More than five years since 9/11, bin Laden, at mid-life, terrorizes us still

MICHAEL PETROU March 19 2007


More than five years since 9/11, bin Laden, at mid-life, terrorizes us still

MICHAEL PETROU March 19 2007


More than five years since 9/11, bin Laden, at mid-life, terrorizes us still


It is unlikely that Osama bin Laden will celebrate his 50th birthday this Saturday in a particularly raucous fashion. Music is probably out, as he once declared it to be "the flute of the devil." There definitely won't be any dancing. Good food is also unlikely. Bin Laden, when he joined millions of dollars to spend as he wished, shunned the comfort even of drinking chilled water. The Prophet Muhammad enjoyed no such luxuries, he reasoned, and besides, the more one gets used to modern extravagances, the more difficult it becomes to leave it all behind to pursue jihad in the mountains.

The last major celebration bin Laden attended was the January 2001 wedding of his son, which took place in Afghanistan, in a movie theatre on the outskirts of Kandahar that the then-ruling Taliban had conveniently shut down. Bin Laden served his guests meat, rice and tomato juice. He also treated them to a poem praising the Islamic militants who had attacked the USS Cole. But some guests found the spread a little on the chintzy side, and his stepfather noticed something larval wriggling in his water glass.

On top of all this, Muslim fundamentalists usually don’t acknowledge birthdays, and many Saudi men bin Laden’s age can only roughly guess when they were born. Still, even if bin Laden dismisses birthdays as a decadent Western construct, he surely can’t help but notice the relentless greying of his beard. Midlife crises afflict more than just infidels, and bin Laden, wherever he is this week, might take some time out to reflect on what he’s accomplished in his life so far.

The truth is, the terrorist leader has much to celebrate. With the attacks of Sept. 11,2001, he sowed fear throughout the West and forced the institution of new security measures that have—perhaps irreversibly—disrupted daily life. Instability grips the Middle East as never before; his greatest enemy, the United States, is bogged down along with its partners in messy conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq—all of that is thanks, in large part, to bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization he founded. Its role in Afghanistan and Iraq appears to be increasing, even as al-Qaeda enjoys a resurgence—contrary to the misguided belief that it was mortally wounded in the U.S.-led war on terror that followed 9/11. The American population, meanwhile, confronting a steady stream of body bags arriving back home, is losing the will to fight. Four years ago, U.S. President George W. Bush talked about transforming and democratizing the Middle East. Now many Americans want to abandon the whole region.

That may have been al-Qaeda’s long-term plan all along, according to a report by the Stratfor group, a private global intelligence firm. Bin Laden has always held a less-thanflattering view of the U.S. military’s resolve. He said as much during one 1997 interview, commenting on the “low spiritual morale” Islamist fighters had observed among American troops during the U.S. military’s brief and tragic engagement in Somalia in the early 1990s. As for the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan and then Iraq? “We can conclude that America is a superpower, with enormous military strength and vast economic power,” he

said in February 2003. “But all this is built on foundations of straw. So it is possible to target those foundations—then the whole edifice will totter and sway.” Among the targets is U.S. morale, which, when weakened with the help of a compliant media, will speed the eventual U.S. withdrawal.

In al-Qaeda’s battle plans, that would be only the beginning. In a July 2005 letter allegedly sent by Egyptian-born jihadi Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s No. 2, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zawahiri drew a four-stage strategy for the Middle East. First, ensure that the Americans are expelled from Iraq. Second, put in place an Islamist government. Third, use that as a springboard to launch jihad against Iraq’s secular neighbours. And fourth, provoke a violent confrontation with Israel.

In short, a regional conflagration.

And in the interim, keep on plotting against the West. Last week, U.S. spy czar Michael McConnell said that al-Qaeda continues to plan attacks against the United States with the aim of inflicting mass casualties, and

remains the biggest threat to American interests. Al-Qaeda is back—if it ever went away.

OSAMA BIN LADEN was born in Riyadh, the son of Mohammed bin Laden, a Yemeni construction magnate and the patriarch of what is thought to be the wealthiest non-royal family in Saudi Arabia. Most accounts place Osama as his father’s 17th son. But as Mohammed fathered some 55 children, it is difficult to know for sure.

