Osama bin Laden as Subject
Osama bin Laden as Subject
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines five narratives, each offering a portrait of Osama bin Laden. The first is the “old hands” narrative, attributed to traditional terrorism analysts who consider bin Laden and his allies as just new iterations of the same old terrorism. The second is the “former comrades” narrative, ascribed to former mujahedin who have fallen out with bin Laden, including Boudejema Bounoua, Hashim al-Makki, and Abu Musab al-Suri. The third is the Riyadh narrative, the origin of which can be traced to Saudi Arabia’s spokesmen. The fourth narrative, the imperialist narrative, comes from pro-Israeli writers and their colleagues in the United States. Finally, the “bin Laden experts” narratives are offered by Western experts who do not rely on the primary sources about the al-Qaeda chief.
The flood of words written about Osama bin Laden has overwhelmed a much smaller pool of reliable assessments available to the biographer. Foremost among the latter are the statements, speeches, interviews, and poems bin Laden himself has produced since he began speaking in public in 1993. In addition, the past decade has seen a growing number of memoirs, reminiscences, and commentaries about him written by men who knew him as a youth, a father, a husband, a construction engineer, a nascent warrior in the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, or as the leader of al-Qaeda. Many of these works are valuable, even essential, to understanding and assessing his life, but all need to be examined carefully for agendas other than providing the truth about bin Laden.
We often come across the notion of “narrative” in contemporary biography, historical writing, and political analysis. The term suggests the notion that in war situations there is no reality; rather, there are a host of competing narratives, and if one side does not understand its foe’s narrative it will lose. To win, it must first understand it and then adjust its own in ways to reflect that comprehension. Getting the narrative right is the key to prevailing.
Now, if “narrative” takes into account that perception dictates reality, then I would agree and, moreover, would argue that it forms (p.2) the basis of wisdom. Americans ought to understand that bin Laden and the Islamists are attacking the United States and its allies precisely because of the negative impact their government’s actions have in the Muslim world. But that does not seem to be what the proponents of “narrative” intend. Instead, for them, it means something like producing and sticking to a script essentially written by rather than about a particular actor for his own purposes. Such a script is thus constructed to appeal to the target audience’s preconceptions. Reality enters into it only so far as needed to give it certain plausibility. It is, at day’s end, a vehicle for obscurantism.
This preconceived-script kind of “narrative”—one substituting plausibility for reality—has been an engine of distortion for works about bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Three versions, in my view, can be dismissed out of hand: one that asserts that bin Laden and al-Qaeda are tools of Iran; a second that argues that they are tools of the CIA; and a third that posits that they are tools of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Believers in one or another of these versions manifest an almost fanatic fervor, ignoring an abundance of discrediting evidence. Five other versions, however, influence the study of bin Laden because they present a mix of valid and false information. These narratives have been generated by, respectively, traditional terrorism analysts, former mujahedin who have fallen out with bin Laden, Saudi regime spokesmen, pro-Israeli writers and their colleagues in the United States, and Western experts who do not rely on the primary sources pertaining to al-Qaeda’s chief.
The “Old Hands” Narrative
There remain a significant number of veteran journalists and terrorism experts—in the universities, think tanks, and governments—who argue that bin Laden and his allies are merely new iterations of the same old terrorism. They fill books, blogs, learned journals, and the airwaves with analogies between al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups and, for example, the Irish Republican Army, Lebanese Hezbollah, Colombia’s FARC, Abu Nidal and other Palestinian secular groups, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, Russia’s nineteenth-century socialist revolutionaries, Robespierre and the Directory, and the Assassins of Saladin’s (p.3) era. The old hands are keen to protect their status and reassure their readers: “We experts have seen this all before.” They are arguing that it’s simply political theater and it will go as it came. Their advice is to be patient and to use the police to control and contain the bad guys. Military action is counterproductive.
Their narratives are well argued, thoroughly documented, and, sadly, locked in a time warp. None of the groups mentioned above posed even remotely the threat to the nation-state they fought that al-Qaeda poses to the United States and its allies. Neither did any of the groups have the Islamists’ geographical presence, reach, funding, manpower pool, media capabilities, or immunity to war-weariness. None of them, moreover, had a leader armed with the mental and rhetorical skills to appeal to an entire culture. Although I disagree with him on one key issue—that bin Laden today is but a figurehead—Al-Quds al-Arabi’s editor in chief Abdel Bari Atwan, in his book The Secret History of al-Qaeda, succinctly undercuts the old hands’ narrative.
Al-Qaeda is unique in the history of radical organizations. It is the first to have a significant global constituency, due to two factors—the diasporas of Muslims throughout the world and, even more critically, the Internet. Any Muslim anywhere in the world can immediately be part of the electronic ummah whose jihadi wing is fronted by al-Qaeda first and foremost.
Al-Qaeda is unique in organizational terms: with a central leadership functioning as figurehead and inspiration, the day-to-day logistics have become the domain of the field commanders in more than forty countries around the world. Again, this is possible because of the Internet; which provides, maintains and updates the ideological and strategic framework within which these commanders—and indeed, any group or individual—can operate.
Finally, al-Qaeda is uniquely dangerous because it has the potential to mobilize thousands, perhaps millions of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims by applying an interpretation of Islam which, alone among world religions, encompasses the obligation to fight among its tenets.1
(p.4) Al-Qaeda and its allies present an altogether different kettle of fish from traditional terrorist groups, and the old hands experts have poignantly and dangerously ignored this. Their recommendation when it comes to handling al-Qaeda is a combination of law enforcement and far greater intervention in the Muslim world—to build nation-states, reconstruct economies, promote women’s rights, and generally to make 1.5 billion Muslims more Western. Thus they recommend (a) imposing democratization in the Muslim world; (b) starting worldwide anti-defamation leagues to stop hate speech by Muslims; (c) relying on “smarter policies and better police cooperation”; (d) increasing U.S. intervention in the Arab-Israeli war, the Afghan war, and the Kashmiri insurgency, and massively increasing U.S. funding for those efforts; (e) developing a strategy to send assistance from all pertinent U.S. government agencies “to the whole of an at risk society”; and (f) encouraging Western states to adopt tolerant policies.2 Perhaps the surest sign that the old hands’ time has passed is that their nearly unanimous call for more U.S. intervention to stop a war caused by U.S. interventionism.
