Will we ever find Osama bin Laden? This question is the elephant in the room of the war on terror. The man responsible for the death of 3,000 people on American soil and countless other atrocities around the world is still, as far as we know, alive and reasonably well almost four years after 9/11/01.
Time magazine asked CIA Director Porter Goss this rather obvious but loaded question in an interview published today:
“WHEN WILL WE GET OSAMA BIN LADEN?”
Goss: “That is a question that goes far deeper than you know. In the chain that you need to successfully wrap up the war on terror, we have some weak links. And I find that until we strengthen all the links, we’re probably not going to be able to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice. We are making very good progress on it. But when you go to the very difficult question of dealing with sanctuaries in sovereign states, you’re dealing with a problem of our sense of international obligation, fair play. We have to find a way to work in a conventional world in unconventional ways that are acceptable to the international community.”
“IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU HAVE A PRETTY GOOD IDEA OF WHERE HE IS. WHERE?”
“I have an excellent idea of where he is. What’s the next question?”
Mentioning neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan, the interviewer moved on.
Last Friday, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman Zawahiri, released a new video — his first since February — broadcast on al-Jazeera television in which he tried to rally the jihadi troops.
“The removal of the Crusader and Jewish invaders won’t occur by peaceful demonstrations. Reform and expelling the invaders from the countries of Islam won’t happen except through fighting for God’s sake,” he said on camera with an automatic weapon leaning beside him.
“We cannot imagine any reform while our countries are occupied by the Crusader forces,” he said. “We cannot imagine any reform while our governments are being ruled from the American embassies in our countries.”
In another segment Zawahiri urged Hamas “not to forsake their jihad, not to lay down their arms … and not to be dragged into the game of secular elections under a secular constitution.” Hamas is planning to enter Palestinian elections, a major change from its longtime boycott of the Palestinian Authority’s politics.
Same old song, in other words, but the world Zawahiri, and by proxy bin Laden, is addressing has changed quite a bit since 9/11: the Taliban was ousted from Afghanistan, free elections were held this year in Palestine and Iraq, the Egyptian president pledged to hold competitive elections, a popular uprising against Syria’s occupation of Lebanon forced Beirut’s puppet government to resign and Syria later quit Lebanon with its tail between its legs.
Probably not what bin Laden had in mind.
Who exactly is Osama bin Laden, a.k.a. Usama bin Laden, Usama Bin Muhammad Bin Ladin, Shaykh Usama Bin Ladin, the Prince, the Emir, Abu Abdallah, Mujahid Shaykh, Hajj, the Director?
Bin Laden appears a bearded Janus of mythic evil to the West and still a heroic defender of the faith to many in the Islamic world. Cloaked in cavernous gloom, perched atop an Aladdin’s treasure, an elusive genie issuing threatening, arabesque pronouncements from a cave, bin Laden railed rather ineffectually into the gale of Western culture prior to September 11, although he and his al Qaeda network had been implicated in a long line of attacks against the West: the World Trade Center bombing, and the killing of 18 American soldiers in Somalia, both in 1993; bombing of the U.S. military complex at Khobar in Saudi Arabia killing 19 soldiers in 1996; near-simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killing over 250 in 1998; bombing of the USS Cole docked off Yemen in 2000 killing 17 (bin Laden is also implicated in thwarted attempts on the lives of President Clinton, the Pope, and a series of millennium bombings) – then 9/11.
How was this implacable, vulpine figure created?
Mohamed bin Laden
Mohamed bin Laden, an illiterate, powerfully built, one-eyed dock worker, left the southern province of Hadramut in his native Yemen for the promised land of the newly created Saudi Arabia in 1930, where he found work as a bricklayer for Aramco, an Arabian-American oil company.
A classic rags to fabulous riches story, the ambitious bin Laden undercut the competition and was building palaces for the ruling House of Saud by the ‘50s and the Medina-Jidda (a port city on the Red Sea) highway by the early ‘60s; he eventually amassed a multi-billion dollar fortune as builder to the royal family, including the spiritually and financially satisfying expansion of the three holy mosques at Mecca, Medina, and Al-Aqsa (on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem).
During the contentious transition from King Saud to King Faisal in the early-’60s, Bin Laden was so close to the royal family that he paid the wages of government employees until the crisis was over. Today the company, the Bin Laden Group, has 35,000 employees worldwide and is worth an estimated $5 billion.
