Graeme Leech, Courtesy of The Australian, 3 May 2011
OBITUARY: Osama bin Laden. Terrorist leader. Born Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1957. Died Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 1, aged about 54.
But if it hadn’t been for his father’s business success, in all likelihood bin Laden would have passed unnoticed through history. In 1930, bin Laden’s father Mohammed Awad bin Laden left South Yemen, where he had been an illiterate labourer and dock worker, for Saudi Arabia and a new life. Ultimately, he was to become head of the Islamic kingdom’s largest and most successful construction company. He was to make a fortune destined to bankroll his son’s worldwide terrorist activities. Osama bin Laden’s father won royal preferment in tenders to build mosques and palaces because he offered the cheapest bid, and he was also able to help fund King Saud’s successor King Faisal, who was so grateful he ordered all new construction contracts go to Mohammed Awad bin Laden. Bin Laden’s father was a devoted Muslim who gave freely to the destitute. But he had a domineering personality and demanded that his children observe the discipline and strict Islamic codes of behaviour.When he was killed in a 1967 plane crash, the 11-year-old Osama – thought to be the 17th of about 52 children to 10 or 11 wives – inherited a fortune estimated at about $US250 million, although that sum has been disputed. His English tutor, Brian Fyfield-Shayler, later described the boy as shy and courteous. “He had a great deal of inner confidence,” Fyfield-Shayler said in 2001. He was “neat, precise and conscientious . . . he wasn’t pushy at all”. When he was 17, bin Laden married a Syrian girl who was a relative of his mother, Hamida – the father’s so-called “slave wife” – who was a cosmopolitan and beautiful woman. His schooling and university education took place in Jeddah, where he studied for a degree in management and civil engineering at the King Abdul Aziz University.
Although his supporters’ websites claim there is no evidence that the young bin Laden, who would introduce himself as Sammy, enjoyed nightclubs and the company of women, there are several Western reports of him drinking and consorting with prostitutes, mainly in Beirut. At some point he began listening to leading Islamic writers and philosophers. Soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, bin Laden left Saudi Arabia to join the Afghan resistance. In the early 1980s, he raised money for the mujaheddin in their struggle against the Soviets, and provided logistical and recruitment help. The thoughtful young scholar became an extremist.
At the time – this was during the Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union – the US apparently tacitly supported some of his activities. In the eyes of the CIA and the administration of president Ronald Reagan, bin Laden, as the enemy’s enemy, was something of an ally. However, there is no evidence on the public record of direct contact.
In 1984, bin Laden moved to the border city of Peshawar in Pakistan. Among the throngs of arms dealers, drug runners, mercenaries, spies and refugees, he helped found a radical movement that recruited and trained fighters for Afghanistan. This period is thought to be the start of his commitment to fundamentalist terror groups. It was also about this time that bin Laden first met the man who would become his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri – who became a remorseless terrorist in his own right. Bin Laden would visit wounded fighters, offer solace, chocolates and nuts, collect their names and addresses, followed up with a cheque. The cashed-up bin Laden was recruiting a loyal band of followers prepared to die for him.
He lived a spartan existence, sleeping in crowded conditions on thin mattresses stuffed with straw. It was a time for discussing history and Islam as bin Laden developed his radical ideology, often haranguing the West for betrayal of Arabs. But he had no time for the Saudi royal family, either. In Afghanistan in 1986, bin Laden, armed with an AK47 Kalashnikov, was with a small force of Arab fighters who repelled a Soviet helicopter and infantry attack. During the next few months he often came under fire and was a source of fanatical inspiration to his troops. On one occasion he told some of his men that the trench in which they were sheltering was “their gate to heaven”.
Sometime in the late 80s, probably 1988, he established the now infamous al-Qa’ida network, a loose association of disparate Muslim militants. The success of the resistance in Afghanistan had helped radicalise many Muslims and stimulated increased funding from overseas sources including the US and Saudi Arabia.
At first, al-Qa’ida was little more than a hardcore group that organised training camps and sat around discussing a radical version of Islam. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, bin Laden – then back in Saudi Arabia – offered to raise an army to repel the invaders. But the ruling Saudi royal family refused, fearing an army of zealots within the kingdom. Bin Laden became incensed. He was furiously opposed to the US-Saudi alliance because of the stationing of US forces in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The presence of 300,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia for the first Gulf War made bin Laden even more vehemently anti-US. It was an invasion of infidels, he raged. Moreover, when the Gulf War alliance was set up by the US in 1990-91, Palestinians were supposedly promised their own territory. Bin Laden saw the failure of this undertaking as an act of US betrayal of Muslims. Bin Laden began recruiting, to the consternation of Saudi authorities who put him under house arrest. In April 1991, after Saudi intelligence nabbed bin Laden smuggling weapons from Yemen, the Saudis withdrew his passport and expelled him. Eventually, the Saudis revoked his citizenship and moved to freeze his assets.
