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Osama bin Laden obituary

“Leader of al-Qaida and the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he became the world’s most wanted man...”

Jason Burke and Lawrence Joffe wrote:

To his enemies, whatever colour or creed, he was a religious fanatic, a terrorist with the blood of thousands on his hands, a man who had brought war and suffering to a broad swath of the Islamic world and come close to provoking a global conflagration on a scale not seen for decades. To his supporters, whose numbers peaked in the few years after the attacks of 11 September 2001 in America that he masterminded, he was a visionary leader fighting both western aggression against Muslims and his co-religionists’ lack of faith and rigour. For both, Osama bin Laden, who has been killed at the age of 54 by US special forces at a compound near Abbottabad, a town about 40 miles north-east of Pakistan‘s capital Islamabad, was one of those rare figures whose actions changed the course of history.

His life was one of extremes and of contradictions. Born to great wealth, he lived in relative poverty. A graduate of civil engineering, he assumed the mantle of a religious scholar. A gifted propagandist who had little real experience of battle, he projected himself as a mujahid, a holy warrior. A man who called for a return to the values and social systems of the seventh century as a means of restoring a just order in today’s world, he justified the use of advanced modern technology to kill thousands through a rigorous and anachronistic interpretation of Islamic law. One of the most notorious people on the planet, Bin Laden lived for years in obscurity, his public presence limited to intermittent appearances in videos on the internet. A man who professed to have sacrificed all for others and to care nothing for himself, he was fiercely conscious of posterity.

Bin Laden’s story started in the remote, poor, deeply conservative Hadramawt region of south-east Yemen, from where his father, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, set out for the Saudi city of Jeddah to seek his fortune around 1930. By the time Osama was born there, the 17th of 52 children, his father was a rich construction magnate. His connections to Saudi Arabia‘s ruling family, the al-Sauds, won him lucrative contracts to build palaces in Riyadh and the highway from Medina to Jeddah. The crowning achievement of the family firm, the Saudi Binladen Group, was reconstructing Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca. Osama’s father was an austere patriarch; his mother, a beautiful, educated young woman from Syria who shunned the veil in favour of Chanel suits. Because of her foreign origin and as the 10th wife, her prestige in the household was low. Raised in a palace in Jeddah, Osama grew up polite, courteous, diligent and, from an early age, pious. His father died in a helicopter crash when he was 11.

Stories of teenage revelry are unfounded. While his siblings studied and, often, partied overseas, the tall, painfully shy teenager chose to stay in Saudi Arabia. In 1974, he married the 14-year-old Najwa Ghanem, his mother’s niece, and enrolled in the economics and management faculty of the King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah. Though he eventually graduated in civil engineering and spent a short time in the family company, his true interests lay elsewhere.

The late 1970s saw universities across the Arab world torn by fierce ideological struggle. In Egypt, leftists battled, both physically and intellectually, against the increasing number of supporters of Islamist doctrines. Though circulating in the region since the 1930s, they had been re-energised by the failures of Arab armies against Israel in 1967 and 1973 and by the apparent inability of secular pan-Arab, nationalist or socialist ideas to bring any social or economic improvement. At university, Bin Laden, who had been raised in the strict tradition of Saudi “Salafist” Islamic practice known outside the kingdom as Wahhabism, was exposed to newer, more politicised and often anti-clerical religious doctrines.

It was the fusion of the two, particularly by charismatic preachers such as the Jordanian-Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, that laid the foundation of the young man’s own thinking. The year of Bin Laden’s graduation, 1979, was a tumultuous one in the Islamic world. In February, Ayatollah Khomeini created the Islamic republic in Iran. Then in November, rebels took over the mosques in Mecca and demanded a return to true Islamic rule. When soldiers eventually broke their siege and killed the ringleaders, Bin Laden was seething. He saw the assault as an atrocity committed on the holiest soil in Islam. To him, the rebels were martyrs. A month later came the third defining event of the year: the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union.