A Sunni Muslim of the dominant Saudi Wahhabi stripe, bin Laden was strict and conservative, very generous toward the poor, and proud of his humble beginnings. He also had four wives – at a time: three “more or less permanent” Saudi Wahhabis, and a fourth position that “was changed on a regular basis,” according a remarkable profile by Jason Burke in The Observer.
This fourth-wife position was rotated amongst particularly young and beautiful women from all over the Middle East, the last of whom was a gorgeous, educated, worldly 22-year-old Syrian woman named Hamida who was still married to the elder bin Laden when he died in a helicopter accident in 1968 (there were about a dozen wives all told).
Hamida was the mother of Osama, Mohamed’s seventh son, seventeenth child, born in 1957 in the capital city of Riyadh. The entire family, eventually including 54 offspring (the last of whom was born in ‘67), lived together with gold statues, ancient tapestries and a small army of servants, aids and handlers in opulent compounds in Jidda, Riyadh and elsewhere.
While strict, Mohamed was also expansive and took the family on vacations to desert and seaside resorts; he also encouraged his sons to demonstrate responsibility in the family business and was reportedly evenhanded in his treatment of them.
Only Osama’s height (eventually about 6’5”) stood out in a quiet, privileged childhood. He attended private school, took English lessons, was described as “shy” and “intelligent” if unremarkable, and inherited in the neighborhood of $80 million when his father died, which he eventually parlayed into a fortune of $250 million. A picture from a family trip to Falun, Sweden in 1971 shows a grinning Osama leaning on a Cadillac. Another picture from the same era time shows him, very much the dopey teen, with two older brothers and three Spanish girls, taken in London while they attended an English language summer camp.
But big smiles in leafy locales don’t tell the whole story. Vast change was afoot in the Middle East in the early ‘70s, with oil money pouring in, wars with Israel, and increased contact with the West – especially among the elite like the bin Laden family. Most of the brood turned toward the West and attended college in Egypt, England, Sweden, or the U.S., but not Osama who stayed in Jidda after he graduated from high school in ‘74 and matriculated at King Abdul Aziz University.
There he was encouraged to study civil engineering by his oldest brother Salim, who hoped Osama would join him in the family business. Bin Laden was more taken with Islamic Studies, however, and came under the sway of Palestinian-Jordanian “preacher” Abdallah Azzam, a leader of the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whose tape recorded sermons bin Laden heard while at school.
These sermons, and the general mood of Islamic fundamentalism in the town and at the university fired bin Laden’s imagination and presented an alternative to the Islamic world’s humiliating economic, military, technological, and political second-, even third-class status to the West. Rather than emulate the West and try to play catch-up, fundamentalist Islam could change the rules completely, erase the political barriers between Islamic states and unite the one-billion faithful under the rule of God, exposing both the First (the West) and the Second World’s (the Communist bloc) true natures as Godless, decadent, materialistic paper tigers in the process.
This worldview would appear to have appealed to bin Laden’s sense of order, entitlement, and vanity by asserting the primacy of a value system with which he happened to be raised, and by pulling the rug out from under a system that held these values in contempt. Without falling too deeply into the quicksand of psychological speculation, perhaps a world that permitted “undeserved” First/Second World hegemony over Islamic peoples also found a match in a sense of grievance developed during a childhood spent in the middle rungs of internal family society as a child born of a fourth, foreign wife; and close-to but not-at the top of Saudi society due to his family’s humble, non-Saudi origins.
Fabulous wealth gets you invited to the party, but not necessarily asked to dance, whereas a direct line to God trumps all when God is the head of state.
Bin Laden in Afghanistan
Bin Laden graduated from Abdul Azziz in ‘79 with a degree in civil engineering, but the world around him was in upheaval: he was excited when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to overthrow the Shah of Iran and establish an Islamic Republic there; dismayed when Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty acknowledging the legitimacy of a Jewish state on “Islamic” land; and mortified when the grim heathen Soviets invaded Afghanistan at the end of the year, thereby defiling Islamic territory and offending God, not to mention oppressing a people.
Whatever his previous course had in store for him, bin Laden was galvanized by the Soviet affront and lit out for the Pakistani city of Peshawar, just down the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan and the gathering point for fighters from all over the Muslim world. After a few weeks in Peshawar, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and began raising money for the jihad (holy war) of the mujahedin (Afghani and other Islamic freedom fighters).