Bin Laden fled to Khartoum in Sudan where it was relatively safe for Muslim radicals and terrorists to operate. There, bin Laden, accompanied by four wives and his many children, set up an import-export company, a tannery, a couple of farms and a road construction company. He brought in hundreds of Afghanistan veterans. Some Saudi sources still dispute the extent of bin Laden’s wealth, but he was nevertheless able to make a great deal of money from his Sudan ventures, which included a lucrative monopoly on sesame seeds, Sudan being one of the world’s three biggest producers. Despite a botched venture importing bicycles from the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, bin Laden was able to send money to Islamic fighters throughout the Middle East.
When Pakistan wanted to expel 500 mujaheddin fighters on the Afghan border, bin Laden paid for them to join him in Sudan. Thus began serious, organised al-Qa’ida camps and training in Sudan as well as in Algeria and Egypt. Arms deals – including an unsuccessful attempt to acquire nuclear weapons in eastern Europe – became bin Laden’s stock-in-trade. And he started to wield terrorism as an ideological weapon.
US intelligence sources say that the December 1992 detonation of a bomb in an Aden hotel in Yemen was bin Laden’s first terrorist strike. When US marines landed in Somalia in December 1992, bin Laden sent in a heavily armed force of fighters who shot down helicopters and dragged the bodies of soldiers through the streets. The US humanitarian mission never recovered from the humiliation. In 1993, six people were killed when New York’s World Trade Centre was truck-bombed by Muslim militants inspired by bin Laden, although the attack failed to bring down the buildings as the planners had hoped.
That year, the US State Department placed Sudan on their list of countries that sponsored terrorism. And bin Laden was accused by the department of attempting to get hold of nuclear and chemical weapons. In 1995, an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak took place in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The CIA believes bin Laden was involved. He probably also organised a car bomb in the Saudi capital Riyadh. This period marked the beginning of his random terrorist attacks against any who opposed his ideas; that is, most of the civilised world and much of the developing world as well.
In 1996, bin Laden was forced to move back to Afghanistan where he wrote an open letter, a “declaration of war” demanding expulsion of US forces from Saudi Arabia and the overthrow of the Saudi government so that Muslim holy sites could be liberated. Also in 1996, president Bill Clinton signed a top secret order authorising the CIA to use any and all means to destroy bin Laden’s network. In May 1996, bin Laden linked up with the Taliban and its leader Mullah Omar in Afghanistan where the ultra-fundamentalist militia had become the dominant faction. After four years of civil war, many Afghans thought the Taliban would unite the nation and establish civil order. However, the Taliban persecuted anyone they didn’t like, banned any form of entertainment, and women’s rights were abolished.
Bin Laden’s association with the Taliban were prickly but he received protection and the freedom to build al-Qa’ida training camps. It also gave him access to a large pool of ready-trained and battle-hardened recruits. In February 1998, bin Laden brought together Al Jihad of Bangladesh and the Jamaat ul Ulema of Pakistan under the title, World Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. Its aims, indeed its duties, were to kill Americans and their allies anywhere. It was one-way traffic in bin Laden’s favour except for the occasional US success in arresting suspects. Just how far away the US was from keeping the terrorists under control was demonstrated in August 1998 when bombs exploded at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In Kenya, 213 people died; 11 in Tanzania. The US blamed bin Laden, having intercepted a mobile phone conversation between two of his lieutenants.
The US retaliated with cruise missiles directed at terrorist camps in Afghanistan and bombed a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, almost certainly a wrongly identified target. In November 1998, the US offered a reward of $US5 million for bin Laden (it later became $US25m), who by then was a hero among the radical Islamists. The 2000 suicide bombing of the frigate USS Cole that killed 17 sailors in Yemen was also the work of bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida network. This attack appears to have been the spark that caused the Taliban to turn on bin Laden. His satellite phone was taken from him and he was placed under armed guard.