Despite his later boasts, Bin Laden did not immediately travel to Peshawar, the Pakistani frontier town 20 miles from Afghanistan that had been at the centre of activism, covert or otherwise, against the Afghan Marxist government for several years and had now acquired a new significance as a key forward base in the cold war. Arriving in early 1981, he was to spend the next few years making trips between the city and Saudi Arabia before basing himself there from around 1986.

Bin Laden’s role in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, like that of the international fighters more generally, has been grossly exaggerated. His military contribution was negligible. The “foreign legion” never numbered more than a few thousand, of whom most never saw combat but ran charities caring for refugees or wounded Afghan fighters. It was to the seven Afghan mujahideen groups, and only to them, that the Pakistanis disbursed American and Saudi aid. Likewise, it was only the Afghans who received training. Bin Laden was not, despite later claims, created by the CIA, who had no contact with such people.

He spent most of the first half of the 1980s as a fundraiser and aide to senior figures among the Arabs in Peshawar, including Azzam. Bin Laden also used his knowledge of construction and the resources of his company, with the blessing of the Saudi royal family, to build roads, bunkers and encampments for the Afghan fighters.

In 1987, now aged 30, Bin Laden took part in a battle in the hills around the small Afghan town of Jaji. Though heavily mythologised subsequently, the action saw heavy fighting between Afghan mujahideen, backed by some units of Arabs, and Soviet troops. Now relatively well-known among the Peshawar-based militants, Bin Laden also began playing a role as a broker between competing Afghan and Arab factions as well as continuing to fund a radical newspaper and organising medical care for wounded fighters. It was during this period too that he began co-operating more closely with an older and more experienced Egyptian militant, a former doctor called Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, the two were not close. Together with Azzam, Bin Laden also ran a logistical centre dealing with the volunteers arriving from the Arab world to take part in the “jihad”. Witnesses also remember seeing Bin Laden at the battle of Jalalabad, an ill-fated and costly bid to capture the eastern Afghan city from forces loyal to the communist Afghan government in 1989, six months after the Soviet withdrawal.

A year earlier, al-Qaida had been founded by Bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and 14 associates in a series of meetings at a rented house in a western suburb of Peshawar. The meetings had stretched into the small hours as discussions ranged over the aims of the group, its composition and hierarchy. Little thought appears to have been given to its name, but it was an appropriate and useful one nonetheless. “Al-Qaida” was a commonly used word in Arabic and, though often simply translated as “the base”, has a range of other meanings too. This variety and consequent flexibility, itself a departure from the style of names adopted previously by militant groups, was to prove key in the coming years.

Al-Qaida also differed from the multitude of other militant groups active across the Islamic world at the time in its avowed internationalism. Its founders’ aim was to unite the disparate groups of militants who were fighting against the Soviets to focus their energies on new targets. Its campaign would take two main forms: guerrilla wars such as that in Afghanistan and a series of spectacular and violent actions that would radicalise and mobilise all those who had hitherto shunned the call to arms, eventually provoking a mass uprising that would lead to a new era for the world’s Muslims. The two strategies would be mutually reinforcing.

Azzam, who had been a huge influence on Bin Laden, was killed in a mysterious bomb blast in late 1989. With the Soviets leaving Afghanistan and the internecine squabbling between factions getting worse, Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. Expecting to be feted as a hero, he, like many other returning mujahideen, was shocked to find a frosty welcome from authorities in the kingdom. Though increasingly critical, however, Bin Laden had yet to turn fully against the rulers of his native land. In August 1990, when Iraq annexed Kuwait and threatened Saudi security, he offered to raise an army of Arab Afghan veterans to fight the “godless” Saddam. His offer was rejected and the house of al-Saud sought US help instead.

By January 1991, some 300,000 foreign troops were stationed on Saudi territory. Bin Laden accused the Americans of “desecrating holy Arab soil”, and cited Qur’anic verses forbidding the presence of two religions in Arabia. He also criticised the Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Baz, and other senior clerics for approving the decision. Placed under house arrest, Bin Laden slipped out of Saudi Arabia, eventually reaching the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where the leading Islamist ideologue Hassan Turabi had recently taken power and was offering protection and facilities to a wide variety of Islamic militant groups.