The “Former Comrades” Narrative
There is a growing body of writings by retired, jailed, or sidelined jihadis who are critical of bin Laden. Many were legitimate mujahedin who voluntarily fought alongside the Afghans during the war against the Soviet Union (1972–1992), and so their views are firsthand, are well informed, and need to be included in any research on bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The three men whose works I have chosen to review briefly are intelligent and heroic, and they often condemn bin Laden. Whatever the differences between them, their criticism is based on three common factors: (a) their views did not prevail in jihadi councils; (b) they failed to achieve a personal goal, and/or their preferred jihad leader lost out; and (c) they reject bin Laden’s tactical modus operandi. Again, each of these men is an authentic mujahedin and has much to contribute to our understanding of the Islamists’ movement; but each also has an axe to grind.
The Algerian mujahedin Boudejema Bounoua—aka Abdullah Anas—fought bravely as an insurgent in Afghanistan, although his (p.5) record hardly merits Lawrence Wright’s calling him the “greatest exemplar of Arab Afghan warriors.”3 He was Shaykh Abdullah Azzam’s organizational partner and son-in-law; and he expected to win control of Azzam’s NGO and funding and recruiting networks after the shaykh’s assassination in November 1989. Anas’s views on the handling of non-Afghan Muslim volunteers mirrored Azzam’s, and, like Azzam, he believed Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud was the only Afghan who could lead the country after the Soviets withdrew. Massoud, Anas said, was “a first rate military planner who was by nature a simple person who had the knack for creating a spirit of camaraderie among his Arab and Afghan soldiers.”4 None of these things came to pass for Anas. As Steve Coll correctly points out, bin Laden thwarted Anas’s plans “to take control of Azzam’s jihad and recruiting and supporting network.”5 Anas now has political asylum in Britain and from there snipes at bin Laden.6
Anas’s criticism follows predictable lines. Osama bin Laden had broken with Azzam over the handling of foreign Muslim volunteers to fight in Afghanistan. Azzam and Anas favored dispersing them among the Afghans, and bin Laden wanted them concentrated. Bin Laden had sidelined Anas after Azzam was killed, and bin Laden had ultimately aligned with the Taleban in the post-Soviet civil war, thereby opposing Massoud—whom Anas and Azzam had championed—and arranging his assassination. Anas believes bin Laden was successful not because of the Saudi’s organizational and political skills, but because the Egyptian Islamists who had won his heart and mind had come between him and Abdullah Azzam, and he added that Azzam had warned that al-Zawahiri was a “troublemaker.”7 Bin Laden, Anas also infers, was one of the Arab volunteers who “had chosen to remain in Peshawar over going into Afghanistan.”8 Bin Laden not only lacked bravery but also organizational skills (“as an organizer—completely a catastrophe”)9 and had “no private circle or an infrastructure of camps depots, and supplies.” Indeed, bin Laden had had nothing until he met the Egyptians.10
Hashim al-Makki—aka Abu Walid al-Masri and Mustafa Hamid—fought in the anti-Soviet jihad and is regarded as an important theorist by the mujahedin. While he stoutly denies ever having been an al-Qaeda member,11 al-Makki is fervently anti-American and shares (p.6) Shaykh Azzam’s and bin Laden’s belief in the need for military activity against the West. “I had agreed with Shaykh Abdullah Azzam,” he wrote, “that jihad was the only means left for the Islamic nation to defend its religion and interests in facing the forces that are working against it, that the main battle of the Muslims is their battle with the Jews and their Crusader allies.”12
Al-Makki’s criticism of bin Laden pivots almost entirely on his respect and affection for Taleban leader Mullah Omar and his Islamic Afghan state, and the negative impact bin Laden had on both. Al-Makki worked as Al-Jazirah Television’s Kandahar bureau chief from 1998 to 2001, and there he became close to Mullah Muhammad Omar.13 Although al-Makki claims that Omar believed the media was “immoral” and depended “mainly on lies,” the Taleban chief hired al-Makki to publish the Arabic-language version of the Taleban’s monthly journal, the Emirate. Al-Makki grew to respect Omar, a man of “quiet but firm character,” and is said to have been the first foreign Muslim to swear allegiance to him, and to devote himself to aiding the Taleban’s Islamic state.14
Al-Makki seems to have made no public criticism of bin Laden before 9/11, but after that event and the Taleban’s fall he became open about his “reservations” about bin Laden’s approach and its “overall consequences,” as well as what he saw as the “extreme weaknesses” of bin Laden’s political and military capabilities.15 In retrospect, he wrote, bin Laden “was not qualified to lead [al-Qaeda].”16 In addition, he complained of bin Laden’s “crazy attraction” to the media, and the international media in particular, which had caused Omar endless problems with the United States and other powers right at the moment that the Taleban was still consolidating power.17 He accused bin Laden of wanting “absolute individual leadership”; damned him for making “jihad synonymous with the explosive belt and the car bomb”; and condemned his rashness—bin Laden was, he wrote, “fond of jumping in the air” without caring whether “his feet will hit the ground after that or not.”18 Because of bin Laden’s faults, al-Makki concludes, the Taleban was defeated and Afghanistan, the Islamic state that “historically holds the strongest fortresses in Islam,” was lost.19 Oddly, al-Makki does not condemn the 9/11 attacks; he focuses on the trouble bin Laden caused Mullah Omar, “this pious man, … [who] (p.7) became a fugitive in the mountains of Afghanistan after he gave up everything … so he may not sacrifice any of the Muslims who sought his protection.”20
Veteran Arab Afghan Abu Musab al-Suri’s stock is currently very high among Western analysts of al-Qaeda and Islamist militancy.21 Al-Suri—aka Umar Abd al-Hakim; true name: Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar—is often termed the “successor” to bin Laden, the Islamist leader with the right approach to keeping the movement going. That approach features autonomous individuals and cells staging small, independent, and dispersed attacks around the world rather than large 9/11-like attacks. This, al-Suri argues, would prevent the West from destroying the attackers because the latter would lack “fixed bases or traceable organizational ties.”22
Such a plan is, of course, old hat. Terrorist groups have used this tactic for decades both in a national context—the IRA and ETA in Europe, for example—and internationally in the activities of Abu Nidal and Carlos the Jackal. None has amounted to more than a pin prick nuisance. Success would require some sort of systematic and coordinated approach, which is anathema to al-Suri and others who champion the dispersed strategy. And, in any event, this is a secondary tack used by al-Qaeda since the 1998 formation of the “World Front against the Crusaders and Jews,” and was recommended in al-Zawahiri’s 2001 book Knights under the Banner of the Prophet. Bin Laden has encouraged this type of attack, but believes—unlike al-Suri—that although such attacks can produce casualties, as well as consternation among law enforcement agencies, they can never produce victory.
