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The enduring enigma of Osama bin Laden

Zia Sarhadi

Whether dead or alive, Osama bin Laden continues to fascinate the huge tribe of terrorism experts that sprouted like weeds in the fertile imagination of the West after the attacks of 9/11. True, there have been numerous videos and in more recent years audios of Osama’s messages. Many of these have been broadcast on the Qatari-based Al Jazeera television that has gained “expertise” in obtaining such tapes. What is the truth behind these messages and whether Osama is still alive is a question that needs exploring. Does it matter whether Osama is dead or alive, especially in view of the emergence of such other notorious figures as Sufi Muhammad, Fazlullah and Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan and prior to that, Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq? And whose interest does it serve to keep Obama’s fiction alive? There are many unsavoury characters that benefit from keeping his myth alive for their own agendas.

But first, a brief overview of his background is in order.

Osama was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1957 to Muhammad Awad bin Laden, a Yemeni migrant labourer who cultivated close links with the Saudi ruling family. These enabled the Bin Laden patriarch to strike it rich in the construction industry. While raised in the strict Wahhabi tradition, it was only during his days at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah that Osama came under the influence of Dr Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian, who had been attracted to the Afghan jihad against Soviet occupation forces. Azzam was assisted in his work by the Arab regimes, especially their intelligence agencies that willingly sent their troublesome Islamic youth to the far off war in Afghanistan. They had hoped that these people would get killed and in any case, they believed the war would continue for decades keeping the youth pre-occupied. Osama also followed his teacher and mentor, Abdullah Azzam and arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan on his way to Afghanistan.

In the early eighties, Peshawar was the hub of activity for anti-Soviet fighters. They could be seen throughout the city milling around the various mujahideen offices that had sprung up with active help from the government of Pakistan, then headed by general Zia ul-Haq, as well as the US. Other Western governments were also keen to promote jihad at the time. Both Azzam and Osama came into prominence, one because of his fiery rhetoric and mobilizing skills and the other for his ability to raise funds from rich merchants in the Arabian Peninsula.

In 1984, Azzam formalized establishment of al-Maktab al-Khadamat (the Service Organization) that facilitated travel to and accommodation in Peshawar for Muslim volunteers from the Arab World. The organization also dealt with paperwork for the Arabs’ stay in Pakistan. Given the number of volunteers for jihad and the countries they came from—Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Somalia and Ethiopia et al—this was no mean task even if the Pakistani authorities were keen to facilitated such work. Throughout the war years, from 1980 to 1989, Osama lived in Afghanistan. His active role in the Afghan jihad earned him much admiration from others because he was seen as making an immense personal sacrifice. Had he simply concentrated on raising funds for the struggle that would still have made him famous; the fact that he sacrificed the customary comforts of the rich Saudis and decided to live in a mud hut in Afghanistan and actively participated in the struggle against the Soviets greatly elevated his status among Muslims. Both Arab and Western intelligence agencies actively assisted these foreign fighters against the Soviet occupiers and came to know them well. They also planted their agents among such fighters and used them to advance their own agendas. Senior Pakistani officials have admitted in private that even the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, operated openly in Pakistan during the Afghan Jihad.

In September 1989, seven months after the Soviet forces left Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam was killed in a roadside bomb outside Peshawar. The bombing was almost certainly the work of an Arab intelligence agency, probably Egyptian or Saudi, in connivance with the CIA because they feared his recruiting abilities and the influence he had over Arab youth. Further, he wanted to use the fighting skills of these fighters in the struggle to liberate Palestine from the Zionists. It was also in 1989 that the CIA, working closely with Osama, had brought him to Pakistan. Imran Khan, chief of Pakistan’s Tehrik-e Insaf party speaking at a forum organized by the American Strategy for the New American Foundation in Washington revealed on June 17, 2009 that Osama was brought to Pakistan in a CIA plane in 1989. Imran Khan further said that he had met Osama at the US embassy in Islamabad. No one challenged his assertion at the Washington gathering about CIA’s close links with Osama. Even US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton admitted during the House of Representatives hearings on April 23, 2009 that people against whom the US was currently waging war were supported by Washington 20 years ago.

