Putin’s propaganda is parroting Al-Qaeda’s anti-Western grievances

The format of the anti-Western annexation speech by the Russian leader followed the Al-Qaeda narrative of anti-Western polemicising. The risk is it appeals to unaligned states. The West must defend itself and tell better stories.

People attending the rally-concert 'We are together' in support of the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to Russia on Red square of Moscow on March 18, 2014. Credit: Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo.

On 30 September Vladimir Putin spoke for thirty-seven minutes at the ceremony for signing the treaties annexing Ukrainian territory to Russia. Even by his exacting standards, it was striking for its focused antipathy towards ‘the West’. The arguments and sentiments were familiar, and not just because the themes running through it — the litany of grievances, the descriptions of western depravity — have become part of the accepted Russian narrative. The speech also echoed directly, in format and content, Osama bin Laden’s four thousand word ‘Letter to the American people’ of November 2002, written at a time of intense tension in the US and Europe. A year after 9/11, it was an explanation of why he was fighting, a call to arms to his followers, and a threat. Putin’s speech and bin Ladin’s letter both come after an audacious act, and in the middle of a fight. It is instructive to compare the two, and to reflect on the impact of these storytelling techniques which rebrand ‘the West’ as the source of all that is wrong with the world.

Many other speeches by leaders of states and non-states who are ‘anti-Western’ follow a similar template. The same threads and hooks run through, for example, Ayatollah Khamanei’s speech of June 4th 2022, which accused the West of theft of oil, ‘looting the whole world’ for three centuries, of hypocrisy, of cultural depravity. Though written twenty years apart, Putin’s speech and bin Ladin’s letter demonstrate the durability of the template and offer examples from which we can extract the core tenets of the narrative. Both serve a dual purpose: to communicate directly with the adversary and to inspire their own side. In his letter, Osama bin Laden offered the answers to two questions: ‘Why are we fighting and opposing you? What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?’ Putin similarly aimed ‘to tell them what our people are fighting for, what kind of enemy we are up against.’

Bin Ladin’s answer to his first question was ‘Because you attack us and you continue to attack us’.  The letter provides a litany of instances — starting with Palestine — where the West enabled ‘years overflowing with oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction and devastation’. Putin’s similarly provides that list: ‘It is worth reminding the West that it began its colonial policy back in the Middle Ages, followed by the worldwide slave trade, the genocide of Indian tribes in America, the plunder of India and Africa, the wars of England and France against China, as a result of which it was forced to open its ports to the opium trade.’

Putin has relentlessly used history to justify the invasion of Ukraine, fixating on Kyivan Rus’. Osama bin Laden always goes back further: ‘It is the Muslims who are the inheritors of Moses (peace be upon him) …. When the Muslims conquered Palestine and drove out the Romans, Palestine and Jerusalem returned to Islam.’ In this new speech, Putin brings it up to date: ‘There were numerous plans to invade Russia. Such attempts were made during the Time of Troubles in the seventeenth century and in the period of ordeals after the 1917 revolution. All of them failed. The West managed to grab hold of Russia’s wealth only in the late twentieth century.’

Both use the sense of being under attack to justify their aggression. Putin states: ‘the West continued and continues looking for another chance to strike a blow at us, to weaken and break up Russia, which they have always dreamed about, to divide our state and set our peoples against each other, and to condemn them to poverty and extinction.’ While for bin Ladin: ‘Allah, the Almighty, legislated the permission and the option to take revenge. Thus, if we are attacked, then we have the right to attack back. Whoever has destroyed our villages and towns, then we have the right to destroy their villages and towns. Whoever has stolen our wealth, then we have the right to destroy their economy. And whoever has killed our civilians, then we have the right to kill theirs.’

Both also cite the expansion of Western military bases and alliances as a rationale. Osama bin Laden was strongly motivated by US basing in the Middle East and said in this letter: ‘Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them.’ For Putin: ‘The dictates of the US are backed up by crude force, on the law of the fist. … Hence, the deployment and maintenance of hundreds of military bases in all corners of the world, NATO expansion, and attempts to cobble together new military alliances.’

Interestingly, the dropping of atomic bombs in 1945 also makes it into both addresses. Bin Ladin states: ‘That which you are singled out for in the history of mankind, is that you have used your force to destroy mankind more than any other nation in history; not to defend principles and values, but to hasten to secure your interests and profits. You who dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, even though Japan was ready to negotiate an end to the war.’ Putin says almost exactly the same: ‘The United States is the only country in the world that has used nuclear weapons twice, destroying the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. And they created a precedent. … The United States left a deep scar in the memory of the people of Korea and Vietnam with their carpet bombings and use of napalm and chemical weapons. … Recall that during WWII the United States and Britain reduced Dresden, Hamburg, Cologne and many other German cities to rubble, without the least military necessity. … They had only one goal, as with the nuclear bombing of Japanese cities: to intimidate our country and the rest of the world.’