Al-Suri was close to bin Laden for a number of years, working with him on strategy and media operations; he was an al-Qaeda member from 1988 until 1992.23 He tended to be aggravated by bin Laden’s refusal to accept all his ideas, and proceed “irrespective of my opinion,” as al-Suri complained.24 Al-Suri also seems to have regarded himself as smarter and more capable than bin Laden, although al-Suri’s excellent biographer Brynjar Lia points out that his fierce criticism of bin Laden stems in part from a deep, abiding dislike and distrust of Saudis.25 Like others of bin Laden’s Islamist rivals—including, at one point, Ayman al-Zawahiri—al-Suri attacked bin Laden for playing to the international media to publicize his war plans and to incite Muslims. (p.8) This, al-Suri claimed, focused Western anger on Mullah Omar’s regime—of which he was an ardent supporter—and thereby undercut the non-Afghan mujahedin’s reliance on Taleban hospitality.26 Bin Laden’s frequent media interviews angered Mullah Omar, al-Suri wrote in July 1999: “I think our brother has caught the disease of screens, flashes, fans, and applause.”27 Al-Suri claimed the solution to the problem was to compile the advice of “knowledgeable and experienced people” (including himself, of course) and send a delegation to force bin Laden to apologize to Mullah Omar.28 This did not occur, and al-Suri’s criticism of bin Laden largely disappeared after 9/11. Al-Suri was captured in 2005, reportedly by Syrian authorities, and remains incarcerated.29
Notwithstanding the opposition to bin Laden of former comrades like al-Suri, they were never possible Western allies. Their quarrels with bin Laden involve timing and tactics; they do not believe bin Laden is a bad Muslim or has an unworkable strategic aim. “Is there anyone who does not know the value of this man, bin Laden,” al-Makki has asked, “his valor, generosity, piousness and heroism, his devout worship and jihad?”30 Al-Makki also echoes bin Laden in condemning U.S. intervention in the Muslim world. “We will continue this fight … [until] they … leave us free to decide what is in the interest of our people.”31 For his part, al-Suri shares al-Makki’s anger over bin Laden’s role in the Taleban’s downfall, but he regards bin Laden’s creation of the World Front against Crusaders and Jews as “a great step forward,” and is reported to have praised the 9/11 attacks, believing they had a positive “mobilizing affect” and “immensely improved” prospects for mujahedin unity.32 He was seeking to mend ties with al-Qaeda when he was captured.
The Riyadh Narrative
The 9/11 attacks undermined the Saudi regime’s ability to keep Americans and their government believing the Kingdom was a true, dependable ally. With fifteen Saudi nationals among the nineteen mujahedin who committed the attacks, suspicions naturally and quickly formed in American minds and, to some extent, across the Western world. That idea that our Saudi friends might be duplicitous was reinforced (p.9) when the Bush administration authorized the evacuation of bin Laden family members from the United States before they could be questioned, probably because they were carrying Saudi diplomatic passports that afforded immunity. The Saudis, then, had to keep their image of being a U.S. ally alive in the wake of seemingly definitive proof to the contrary.
Fortunately for Riyadh, its damage-control effort was focused on an audience—the Bush administration—that wanted to believe the Kingdom was a friend. While constructing the “good-Saudi-boy-led-astray-by-evil-Egyptians” narrative, the Saudis could rely on the bipartisan goodwill of most of official Washington; on U.S. media willingness to sell as much media air time as Saudis wanted to spread their Madison-Avenue-slick, pro-American propaganda commercials; on the willingness of journalists to lap up what high-ranking Saudis—especially Prince Turki al-Faisal—said about bin Laden; and on the pro-Saudi lobbying of Congress by U.S. arms makers who profit from Riyadh’s outsized military spending.
Despite the willingness of its audience to be manipulated, the Saudis had to take care not to offend their domestic religious establishment and its rough-hewn Afghan offspring, the Taleban. (It should be noted that the official breaking of ties between two Middle East entities—such as the post-9/11 Saudi-Taleban break—often means little or nothing substantively.) Were Osama bin Laden perceived as evil as opposed to misled by outsiders, the Saudi clerics and the educational system they ran would be seen as blameworthy, deliberately producing evil Muslims at home as well as abroad, in the form of the 9/11 hijackers, Mullah Omar’s regime, and other Sunni Islamist groups. Such a portrait would offend Saudi religious leaders, increase domestic dissent and instability, and handicap the Saudi royals’ ability to ultimately restore a Taleban-like government in Kabul, their consistent foreign-policy goal for Afghanistan.
Looked at in this context, the Saudis’ first propaganda initiative was a misstep. They identified Osama bin Laden’s mother as a Syrian-born outsider and the least favored of Muhammad bin Laden’s wives, and her son as a teenage wastrel renowned for brawling, drunkenness, and whoring in the bars of Beirut.33 Neither portrayal would wash, because neither was true. Osama’s mother, Allia, was well liked by the (p.10) large bin Laden family, and Osama’s reputation for piety and asceticism was untarnished. Only naïve or pro-Saudi Americans bought the story, and, more troubling for the regime, it reflected poorly on Saudi society, picturing it not as a pious society but as one characterized by bad marriages and roistering youth.
Having failed in this first effort, the Saudi regime next crafted what has proven to be remarkably effective propaganda. It worked by dividing bin Laden’s life into two parts. In the first part—from childhood until the 1990–1991 Gulf War and its aftermath—Osama is portrayed as a well-mannered, family-oriented, hard working, and thoroughly pious son of one of the country’s most important, accomplished, and loyal families. The pre-1991 Osama loved his family, worked hard in school, and labored in his father’s company. (I have used “Osama” in parts of chapters 1–3 not for the sake of familiarity, but to avoid confusing him with other bin Ladens.) Like all good Saudi boys, he was educated in a faith that was nonviolent unless called to defend itself, as in Afghanistan. Then, again like all good Saudi boys, he shouldered his musket and went off to fight the Red Army. In the Riyadh scenario, no Sunni Muslim is an extremist or terrorist unless and until he becomes anti-al-Saud. This remains the case today.