With the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989, the various Afghan groups started to fight among themselves for power. Most Arab mujahideen left Afghanistan, disappointed by internal fighting among the Afghans. Osama returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990 but within months, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Saudi regime’s abject surrender to US demands once again brought him into the limelight. He met the Saudi Defence Minister Prince Sultan urging him to reject American forces on the sacred soil of the Arabian Peninsula. He offered to raise a 10,000-strong legion of Arab fighters to defend the sacred land. The ruling family was in no position to say ‘no’ to the Americans. Then US President George Bush (Senior) had dispatched Secretary of State James Baker and Defence Secretary Dick Cheney to Saudi Arabia to informKing Fahd that US troops were on their way to “defend” the kingdom, without even waiting for the Saudis to ask. Fahd had little choice but to sign on the dotted line.

The locust-like invasion of the Arabian Peninsula by American troops created an enormous crisis of legitimacy for the monarchy. Many young ulama, among them Shaykh Safar al-Hawali and Shaykh Salman al-Awda, openly denounced the presence of US forces on the sacred soil. The presence of US troops was a direct violation of a clear command of the noble Messenger of Allah (s) forbidding the presence of non-Muslims in the Arabian Peninsula. The young Saudi ulama were imprisoned and attempts were made to silence Osama but he left the kingdom and returned to Afghanistan. When the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance grabbed power in 1992, Osama was asked to leave. He left for Sudan where he had vast land holdings and from there continued his verbal assaults on Fahd and his subservience to the US. On March 5, 1994 Fahd sent an emissary to President Omar Hasan al-Bashir of Sudan demanding confiscation of Osama’s passport. His family in Saudi Arabia was also “persuaded” to cut off his monthly stipend.

According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “In February 1996, Sudanese officials began approaching officials from the United States and other governments, asking what actions of theirs might ease foreign pressure.” But the Commission claimed that it “has found no credible evidence” of Sudan’s Defence Minister Fatih Erwa’s statement that Khartoum had offered to hand Osama over to the US. Tim Carney, US ambassador to Sudan from August 1995 to November 1997, however, has disputed this claim. In his testimony before the 9/11 Commission, he specifically asked that Sudan’s claims of offer be thoroughly investigated. He even went on Hannity Show (Fox News TV) making the same assertion about Sudan’s offer. Hannity then showed a clip of President Bill Clinton saying: “I did not bring [Osama bin Laden] here because we had no basis on which to hold him.” To this, Carney said: “That sounds pretty definitive to me,” alluding to the Sudanese offer that US had rejected. Besides, American officials have never been constrained by legal niceties. The torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay, Bagram and Abu Ghraib provide ample evidence of this kind of illegal behaviour by Washington.

In May 1996 Osama was asked to leave Sudan, this time under pressure from the Saudi and American governments. He returned to Jalalabad in Afghanistan aboard a chartered jet and soon forged a close relationship with the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar who by now controlled much of Afghanistan. Osama occupied a well-guarded compound in Jalalabad where a large number of Arab volunteers also resided with him. The Taliban government was recognized by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. US Assistant Secretary of State, Robin Raphel also made several well-publicised trips to Kabul in September 1996 and in 1998. In December 1997, a delegation of Taliban representatives was invited to the US to meet officials from the US oil company, UNOCAL. They were dined and feted in Houston. Given the close relationship of the Pakistanis and the Saudis with the Taliban leadership, there is no evidence that any request was made by the Saudis or even the Americans for Osama’s extradition during this time. Could it be that they both needed Osama to be used on another occasion?

On September 16, 2001, five days after the 9/11 attacks, Osama’s statement denying responsibility for the 9/11 attacks was broadcast on Al Jazeera. A similar statement had been published in a Pakistan newspaper three days earlier. While a subsequent videotape, purportedly retrieved by the Americans from his Jalalabad compound showed him discussing the attacks with a Saudi Shaykh, Khalid al-Harbi, the authenticity of the tape has been questioned on several grounds. First, the accuracy of its translation has been disputed. Arabic language specialist, Dr Abdel El M Husseini stated: “This translation is very problematic. At the most important places where it is held to prove the guilt of bin Laden, it is not identical with the Arabic.” Second, the person shown in the tape purported to be Osama does not bear true resemblance of him, leading to suspicion that it was doctored. The tape was broadcast on various news networks on December 13, 2001. Three years later, another Osama video emerged in which he claimed to have “personally” directed the 9/11 hijackers. If so, why there was no retraction of his statements of September 13 and 16, 2001 in which he had denied responsibility?

