and economic) oppression. However substantial numbers in both regions differ from these generalities.

Western perceptions

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In this picture, an American teenager is wearing an anti-Osama Bin Laden t-shirt

As a result of the September 11 attacks and the subsequent outpouring of patriotic ferver and outrage, western opinion of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda is extremely negative. This is fueled by the manner in which they are portrayed by the media, which emphasize his dual role as a fanatic fundamentalist Muslim and architect of the worst terrorist incident in US history.

Prior to September 11, major disasters of this scale were virtually unknown to Americans, and until that time many Americans were completely disinterested in foreign affairs. With only a few spectacular exceptions (such as the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995), terrorist attacks against America were limited to military or diplomatic targets in distant countries, such as the bombings of the USS Cole and embassies in Africa. The September 11 attacks were widely unexpected--subsequent inquiries were made into the failure of intelligence and police agencies to anticipate and prepare for the attacks--and as such they triggered a profound psychological reaction in the American public.

This reaction has led to numerous theories and perspectives about the Bin Laden himself. Some consider him a power-hungry demagogue who is using religion to stir up anti-American sentiments and opposition to friendly regimes in the Middle East. Many commentators in the United States, such as Pat Buchanan, subscribe to this view [1] ( Others, such as Noam Chomsky, feel that "bin Laden's angry rhetoric has considerable resonance" in the Middle East because "the US role in the region"--supporting unpopular dictators, establishing military bases, and so forth--is itself unpopular [2] ( It is widely believed that bin Laden must be captured or killed before a heightened sense of security can be attained inside the United States (whether this is true is subject to debate).

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Some people like to crack jokes about Osama bin Laden, as shown by this doctored photograph from Sweden

For some people, ridicule is seen as a means of expression, so anti-Osama bin Laden merchandise, including toilet paper rolls and urinal cakes with his face on it, can be bought within the United States.

Subsequent to September 11, anti-Muslim sentiment has increased generally in the West, and many Muslim communities in these countries have been reviled, attacked or publicly distanced themselves from bin Laden, and from the means he employs, in the attempt to underline their disapproval and wish for peace. Many of these feel themselves hurt and at risk of being "tarred by the same brush" by association.

Bin Laden is often seen as "the man" to get to destroy Al-Qaida, however this is not altogether accurate. Although it would be a major victory in the West, and an undoubted major psychological and military coup against terrorism, many other important leaders are involved in such attacks. Some of these have been captured or killed (Mohammed Atef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed). However several others such as Ayman Al-Zawahiri remain at large.

Islamic countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia

(Note: This section is awaiting a fuller rewrite, and is not yet adequately presented)

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Leaflet advertising a September 11, 2003 "Islamic conference" in the United Kingdom.

Before the September 11th attacks, many Muslims in the Middle East and central Asia had come to admire bin Laden for his charity work and his defense of Islam. Some extremist Muslims in those regions sympathize with Osama bin Laden and sometimes protest actions taken against bin Laden by the United States.

However, this support is not unanimous or unwavering: he has been expatriated from his home country of Saudi Arabia and was disowned by his family (who now use the English spelling Binladin).

Moderate Muslims in those regions look down at bin Laden as too extremist, and do not support his tactics for getting the U.S. to change its foreign policy.

See Also

  • Osama bin Laden
  • BBC article ( with analysis of the motives, impact, and public perceptions of Bin Laden and al Qaida.
  • CBS article ( on an assessment of the bin Laden situation from Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's special bin Laden unit

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