Reviving a demon

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

Osama bin Laden speaking at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. A file photograph. - AFP

Osama bin Laden speaking at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. A file photograph. - AFP

By searching out and killing Osama bin Laden more than a decade after 9/11, the U.S. has resurrected a diminished radical leader.

WHEN the United States finally traced Osama bin Laden almost a decade after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York and Washington, the Al Qaeda leader was already a much diminished radical figure. The U.S. had to invade two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, kill more than 100,000 civilians there, and spend more than $1.3 trillion in the process before eliminating him in the picturesque countryside of Abbottabad, in a location close to many of Pakistan's military establishments. And when the U.S. got him, Al Qaeda was politically marginalised in the Arab world, its activities confined to staging random terror attacks. The events of the Arab Spring that have led to regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt testify to this fact. Many of those who had earlier associated themselves with Al Qaeda are today fighting with rebel groups in countries such as Syria and Libya. In Libya, there is evidence that former Al Qaeda members from the town of Derma have been in the forefront of the fight against the government. Fighters from Derma had played a big part in Al Qaeda operations in Iraq.

The younger generation in the Arab world is no longer swayed by the archaic fundamentalist ideology propounded by Al Qaeda. The public mood today is in favour of secular democracy coexisting with Sharia law. The youth have come to realise that bin Laden's global jehad has left the Arabian peninsula much more in the thrall of the U.S. than it was a decade ago. The pro-American authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, against whom bin Laden regularly railed, continue to be ensconced under the U.S. security umbrella. The American military bases in their kingdoms have only become bigger. The largely non-violent struggle that is taking place in the region runs counter to the ideology propagated by bin Laden, which called for primacy to be given to terror tactics.

The brief flurry of terror attacks in the last decade in West Asia only helped the regimes there to introduce more draconian laws. Second-tier leaders have now emerged to lead Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. In late April, there were Al Qaeda-linked terror attacks in Algeria and Morocco, targeting foreign tourists and the military. In the Arabian Peninsula, some Al Qaeda elements have found sanctuary in the rugged tribal areas of Yemen. Although Al Qaeda no longer poses a serious threat to the American mainland, it will continue its sporadic attacks against the pro-Western governments in the region.


The circumstances surrounding bin Laden's brutal killing and burial have generated a world-wide controversy. The renowned linguist and social activist Noam Chomsky is among the many Americans who have criticised the way the Obama administration handled the entire episode. He pointed out that even Nazi war criminals responsible for the Holocaust were given a fair trial. In 1960, Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi war criminal, was kidnapped from Argentina by the Israelis but was given a fair trial before he was hanged. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand Imam of Cairo's Al Azhar mosque, said that bin Laden's burial at sea runs contrary to the principles of Islamic law, religious values and humanitarian customs. Another leading Muslim cleric, Omar Bakri Mohammed from Lebanon, said the U.S. wanted to humiliate Muslims through this burial, and I don't think that this is in the interest of the U.S. administration.

Cuban leader Fidel Castro wrote that the murder of an unarmed human surrounded by his family constitutes an abhorrent deed. This is apparently what the most powerful nation ever to exist did. Castro also said in his article that consigning bin Laden's body to a watery grave was a blunder. Murdering him and consigning his body to the depths of the ocean demonstrates fear and insecurity, making him a much more dangerous figure. In October last year, Castro had said that the leaked WikiLeaks documents proved beyond doubt that bin Laden was a CIA agent at one point of time.

The breach of the territorial sovereignty of Pakistan has come in for criticism internationally. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, while welcoming the demise of bin Laden, said that the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries should be respected. Indian officials, on the other hand, were full of praise for the dramatic raid conducted by the U.S. Navy Seals in the stealth of the night deep inside Pakistani territory on May 1. The Indian Army chief, General V.K. Singh, even boasted that the Army was capable of mounting similar raids to catch those on New Delhi's most wanted list hiding in Pakistan. Home Minister P. Chidambaram used the occasion to demand that the perpetrators of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks be arrested and prosecuted by the government in Pakistan. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's response to bin Laden's killing was more diplomatic. He described the Al Qaeda leader's death as a significant step forward and called on Islamabad to take steps against those groups that harmed innocent civilians. New Delhi has emphasised that the dialogue process, recently back on track, will go on regardless of the sparks generated by the killing of bin Laden.


People have not forgotten that bin Laden, a creation of American intelligence, resolutely turned against the West only after the first Gulf war. He had urged the Saudi Arabian government to marshal an Arab force to liberate Kuwait after its occupation by Iraq. The Saudis spurned his request and instead invited the U.S. to set up military bases on its territory, which eventually led to an alliance to liberate Kuwait.

The first Al Qaeda attack took place in 1995. A residential compound housing American soldiers engaged in training Saudi soldiers was the target. Bin Laden had come to Sudan in the early 1990s after his U.S.sponsored mujahedeen adventures in Afghanistan. Although Al Qaeda was formed in 1988, Washington did not remove bin Laden from the list of friendly mujahedeen.

If senior officials in Sudan are to be believed, bin Laden was apparently involved in legitimate business activities in that country. His construction company was responsible for building the important highway connecting Khartoum to Port Sudan. Hassan al-Turabi, who was the key figure in the Sudanese government at the time, told this correspondent in Khartoum some years ago that the government was not aware of any terrorist activity he was engaging in. Al-Turabi revealed that he had the occasion to meet bin Laden only twice during his sojourn in Sudan and that too on formal occasions. In 1996, under U.S. pressure, the government in Khartoum expelled him.