For the next five years, Bin Laden tried to make progress with the al-Qaida project. He cultivated contacts with militants in Yemen and was linked to a bomb explosion there in 1992. He sent observers, though no fighters, to Somalia during the ill-fated international intervention there in 1993. Other operations in the Balkans or the Caucasus brought limited success. Several attempts to reach out to other groups were rebuffed. There was a strong sense that Bin Laden had lost his way.

Certainly the focus of the new militancy that the war in Afghanistan had spawned was elsewhere: in Algeria and in Egypt where local groups such as al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad were taking on governments and their security services in bloody insurgencies; in the Balkans; in America, where a bid to bring down the Twin Towers narrowly failed. In Sudan, Bin Laden set up a tannery, farmed, built a road as a goodwill gesture and rode horses, a favourite pastime, while followers amused themselves playing football or swimming in the Nile.

Nonetheless, Bin Laden was now on the radar of security services, albeit if his name was often misspelt and his role described as “financier”. In April 1994, the Saudi government stripped Bin Laden of his citizenship and his family disowned his actions. Eventually, in 1996, Sudan succumbed to US pressure and expelled its controversial guest.

In need of a new sanctuary, Bin Laden accepted an offer of protection from three anti-Taliban Afghan warlords and flew to Jalalabad. The next years finally saw al-Qaida, already the vanguard, finally become the “base” or “foundation” too, as originally envisaged. Working with a growing group of experienced collaborators, Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri set up or appropriated dozens of training camps, guesthouses and other facilities that provided them with a pool of ready volunteers for various projects.

At the same time they launched a sophisticated outreach programme, sending emissaries to groups throughout the Islamic world offering cash and technical help in return for a degree of fealty. Such bids were often unsuccessful, with groups in Algeria, Indonesia, Chechnya, Uzbekistan and elsewhere jealously guarding their independence, but they were accepted frequently enough for a “network of networks” to begin to emerge. The basic strategy remained the same: a series of spectacular violent actions to radicalise potential recruits, to weaken the enemy economically and morally, and eventually to provoke a mass uprising that would lead to the establishment of a new caliphate.

Bin Laden’s now keen eye for public relations – and an understanding of the potential of the still new technology of satellite television – led to exclusive interviews with select journalists. He also began to issue his own “fatwas” or religious opinions. The first, in August 1996, stuck to familiar themes: promising to drive US troops out of the Gulf, overthrow the Saudi government and liberate Muslim shrines in Palestine. In February 1998, as he announced an alliance between al-Qaida and four other groups from Bangladesh, Egypt and Pakistan called The World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders”, Bin Laden issued a second fatwa, which called on all Muslims to “obey God’s order” and kill Americans, including civilians, “wherever you find them”.

Pursuing his strategy of propaganda by deed, Bin Laden organised a successful attack on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998. These killed 224, all but 12 African staff or bystanders. US president Bill Clinton retaliated with cruise missile raids on alleged Bin Laden facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan. Several Pakistani and Algerian allies were killed, although Bin Laden himself escaped unscathed.

In their aftermath a Saudi deal with the Taliban for the expulsion of Bin Laden fell through. In July 1999, the US imposed sanctions on the Taliban.

The idea for the 11 September 2001 attacks came from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an experienced and capable Kuwait-born Pakistani militant who travelled to seek out Bin Laden shortly after the latter’s arrival in Afghanistan. Building on schemes he had tried to implement in the far east, Mohammed’s ambitious plans for hijacking dozens of aircraft to strike US targets was initially rejected by Bin Laden, but then dusted off, revised and finally accepted after a series of heated meetings of al-Qaida’s leadership in the spring of 1999. They were controversial, with many militants fearing a backlash or an overwhelming American reaction. Bin Laden, convinced the US was a nation of decadent cowards, pressed ahead. The volunteers for the plan were found simply by scouring the various training camps, either those offering basic training for foreigners arriving to fight with the Taliban or those more advanced candidates who were being trained by al-Qaida instructors in techniques of urban terrorism.