As a coda to bin Laden’s pre-1991 life, a number of significant Saudi figures—close boyhood friends, mujahedin, relatives, and regime princes, officials, and clerics—were wheeled out after 9/11 to express shock at what bin Laden stood accused of. Each explained that bin Laden was not at all worldly, and that as a young man he had shown neither leadership skills nor any desire for a leadership position. “What caused such a good Saudi boy to go bad?” The Saudi thespians who asked and answered the question were eagerly listened to and believed by credulous Westerners, and especially American journalists. The key Saudi cast members follow.
Prince Turki al-Faisal—Former chief of the Saudi Intelligence Service and Saudi ambassador to the United States
Ahmed Badeeb—Turki’s former chief of staff and a biology teacher who taught bin Laden at the al-Thagher Model School in Jeddah
Muhammad Jamal Khalifa—Friend of bin Laden’s youth, fellow mujahedin, and brother-in-law (now deceased)
Khalid al-Batarfi—Friend of bin Laden’s youth, medical doctor, and a now-and-then Saudi journalist
Shaykh Musa al-Qarni—A respected Saudi religious academic who in the 1980s was closely involved with bin Laden and the Afghan mujahedin. He was then bin Laden’s adviser for interpreting the rules of Shariah. He now supports the Saudi regime against bin Laden.
Shaykh Salman al-Awdah—Once bin Laden’s favorite Saudi cleric and a fellow anti-al-Saud reformer. Imprisoned by the Saudis in 1994 and persuaded to recant after several years in jail. He now is a prominent anti–bin Laden, pro-Saudi religious scholar, with high academic standing, his own television program, and a popular Web site.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan—Former Saudi ambassador to the United States, now Saudi national security adviser.
Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz—Saudi interior minister.
After establishing Osama as a good boy gone bad, Riyadh needed a plausible evil influence over young Osama. Enter Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). The Saudi story predicates Osama’s fall as starting with his association with al-Zawahiri in Peshawar in the 1980s. Al-Zawahiri turned this nice (if none-too-smart) Saudi lad into what President Bush called an “evildoer” and the Obama administration calls a “murderous thug.” Bin Laden’s son Omar has reinforced this portrait, saying, “The Egyptian doctor had an evil influence over my father.”34
In phase one of the spin, al-Zawahiri befriends a young and inexperienced Osama; poisons his mind against both Shaykh Azzam—claiming that the shaykh was a U.S. and Saudi agent35—and the sainted Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud; slowly inserts his (p.12) senior lieutenants into bin Laden’s circle and thus into al-Qaeda when it was being formed in 1988; and transforms bin Laden into a man who lives only to kill. In phase two—set in the Sudan—al-Zawahiri extends nearly total control over Osama. After the 1996 return to Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri is the puppeteer who makes bin Laden dance. Speaking publicly in 2006, for example, Shaykh Musa al-Qarni, a former bin Laden friend and adviser, said that Osama had fallen into Egyptian hands. “He [Osama] is now part and parcel of the fabric of [the Egyptian] al-Jihad Organization’s ideology. He operates in line with its plans.”36
As absurd as this narrative is—bin Laden, as we shall see, altered al-Zawahiri much more than vice versa—it was bought by many in the West, although nowhere so completely as in The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Riyadh’s successful Osama spin served its interests well. It convinced American politicians, always eager to believe the al-Sauds to be fine, loyal fellows, and allowed them to in turn reassure a skeptical public that all was well on the Arabian Peninsula. The spin also suited the Saudi religious establishment—which played a major role in peddling the story to the media. And it did not offend the Taleban leaders who would lead the Islamist Afghan regime that the Kingdom intended to reinstall later. Parenthetically, because the scenario played so well in official Washington, Riyadh cooked up an even more outlandish version, one that heralded the creation of reeducation camps to transform mujahedin into peaceful, productive private citizens. Officials in Washington and in the NATO capitals found it convincing.
As noted, the core of the Saudi narrative is the unwarranted influence on Osama by al-Zawahiri. Having bought the Saudi narrative, Western writers duly produced a bin Laden literature in which Osama is portrayed as an effete Saudi ne’er-do-well who enjoyed “a tea-pouring, meeting-oriented life,” as one put it. “Days would drift by in loose debates, fatwa drafting, and humanitarian project development—a shifting mix of engineering, philanthropy, and theology.”37 But then Satan appeared in the form of al-Zawahiri and put bin Laden under a spell. Before the Saudi version made the rounds, the Egyptian journalist Isam Darraz—who is also a former Egyptian military intelligence officer—ascribed no undue influence on bin Laden to al-Zawahiri or (p.13) Egyptian Islamic Jihad in his book chronicling the anti-Soviet jihad, but in later interviews he suddenly recalled that “the Egyptians formed a barrier around the curiously passive Saudi.”38 The British journalist Mark Huband has written that al-Zawahiri provided “the political vision that is the foundation of al-Qaeda today.”39 The French scholar Stéphane Lacroix claims that al-Zawahiri was “the chief ideologue and brain of this organization [al-Qaeda] … [and] is considered the true thinker behind the September 11 attacks on the United States.”40 Lawrence Wright—a true believer in the Saudi scenario, as I have said—presents the idea that al-Zawahiri orchestrated al-Qaeda’s international aspirations by giving bin Laden “a class in how to become a leader in an international organization.”41 Wright never tells the reader that at the time al-Zawahiri had no experience whatsoever, nothing to prepare him to be the tutor of a would-be international leader. The person who would disagree with the Saudi narrative most heartily (aside from me) is al-Zawahiri himself.
It would take a good deal of ink to refute all the assertions, but here is a shorthand catalog of points establishing that, rather than al-Zawahiri influencing bin Laden, the opposite was the case.
1. Al-Zawahiri was single-mindedly intent on overthrowing the Egyptian government and believed the “road to Jerusalem must pass through Cairo”—until he met bin Laden.
2. Al-Zawahiri believed Islamist groups should focus on the “near” rather than the “far” enemy—until he met bin Laden.
3. Al-Zawahiri believed in small, highly secretive clandestine organizations, like his EIJ—until he met bin Laden.
4. Al-Zawahiri believed that the way to topple Arab tyrannies was through military coups, not insurgent warfare—until he met bin Laden.
5. Al-Zawahiri strongly tended toward takfirism (deciding who is not a good Muslim and then killing them)—until he met bin Laden.
6. Al-Zawahiri was obsessed with secrecy and avoiding publicity, except in the realm of theological debate—until he met bin Laden, who excelled at media operations.
8. Al-Zawahiri was inept at running the EIJ’s international cells, and his mistakes allowed U.S. and Egyptian intelligence to wreck the network—forcing al-Zawahiri to seek out bin Laden’s aid and accept his direction.