Mohammed bin Laden led a devout life, but his children were spoiled. In 1970 and 1971, Osama and his older brother Salem visited the Swedish town of Falun. The two teenagers illegally parked their enormous RollsRoyce outside the inn and happily paid the hourly fines because they thought it was fun to go to the police station. They wore expensive Christian Dior and Yves St. Laurent shirts, and after they had worn them once they gave them to their hotel cleaner.

Lor a time, Osama enjoyed elements of Western culture. But he experienced a religious awakening and became an intensely pious teenager. His devotion to Islam wasn’t chest-thumping political grandstanding; he was quiet and studious and sought to persuade others by example. He stopped wearing shorts for soccer, and played in long pants. And although Osama later decided that music was diabolical, he organized an a cappella singing group that composed odes to jihad. Back then, Osama conceived of jihad as an internal struggle, not holy war.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 changed all that. The occupation of an Islamic country by atheist Communists inflamed bin Laden’s passions, as it did those of Muslims around the world. Volunteers poured into Pakistan to join the holy war against the Soviets. Bin Laden and the Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam founded the Services Office in 1984, which funded and organized Arab volunteers fighting inside Afghanistan. The young bin Laden achieved much fame as a cash cow for Islamic warriors. But he wanted to confront the Soviet infidels himself. Bin Laden estab-

Bin Laden’s status among Islamic radicals soared with every new attack

fished a base in Afghanistan for several dozen Arab volunteers under his command. His men were brave but incompetent. Their contribution to the eventual victory of the Afghan mujahedeen was insignificant. In their eyes, however, their faith had defeated an empire.

It was during this time that bin Laden met Zawahiri. With a small band of Arabs, they founded al-Qaeda, meaning “the base,” to support jihads against insufficiently Islamic regimes. The U.S., while not an initial target, became one when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the Saudi royal family called on U.S. troops for protection. Bin Laden had offered to field an army of Arab veterans of Afghanistan to defend Saudi Arabia, but was spurned by the royal family. The shame was too much.

Some al-Qaeda members were dismayed at the prospect of holy war against the American superpower. Still, al-Qaeda graduates bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, and three years later—now living under the protection of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan— bin Laden formally declared war on the U.S. and Israel. Al-Qaeda launched a series of attacks against U.S. targets over the next five years, including the bombings of embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the attack on the USS Cole. Bin Laden’s stature among radical Islamists soared. His greatest ambition, however, was realized on Sept. 11,2001, when alQaeda hijacked four planes and flew three of them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, murdering 2,973 people.

Bin Laden and his followers were in an Afghan mountain hideout when they got news of the first attack. His companions cheered, but the al-Qaeda chief urged them to wait and held up two fingers. When the second plane hit, bin Laden himself wept and prayed. He held up three fingers; there was more to come. When a third plane plowed into the Pentagon, he held four fingers aloft. But the passengers

on United Airlines Flight 93 overwhelmed their hijackers, crashing the plane before it could reach its target.

Still, bin Laden had surpassed his own hopes. He had slaughtered thousands of Americans on their soil—a gift from God. It was also his biggest mistake. “Bin Laden’s idea was to lure the U.S. into Afghanistan and get us to repeat the same mistake the Soviets had made,” says Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 3/11. “He had no idea that within six weeks U.S. and coalition forces would sweep away the Taliban and pummel al-Qaeda.”

The U.S. did not invade Afghanistan with large numbers of troops, as bin Laden had hoped. Instead, America and its allies launched air strikes and deployed special forces who teamed up with Afghans in the Northern Alli-

ance to overthrow the Taliban. Bin Laden and a few of his top comrades escaped into Pakistan, but much of the al-Qaeda leadership was destroyed. “The survivors were scattered and destitute and unable to communicate with each other,” Wright says. “This was a movement that was essentially broken.”