The CIA, which was now running a Bin Laden unit, placed a $5m bounty on the fugitive’s head and worked up a series of plans to kill or capture him. These became more urgent in October 2000 when a dinghy charged with explosives was driven into an American warship off the Yemeni port of Aden killing its own crew and 17 sailors. But targeting Bin Laden was difficult. American agencies squabbled among themselves. The military distrusted the plans concocted by civilians or the CIA. The raw intelligence did not exist.

Though his relationship with the Taliban was complex with much suspicion on both sides, he had been able to graft much of his own internationalised ideology on to that of Afghans such as Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban’s leader. Bin Laden had been forced to implement a charm offensive after the Taliban expelled his previous protectors in the autumn of 1996, and over the years financial help and the military assistance provided by Bin Laden’s Chechen, Arab, Pakistani and Uzbekistani recruits led to the formation of elite units attached mainly to the Pashtun Taliban forces, consolidating links.

Bin Laden, aware of the constant threat to his life, moved often between Kabul and Kandahar as well as a base near the Tora Bora mountain range in eastern Afghanistan, south of Jalalabad. On 9 September 2001, two men run by al-Zawahiri killed the legendary Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Two days later, Bin Laden was in the hills of eastern Logar province, not far from where he had fought almost 15 years before. Listening to a shortwave radio, he learned of the success of the attacks in the US. The co-ordination of four simultaneously hijacked airliners; the origins of the terrorists and their “martyrdom”; the choice of targets all pointed to one group: al-Qaida. Such an attack had been signalled, if vaguely, by intelligence over the summer.

Within hours, President George Bush had blamed Bin Laden and begun planning a major campaign that aimed to deter what were seen to be the states giving terrorists safe havens, and rooting out the terrorists themselves through aggressive military action. This was to be the “Global War on Terror”.

Faced with an ultimatum, the Taliban again refused to surrender Bin Laden, who initially denied involvement, and an American-led aerial bombing campaign followed. When matched with action on the ground by anti-Taliban forces within Afghanistan aided by small groups of US special forces, the regime crumbled fast. In November, Kabul’s liberated residents expressed their loathing for “the foreigners” – not the British or Americans, but the Arab, Pakistani and Chechens.

The campaign of 2001 saw many leading al-Qaida figures killed and the group’s physical “base” destroyed. By mid-December, American planes were pounding the slopes above Tora Bora, where Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were thought to be. They also released the “smoking gun” video, in which Bin Laden spoke of how he had planned the 11 September operation. This did little to allay the conspiracy theories that were already circulating widely.

The 2001 campaign was inconclusive, however, as al-Qaida’s leaders escaped from Tora Bora. The venality of the Afghan auxiliaries hired by the Americans as “beaters” to flush out Bin Laden, his local contacts, the half-hearted nature of Pakistani efforts and a sense of Islamic solidarity among local people was enough to allow them to slip away to the south. Bin Laden appeared gaunt and apparently wounded in a video. A new chapter began.

Along with a physical “base”, the word al-Qaida has various meanings in Arabic. It can mean a vanguard – al-Qaida al-Sulbah. Another meaning is a maxim or a methodology, something much more ephemeral. If, in the early 1990s, Bin Laden’s organisation had been a vanguard and in the latter part of the decade it had been a base, in the coming years it would be more an ideology, a worldview, a way of doing things.

Bin Laden found a new base in the restive and semi-autonomous Pakistani tribal agencies, just across the border from Afghanistan. Here he and his associates tried to rebuild what they had lost in terms of infrastructure. Using the cash they were still able to obtain from donors in the Gulf and elsewhere, they paid protection money to local Pashtun elders and, increasingly, militants. A grassroots militant movement was setting the area afire and Bin Laden, as he had done elsewhere, was able to graft his own global struggle on to the local one of the tribes of places such as Waziristan.

Intermittent videos gave little clue as to his whereabouts but, broadcast by mainstream TV channels, repeated his call to arms to the Muslim masses. For some years, though he himself was in much more physical danger that at any previous time, it appeared that al-Qaida, by triggering a global confrontation with the west, might achieve its aims.