Returning to Peshawar with big bucks collected from family, friends, mosques, and the Saudi government, bin Laden helped set up support, logistics and recruiting offices for the Afghan freedom effort (throughout the rest of the war, bin Laden reportedly brought in $50 million a year to the mujahedin). There he met Abdallah Azzam, whose taped sermons had so energized him in college, and the pair complemented each other well between bin Laden’s youthful enthusiasm, financial and political contacts, and Azzam’s Islamic authority and organizational skills.
Bin Laden spent most of the next few years raising money and recruiting volunteers for the war effort. The tall, elegant Saudi also became renowned for visiting the wounded in hospitals, dispensing sympathy, encouragement, chocolate, and generous checks to the families of needy fighters. In addition to Candy Striping, by the mid-’80s bin Laden was fighting as well. The most famous story has him delivering a cargo plane full of bulldozers and other heavy equipment to Afghanistan to build tunnels and roads, and then bulldozing a trench along a steep ridge himself under heavy strafing by Soviet helicopter gun ships.
Though there is some dispute over how much action he really saw, in most reports he fought regularly and bravely throughout the remainder of the ‘80s; in the process transforming from “devout boy … into … holy warrior,” a fighting fanatic who demanded similar fanaticism from those around him.
Over the same period the CIA was also covertly supporting the mujahedin with arms and cash in the interest of putting some final nails into the Soviet coffin; and while they were nominally on the same side, reports of bin Laden working for, or receiving direct funding from the CIA seem to be unfounded, though officials admit some funds may have found their way to him indirectly.
The Soviets gave up the ghost and pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989. In the absence of a common foe the mujahedin began fighting amongst themselves, and, disgusted, bin Laden returned home to Jidda and the family business, a war hero. In his decade in Afghanistan, bin Laden had accumulated hundreds, if not thousands of admirers among the Islamic fighters, as well as some very influential friends: Hassan al-Turabi, the effective leader of the Islamic government of Sudan; Pakistan’s (now deposed) president Zia ul-Haq; high level Pakistani intelligence officers; and fundamentalist Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is now serving a life sentence in the U.S. for masterminding the ‘93 World Trade Center attack.
Back to Saudi Arabia
Radicalized, bored, and suffering from withdrawal after ten years of adrenaline, adulation, and command of men in armed conflict, bin Laden then turned a jaundiced eye upon his home government. For a time he occupied himself with business and family – by then consisting of four wives and ten children – but family and business didn’t sufficiently meet the needs of his ego, or his by now messianic sense of calling.
These issues seemed to be resolved when secular socialist dictator Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia in August of ‘90; surely this was a situation meant for bin Laden to resolve, and he excitedly, grandly made an offer to Prince Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, to form an Islamic army to defeat yet another Godless invader. Having defeated a superpower, surely Saddam would pose little challenge to Bin Laden and his hardened holy warriors.
With social unrest growing due to the collapse of the oil boom, and Islamist clerics agitating against the House of al-Saud’s lifestyle, dependence on the West, and lack of sufficient religious rigor and purity, a monomaniacal pan-Islamist with his own fanatical army sent forth to do holy battle did not strike the prince as a good idea. “There are no caves in Kuwait,” he famously replied “What will you do when he lobs missiles at you with chemical and biological weapons?” Bin Laden replied, “We will fight them with faith.”
If bin Laden was outraged by the rejection, he was downright apoplectic when the Saudis turned to America for its defense: inviting 300,000 bumptious, drinking, rocking, skin-baring, highly sexualized infidels – including thousands of literally God-damned women flaunting their sin before God and man – into the sacred land of Mecca and Medina, a presence that was extended indefinitely after the victory over Saddam. Asked to be sensitive to delicate Muslim sensibilities, the Americans basically flashed a collective moon and said, “Kiss my ass, camel jockeys.”
Bin Laden began agitating in earnest: lecturing, pamphleteering, condemning the regime and the American presence; in spite of the royals’ rejection, he began recruiting an army, which he sent to Afghanistan for training. The greater Bin Laden family, with its sycophantic dependency upon the royals, tried to herd the black sheep back into the pen, were rebuffed and forced to disassociate itself from Osama. When the regime placed bin Laden under virtual house arrest in Jidda, something had to give.