9. Al-Zawahiri and his lieutenants completely failed to damage the Egyptian government—and so accepted bin Laden’s plan to knock the U.S. props from under Mubarak’s regime.
10. Al-Zawahiri was an arrogant Egyptian nationalist who believed Egyptians superior to other Arabs—until he met bin Laden, who thrives in multinational working environments.
11. Al-Zawahiri was unable to raise any significant amount of money and was all but broke—and so was forced to begin working with bin Laden.
12. Al-Zawahiri’s avuncular personality and reputation as a thinker, not a fighter, gave him no international stature and no potential for such—until he joined bin Laden’s organization.
Separating out true from false assertions in the Saudi version of events poses a challenge of the first order for any biographer of bin Laden, for what becomes clear is how thoroughly Western politicians, pundits, journalists, and scholars have been hoodwinked by it. Nonetheless, the Saudis’ spin mixed a good measure of truth in with its lies. Much of the Saudis’ pre-1991 story is accurate, though many of the Saudi claims are simply too good to be true, much like Parson Weems’s tales of George Washington. The pre-1991 material can also be vetted against what has become available in the last several years, especially the books by Carmen bin Laden and Omar and Najwa bin Laden.
The post-1991 portion of the Riyadh story is a bit easier to sort out because there is an ample record of what bin Laden has said and done, what role al-Zawahiri played in al-Qaeda, and how al-Zawahiri’s views have changed over time. The data pertaining to the 1957–1994 years (p.15) are most helpful to our understanding of bin Laden. Indeed, one comes away from the materials believing men like Ahmed Badeeb, Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, and shaykhs al-Qarni and al-Awdah were once so close to bin Laden that they cannot entirely hide either their affection for him or their respect for his bravery and personal sacrifices. Such sentiment seeps out at times as they recite from their anti-bin Laden script.42
The Imperialist Narrative
It must be accepted, the historian Victor Hanson Davis writes, “that bin Laden and Zawahiri—like all fascists who seek state power to implement an all-encompassing reactionary ideology—have not so much an identifiable and specific gripe, but rather total and general hatred of the influence of liberal Western civilization.”43 If Davis means that Islamists do not want “the influence of liberal Western civilization”—as well as its militaries—occupying the Muslim world, he would be correct. But that is not what Davis means. He means that the two Islamists are “mass murderers” who are not “in any sense systematic thinkers who outline a logical belief system.”44 He wants his readers, in short, to ignore anything the Islamists have to say. Like many neoconservatives, he offers a mixture of Wilsonian imperialism and blind faith in the moral superiority of Israel in general and Likudites in particular.
Although the time is long past when it could be credibly argued that al-Qaeda and its allies are motivated by something other than the impact of U.S. policy in the Muslim world, there is still a legion of pro-Israel writers—commentators, academics, and journalists—who endorse this notion. “Contrary to widespread assumptions,” Efraim Karsh wrote in his 2007 book, which portrayed al-Qaeda and all Muslims as relentless, land-grabbing imperialists on a level with the Nazis, “these attacks [of 9/11], and for that matter Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism, have little to do with U.S. international behavior or its Middle Eastern policy. If today, America is reviled in the Muslim world, it is not because of its specific policies but because, as the preeminent world power, it blocks the final realization of this same age-old dream of regaining the lost glory of the (p.16) caliphate. As such, it is a natural target for aggression. Osama bin Laden and other Islamists’ war is not against America per se, but is rather the most recent manifestation of the millenarian jihad for a universal Islamic empire (or umma).”45 Karsh goes on to say that for many Muslims, bin Laden represents nothing less than a reincarnation of Saladin—vanquisher of the Crusaders—and, like Saladin, signifies the “House of Islam’s war for world mastery,” a phrase Karsh deftly uses to evoke comparisons to Hitler.46 Karsh neglects to mention that the wars Saladin fought were in his era perceived as defensive, waged to retake Egypt from heretical Shia and to reclaim Jerusalem and the Levant from Christians. How “world mastery” figures into this Karsh does not explain, but he does claim that Saladin’s “elaborate holy-war propaganda was a fig-leaf for an unabashed quest for self-aggrandizement … [and] his lifelong effort at empire building.”47
Sadly, examples of this ideological analysis are everywhere at hand, in the works of Douglas Feith, Bernard Lewis, Charles Krauthammer, George Weigel, John Bolton, William Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz; in articles in such journals as the Weekly Standard, National Review, Wall Street Journal, and Commentary, and on Web sites like FrontPageMagazine.com and Powerline.com. The hold their views have on much of the media and most leaders in both parties is stunning. Why do they have such influence? Because they offer politicians an easy way out. They reassure them that their failed foreign policies are entirely beneficent, indeed ought to be pushed diplomatically and militarily, as in the current Iraq war. In turn, the politicians react with a mixture of pride and relief—proud to be offered certification of their visionary brilliance and relieved they do not have to publicly admit that the U.S.-Israel relationship dominates and distorts America’s domestic politics and endangers its national security.
The result of the neoconservatives’ efforts is that since bin Laden declared war on America in 1996, our leaders and media have been duped (often willingly so) into fighting a nonexistent enemy—that is, a gang of would-be world dominators. While Western leaders engage in efforts to slay this phantom dragon, the foe we do face, the one that wages jihad against U.S. intervention in the Muslim world, is growing in numbers and geographical reach. Ironically, the great medieval Arab (p.17) intellectual Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) discusses the process by which those he calls “opportunists”—a fair name for the neoconservatives—have come to manipulate troubled urbanized societies and dominate their policies. “To the opportunist,” Lenn Evan Goodman has written of Khaldun’s analysis, “whether political or intellectual … society appears to be no more than a bloated and moribund body whose resources (and last vigor) exist only to be sapped—often under the guise of response to its own desperate recognition of its needs for help. Thus an infusion of a new spirit of resolution may forestall the inevitable decline, but cannot prevent it, for highly organized, urbanized societies by their very nature seek remedies to their problems in professionalism and expertise, and thus offer themselves as bait to charlatans and political (and ultimately military) opportunists. But militarism, demagoguery and the intellectual authority of the pseudo-prophets whom the situation calls forth are as destructive of the fabric of society as decadence itself.”48
There is no better description of what Lewis and others offer than the “militarism, demagoguery, and the intellectual authority of the pseudo-prophets,” and their substitution of what they say Islamists say for what the Islamists actually do say has delayed America from taking the Islamists’ measure and devising the best means to defeat them. At a minimum, their hubristic militarism and democracy-mongering “has lost not simply hearts and minds [in the Muslim world], but the possibility even of reaching those hearts and minds ever again,” as Michael Vlahos has put it.49 When speaking to Americans in September 2009, bin Laden himself urged them to break away “from the fear and intellectual terrorism being practiced against you by the neoconservatives,” and noted that, whether under George W. Bush or Barack Obama, “the bitter truth is that the neoconservatives are still a heavy burden to you.”50
The “bin Laden Experts’” Narratives
The “bin Laden experts’” narratives are the most obscurantist because they all but ignore what bin Laden has said. Indeed, the bulk of the most heralded works on bin Laden is based on everything except his actual words. On the other hand, the authors extensively quote bin (p.18) Laden’s enemies—his Saudi rivals; various U.S. government officials, behavioral scientists, and so-called terrorism experts. It is as if a historian were to set out to write a biography of George Washington and decided both to ignore the collected works of Washington and to rely exclusively on the testimony of those most opposed to him—political rivals, American Tories, King George III, British army officers, and today’s presentist caste of history professors who see Washington purely as a slave-owning dead white male. The resulting assessment might well win a Pulitzer but would shed little light on Washington’s life and career. So it has been with works on bin Laden.
