Yet more about Osama
Some stray thoughts about Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden al Qahtani (the family name that his family never used.)
I remember the afternoon in New Delhi when the resident editor came to the news desk and said, “An airplane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” By the time I went to his room to see it on television, the second aircraft had struck.
That’s when we all knew it was deliberate.
As 9/11 unfolded, I sifted what little evidence we had and told the evening news conference that Osama bin Laden was my number one suspect. I gave three reasons:
a) his organization had done the US embassy bombings in Africa and seemed to like multiple attacks, b) he had tried to attack the World Trade Center before and c) no one else in the post-Cold War world was spouting so much venom against the US. My analysis went at the bottom of the front page that day. It wouldn’t have stood up in court, but it proved right.
I also had no doubt that the US would eventually get Bin Laden. As an Israel military type once told me, “political will” is the most important prerequisite for successful counter terrorism. And having been hit on its territory for only the third time in its history, the US had plenty of political will. It took 10 years, but then even the Israelis took a dozen or so to knock off most of the Munich Olympic massacre perpetrators.
I now have a shelf of books on Bin Laden, Islamicist terror and al Qaeda. Some of the more excitable ones have been proven wrong. Many of the early ones have lots of wrong information. Remember all those claims about him drinking at British bars and enjoying the night life of Beirut? These proved to be based on people who had met one of his dozens of brothers.
Then there was the stuff about how he was a creation of the CIA. I’ve almost given about saying that there isn’t a stitch of evidence for that. The CIA funded the Afghan mujahideen, but the Arab volunteers were largely freelancers who took up arms on their own or with Saudi backing. Which is why the spy agency were so befuddled as to who he was when he declared war against the US.
But one finds that pretty common among iconic figures. They will be interpreted in a dozen different ways by groups of people who have already their own worldview. So if you were anti-American who saw the CIA and Coca-Cola manipulating everything, then you imprinted this on bin Laden. If you hated Muslims, you did the same. I presume there’s a group somewhere who connect him to UFO sightings.
A half-century from now, I speculate, bin Laden will get a quarter page in the history textbooks. He represented a spasm of Arab Muslim anger that followed the end of the Cold War but whose region saw no real political change.
He was also lucky. I remember being told by officials soon after 9/11 how the World Trade Centre would have stayed up if the airplanes had crashed just several storeys higher or lower. This was ascribed to bin Laden’s brilliance. Later his own words showed it was accidental. The jasmine revolt may have run its course, but it has already caused enough change to ensure al Qaeda will be a fading force in the Arab Muslim world (perhaps they’ll be remembered in the way we remember the original Assassins).
Militant Islam won’t go away. But Salafism and its ilk are nothing new in Islamic history. Al Qaeda was just noteworthy because of its use of modern technology to cause mayhem – and an ultimately self-defeating willingness to see the death of fellow Muslims as acceptable collateral damage in its cause. The theological legitimization: if they were bad Muslims they were no big loss and if they were good Muslims who died, they would go to paradise anyway.
Al Qaeda’s real ideological influence may be in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area where its arrival has joined with the unraveling of the original post-independence Pakistani state structure. That state, originally secular, is evolving into a conservative Islamist state but scoured with violent streaks of which al Qaeda is one.
Bin Laden himself should be the topic of a business management school. He was not particularly well-versed in his religion. Impressed very few of his followers with intelligence or even charisma. Much of his jihad worldview actually came from his number two, Ayman al Zawahiri. But he proved a remarkable motivator of people by the example that he set.
As Khalid Khawaja, a Pakistani air force officer who fought alongside Bin Laden in 1988, said, “First of all he’s not a genius…He is not very intelligent, but he is the most dedicated and self-sacrificing person, to a degree that is unparalleled.” One his friends in his teenage years in Saudi Arabia said the same, “He leads by example and by hints more than direct orders. He just sets an example and expects you to follow, and somehow you follow even if you are not 100 per cent convinced.” And he combined that with a good businessman’s ability to focus on results, make cost-benefit calculations and the like.
He actually wasn’t much of a strategist. He was lucky that 9/11 proved to be as horrific as it did. The whole idea of drawing the US into an Afghanistan war and expect it to collapse like the Soviet Union had done before showed bin Laden’s economics degree was worthless. As many of his own supporters later said, the entire idea of militarily taking on the US as a means to overthrow regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt was just plain silly. His last few dozen video and audiotapes were notable for how mundane they were.
The world’s most dangerous man, the supposed icon of millions. Yet, when he died, no one protested in the Arab world, a few hundred went through the motions in Quetta and almost all the street activity was done by cheering Americans.