Prior to the US attack on Afghanistan in October 2001, President George Bush demanded that the Taliban handover Osama. The manner of the demand was such that the Taliban, and indeed most Afghans, were bound to reject it. The Taliban leadership offered to hand Osama over to a third party if evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks were provided. The Americans dismissed such overtures out of hand. Bush declared: “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty,” (The Observer, London, UK, October 14, 2001). While so sure of his “guilt”, the American military made no serious effort to capture him when Osama was reportedly in the Tora Bora mountains in late 2001. Instead, they sent their Northern Alliance allies to capture him, allowing him to escape from there.

So where is Osama; did he vanish into thin air? Theories about his whereabouts as well as death abound but there is no firm news as to whether he is alive or dead. In the last three years, there have been no videos of Osama, only audio messages but again, given the technology, these could easily be doctored. It is interesting to note that the Washington Post reported that the CIA unit dedicated to capturing Osama had been shut down in late 2005. If so, what was the reason? One must keep in mind that there is a reward of $50 million for his capture—dead or alive (initially it was $25 million). People with much smaller price on their head have been apprehended, so why not Osama? True, he is a big fish but then there are a lot of greedy people in Afghanistan and Pakistan who would love to get their hands on so much cash.

Despite much hype about Osama’s whereabouts in places as far apart as Baluchistan, Parachinar,Malakand, Chitral and Bajaur in Pakistan, and Kunar and Paktia in Afghanistan, there have been no credible sightings or news of him in recent years. Surely, he cannot be in all these places. Besides, given his height—he is more than 6 feet 6 inches tall—it is not easy for him to melt among the people. There have also been several reports of his death, many of them contradictory. In April 2005, the Australian daily, TheSydney Morning Herald stated “Dr Clive Williams, director of terrorism studies at the Australian National University, says documents provided by an Indian colleague suggested bin Laden died of massive organ failure in April last year [2004]…” but he declined to give a definitive answer about the story, according to the Australian Associated Press of January 16, 2006.

Then, on September 23, 2006, the French newspaper L'Est Républicain quoted a report from the French secret service (Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure, DGSE) stating that Osama had died in Pakistan on August 23, 2006, after contracting a case of typhoid fever that paralyzed his lower limbs. According to the newspaper, Saudi security services first heard of Osama’s alleged death on September 4, 2006. This was reported by the Saudi secret service to its government, which in turn reported it to the French secret service. Similarly, in an essay titled, ‘Osama bin Elvis’, published in The American Spectator in March 2009, international relations professor Angelo Codevilla of Boston University argued that Osama had been dead for many years. The ‘bin Elvis’ part was a play on words about “sighting claims” of Elvis, the country singer who died in the seventies.

There is also a recent book by David Ray Griffin titled, Osama bin Laden: Dead or Alive? that persuasively argues that Osama has long been dead. According to Griffin, Osama died either in late 2001 or early 2002 citing both his physical condition—the former Pakistani dictator, General Pervez Musharraf had repeatedly asserted that he suffered from kidney failure and in the absence of a dialysis machine, he could not have survived—as well as opinions of knowledgeable sources. If so, why has it not been officially acknowledged? Griffin argues that his death would take away an important prop for continuation of the war in Afghanistan, one that has now been extended into Pakistan as well.

Finally, one must examine the role of the Pakistan military in this saga. It is undeniable that the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had close links with Osama and almost all the Afghan and Arab mujahideen. Without the ISI’s involvement, the struggle in Afghanistan could not have continued. Could it be that the ISI or Pakistan military are keeping him under wrap? If so, why have they not been able to keep Osama’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri from shutting up? He keeps on producing videos and audios at critical moments and there have also been reports of his presence in such places asWaziristan that have come under repeated US drone attacks.

The fact is that the myth of Osama being alive is far more useful to most players, including the US, than his death. He may be dead but he will not be buried until the US’s “long war on terror” ends. And that is not likely to happen anytime soon. US President Barack Obama may have changed the language of discourse on war, but its prosecution is on course. In fact, he has escalated it further. In this scenario, a dead Osama being kept alive is extremely important for this mission.

Long live Osama bin Elvis!

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 7

Ramadan 11, 14302009-09-01

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