Articles

Jun 09, 2006

Review of “The OBL I Know” in Asia Times

BOOK REVIEW
Legend of Arabia

The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader by Peter Bergen

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Not since the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser has an Arab political figure shaken the world as Osama bin Laden has. Journalist Peter Bergen’s biography of the man who has fascinated admirers and horrified adversaries elicits scores of interviews of those who actually met and knew him personally. One theme of this revealing book is the ideological and military struggles bin Laden waged against the Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Masood. A second refrain is that bin Laden certainly thinks strategically, but often acts on impulse and commits blunders.

Born in 1957 into one of Saudi Arabia’s richest and most intensely
anti-Semitic business families, Osama bin Laden attended Al Thagr School in Jeddah. He was “extraordinarily courteous, a bit
shyer than most other students and not pushy in any way.” (p 9) In 1970, he accompanied his elder brother Salem to Sweden and was observed flying private jets, driving Rolls-Royces, and sporting Christian Dior and Yves St Laurent shirts. As a teenager, he was “the peaceful one, weighing his words carefully before saying anything”. He named his horse Al-Balga, after the one used by the Companions of the Prophet Mohammed. Friends found him “very religious” and behaved “like there is a Sheikh [priest] around in his presence”. He fasted on Mondays and Thursdays and endlessly dreamed of reclaiming Palestine. “He was upset if something is not done in an Islamic way. Don’t wear short sleeves, don’t do this, don’t do that.”

Bin Laden grew up in a Muslim world undergoing an Islamic resurgence – the Sahwa. He studied Economics at King Abdul Aziz University but never graduated. Practicing straitlaced polygamy and shunning music and television, he was conservatism personified. “He would not shake hands with a woman, smoke, play cards, put a picture on his wall or appreciate art.” His living quarters in the Al-Aziziyah district of Jeddah were bare and humble. In the family trade, he “used to work with his own hands, go drive tractors, eat with workers and work from dawn to sundown tirelessly in the field”. An early distrust of the Saudi royalty arose in him when it employed force against Islamist militants who had seized the Al-Haram mosque in Mecca in 1979.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan transformed bin Laden’s life. He joined a small group of Arabs under sheikh Abdullah Azzam and founded the Services Bureau in Pakistan, which recruited mujahideen to fight the communists. His maiden venture into Afghanistan was in 1984. Accomplices noted how he avoided soft drinks and “boycotted all American products because he believed that without Americans, Israel cannot exist”. At that time, bin Laden was not a leading figure in the jihad and never delivered speeches. A still-minor personage, he was known only as a financier with deep pockets.

By 1986, he spent much time on the front line with General Jalaluddin Haqqani in Khost. Gradually, he grew more assertive and talkative, distancing himself from Azzam and determined to form his own all-Arab outfit to fight the Soviets. From 1987, he shed the image of financier with deep pockets and turned himself into a holy warrior. His 22-day stand against the Russians at Jaji earned laurels and demonstrated his fanatic zeal for martyrdom. He inched closer to Egyptian jihadis such as Abu Hafs, Abu Ubaidah and Ayman al-Zawahiri and gained renown for his construction skills. “If there are good caves, if there are good bunkers, so there will be good jihad.” In his own words, “these trenches and tunnels are merely the facilities God asked us to make. We depend completely on God in all matters.”

Though not charismatic, bin Laden came across as dedicated and self-sacrificing to an unparalleled degree. “He did not love publicity and used to hide himself.” In the 1980s, he distanced himself from radical Arab elements gunning for ruling regimes in the Middle East. Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence, met with him often.

Bin Laden’s alliance with Afghan hardliner Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was engineered by the far more politically experienced Zawahiri. Egyptian ultra-jihadists may have been behind Azzam’s assassination, which paved the way for bin Laden to align against Masood. Whenever Masood’s heroics were lauded, bin Laden would cringe, “I don’t need you to exaggerate about him.”

Al-Qaeda was created in 1988 and developed into a secretive, disciplined, global organization dominated by bin Laden. The inspiration for this new entity came from the example of Abu Bakr, the Companion of the Prophet, whose army defeated the greatest powers of the world. From the earliest days, bin Laden had an interest in recruiting Americans into the terrorist cause. Wadi el-Haj, a Lebanese-American, became his personal secretary in the mid-’90s. Al-Qaeda’s aim was “to uphold Islam and defend Muslims in any part of the world”. Entrants had to be young, zealous, obedient and “with a weak character [and] obey instructions without question”.