Through 2002 and 2003, in part, but not only, provoked by the invasion of Iraq, a wave of radicalisation surged through the Islamic world, and there were major bomb attacks in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, elsewhere in the Middle East, in Africa and in the far east. Many were perpetrated by individuals commissioned and trained in the al-Qaida camps in the late 1990s. But new volunteers were often recruited with little difficulty. In 2004 came an attack in Madrid, which, though it did not have a direct link with al-Qaida, appeared to indicate that its ideology was having an impact everywhere, provoking the kind of generalised violence that Bin Laden had hoped for many years before.

Another dynamic that did implicate al-Qaida more directly was the training and direction of young British men who found their way to Pakistan. These were responsible for a string of attacks – including those of 7 July 2005 in London. If the reasons that motivated these volunteers to seek out al-Qaida were their own, the group played a significant role in turning individuals with diffuse desires to participate in “jihad” into focused terrorist operatives with some, though luckily frequently insufficient, technical skills.

Bin Laden’s ability to exploit the media was also still very evident. His address to the American people on the eve of Bush’s re-election in November 2004 received massive coverage. In it, the Saudi ideologue and propagandist appeared in statesmanlike robes rather than the more customary combat vest. In Iraq, where American and British forces were in great trouble, local Islamic militants had sworn allegiance to al-Qaida. In Saudi Arabia itself there was a storm of violence, again by people professing loyalty to Bin Laden and undoubtedly influenced by him.

Yet in retrospect, the period of 2005-06 was a peak. One thing was still lacking: any evidence of mass radicalisation. The militants were still very much in a minority and evidence from polls proved the growing disgust that many in the Islamic world felt for the extremists, particularly when they could see first hand what their tactics meant in terms of shattered bodies and shattered lives.

In Iraq, the globalised ideology of al-Qaida, stripped of any local cultural specificity other than the claim of Muslim solidarity, was increasingly rejected by the tribes in the western provinces that had led the insurgency hitherto. In the Maghreb, militants remained reviled. The wave of support of three or four years earlier in the far east had fallen away, leaving radical groups isolated. Only in Pakistan and Afghanistan was headway being made in the great struggle against “crusader-Zionists”.

Criticism too had begun to come from within the militant movement, where key former associates spoke of how Bin Laden’s thinking, tactics and strategy were all wrong. The number of Muslim casualties in al-Qaida’s attacks was going up. Bin Laden’s associates were being picked off by the now intense missile strikes from unmanned drones over the tribal areas, and his communications were clearly difficult. One senior lieutenant made a plaintive call for funds.

However, al-Qaida retained some capacity, as a series of abortive attempts to strike in Europe and elsewhere made clear. The ideology remained strong enough to attract aspirant militants, misfits, the angry and the alienated in sufficient numbers for the group to survive – the basic aim of any clandestine extremist organisation. The hunt for Bin Laden also suffered from huge structural problems, not least the need to rely on Pakistani assistance, and an inability to gather intelligence on the ground. Despite attempts to exploit new issues such as climate change or to deploy younger spokesmen, there was a sense that Bin Laden, and with him al-Qaida, was drifting away from the principal position he had once occupied in the landscape of contemporary Islamic militancy. The events of this year’s Arab spring merely emphasised that apparent marginalisation.

Bin Laden’s ideology had been a response to the failure of many previous utopic projects in the Islamic world. It had held a brief attraction for some, not least because of the actions taken in a bid to counter it. But most Muslims always knew something essential was missing: the notion of Allah al-rahman w’al-rakhim – God the merciful and beneficent. Bin Laden once claimed: “It is our duty to bring light to the world.” Yet behind his rhetoric of righteousness, divine justice and retribution, there was nothing but darkness.

He had four wives and 19 children. One of his sons was killed alongside him.

• Osama bin Laden, Muslim Fundamental, born 10 March 1957; died 1 May 2011

Source: Guardian.UK


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