Both take direct aim at countries which do not support their violent and murderous tactics, accusing them of collaboration with the West. Although Osama bin Laden doesn’t use the word apostate in this letter, the western-supporting governments of Muslim countries were frequently labelled as apostate regimes. He complained that: ‘Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis’, whereas for Putin: ‘In certain countries, the ruling elites voluntarily agree to do this, voluntarily agree to become vassals; others are bribed or intimidated.’

Both also see the West as engaged in a long process of exploitation and profiteering at their expense — and it should be no surprise to see fossil fuels at the centre of the grievance. For bin Ladin it is oil: ‘You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices because of your international influence and military threats. This theft is indeed the biggest theft ever witnessed by mankind in the history of the world.’ For Putin it is gas: ‘It seems incredible but it is a fact — by causing explosions on Nord Stream’s international gas pipelines passing along the bottom of the Baltic Sea, they have actually embarked on the destruction of Europe’s entire energy infrastructure. It is clear to everyone who stands to gain.’

The Western narrative of liberal democracy is countered with deeply emotive accusations of colonialism. Putin first: ‘Instead of bringing democracy they suppressed and exploited, and instead of giving freedom they enslaved and oppressed. The unipolar world is inherently anti-democratic and unfree; it is false and hypocritical through and through.’ And now bin Ladin: ‘The freedom and democracy that you call to is for yourselves and for white race only; as for the rest of the world, you impose upon them your monstrous, destructive policies and Governments, which you call the “American friends”.’ Putin hammers it home: ‘They do not want us to be free; they want us to be a colony. They do not want equal cooperation; they want to loot. They do not want to see us a free society, but a mass of soulless slaves.  … The West does not have any moral right to weigh in, or even utter a word about freedom of democracy.’

The argument against a world in which the US is the single hegemon is made by both, and each take aim at the system of international law and regulation which is seen as being controlled by and exploited by America. For bin Ladin: ‘You are the last ones to respect the resolutions and policies of International Law, yet you claim to want to selectively punish anyone else who does the same. Israel has for more than 50 years been pushing UN resolutions and rules against the wall with the full support of America.’ Putin rails: ‘And all we hear is, the West is insisting on a rules-based order. Where did that come from anyway? Who has ever seen these rules? Who agreed or approved them?’ Putin has been persistent in using the language of the UN Charter to justify his actions — in this speech of annexation he cites Article 1 of the UN Charter — the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and he invoked Article 51 — the right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a member state to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

Which brings us on to hypocrisy. With so much history, it is difficult for any nation not to behave hypocritically at times. Both men use this hook because they know they can hang so much on it. Putin says: ‘Listen, this is just a lot of nonsense, utter deceit, double standards, or even triple standards!’ And bin Ladin: ‘Let us not forget one of your major characteristics: your duality in both manners and values; your hypocrisy in manners and principles. All manners, principles and values have two scales: one for you and one for the others.’

There are substantial segments in each devoted to alleged western sin and depravity. Osama bin Laden was following a narrative developed decades earlier by the Egyptian ideologue Sayid Qutb, who lived in the US in 1949 and wrote on the supposed dangers of jazz music and the primitiveness of feelings, most notably in his 1964 work MilestonesBin Ladin asks the American people ‘to stop your oppression, lies, immorality and debauchery that has spread among you,’ because: ‘You are a nation that permits acts of immorality, and you consider them to be pillars of personal freedom. You have continued to sink down this abyss from level to level until incest has spread amongst you, in the face of which neither your sense of honour nor your laws object.’

From this — in both cases — we get directly to Satan. This is bin Ladin: ‘You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism and freedom, and other deceptive names you attribute to it. And because of all this, you have been described in history as a nation that spreads diseases that were unknown to man in the past. Go ahead and boast to the nations of man, that you brought them AIDS as a Satanic American Invention.’ And this is Putin: ‘Do we want our schools to impose on our children, from their earliest days in school, perversions that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want to drum into their heads the ideas that certain other genders exist along with women and men and to offer them gender reassignment surgery? … Let me repeat that the dictatorship of the Western elites targets all societies, including the citizens of Western countries themselves. … This complete renunciation of what it means to be human, the overthrow of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom are coming to resemble a “religion in reverse” — pure Satanism.’

This narrative has been evolving for many years but the danger for the West is the breadth of its appeal: by listing every country or people who the West has wronged, it is possible to build and mobilise a large constituency and consensus, including reaching into marginalised communities within western countries. Al-Qaeda’s skilful trick was to add every new western action to the narrative (not helped by the fact that some western actions were difficult to interpret in any other way). It is high time for the West collectively to present a better story. Osama bin Laden says: ‘It is saddening to tell you that you are the worst civilization witnessed by the history of mankind.’ That assertion, as with so many others, is disputable.


Suzanne Raine