IT IS COMFORTING to believe that al-Qaeda never really recovered from its defeats in 2001. Many analysts suggest that it has since morphed into a “franchise.” Freelance terrorists can “self-induct” themselves into alQaeda by declaring that they are members and attacking the West, the theory holds, but there is no longer an organized network. Even George W. Bush seems to have bought into this version. “Absolutely, we’re winning,” he said in October. “Al-Qaeda is on the run.”

This might have been true in the months after 9/11, but no longer.

Consider the case of Mohammed Sidique Khan. He was one of the four British Muslims

Experts still consider al-Qaeda to be the greatest threat to U.S. interests

who blew themselves up in the July 7, 2005, London bombings, murdering 52. Initial reports described Khan and his co-conspirators as “homegrown” terrorists with no links to al-Qaeda or foreign jihadis.

We now know that both Khan and fellow bomber Shehzad Tanweer visited Pakistan before the attacks. Al-Qaeda’s propaganda unit, as-Sahab, later released “martyrdom” videos of both men in which they justify the impending slaughter. And Ayman al-Zawahiri claims the two attended an al-Qaeda training camp and insisted on becoming suicide bombers.

The July 7 bombings were not an exception. Several plots disrupted by British, American and Pakistani authorities in the last few years—including this past summer’s alleged plot to blow up 10 transatlantic airliners—all led investigators to cells and camps in Pakistan or eastern Afghanistan. “This alarming development calls into question some of our most fundamental assumptions about alQaeda’s capabilities and intentions, given that the movement seems undeterred from the same grand homicidal ambitions it demonstrated on 9/11,” wrote Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University, in recent testimony submitted to the House armed

services subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities. And in an interview with Maclean’s, Hoffman called the notion that there is no longer a functional al-Qaeda leadership “wishful thinking.” According to some experts, al-Qaeda’s main base is in Waziristan, a mountainous and lawless region of northwestern Pakistan, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border Afghanistan. Here, it and other terrorist groups have reportedly found a refuge where they can operate with virtual impunity. “Everyone is there,” says Ahmed Rashid, the author of several books about militant Islam in Central Asia and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Taliban. “There are Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. There are Kashmiris, Central Asians, Chechens, al-Qaeda, various allies of the Taliban. It’s a real mix of all the major terrorist groups around the world.” The Waziri safe haven exists in part because Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf is unwilling to decisively confront the tribal forces in the area, electing instead to sign a series of “peace deals.” “These have essentially been negotiated with the Taliban,” Rashid says. “The army does not want to fight in Waziristan. To placate the army, he’s done these deals, which are a cover for really trying to withdraw the army from these areas and not engage the extremists.”

Others believe al-Qaeda’s global headquarters are elsewhere. Stratfor speculates that it is located in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. In order to operate in the modern world, the thinking goes, al-Qaeda needs to have access to sophisticated communications equipment and infrastructure, available in the more developed NWFP and not in the wild tribal areas.

Whatever the theories, there is no doubt that cross-border attacks on Western troops in Afghanistan greatly increased after the Waziristan deals. Now, Rashid says, typical alQaeda tactics, such as suicide bombings, are becoming prevalent in Afghanistan—evidence of al-Qaeda’s growing presence in the country and its co-operation with the Taliban. Stratfor, in fact, reports that, since 2005, al-Qaeda sup-

port for the Taliban has increased dramatically, the result of a meeting between Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and al-Qaeda leaders, during which Omar expressed his displeasure over al-Qaeda’s neglect of the Afghanistan struggle.

The reason for that neglect was al-Qaeda’s second major theatre of operations: Iraq.

The U.S.-led invasion liberated millions of Iraqis from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, but it was also a gift for al-Qaeda. Here was an opportunity to rally Islamist opinion to its cause and to directly confront tens of thousands of American troops on the ground in a Muslim nation. “Iraq looks a lot like what bin Laden had in mind for us in Afghanistan,” Lawrence Wright says.

The Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi moved into Iraq shortly before the war began with his al-Tawhid terrorist group. Zarqawi had established a training camp in western Afghanistan in 1999. Al-Tawhid and al-Qaeda had

some contact with each other at the time, but were independent. This changed in October 2004. Zarqawi changed the name of his organization to “al-Qaeda in Iraq” and pledged allegiance to bin Laden: “By God, O sheik of the mujahedeen, if you bid us plunge into the ocean, we would follow you.” Bin Laden welcomed Zarqawi into al-Qaeda in an audiotape that aired two months later.