Since 9/11 several books have been written by Western and non-Muslim authors about bin Laden that focus on his character, intelligence, leadership style, international influence, and organizational skills. The best works are by Peter Bergen, Abdel Bari Atwan, Steve Coll, and Brynjar Lia.51 Among the rest, about a dozen fit the characterization of “essential works” on bin Laden and al-Qaeda. I have listed them below. In each case, the author and title are followed by the number of citations of bin Laden’s works—speeches, interviews, statements, and so on—contained in their endnotes.52 I have also noted where a large number of citations pertain to relatively few primary documents. The books are listed by date of publication. I make no judgment regarding the quality of each—some are fine works, others are noted only because so little serious work is available on bin Laden.
Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (2002)—20 citations to 8 documents
Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (2004): 2 citations
Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (2005)—15 citations to 5 documents
(p.19) Mary R. Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (2006)—52 citations to 14 documents
Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006)—28 citations, 22 of which refer to 4 documents
Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008)—17 citations to 10 documents
One does not expect a reputed “terrorist leader” to produce a corpus of primary sources for historical investigation, in the manner of an eminent politician or statesman. Bin Laden, however, is an odd duck in this regard. My own archive of primary documentation for bin Laden contains 159 documents that total 791 pages. Of course, I have no way of knowing how complete my archive is, and yet its size suggests that the information in the list of books referred to is not exhaustive, and ignores much of what there is to be learned from bin Laden’s own works.
A good rule of thumb is that if you are going to analyze someone’s thoughts and actions by using the words of his rivals and enemies, you will need to balance them with what he himself has said about them. This is particularly the case when the subject is someone most authors—and readers—deem among history’s monsters. I would imagine Ian Kershaw disliked the task of reading Adolf Hitler’s papers and musings, but he did it. Yet bin Laden’s story has thus far been told almost exclusively from the perspective of others. Thus, Lawrence Wright’s work puts great stock in what bin Laden enemies, Abdullah Anas, Prince Turki, and Ahmed Badeeb, have to say. Their books suggest that Roy Gutman and Steve Coll worship at the feet of Ahmad Shah Massoud; and Fawaz Gerges’ The Far Enemy revels in a slew of unnamed anti–bin Laden sources.54 Most offer quasi-psychological explanations for Osama’s behavior, most of which amount to no more than “if only Osama (and implicitly all Muslims) were more like us Westerners.”55
(p.20) At times, these one-sided efforts spill into a bit of blindness. In The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, for example, the cast of characters is large and largely contemptible. If the book has a hero, it is Muhammad bin Laden’s son and successor, the late Salem bin Laden. In my view, Salem effectively and insincerely played both sides of the street—Islamic and Western—and was hedonistic, hypocritical, and self-centered. In other words, he fits an archetype familiar to many in the West (Bill Clinton, for one, comes to mind). He is also one of the least representative bin Ladens, Saudis or Muslims. Indeed, in the book only three Saudis come off as decent, pious, hard-working, and persevering men—Muhammad bin Laden, King Faisal, and Osama bin Laden himself.56 That alone is enough to suggest that the primary sources pertinent to Osama merit fuller exploitation.
(1.) Abdel Bari Atwan, The Secret History of al-Qaeda (Berkeley: University of California Press), p. 220.
(2.) Mary Habeck, Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 176–177; Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 182; Jonathan Randall, Osama: The Making of a Terrorist (New York: Knopf, 2004), p. 39; Bruce Riedel, The Search for al-Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2008), pp. 136–147; David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 289; Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat (New York: Random House, 2006).
(3.) Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Knopf, 2006), p. 135. In a quirk of fate, Omar bin Laden claims that, as a child, Osama lost nearly all vision in his right eye because a shard of metal from an object he was hammering flew up into his eye. “Over the years my father sought to conceal the problem, thinking it better for people to believe him to be left-handed rather than allow them knowledge that his right eye barely functioned. The only reason my father aims his weapon from the left side is because he is virtually blind in the right eye.” Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and Jean Sasson, Growing Up bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us inside Their Secret World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), p. 160.
(4.) Muhammad al-Shafi’i, “Arab Afghan says Usama bin Ladin’s force strength overblown,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Internet version), 6 October 2001. (p.191)
(5.) Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin, 2005), p. 204.
(9.) Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know (New York: Free Press, 2006), p. 105.
(11.) “Hotline to jihad,” Leah Farrall, Australian (Internet version), 7 December 2009, and Sally Neighbor, Australian (Internet version), 11 December 2009.
(12.) Muhammad al-Shafi’i, “‘Arab Afghans’ theorist writes in book found by U.S. forces after Taleban’s fall, part 1,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Internet version), 24 October 2006.
(13.) Muhammad al-Shafi’i, “The story of Abu Walid al-Masri,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Internet version), 11 February 2007.
(21.) The best study of al-Suri, which also contributes significantly to understanding bin Laden and al-Qaeda, is Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of al-Qaeda Strategist Abu Musab al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).
(27.) Alan Culinson, “Inside al-Qaeda’s hard drive,” Atlantic Monthly, September 2004, pp. 60–61.
(29.) Al-Suri reportedly was captured by Pakistani police in Quetta in October 2005, and is now being held by Syria. See William Maclean, “Al-Qaeda ideologue in Syrian detention,” http://www.reuters.com, 10 June 2009.