What gave was an invitation from fellow pan-Islamicist Hassan al-Turabi, the spiritual leader of the Sudanese Islamic revolution, to bin Laden to set up shop in Sudan, which he accepted in early ’91. At the same time, Sudan instituted a policy of welcoming any and all Muslims into the country without a visa, making it a playground for terrorists and militant Islamists (the policy was modified in ‘95). In 1993, the State Department placed Sudan on its list of states sponsoring terrorism.
There is much debate regarding bin Laden’s fortune at this point, some assert that he still had access to his entire $250 million fortune — others believe that being cut off from the family business and essentially forced out of Saudi Arabia left him with a smaller bundle and necessitated his concentration on business much of the time during his five-year stay in Sudan: business that included a trading company, a foreign exchange dealership, a civil engineering company, farms growing peanuts and corn, and a government-granted monopoly on sesame seed export in exchange for building a 700-mile road from Khartoum to Port Sudan. According to the Arabic language paper Al Quds Al Arabi, bin Laden also functioned as the Sudanese government’s “moving bank” during this time.
However depleted his reserves may have been, bin Laden quickly flew in at his own expense hundreds of “Afghan Arabs,” hard core militant Islamic veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war now unwelcome in their home countries, and began work on formalizing an organization now based in Khartoum, called al Qaeda, “the base” (the origins of al Qaeda date to 1989 when bin Laden resolved to maintain some kind of cohesion amongst the Afghan Arab fighters).
The business of al Qaeda was, and is (as long as it exists) the promotion of militant Islam throughout the globe with the aim of establishing a pan-Islamic state, a “Caliphate,” and eventually, world domination. No joke. Toward that goal bin Laden set up at least three military training camps in North Sudan, training hundreds in the ways of terror and indoctrinating them into an unyielding brand of aggressive, even totalitarian Islam, in the cause of which no tactic was beyond the pale.
Bin Laden apparently made attempts to obtain nuclear weapons from the former Soviet bloc; he experimented with chemical weapons; he sent guns to Yemen and funds to Islamist groups in Jordan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Egypt, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Djibouti, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and the Kashmiri region of India and the Chechnyan region of Russia.
Bin Laden’s first official terrorist act, according to U.S. intelligence sources was the bombing of a hotel in Aden, Yemen, in December of ‘92 that killed two Austrian tourists. U.S. soldiers had been staying there on the way to Somalia and “Operation Restore Hope.” Bin Laden associates, including Mohamed Atef, went to Somalia to disrupt American peacekeeping efforts there; 18 American soldiers were killed in a Mogadishu ambush in October ‘93 that featured at least some al Qaeda members in affiliation with the Somali al Ittihad al Islami (AIAI) militant Islamist organization.
Bin Laden was both amused and disgusted by what he felt was a gross overreaction by the American public and government to the loss of a “mere” 18 soldiers, as America withdrew from Somalia within six months after the deaths.
Bin Laden is also reputed to have had prior knowledge of, and financial involvement with the February ‘93 World Trade Center bombing by militant Egyptians under the guidance of Ramzi Yousef (who was captured in Pakistan and extradited to the U.S. in ‘95 – he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in ‘98) which killed six and wounded over 1,000, and some level of responsibility for bomb attacks on American troops in Saudi Arabia in ‘95 and ‘96, which, at minimum, he began publicly calling for in August of ‘95 with “An Open Letter to King Fahd.” In the letter he also complained of the Saudi regime’s misappropriation of public funds and oil revenues, lack of commitment to Sunni Islam, and inability to conduct national defense leading to military dependence upon non-Muslims.
Saudi Arabia formally revoked his citizenship in ‘94, and under intense pressure from the Saudis and the U.S., Sudan asked bin Laden to leave in ‘96. With no place left to go, and with the country still up for grabs in an anarchic scrum of a civil war, bin Laden flew to Jalalabad, Afghanistan in May of ‘96 with 150 of his family and followers (according to a report in the Sunday Times of London, the plane refueled in Qatar, which was friendly to Washington, but was allowed to continue unhindered; this was not the only time that the Clinton administration didn’t follow up on an opportunity to apprehend bin Laden.