In 1989, bin Laden appeared to journalists as “a rather spoiled brat, playing at jihad” and thoroughly enjoying himself in battle situations. In 1991, he spent more than US$1.5 million to try to conquer Kabul, a project that collapsed disastrously. Interestingly, he predicted Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait months before it happened. “He doesn’t believe Saddam is a Muslim, never liked him nor trusted him.” The House of Saud’s decision to rely on non-Muslims (US forces) to defend the holy land of Arabia and the retention of these troops after the Gulf War angered bin Laden no end. He arrived at a strategy of attacking the US presence in Saudi Arabia as a way to weaken the legitimacy of the kingdom’s corrupt religious establishment. Thus emerged the idea of smashing the “head of the snake rather than its many tails”.

Al-Qaeda’s first terrorist operation was in 1991, when it tried to assassinate the secular Afghan king, Zahir Shah, in Rome to preempt his chances of being reinstated in Kabul. Bin Laden instructed the man for the mission, “If a child was present during the assassination attempt, you could not attack. I would rather have the king return and have a civil war than to kill a child.” He also geared the organization for a jihad against the “infidel” socialist government of South Yemen.

In 1992, as the Afghan jihad wound up, bin Laden shifted his base to Sudan and began a convenient symbiosis with its ruling National Islamic Front. His friendship with NIF ideologue Hassan al Turabi was strong. He invested in Sudanese irrigation, agriculture, commerce, roads and bridges, but maintained that “our agenda is bigger than business”. An aircraft was purchased from the United States to transport Stinger missiles from Peshawar to Khartoum. In Sudan, bin Laden prayed five times a day, always slept on the ground, ate simple food including leftovers from guests, and was “a good Muslim, 100 percent”. Ironically, in late 1994, a band of takfiri Islamists – members of a movement militantly intolerant of “infidels” – tried to kill him for not being sufficiently Muslim.

Bin Laden expected US soldiers to come to Somalia and was ready to spring a surprise on them a month before their arrival. He dispatched his military chief, Abu Hafs, to meet the warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed and reached a cooperation agreement that spelled doom for the US. Al-Qaeda agents reached Nairobi in early 1995 to take photographs and surveillance of the US Embassy. British, French and Israeli targets were also selected in Kenya and Djibouti as targets of retaliation against US involvement in Somalia. In Sudan, bin Laden met with Imad Mughniyeh of Hezbollah and concluded an explosives-supply agreement. Elsewhere, Ramzi Yousef, an al-Qaeda trainee, masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York. Plots to assassinate US president Bill Clinton and pope John Paul II and the Manila air conspiracy were also unveiled, betraying the widening ambit of al-Qaeda’s jihadi vision.

Arrests of firebrand Saudi clerics Salman al-Awdah and Safar al-Hawali enraged bin Laden in 1994, and he swore to avenge them. “Some speak through discussion, but I do it well with the rifle.” Despite his mother’s pleas, he said, “Sorry, I’m not going to announce a ceasefire with the Saudi royal family, the enemies of Islam.” When Riyadh froze his assets, al-Qaeda was plunged into a financial crisis. Sudanese hosting fatigue due to Saudi, Egyptian and US pressure led bin Laden to relocate to Afghanistan, where he was welcomed by the Hizb-i-Islami.

By July 1996, bin Laden befriended the Taliban, and he reached the apogee of his power in the following years. Palestine was the central issue in his first declaration of war on the US. “I feel still the pain of the loss of al-Quds [Jerusalem] in my internal organs. That loss is like a burning fire in my intestines.” In Jalalabad and Kandahar, bin Laden lived such a harsh life that one of his sons decided to go back to Saudi Arabia. He disallowed his fighters from partaking of such luxuries as cold water and would eat raw pomegranates with bread three times a day. An attentive listener, he worked hard on theology by reading textbooks on the Koran to gain authority to issue fatwas. “He interprets current affairs according to religion.” Despite being a hunted man, he sometimes played soccer and volleyball in the camps. When he produced a sunflower in Jalalabad’s rugged terrain, he boasted, “I defeated the Americans even in agriculture.”

Rather than like a fire-breathing terrorist, bin Laden carried himself in a low-key way like a devout monk. “You would have thought he was talking about the weather, but his remarks were full of rage and fury against the US.” From Afghanistan, his fame spread far and wide, as hitting US targets became al-Qaeda’s trademark. He would reiterate, “We are working for a big operation; namely, dragging the US into a confrontation with the entire Islamic world.” Bin Laden redirected Zawahiri away from the Egyptian “near enemy” to the US “far enemy”. The incarceration of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian blind mullah, in the United States was a hot-button issue for al-Qaeda. Rahman’s fatwa to attack the US economy, civilians and aviation were the religious motivations for planning the scheme carried out on September 11, 2001.