Gulb el-Mahdi, the Sudanese intelligence chief at the time, asserted that it was his expulsion from Sudan that made bin Laden tilt inextricably towards terrorism. Whatever his views when he was here, he was just doing business. We were watching him and he was under control. In Afghanistan, he went out of control, El-Mahdi told The Guardian in 2006. He said the government in Khartoum offered to extradite bin Laden to the U.S. or Saudi Arabia. But Washington made no such request. The only request made by the U.S. was that bin Laden should not be allowed to go to Somalia, which had already imploded into a civil war. When the Sudanese authorities were told that bin Laden's preferred destination was Afghanistan, the Clinton administration did not object. Once bin Laden left in a chartered plane to Afghanistan, the Sudanese government confiscated his property. Most of the wealth he had inherited from his rich father was lost in Sudan as the government froze his assets. But Sudan paid the price. After Al Qaeda-instigated U.S. embassy bombings of Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, Khartoum was targeted by U.S. cruise missiles.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban government in Kabul initially welcomed bin Laden like a hero who was returning home and allowed him to operate freely. He could regroup with old comrades such as Ayman al-Zawahiri and start recruiting and training for Al Qaeda. Ready-made pools of fighters were available for the new jehad from the remnants of the CIA-sponsored anti-communist jehad of the 1980s. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, was a veteran of the jehad against the communists. He again linked up with bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Washington has still not provided tangible evidence to substantiate claims that bin Laden was the man behind the 9/11 attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has stated that it only believed that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan and implemented in Germany and the United Arab Emirates. There is little evidence to show that bin Laden was the hands-on commander he was portrayed to be by the U.S. administration.

From his safe haven in Afghanistan, bin Laden, however, continued to speak on the injustice meted out by the West to Arabs in particular and Muslims in general. On the top of his list was the unresolved issue of Palestine. It is an issue that finds particular resonance in the Arab world. The subservience of Arab and Muslim rulers to U.S. hegemony was another issue that he inevitably touched upon in his audio and video cassettes. In recent years, Kashmir started figuring prominently in his discourse. The Government of India was added to his growing list of state enemies as Al Qaeda aligned with the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which is responsible for the most horrific terror attacks on home soil. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in December 2010 quotes Indian officials alleging that bin Laden was funding terror groups in Kashmir. American intelligence is now asserting that Al Qaeda is not the well-financed outfit they thought it to be.

The blunder committed by the Bush administration to use the 9/11 attacks as the pretext to invade Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be a shot in the arm for Al Qaeda in the short term. The government in Kabul could at least be accused of harbouring bin Laden, but Saddam Hussein was one of bin Laden's pet hatreds. Barack Obama was among the few leading American politicians who had opposed the invasion at the time. He had argued that the main focus should be Afghanistan where bin Laden was believed to be hiding. The American invasion and the subjugation of Muslim lands inflamed Arab public opinion. Al Qaeda used this anger and frustration on the Arab street to recruit fighters for its cause. In Iraq, where its branch had gained momentum for a few years under the Jordanian-born Abu Musa al-Zarqawi, its fight was equally focussed on killing Shias and occupation forces. With al-Zarqawi's death in 2006 at the hands of the U.S., the group's fighting capabilities diminished considerably though there are occasional reports of Al Qaeda groups targeting civilians. The U.S. did succeed in defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq but now has to contend with a government in Baghdad that is friendlier with its arch-enemy Iran.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. occupation has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, most of them as collateral damage in the hunt for bin Laden. (The fugitive terrorist, it now emerges, was for most part of the decade living in Pakistan.) U.S. intelligence services were aware that the number of Al Qaeda fighters was dwindling rapidly. Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, said in June last year that there probably were 50-100 Al Qaeda fighters left in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban has made it clear that the liberation of Afghanistan is its preoccupation. Unlike the Pakistan Taliban, it has not carried out any terror attacks outside its country. Critics have said that the three wars America is currently engaged in in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have nothing to do with the so-called war on terror. In Iraq and Libya, the U.S. is after oil. The war in Afghanistan, especially after the killing of bin Laden, is being increasingly viewed as a pointless one. The calls for the withdrawal of troops are getting louder but Barack Obama seems to be adopting a posture similar to the one assumed by his predecessor George W. Bush. Speaking after the killing of bin Laden, the U.S. President said that his death was not the end of the conflict and that the cause of securing our country is not complete. He said the U.S. would remain vigilant at home and abroad since there is no doubt that Al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was in effective control of the core group of Al Qaeda, seems all set to be its titular head. The cause bin Laden espoused will continue to attract adherents though his dream of an Islamic Caliphate is long dead. As long as the U.S. goes on with its crude policies of dominating the Arab world and exploiting its resources, extremism will have a fertile ground. The cause of the extremists would be less appealing if Obama actually implemented his pledge to withdraw the U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. But the prospects for such a move are fading as Washington is insisting on retaining huge military bases in both the countries. To top it all, the U.S. seems to be on the verge of physically invading yet another Muslim country Libya. There are no indications that the Obama administration is keen on making Israel, its closest military ally in West Asia, vacate the occupied territories. All these factors will keep Al Qaeda relevant for many in the Islamic world. Recent terror attacks have illustrated that Al Qaeda and its affiliates are still capable of packing a punch.

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