On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qa’ida terrorists hijacked four US domestic passenger aircraft and crashed two of them into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Centre, killing almost 3000 people, and another into the Pentagon building in Washington, DC, killing more than 100. The fourth crashed into a paddock in Pennsylvania, killing 45 crew and passengers, some of whom had overpowered the hijackers. Despite continuing denials among radical and dispossessed Muslims, there is no doubt that bin Laden was the financier and inspiration for the outrage. Bin Laden confirmed his responsibility for the attacks in subsequent videotapes, claiming the death and destruction was “punishment from Allah”.
Bin Laden had achieved the death of “infidel” Westerners (and many Muslims, as well). But he also invited US retaliation against the Taliban and al-Qa’ida terrorist camps in Afghanistan.
After US forces took key Taliban-held towns, US bombers unleashed a ferocious attack on bin Laden’s Tora Bora mountain hideout, but he survived. An unknown number of his followers died in bombing attacks at Tora Bora and elsewhere in the country.
Since the US launched its offensive in 2002, one million Afghan refugees were forced into Iran and Pakistan. They eventually returned, but it took years for Afghanistan – a virtually dysfunctional economy in the post-Taliban years – to achieve a measure of recovery. Many farmers turned once again to the opium trade for their income.
US ground forces also failed to find and kill him, as bin Laden was reduced to hiding along the Pakistan-Afghan border, recording occasional audio and videotapes threatening more attacks against the “infidels”.
The March 2004 co-ordinated bomb attack on Madrid’s rail system that killed more than 200 commuters was certainly the work of al-Qa’ida operatives.
Several terror attacks in other Muslim countries since 2002 – including Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – have been blamed on al-Qa’ida and its many offshoots.
One of those offshoots, Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia, was responsible for the Bali bomb outrage in October 2002 that killed 202 people, 88 of them Australian. In 2004, bin Laden sent cash to a terrorist cell to help fund the bombing attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta that killed 12. The July 2005 London Underground bombers who killed 55 people were also inspired, and possibly funded, by bin Laden.
Meanwhile, bin Laden tried successfully to keep away from the line of fire in inaccessible mountain country, until his unlamented demise at the hands of US special forces on Sunday in Pakistan.
Accounts of bin Laden’s personality all refer to his quiet but persuasive demeanour, his devotion to Allah and his unnerving ability to gloss over the blood on his hands as being the will of his God.
He was a man of simple tastes who held rigid anti-Western and anti-Jewish views.
When asked in May 1998 by an American television reporter whether he was worried about being captured by US forces, he briefly outlined his creed: “The American imposes himself on everyone. Americans accuse our children in Palestine of being terrorists – those children, who have no weapons and have not even reached maturity. At the same time, Americans defend a country, the state of the Jews, that has a policy to destroy the future of these children. “We are sure of our victory against the Americans and the Jews as promised by the prophet. Judgment day shall not come until the Muslim fights the Jew, where the Jew will hide behind trees and stones, and the tree and the stone will speak and say, ‘Muslim, behind me is a Jew. Come and kill him.’ ”
His last years were spent in hiding. In 2006, author Peter Bergen wrote that bin Laden had told him he would never be taken alive, that his bodyguard had orders to kill him if it looked as if he were about to be captured.
There were reports about his kidney problems and in September 2006 a French intelligence report, relying on Saudi sources and published in a French newspaper, said he had died. “The information gathered by the Saudis indicates that the head of al-Qa’ida fell victim, while he was in Pakistan on August 23, 2006, to a very serious case of typhoid that led to a partial paralysis of his internal organs.”
Time magazine followed up, also quoting Saudi sources, saying bin Laden had fallen ill and was “likely dead”. But Saudi Arabian officials said they had no evidence that he had died. Bin Laden had previously started rumours of his demise whenever the hunt for him began to close in.
Soon after the rumours of his death surfaced, Clinton angrily defended his counter-terrorism record. Asked why he had not done more to put bin Laden out of business, the former president launched into a finger-jabbing outburst. “I got closer to killing him than anybody’s gotten since,” he said. He claimed he had authorised the CIA to kill bin Laden.
With bin Laden’s death, his legacy of terror will most probably continue, perhaps for decades. Western intelligence agencies and police have only a hazy idea of how far his recruits and his networks have spread across the world to carry on the so-called holy war against the West and its allies.
Bin Laden is survived by his many brothers and sisters. He is believed to have married four times and fathered numerous children. He had been disowned by most of his family.