Articles

Nov 17, 2001

With God on their side: Justin Marozzi

Copyright 2001 The Financial Times Limited

Financial Times (London)

November 17, 2001, Saturday London Edition 1

SECTION: ARTS/BOOKS; Pg. 6

LENGTH: 1000 words

HEADLINE: With God on their side: Justin Marozzi

BYLINE: By JUSTIN MAROZZI

BODY:
HOLY WAR, INC: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden by Peter L. Bergen Weidenfeld Pounds 18.99, 256 pages

In the closing years ofthe 20th century, globalisation emerged as the west’s new creed in the aftermath of the cold war. It had its priests in the form of economists, chief executives of multi-national companies and western governments, who all preached its merits to their respective congregations. Globalisation, they declaimed, would sweep away corrupt and undemocratic regimes, alleviate world poverty and usher in a brave new world.

Already, those high-water marks of international free trade and booming stock markets seem to come from another era. For amid the self-congratulatory brouhaha of the most sustained economic boom in living memory, the globalisation of terror went largely unnoticed. Terrorists’ version of the gospel of globalisation didn’t involve Starbucks or McDonalds. In December 1992, bombs exploded outside two of the smartest hotels in the Yemeni capital Aden. They were intended to kill American servicemen. It was the opening salvo in what Peter Bergen, terrorism analyst at CNN, terms “Holy War, Inc.”, a newly privatised form of terrorism targeting “Jews and Crusaders” – that is, the west in general and the US in particular. Squatting in an Afghan cave at the apex of an otherwise amorphous movement is the Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, its high priest and chairman of the board. This book, one of the first to be published on the subject since September 11, sheds important new light on the intellectual and religious influences
on bin Laden and the reach of his terrorist multinational.

Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian, was an early ideological mentor. He taught Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, where a youthful and impressionable Osama bin Laden received a degree in economics and public administration in 1981. Bin Laden’s dollars and Azzam’s militant brand of Islam proved a powerful combination during the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The relationship between the two men was cemented while defending the mountain village of Jaji under heavy enemy fire in 1986.

Azzam’s message was uncompromising and, to most Muslims, it must be acknowledged, unIslamic. “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues.” The liberation of Afghanistan, which became the vortex of militant Islam, was an obligation for every Muslim, he argued. But this was only the first step.

“Jihad will remain an individual obligation until all other lands that were Muslim are returned to us so that Islam will reign again: before us lie Palestine, Bokhara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philip pines, Burma, Southern Yemen, Tashkent and Andalusia.” Never mind whether the peoples of those countries actually wanted such a return to Islam. Why consult when Allah is on your side?

What the west never really understood was that in the Muslim world, the defeat of the Soviet infidel in Afghanistan was hailed as a victory for Islam. The heyday of Islamic conquest, unleashed by Tamerlane’s rapacious armies in the 14th century, was a distant memory. So too were the triumphs of the Ottoman empire. The lesson bin Laden learnt from Afghanistan was simple. If one infidel superpower could be toppled by holy warriors, so could the other.

Such fervent belief in a resurgent Islam and, ultimately, in the restoration of the caliphate, uniting the full spectrum of Muslims under the green flag of Islam, helps explain the rapid growth of al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s international network, which Bergen is particularly effective in un-ravelling. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, President Bush said al-Qaeda was operating in more than 60 countries.

Bergen does not shy away from uncomfortable truths: that bin Laden’s dedication to the Afghan jihad compared favourably with the inertia of the overfed Saudi princes, self-declared custodians of Islam’s holy places; that al-Qaeda sleepers around the world demonstrated a hugely professional approach to achieving their ends – in marked contrast to the complacence of western intelligence. He quotes the comment of one CIA officer to The Atlantic Monthly, which asks serious questions of acountry widely regarded, not least by itself, as the defender of the free world.

“The CIA probably does not have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist and who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan . . . Most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don’t do that kind of thing.”

They will have to now. Western policymakers will also have to train a more ruthless eye on the absence of democracy in the Middle East and recognise that there is more to Middle Eastern instability than the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the stand-off with Iraq. Arab friends of the west would do well to consider meaningful political reform before it is too late. As Bergen explains, the Saudi policy of riyalpolitik was intended to shore up the kingdom’s legitimacy through the funding of militant Islamic groups. Since these very organisations are dedicated to the overthrow of the Saudi royal family, which they regard as guilty of apostasy, it has long been a policy as hollow as the regime which embraced it. How long before the mobs tear down the palace gates in Riyadh and beyond?

Bergen’s conclusions, unlike the fascinating research which underpins his investigations, are rather tame, perhaps not surprisingly in a book hastily finished to incorporate recent events. He expresses his hope that the noose around bin Laden and his followers will tighten, paving the way for a reconciliation between Islam and the west. That may work in a Hollywood movie, but if his book proves anything it is that for the foreseeable future at least such hope is illusory.

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