(32.) Lia, Architect of Global Jihad, pp. 286 and 314. The journalist Camille Tawil has noted that in breaks between bin Laden and other jihadis “their decision to strike out on their own did not sour their relationships with bin Laden, with him they were to remain on cordial terms.” Tawil, Brothers in Arms: The Story of al-Qaida and the Arab Jihadists (London: Saqi Books, 2010), p. 32.
(33.) Jane Mayer, “The house of bin Laden,” New Yorker (Internet version), 12 September 2002.
(34.) “White House responds calling Bin Laden a ‘murderous thug,’” http://www.therichmarksentinel.com, 24 January 2010; and Bin Laden, bin Laden, and Sasson, Growing Up bin Laden, pp. 129, 130, and 132. (p.192)
(36.) Jamil al-Dhiyabi, “Interview with Shaykh Musa al-Qarni, part 2,” Al-Hayah (Internet version), 9 March 2006.
(38.) Wright, The Looming Tower, p. 129. On Darraz’s status as a former Egyptian officer and the ten-year ban on overseas travel he received on returning from Afghanistan, see Tawil, Brothers in Arms, p. 21, and Muhammad al-Shafi’i, “Interview with Isam Darraz,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 17 June 2002, p. 13.
(40.) Stéphane Lacroix, “Ayman al-Zawahiri. Veteran of the jihad,” in Gilles Kepel and Jean-Pierre Milelli, eds., Al-Qaeda in Its Own Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 130.
(42.) As I was finishing the first rough draft of this work, a book appeared that must surely be considered a subset of the Saudi narrative, but one which is striking in its honesty and ample in the opportunities it gives the researcher to corroborate its story with other sources. The book—Growing Up bin Laden—was written by bin Laden’s first wife, Najwa, and his fourth eldest son, Omar. It consists of alternating chapters written by Najwa and Omar. Najwa’s story is detailed, personal, and insightful about her husband, and at times painfully poignant, while Omar’s is sycophantically pro-Saudi, often whining, but nonetheless full of details and sharp insights about bin Laden, his personality, and piety. Together the memoirists have given the West a primary resource exceeded in value only by bin Laden’s own writings and Peter Bergen’s indispensable The Osama bin Laden I Know.
So the question is: Did the Saudis review the manuscript before publication and approve its publication? There are parts of the book that are useful to Riyadh. The Saudi-centric reasons for publication, I think, are clear: (a) Omar is effusive in his praise for the just, beneficent al-Saud family and so emphasizes his father’s unjust condemnation of the Saudi royals and the rest of the bin Laden family’s loyalty to the regime (pp. 85, 85, 126–127); (b) it serves the Saudi narrative for Westerners via Omar’s claims that he and his brothers were routinely beaten by their father after they left the Kingdom and fell under the sway of evil Egyptians; and (c) it appeals to Western sympathies, not only by suggesting child abuse at bin Laden’s hands (pp. 45, 107, 122) but also by describing Najwa’s confinement to the home and domestic sphere (pp. 13, 186); the teenage Omar’s love of peace (pp. 215, 221); the family’s deprivation of the good things in life (pp. 43, 71); Omar’s struggle to be free of his tyrannical father (pp. 136, 200); Omar’s horror when his dad’s men took his little dogs to use in chemical-weapons experiments (pp. 133–134, 229–230); and—essential for the Saudi narrative—Omar-the-good-Saudi-boy’s immediate recognition of Ayman al-Zawahiri as an evil man who corrupted and controlled his father (pp. 129, 130, 132, and 212). On these issues, the book serves the Saudi state: Omar says his dad is wrong and the Saudis are okay, and paints a portrait of child abuse—physical and psychological, including his dad’s denial of creature comforts for his family and willingness to kill his kid’s pets—–that is sure to build hatred for bin Laden in the West. It should be noted that Omar’s claim that he and his brothers were beaten is refuted by every other person who has written on bin Laden’s behavior with his children—including bin Laden’s bodyguard Abu Jandal, Abdullah Azzam’s son Hudhayfah, Abdel Bari Atwan, and the family of Ahmed (p.193) Said Khadr—and that, in any event, corporal punishment is still the norm in much of the Muslim world. Also, the loathsome doggie murder Omar relates would have no traction in a Muslim world that regards dogs as filthy and expendable.
The book serves Saudi propaganda purposes, but after filtering out the foregoing it seems clear that Riyadh made a mistake if they did not seek a prepublication copy for review and amendment. Najwa and Omar have written a book that portrays Osama bin Laden as a genuine Islamic hero, an Islamic Robin Hood. They confirm a host of other sources by describing bin Laden as pious, devout, without affectation, brave in battle, and willing to sacrifice to near-bankruptcy his and his family’s well-being to fight in God’s cause and help others to do the same. For Muslims steeped in their Prophet’s story, Najwa and Omar trace a Prophet-like life for bin Laden: leaving his homeland and traveling to foreign countries to be able to practice his faith and battle those who attack it; an absolute faith in God’s promise of victory if Muslims act to help themselves; a genuine egalitarianism in his dealings with those he leads; a belief that war is a last resort, but when fought should be won conclusively; and a tolerance for the foibles of humans as long as people repent and come back to God. Growing Up bin Laden is a romantic and heroic tale written by two people who—even given Omar’s whining—love and respect Osama bin Laden and recognize the resonance of his words and deeds among Muslims who have, even if illiterate, an extraordinary knowledge of the Koran, their Prophet’s life and sayings, and Islamic history. It will be interesting to see if Growing Up bin Laden is published in Arabic, as it would be an engine for winning bin Laden even more love and respect across the Muslim world.
(43.) See Davis’s introduction to Raymond Ibrahim, ed. and trans., The al-Qaeda Reader (New York: Broadway Books, 2007), p. xxx. The book itself is a highly selective and very limited collection of statements by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, mostly the latter. Professor Ibrahim says his book “proves once and for all that, despite the propaganda of al-Qaeda and its sympathizers radical Islam’s war against the West is not finite and limited to political grievances—real or imagined—but is existential, transcending time and space, and deeply rooted in faith” (ibid., p. xii). In my own research, I too have found the one instance of the sort of apocalyptic vision that Mr. Ibrahim considers the core motivation of bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and their Islamist allies. “The time has come when all the Muslims of the earth, especially the youth,” bin Laden wrote in mid-December 2001, as al-Qaeda was evacuating Afghanistan and trying to keep up its followers’ morale, “should unite and soar against Kufr and continue Jihad until these forces are crushed to naught, all the anti-Islamic forces are wiped from the face of the earth, and Islam takes over the whole world and all the other false religions.” This is the one exception to the rule that apocalyptic rhetoric is almost entirely absent from bin Laden’s oeuvre. At day’s end, Professor Ibrahim’s book proves that a few of several hundred pertinent bin Laden–authored documents is plenty to support a piece of analysis-by-assertion, but not nearly enough to prove anything “once and for all.” Ibid., p. 269, and OBL, “Message to the youth of the Muslim ummah,” Markaz al-Dawa (Internet), 13 December 2001.