From 1998 to 2000, moderate sections within the Taliban unsuccessfully appealed to bin Laden to refrain from provocative interviews and actions. He distributed money and cars to some Taliban leaders to buy their acquiescence. His ability to persuade Haqqani to join the Taliban also counted greatly with Mullah Omar, who found a suicidal religious chemistry with bin Laden.

The choice of bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1999 was made on the grounds that “we have to have many attacks outside the US to make way for our ability to strike within the US”. After these two shocking blows, bin Laden’s profile rose to “top wanted man in the world” and a symbol of Islamist violence. Saudi intelligence mounted assassination attempts on him, and Clinton ordered cruise-missile strikes. In 2000, al-Qaeda stepped up the ante by bombing the USS Cole in Yemen “to tell the US that we can deal it a blow whenever and wherever we want, on the land, in the sea or in the air”.

Bin Laden took to reciting anti-American poems at weddings that eulogized slain martyrs. He personally met cadres seeking dangerous missions and gave his approval, while leaving the operational planning to lieutenants. One man tasked with bombing a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) base in Belgium heard from bin Laden “that I could consider him as my father. This is the reason I’m very fond of him.” Regional rivalries among al-Qaeda members worried bin Laden and he deputed aides to work on them constantly. Around the planet, “a strong, almost mystical desire among jihadis to travel to meet him” emerged.

The Tunisian assassin of Masood swore personal loyalty to bin Laden and took his orders. The “Sheikh” wanted Masood dead before September 11, 2001, “because he harmed Allah and his sons”. Ramzi bin al-Shibh personally apprised bin Laden of the timing of the September 11 attacks five days before they happened. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational head of the attacks, “found in bin Laden some sort of a mentor, a religious umbrella”. For bin Laden, “the Pentagon was a Jewish target”. Abdul Aziz Omari, one of the hijackers, asked in his videotaped will: “May God add these deeds to Sheikh bin Laden’s balance of good deeds.”

September 11 was a tiding to bin Laden that for the first time in the modern age, “the balance of terror has been closed between Muslims and Americans”. He watched Cable News Network and the British Broadcasting Corp to gauge the aftermath of the attacks, violating the Taliban’s television ban. “I am fighting a big war, and I have to monitor the activities of my enemy through these TV channels.” He named his newest daughter Safia, who would “kill enemies of Islam like Safia of the Prophet’s time”.

As the US overthrew the Taliban, bin Laden moved from Kandahar to Jalalabad and then disappeared into the Tora Bora Mountains on the Pakistani border. Though pushed against the wall, he gloated from his hideout that “American ground forces did not dare to go into our posts. What sign is more than that of their cowardice?” On the run, bin Laden adopted the brief of an “elder statesman of jihad”, gaining in forcefulness and self-confidence with every new audio- and videotape release. In 2002, he set the grammar of jihad with the comment: “As you assassinate, so will you be, and as you bomb, so will you likewise be.” To people around him, he represented “the pioneers of early Islamic history – the Prophet’s companions”.

Bin Laden considered the acquisition of nuclear and chemical weapons “a religious duty”. He endorsed al-Qaeda missions to secure enriched uranium since 1993 and banked on “our Pakistani friends” to gain know-how about weapons of mass destruction. Al-Qaeda conducted experiments on dogs with chemical weapons, since “using them will give the mujahideen credibility, prestige and psychological influence”. Bergen discounts bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s bravado about already having a nuclear deterrent in place, but feels it is certainly possible that al-Qaeda can launch a radiological (“dirty bomb”) attack.

The US occupation of Iraq energized al-Qaeda and jihad-minded Muslims. In 2004, bin Laden announced a reward of “ten kilos of gold to anyone who kills” US dignitaries in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent commander in Iraq killed this week in a US air strike, publicly declared allegiance to bin Laden despite his ideological differences with the “Sheikh”. Zawahiri asked Zarqawi to halt attacks on Shi’ites since “this won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace, however much you have tried to explain it”. Al-Qaeda’s main contribution to the anti-US resistance in Iraq is infiltration of Saudi jihadis in large numbers.

Today, “Bin Ladenism” – fervent opposition to Western foreign policies in the Middle East and the desire for rule by sharia, or Islamic law – is a potent set of ideas that will survive bin Laden’s death or capture. Yet bin Laden’s grander design of inciting a clash of civilizations has not fully fructified. Bergen’s conclusion is that “he was a man whose violent tactics became his only strategy”.

Self-abnegating prince, cold-hearted zealot, obstinate and fearless warrior, master manipulator of media, survivor – these are the snapshots running through Bergen’s candid biography of the living legend who continues to inflame the world.

The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader by Peter Bergen. Free Press, New York, 2006. ISBN: 0-7432-7891-7. Price: US$26, 444 pages.

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