His timing was fortuitous as the militant Islamic fundamentalists called the Taliban – ideological soul mates to bin Laden – under the one-eyed leadership of former mujahedin Mullah Muhammad Omar, were on the verge of taking the key eastern city of Jalalabad. With a pledge of complete moral support and a cash donation of $3 million to back it up, bin Laden ingratiated himself with Omar and the Taliban, who took Jalalabad in September; the capital, Kabul, fell ten days later. The relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda – and their common fate – was sealed. With bin Laden’s encouragement Omar declared himself Amir-ul-Mohmineen (king of the Muslim faithful), and his religious declarations took on the force of law in Afghanistan.
With his simpatico compadres in virtual control of Afghanistan, the real party began for bin Laden and al Qaeda. With militant Islamic training camps already set up throughout eastern Afghanistan and not much for the volunteers to do with the Taliban largely in control of Afghanistan, bin Laden found an ample supply of eager new members for al Qaeda, which began exporting people, money, and ideas aggressively throughout the world. The Clinton administration took all of this seriously enough to have issued a top secret order authorizing the CIA to “use any and all means to destroy bin Laden’s network.”
His philosophy of fanatical Islam, grievance against the West, and renunciation of modernity found a receptive audience with hundreds of thousands – if not millions – worldwide, especially among the poor and hopeless, the resentful stragglers in a global race who had not only been passed, but haughtily elbowed into the muddy ditch and lapped several times by the “winners.” But the message also connected with many educated, “worldly” Muslims who had seen enough of the West to be confused, frightened and repelled by the uncertainty of its freedoms and the arrogant cacophony of its culture.
Al Qaeda has functioned like a foundation for terror, with bin Laden as chairman of the board. Just under bin Laden on the al Qaeda organizational chart have been two exiled Egyptian extremists: Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, a surgeon who founded the al Jihad group which took credit for the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (he was convicted only of weapons possession), and Mohamed Atef, a former policeman who has been the military commander (believed killed in a U.S. bomb attack on Kabul in November). Under this triumvirate has been a majlis al shura (“council of leaders”), made up mostly of “Afghan Arabs,” who have helped make decisions, then another level of committees that has handled “religious policy, military training, legitimate business, and even press releases.”
A loosely knit network of perhaps 5,000 individuals, many organized in small cells, in 40-60 countries throughout the globe, complete the organization. Members have pledged an oath of allegiance (“bayat”) to bin Laden and al Qaeda. The organization has also continued and expanded the camps in Afghanistan in which its own members and thousands of Islamists from other organizations have been trained.
These camps were “used to instruct members and associates of al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups in the use of firearms, explosives, chemical weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction. In addition to providing training in the use of various weapons, these camps were used to conduct operational planning against United States targets around the world and experiments in the use of chemical and biological weapons.
These camps were also used to train others in security and counterintelligence methods, such as the use of codes and passwords, and to teach members and associates of al Qaeda about traveling to perform operations. For example, al Qaeda instructed its members and associates to dress in ‘Western’ attire and to use other methods to avoid detection by security officials. The group also taught its members and associates to monitor media reporting of its operations to determine the effectiveness of their terrorist activities.”
After moving to the Tora Bora mountains between Jalalabad and Pakistan, bin Laden issued a Declaration of Jihad in August of ‘96 with the precise if verbose title of “Message from Osama bin Laden to his Muslim Brothers in the Whole World and Especially in the Arabian Peninsula: Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques; Expel the Heretics from the Arabian Peninsula.”
Within, he vowed violent action against Americans unless they withdrew from Saudi Arabia and demanded the overthrow of the Saudi regime. He also widened his scope of grievance to include oppression of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis, and spoke of a “fierce Judeo-Christian campaign against the Muslim world.”
Bin Laden remained busy in ‘97, spending lavishly on the Taliban (military supplies, cars for the leaders and families of casualties, new mosques, a lavish new home for Mullah Omar outside Kandahar), slipping a few Stinger missiles to Islamist militants in Saudi Arabia, formalizing his training camps into tiers of specialization with the best little terrorists getting meet bin Laden personally, and making concerted efforts to draw together the international Islamic movement under the wing of al Qaeda.
According to the Federation of American Scientists’ file on al Qaeda, bin Laden’s generosity toward the Taliban and charm offensive upon Mullah Omar paid off quite specifically in February of ‘97 when Omar rejected a proposal from the U.S. to turn bin Laden over (calling him a “guest”) in exchange for international recognition of their government and a seat in international organizations.
Reported attacks upon bin Laden, including two large explosions near Jalalabad in March, caused him to become very security conscious: he moved his primary residence to Kandahar (Omar’s home and power base), reduced those with access to him to around 50 trusted men, and changed his communications methods.