The partnership deepened, despite ideological differences. Zarqawi advocated attacks on Shia Muslims, whom he considered apostates, as a means of igniting a civil war within Islam in which Sunni Muslims would triumph.

AN IRAQI soldier at a checkpoint in Baghdad checks out pictures of Zarqawi; bin Laden, shown in his ‘Most Wanted Terrorists’ poster released by the FBI in October 2001, has a US$25-million bounty on his head, although the U.S. has declared his trail ‘stone cold’

Bin Laden disagreed. In his July 2005 letter, Zawahiri chided Zarqawi for both his attacks on fellow Muslims, and for his habit of beheading hostages on television. “You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheik of the slaughterers,” he said. “We are in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”

Al-Qaeda nevertheless flourished in Iraq, and by the time of Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, the terrorist group was well entrenched among Iraqi insurgents.

Mohammed Hafez, a visiting professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, has researched suicide bombers in Iraq. Of 101 identified suicide bombers (including three women) who blew themselves up between March 2003 and February 2006, 44 were from Saudi Arabia. Eight came from Italy, and only seven were Iraqis. Hafez says that many of these suicide bombers had connections with international terrorist networks, including al-Qaeda. “So it’s not just purely angry individuals shocked by images from Iraq,” he told Maclean’s.

Al-Qaeda is enjoying a resurgence elsewhere in the world as well. A secret report by MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, warns that the group has a foothold in virtually every Muslim country in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

The ultimate prize for al-Qaeda, however, remains targets in the West, and here, too, it may be poised for success. The same MI5 document, seen by the Sunday Telegraph, warns that the United Kingdom is now facing

The world's most wanted man was once a shy heir to his family business

a greater threat from homegrown al-Qaeda agents than at any time since Sept. 11, 2001. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, made a rare public appearance last November to warn that the spy agency knew of 30 terrorist plots aimed at Britain, and that it was keeping 1,600 people under surveillance. “These plots often have links back to al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and through those links al-Qaeda gives guidance and training to its largely British foot soldiers here on an extensive and growing scale,” she said.

It is unclear what role Osama bin Laden has in these operations. There has been a lot of speculation that he may have died. Last fall, a report in a French newspaper, based on a French intelligence service document citing Saudi sources, said bin Laden had succumbed to typhoid fever in August. A Taliban official promptly stepped forward to say bin Laden was alive and well. And as recently as last week, another Taliban leader, Mullah Dadullah Akhund, said bin Laden has been in regular contact with Taliban leaders.

The terrorist leader certainly looked wellgroomed in his last video appearance in October 2004, making it unlikely that he is holed up in the damp and unhealthy confines of a cave. Most experts believe he remains alive. But there is also little doubt, as U.S. intelligence officials have been quoted as saying, that Zawahiri is actively guiding al-Qaeda operatives, while bin Laden himself appears to have little direct involvement.

This raises the question of whether it will matter if bin Laden’s life is cut short before he has the chance to celebrate his 51st birthday a year from now.

American efforts to find bin Laden have yielded few clues. The U.S. missed its best chance during an assault on his stronghold in the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001. Since then, American officials have said his trail has gone “stone cold.” Eventually, however, the al-Qaeda leader will make a mistake, or someone will turn him in for the US$25million bounty on his head.

“I think this would be damaging to al-Qaeda, because bin Laden is a very significant person.

a rallying symbol,” says Angel Rabasa, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. who recently co-authored a study on global jihadist groups. “But he would not end it. The movement has taken on a life of its own, independent of the personalities involved in creating al-Qaeda.”

Osama bin Laden weighed in on the implications of his death in a video that aired on Dec. 27,2001. He had just escaped from Tora Bora and might have been injured. He then appeared frail and old. “I am just a poor slave of God,” bin Laden said. “If I live or die, the war will continue.” M