OSAMA bin Laden has been killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a figure of fascination and horror to the end. A journalist who had risked his life to interview bin Laden was asked what the man was like. “Personally? He was charming,” he said. “And very clever.” I never met bin Laden, but soon after he was chased out of Afghanistan, one of the US broadcast networks asked me to prepare this obituary.
Osama bin Laden was a multimillionaire who lived out much of his life in bare rooms or even primitive caves. He was one of nature’s manipulators, and like many manipulators he was also a gullible fool. Like many who seek a role of religious leadership, he was a narcissist, with an hysterical streak. And like many who are shy and awkward, he was strongly drawn to publicity and self-dramatization. He left a legacy of countless thousands of wrecked lives and embittered and frustrated followers. He was born fabulously rich, but left the world a poorer place.
Bin Laden is also widely credited with masterminding an astonishing string of terrorist attacks across the globe, even though the hard evidence for his direct involvement as a planner or organiser is often lacking. What is certain is that he inspired countless murders and maimings, and that he worked consciously and ruthlessly to promote himself as the global father-figurehead of Islamist terror.
And for bin Laden the father figure was important. His own father Mohammed was just such a dominating figure, a man who had begun as an illiterate labouring immigrant from Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour Yemen, but ended as the owner of a private construction conglomerate that today is estimated to be worth at least $5 billion. Mohammed the father understood that in the Arab world success was founded above all on contacts – one lesson he may well have imparted to the seventeenth son who was born in 1957.
When Osama was born the bin Ladens were already one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia. For some of Mohammed’s 54 children, that wealth meant travel, education abroad, and western ways. But for Osama it was very different: he remained in the Arab world and seemed to have no wish to leave it. By all accounts he grew up to be a dutiful and serious-minded student, ‘gracious and polite,’ according to his English tutor.
Osama bin Laden’s father died in a plane crash in the mid-1960s. Osama was ten years old; in the years to come he would seek and he would find several more father figures, mentors who would shape his mind to terrible ends.
But meanwhile the family firm was expanding, with ambitious investments outside the Arab world. As a young man and major shareholder Osama bin Laden must have heard talk of how the forceful and charming eldest brother Salem was taking the family business – the Saudi Binladin Group, or SBG – far beyond its home territory, into Europe and the US. Salem was shortly to die too, though, in Texas, when he crashed the microlight he was flying. Another loss of a family head, and another plane crash. Perhaps that was enough to fix the idea of a crashing plane in the mind of Osama, the 20-year-old economics and management student. It was certainly a mind unusually receptive to transforming ideas.
By this time the young bin Laden would have come into contact with the radical circles that flourished at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. It was a time of relative liberalism in Saudi Arabia. The economy was booming, and there was talk of democratic reform. There was also a resurgence of religious thinking, set against a background of Saudi Arabia’s hyper-conservative version of Islam. Osama bin Laden was introduced to the ideas of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, the ‘father’ of the militant Islam that is known as ‘Islamism’. And he would have heard the preaching of the Palestine-born, Egypt-educated Abdullah Azzam, an aggressive follower of Qutb who would become bin Laden’s mentor and tutor in violence in the first phase of his career.
These men preached the message of ‘jihad’, the religious struggle. Islam had been hijacked and humiliated by the west, the jihadis believed. It was time to return to an earlier form of Islam, and a total observance of faith: ‘no negotiation, no conferences and no dialogues,’ as Azzam put it. The 1979 revolution in Iran seemed to show that the Islamic state had the potential to triumph. And then, in the last days of that year, the Soviet Union invaded the Muslim state of Afghanistan. The stage was set for a decade of guerrilla warfare, Afghan ‘Mujahideen’ against the godless Russian army. And within weeks Osama bin Laden was there too, ready to play his part.
He was not alone: Arabs came from all over the region to back the fight of the Mujahideen against the Russians. Some fought, some organized, and some just wanted to say they had been there. They became known as the ‘Afghan Arabs’. Their impact on the war was minimal (the Afghan Arabs contributed no more than 1% of the anti-Russian fighting force over the ten years of the war, and their main talent was for alienating the indigenous Afghan fighters). But the effect of Afghanistan on the militant Arab jihadis was enormous. Afghanistan became their geo-political academy, where they believed they had learned to confront a world superpower – and defeat it.
Osama bin Laden was an organiser, and a financier and fundraiser. Based just over the border in Peshawar, Pakistan, he imported construction equipment, built roads and military camps. He may have seen action, although there is no reliable confirmation of that. He certainly was closely allied with Abdullah Azzam who had also moved to Afghanistan, and with the Saudi security chief Prince Turki bin Faisal, who helped channel very large sums of Saudi money through Azzam and bin Laden’s Afghan Services Bureau.
Of course, Saudi Arabia was not alone in funding the Afghan Mujahideen. The US taxpayer was there too, to the tune of $3 billion. But Osama bin Laden was never a protégé of the CIA. The US had a strict ‘hands-off’ approach to Afghanistan, with funds passed through the Pakistan security service to the Mujahideen. This money certainly did help finance some deeply anti-western groups, most notoriously that led by the psychopathic Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was in turn supported by Osama bin Laden; but it is unlikely that the US money went directly to the Afghan Arabs, who in any case had access to virtually unlimited Saudi funding of their own.