In February of ‘98, bin Laden returned to the international public eye, issuing a joint fatwa (religious ruling) with Zawahiri’s Egyptian al Jihad group, and similar Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups under the rubric “World Islamic Front,” which bluntly stated that it was the duty of all Muslims to kill Americans – military and civilian, adults and children, men and women – and “plunder their money” anywhere in the world, again citing as justification the American “occupation” of Saudi Arabia and support for Israel, but also adding “the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people” via the “crusader-Zionist alliance” boycott. “They are all targets,” he told ABC’s John Miller that May. In the chat, Sonny is aware of this, stating, “Bin Laden holds no difference between military and civilians.”
In June, an American grand jury investigation, in operation since ‘96, issued a sealed indictment – charging bin Laden with “conspiracy to attack defense utilities of the United States.” On August 7, car bombs exploded nearly simultaneously outside the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, buildings that had not been retrofitted with modern security
The Nairobi blast destroyed the embassy, a block of office buildings, and a secretarial college killing 213 people, including 12 Americans. The Dar es Salaam bomb killed 11 Tanzanians. Bin Laden and al Qaeda were immediately implicated in the bombings. U.S. intelligence had been watching the bin Laden cell in Kenya; four members were indicted and extradited to the U.S. where they were all convicted on murder and conspiracy charges and sentenced to life without parole in May, 2001.
On August 20, President Clinton, acting upon the advise of the “Small Group” (Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Director of the CIA George Tenet, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Henry Shelton, counter-terrorism czar Dick Clarke), who had presented evidence implicating bin Laden in the embassy attacks and suggesting that he had been seeking weapons of mass destruction, ordered Tomahawk missile strikes upon training camps in Afghanistan, including the large Zawar Kili camp near Khost in eastern Afghanistan, and al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.
The pharmaceutical factory was accused of producing nerve gas for al Qaeda. Evidence for such is at best tenuous, and al Qaeda leaders weren’t near the camps hit in Afghanistan. The strikes would appear to have done little but inflame the Muslim world and cast the U.S. in the doubly negative role of ineffectual bully.
At the same time as the strikes, the U.S. added bin Laden to the list of terrorists whose assets are targeted for seizure by the U.S. Treasury in an effort to shut down their operations. In November of ‘98 the indictment against bin Laden, Atef and many accomplices was strengthened, and a reward of $5 million each was offered for bin Laden and Atef; the indictment was amended again in January ‘99. In late ’98 and early ‘99, interviews with bin Laden ran in Time, Newsweek, and on ABC, reiterating his hatred for the U.S., the West and Israel, and his demands that the U.S. leave the Arabian Peninsula, stop the boycott against Iraq, and for the overthrow of insufficiently pious Islamic governments. In a June interview with an Arabic-language TV station, bin Laden called for all American males to be killed.
Amidst mounting alarm, the U.N. Security Council demanded that the Taliban turn over Osama bin Laden to appropriate authorities in October of ‘99. They refused, obviously, and in November member states froze the Taliban’s funds and prohibited the take-off and landing of Taliban-owned aircraft, further isolating the regime and conjoining its fate with that of al Qaeda.
Bin Laden, called by former CIA officer Larry Johnson “the ‘here’s Waldo’ of terrorism,” then had at least two plots thwarted: in December, Jordanian police arrested members of an al Qaeda-affiliated cell planning attacks against Western tourists, and U.S. Customs agents arrested an Algerian national, Ahmed Rassam, attempting to smuggle 50 pounds of explosives and detonating devices into the country – all part of a planned “millennium” attack.
Al Qaeda struck again in October of 2000. The USS Cole, a warship, was refueling in the harbor at Aden, Yemen when a number of small rafts pulled up next to the ship ostensibly to deliver supplies; instead, at least one exploded, heavily damaging the ship and killing 17 crew members. A Palestinian affiliated with al Qaeda, Abu Zubaydah (“the Mailman”), is now believed by intelligence officials to have been “field commander” of the plot.
Much is now known about the events leading up to September 11, but much is still shrouded in mystery. Rational doubts regarding Osama bin Laden’s ultimate culpability for the attacks were dispelled December 13, 2001, when the Pentagon released a home video tape recorded in mid November featuring bin Laden expressing foreknowledge of the attack and delighted surprise at the extent of the damage.