(45.) Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p. 239.
(48.) Lenn Evan Goodman, “Ibn Khaldun and Thucydides,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 92, No. 2 (April/June 1972), p. 261. (p.194)
(49.) Michael Vlahos, “Examining the War of Ideas,” Washington Times (Internet version), 19–22 July 2004.
(50.) OBL, “Address to the American People,” Al-Sahab Media Production Organization, 14 September 2009.
(51.) Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know; Atwan, The Secret History of al-Qaeda; Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (New York: Penguin, 2008); and Lia, Architect of Global Jihad.
(52.) I did not, of course, have access to electronic versions of these books. My count of their use of primary bin Laden documents was reached by reading the endnotes line by line and keeping score as I went. I do not claim these counts are precise, but they are very close to the mark.
(53.) Rohan Gunaratna, Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003); Randall, Osama; Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks; Coll, Ghost Wars; Fawaz A. Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Habeck, Knowing the Enemy; Wright, The Looming Tower; Coll, The Bin Ladens; Riedel, The Search for al-Qaeda; Roy Gutman, How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2008).
(54.) It must be said that Messrs. Gutman and Coll are far from alone in their Massoud worship and in believing he could have been the tool for establishing a peaceful, pro-Western Afghanistan. American, British, UN, and French diplomats, politicians, intelligence officers, and journalists have long been entranced with the shambling, French-speaking, wispy-whiskered, Dylan-like Tajik commander, who Peter Bergen has argued had a “playful sense of humor” and was “a moderate Islamist and a brilliant general”; and the obvious alternative to Hekmatyar, Sayyaf, and other Afghans as the proper recipient of U.S. and Saudi political, military, and financial support. “Clearly, American money should have been funneled to Massoud,” Bergen has written, “who was not only the best general in the Afghan war but the man whose policies were much more in keeping with American interests.” Mr. Bergen, of course, is partially correct. Of all the major Afghan field commanders, Massoud behaved more like a Westerner and spoke more about implementing quasi-Western values than any other, which is precisely why—if he was sincere (a big if)—he had no future as an unifying national leader in Afghanistan. And while in strictly military terms Massoud was one of history’s great insurgent commanders, the necessary steps for building that reputation negated his political future as anything more than leader of Afghanistan’s minorities. Moreover, Massoud appeared less an Islamist only because he had the charisma and guile to play Westerners and some Islamists—Abudullah Anas and to a lesser extent Abduallah Azzam, for example—like violins. Most important, Massoud was from a disliked ethnic minority group that other Afghan ethnic groups—especially the majority Pashtuns—would not allow to rule the country. In the eyes of many Afghan and non-Afghan Muslim mujahedin, he also was a rank traitor to Islam. He had aligned himself—during the anti-Soviet jihad and after—with those seen by Afghans of all ethnicities as their country’s atheist, heretical, historic, or polytheist enemies—the USSR and later Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran, India, the United States, the UK, and other NATO countries. Finally, he possessed a powerful enduring enemy in Pakistan. Without denigrating Massoud’s talents, it is clear that, with this record of non-Islamic and anti-Islamic associates and a powerful assortment of foes, the only answer the West could have gotten if he survived into the post-9/11 era is more of what it has (p.195) now—endless war in Afghanistan. See Peter L. Bergen, Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (New York: Free Press, 2001), pp.71–73, and for the one journalist whose admiration for Massoud did not prevent him from seeing through Massoud’s “moderate Islamic” pose, see the fine essay by Sebastian Junger, “The lion in winter,” National Geographic Adventure, March/April, 2001.
(55.) The bin Laden literature is replete with this sort of “if only he was more like us” sentiment. The most harmful version of this tack is the one that reinforces the false notion that bin Laden and other Islamists have nothing to do with the “real” Islam, and that young Muslims join al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups because of economic reasons, a lack of Westernization, and a shortage of libertinism, and not because of an ambition to defend their faith and brethren. Thus, we have Lawrence Wright claiming that “Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored, where art is impoverished, where entertainment—movies, theater, music—is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment, and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies. … Martyrdom promised such men an ideal alternative to a life that was so sparing in rewards.” This would be laughable stuff if it was not so widely and tragically believed by Americans, Europeans, and their governments. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda demonstrably attract the Muslim world’s most devout, who also are often its best and brightest—does Wright think bin Laden’s massive use of the Internet is aimed at the illiterate? One of the reasons America and the West are losing their battle with the Islamists is because they refuse to even accept the possibility that this is true, and so seek to push down Muslim throats a batch of Westernization and secularism that drives even more of the smart and devout to pick up Kalashnikovs. See Wright, The Looming Tower, p. 107.
(56.) Interestingly, Osama bin Laden holds Saudi King Faisal in high regard. Steve Coll has described Faisal as an “austere and enigmatic man”; a pious Muslim who spoke of a jihad to retake Jerusalem; a workaholic; and a champion of modernization but not Westernization. He also was a fervent anti-communist, anti-Zionist, and—Coll says—an anti-Semite, although the latter term is given by most authors to anyone with the temerity to criticize Israel. Coll points out correctly that in all of these particulars Faisal was much like Muhammad bin Laden, and I would add that Osama bin Laden is much like both men. Regarding Faisal, Osama bin Laden has said that the Saudi royal family should take a lesson from the king who, when he ruled, was “prepared to fight the Yemeni communists” and crafted a respectable leadership role for Saudi Arabia in defending Islamic interests. Needless to say, bin Laden also is highly positive toward King Faisal’s support for the 1973 oil embargo. Coll, The Bin Ladens, pp. 71, 153, and 155; and OBL, “ARC communiques. Banishing communism from the Arabian Peninsula: The episode and the proof,” and “Open message to King Fahd,” 11 July 1994 and 3 August 1995, http://ctc.usma.edu, AFGP-2002–003345.