The end of the struggle against the Soviet Union and the descent of Afghanistan into civil war left bin Laden temporarily without a clear purpose. He had spent the last years of the war building a network and database of the jihadi volunteers that had passed through Afghanistan, a network called al-Qaeda. The question was, what to do with it? It was just around this time that a British journalist came across an unusually tall bearded Arab outside the Afghan town of Jalalabad. The Arab – already conspicuous enough in spotless white robes – quickly became abusive, then hysterical, and offered the Afghan driver the enormous sum of $500 to shoot the westerner on the spot. This was Osama, showing the flip side of that ‘gracious and polite’ personality.
Bin Laden returned home to Jeddah. Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, changing bin Laden’s world, which suddenly included US troops on Saudi Arabian soil. This was the decisive moment: under increasing pressure from the Saudi government bin Laden moved back to Afghanistan, briefly, and then on to Sudan, where a radical Islamist government had just taken power.
Bin Laden set up a web of companies in Sudan, a kind of dark mirror image of the Saudi Binladin Group. But many of the Sudanese businesses were fronts for military and terrorist training. With the support of Sudan’s key Islamist figure, Hassan al-Turabi, bin Laden was recruiting new members into al-Qaeda, importing weapons, and making primitive experiments with chemical agents. It seems likely that Sudan’s Hassan al-Turabi was also instrumental in relieving bin Laden of large sums of money.
But the influence of the clownish al-Turabi was strictly limited. Bin Laden was now under the spell of a new mentor, a much more powerful figure. Ayman al-Zawahiri was a quiet and thoughtful surgeon, and one of the many Egyptians prominent in the Islamist world. He was a prolific planner and strategist of jihadi terror – al-Zawahiri was probably the man who introduced bin Laden to the concept of rigorous training programs for terrorists. And al-Zawahiri was now a key member, perhaps the key member, of the growing al-Qaeda network. The attacks on US soldiers in Somalia, the first World Trade Center bombing, and bomb attacks on US forces in Saudi Arabia: all bear some signs that members of the terror group under bin Laden and al-Zawahiri may have played a role. And already a certain pattern was set: in this new order of Islamist terror, Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world would provide the money and the muscle; Egypt would provide the brains.
By 1996 the Sudanese were under increasing pressure from the United States for their sponsorship of the man who had become a leading terrorist suspect. Bin Laden had become too much for Sudan to handle. But it happened that the time was right for a move back to Afghanistan, where the radical Taliban government had just taken power and begun its efforts to return the country to a medieval form of Islam. Back in Afghanistan al-Qaeda immediately began a full time program of terrorist training and planning under bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and another Egyptian, the military chief Muhammed Atef.
Bin Laden was now the public face of al-Qaeda, calling for Muslims to murder Americans everywhere. As the pronouncements from Afghanistan revealed, Osama bin Laden was never concerned by the west itself, which he had probably never visited. He was not interested in attacking the American Way of Life, something of which he had no concept; he was interested in getting the US out of the Middle East, destroying Israel, and creating a purist Islamic government for the entire region.
The Saudi government had stripped bin Laden of citizenship in 1994 and continued to try to rein him in, but to no effect. In August 1998 US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed, killing hundreds; the United States attacked Afghan al-Qaeda camps in retaliation, but the cruise missiles were expected and bin Laden was elsewhere. The following year a ‘millennium plot’ to bomb airports across the US was uncovered, just in time. In 2000 the USS Cole was bombed while refuelling in Yemen.
These attacks had the clearest possible al-Qaeda marks on them. Some conspirators were captured and talked, while telecommunications and financial trails also led back to Afghanistan, in some cases to bin Laden’s personal satellite phone. Above all, there was the quality of organization: the East African embassy bombings had been five years or longer in the planning, involving large numbers of people, a high level of expertise, and massive bombs that exploded almost simultaneously in capitals several hundred miles apart. It was a warning that al-Qaeda was capable of worse, a warning that was largely ignored.
In a video unearthed in Jalalabad two months after September 11, bin Laden is seen discussing the World Trade Center attack with an unnamed Saudi sheikh. The sheikh ogles bin Laden, who in turn appears to be giggling at the thought of so many deaths. It was a glimpse, perhaps unintended, into the infantile mental world of Islamist terrorism, a world which as it happened was already unravelling fast. Kabul had fallen to US and local Afghan forces on November 12. Al-Qaeda’s military commander Muhammed Atef was killed in an airstrike three days later.
As for bin Laden, he had been seen together with al-Zawahiri by a Pakistani journalist who was taken blindfolded to meet them on November 6. On November 10 he was probably the man in a blacked-out Mercedes passing eastwards through Jalalabad, towards the mountains near Pakistan. Bin Laden’s personal cook reported seeing him in Afghanistan on November 30, apparently about to leave for Pakistan. A final intelligence report says his voice was heard on a shortwave transmission on December 5, directing troops.
After all his fury, bin Laden simply faded out.
Postscript: as is now known, bin Laden did not fade out. He released videos of himself claiming responsibility for Al Qaeda operations – including the attacks in New York City, for which he had initially denied responsibility – in 2004 and 2006. Subsequently he was variously reported as being in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. In the event he along with three other men and a woman was killed by US soldiers in the early hours of 2 May 2011 in a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, about 20 minutes’ walk away from Pakistan’s leading military academy.