It would appear that bin Laden did “get even” with the U.S. for perceived crimes against Allah and his faithful, but that act of “getting even” greatly raised the stakes of the game and profoundly captured the “Great Satan’s” attention, which was surely not in the best interest of his cause over time. His apocalyptic gesture could only bring about an apocalyptic (for him) response, a mobilization of our otherwise distracted resources against him and his cause.
Perhaps bin Laden truly felt that the decadence and hollowness of U.S. culture was such that a firm shove would be all it would take to bring it down. What could he have been thinking? That fear would cause Americans to abandon their way of life and run naked down the streets foaming at the mouth, ripe for the taking? That the shock of the attacks and resultant damage would cause a collective epiphanous moment where we would reject our ideals, beliefs, and lifestyles and embrace totalitarian Islam? Or simply that it would be viscerally satisfying to crash airplanes, make big boom, and knock down big buildings with lots of people in them? If the latter is the case, then bin Laden worships not the Allah of Islam, but the god of nihilism.
Bin Laden As Hitler
In our century, the apex of charismatic evil is generally held to be Hitler. It is interesting that just two days after September 11, Sonny already painted bin Laden as Hitlerian: “Bin Laden must be a heartfelt speaker – like Hitler. Hitler was a phenomenal orator. It didn’t matter what he was saying – people listened – and followed.”
There are doctrinal in addition to personality similarities between the two figures and their respective movements, in particular a similar worldview called “Occidentalism” by Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma in their insightful essay of the same name in The New York Review of Books: seeing the West as hopelessly “Jewified,” in the charming language of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, that is to say urbanized, valuing and/or permitting “commerce, mixed populations, artistic freedom, sexual license, scientific pursuits, leisure, personal safety, wealth, and its usual concomitant, power.”
Anathema indeed to the purifying, reductionist impulses of both bin Laden and Hitler is the meritocratic social leavening and blending of the urban capitalistic marketplace, praised by Voltaire as “where the Jew, the Mohametan, and the Christian transact together as tho’ they all profess’d the same religion, and give the name of Infidel to none but bankrupts.” Linked also is another form of meritocracy, the scientific method.
Per Margalit and Buruma, the Nazis argued that scientific truth could not be gleaned from such “‘Jewish’ methods as empirical inquiry or subjecting hypotheses to the experimental test; natural science had to be ‘spiritual,’ rooted in the natural spirit of the Volk. Jews, it was proposed, approached the natural world through reason, but true Germans reached a higher understanding through creative instinct and a love of nature.” Bin Laden equally hates the social and strategic results of urban economic and scientific activity and also joins the Jew with the West, his dreaded “crusader-Jewish alliance, led by the U.S. and Israel.” The conflict is between the “Intellect” (West) and the “Soul” (fundamentalist Islam for bin Laden, a purified Germany for Hitler) (“Occidentalism”).
On a methodological level, Hitler and bin Laden both disguised pursuit of raw power as a crusade to lead their constituents out of victimhood, a sense of which they themselves fostered. As leaders of “victims,” both were able to attribute all of their people’s problems to “others” (the victorious coalition of WW1 in general and Jews in particular for Hitler’s Germany; non-Islamists in general and America in particular – with some special hatred for Jews thrown in for spice – for bin Laden), and to lead their people in a ruthless attack upon those “others,” “others” they were able to demonize and dehumanize. Both directed victimhood into hatred into mass murder; though it would appear we have prevented bin Laden from entering Hitler’s class in sheer magnitude of death, bin Laden shouldn’t be faulted for lack of effort.
Until bin Laden is physically destroyed, he remains a danger of Hitlerian potential as he seeks the establishment and personal domination over an Islamist state on the Arabian Peninsula, the success of which would lead to, in the words of Paul Steiger, “a frightening mix of oil and money, nuclear and biological weapons, and millions of human beings – restless, in many cases stateless, seething with frustration and resentment.”
Fanatical hatred in the service of a vision separating individual lives – rendering them utterly immaterial – from the grand sweep of history, combined with quotidian, even banal, operational efficiency was the key to Hitler’s “success,” and was certainly the key to September 11 for bin Laden. Any system that grants domination of the collective over the individual – fascism, totalitarianism, Islamo-fascism – inevitably will trample upon the individual, diminish his humanity, and result in catastrophe.