An American president, himself the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, has taken down notorious terrorist Usama Bin Laden. Despite being a Christian, Obama, it seems to me, had a personal stake in destroying someone who had defamed the religion of his birth father and his relatives. His 2007-2008 presidential campaign was in part about the need of the US to refocus on the threat from al-Qaeda. He said that the Bush administration had taken its eye off the ball by running off to Iraq to pursue an illegal war and neglecting the eastern front, from which the US had been attacked, and where riposting was legitimate in international law. Obama began threatening to act unilaterally against al-Qaeda in Pakistan in August 2007, during the early period of the Democratic primary.
Ironically, Obama had to admit that Pakistani intelligence helped the US develop the lead that allowed the US to close in on Bin Laden. So the operation was not unilateral, and young candidate Obama was too over-confident. The US story that the Pakistanis were not given prior notice of the operation is contradicted by the Pakistani news channel Geo, which says that Pakistani troops and plainsclothesmen helped cordon off the compound in Abbotabad. CNN is pointing out that US helicopters could not have flown so far into Pakistan from Afghanistan without tripping Pakistani radar. My guess is that the US agreed to shield the government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asaf Ali Zardari from al-Qaeda reprisals by putting out the story that the operation against Bin Laden was solely a US one. And it may be that suspect elements of the Pakistani elite, such as the Inter-Services Intelligence, were kept out the the loop because it was feared they might have ties to Bin Laden and might tip him off.
Usama Bin Laden was a violent product of the Cold War and the Age of Dictators in the Greater Middle East. He passed from the scene at a time when the dictators are falling or trying to avoid falling in the wake of a startling set of largely peaceful mass movements demanding greater democracy and greater social equity. Bin Laden dismissed parliamentary democracy, for which so many Tunisians and Egyptians yearn, as a man-made and fallible system of government, and advocated a return to the medieval Muslim caliphate (a combination of pope and emperor) instead. Only a tiny fringe of Muslims wants such a theocratic dictatorship. The masses who rose up this spring mainly spoke of “nation,” the “people,” “liberty” and “democracy,” all keywords toward which Bin Laden was utterly dismissive. The notorious terrorist turned to techniques of fear-mongering and mass murder to attain his goals in the belief that these methods were the only means by which the Secret Police States of the greater Middle East could be overturned.
Dr Wahid Abd-al-Majid, an adviser at the Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies, spoke to al-Arabiya on April 15 about al-Qaeda no. 2 leader (and now no. 1) Ayman al-Zawahiri’s dismissive statement that all the Egyptian uprising had produced was an untrustworthy military junta. Since Egypt is moving toward parliamentary elections, al-Zawahiri’s description is a caricature. Abd al-Majid, said, “Al-Zawahiri wanted to declare a stance on what is happening in Egypt, especially when he saw the end of the road for Al-Qa’ida and religious violence, or violence that hides behind religion, in Egypt, because what the Egyptians accomplished peacefully negates any need or justification for violence in Egypt. Al-Zawahiri dreamt of being the one who topples President Husni Mubarak, only for the president to be toppled by the youth in a peaceful and democratic revolution that has absolutely no connection to Al-Qa’ida’s long-held claims.” (USG Open Source Center translation).
The son of a Yemeni immigrant to Saudi Arabia who went from rags to riches by doing construction and engineering work for the Saudi royal family, Usama Bin Laden grew up one of dozens of sons of a billionaire, in an absolute monarchy which maintains that the holy Qur’an itself is its only constitution. It wasn’t a system that dealt well with rebelliousness or dissent.
Unlike most of the Bin Ladens, who are worldly business-people (a niece, Wafa, posed provocatively for GQ) Usama was known as a serious and religious young man. At university in Jeddah he probably came under the influence of Abdullah Azzam, a radical Muslim fundamentalist of Palestinian heritage.
The Palestine issue helped radicalize Bin Laden. He and his circle in Afghanistan were obsessed with the Israeli occupation of Islam’s third holiest site, Jerusalem, and gave one another sermons about what they saw as a modern crusade against Muslims in that city. The perfidy of successive British governments in conquering Palestine, agreeing to its becoming a Class A League of Nations Mandate (i.e. a nation-state in training), but at the same time giving Palestine away to the international Zionist movement, had resulted in the end in the ethnic cleansing of most Palestinians and their reduction to the status of stateless refugees. But the religious Usama seemed to care most of all about the 1967 Israeli military occupation of all of Jerusalem, including the Muslim holy site of the Dome of the Rock. Although Israel may have been a democracy for Israelis, it was a foreign military occupying power in the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and ruled there with an iron fist.
In 1978, young officers made a Communist coup in Afghanistan. By fall of 1979 the enterprise had turned unstable because of faction-fighting among the officers. In December of 1979 Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev, perhaps baited by the Carter administration, sent in Soviet troops and began a brutal 8-year occupation of among the least developed and most poverty-stricken countries in the world.
The Reagan administration and the Democratic Congress took the small Carter administration program that supported a Muslim insurgency against the Soviets in Afghanistan and vastly expanded it, ultimately to the tune of billions of dollars. Reagan also twisted the arm of Saudi King Fahd to match US expenditures. Seven major Afghan guerrilla groups were fostered and given CIA training in camps. The Soviets fought back viciously. In that decade, perhaps a million Afghans were killed, 3 million were displaced to Pakistan, 2 million were displaced to Iran, and 2 million were displaced inside Afghanistan. In a country of, at that time, perhaps 15 million persons. It was Apocalypse Now, Kabul version. The two opponents were not attractive. The Communist regime was a cruel dictatorship. The Mujahidin were a mix of tribal and religious forces, but some groups were radical fundamentalists, as with the Hizb-i Islami or Islamic Party of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, the most bloodthirsty of the Mujahidin. He got a lion’s share of the CIA money (he is today a die-hard opponent of the US whose men have killed many US troops in Afghanistan).
When Reagan convinced King Fahd to help get up a covert paramilitary to fight the Soviets (Reagan really liked private, unaccountable militias; he also backed them in Central America), Fahd had his ministers look around for a fundraiser who could get money from private sources in Saudi Arabia for the Arab volunteers to fight in Afghanistan. Usama Bin Laden was chosen, being a well-known socialite who also had a serious and religious side. Bin Laden jetted back and forth between the mosques of Saudi Arabia and the the Pakistani city of Peshawar, his headquarters in the struggle against the Soviets. The “Arab Afghans” who gathered around him may not have gotten direct CIA training for the most part, though some likely did, but they learned everything they needed to know about setting up cells and carrying out covert operations from the Afghans who had been through the CIA schools.
The Soviets completely withdrew from Afghanistan in late 1988 through early 1989. Soon thereafter, the Soviet bloc began collapsing.
Bin Laden was left without a task there in Afghanistan, and he returned to Jedda in Saudi Arabia. He gave a guest sermon at his mosque on the first Palestinian Intifada or uprising, and already had begun turning on his former ally, the United States, whom he blamed for enabling Israeli repression of the Palestinians. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bin Laden suggested to King Fahd that he be allowed to gather together his old gang of Arab Afghans to push Saddam back out. King Fahd wisely rejected the idea of having a bunch of scruffy Mujahidin crawling all over his country. The crisis had been provoked by a Baathist president-for-life, Saddam Hussein, another dictator acting arbitrarily. That Fahd instead brought in non-Muslim Westerners to do the job stuck in Bin Laden’s craw. A couple of years later he went to the Sudan and began his career as a terrorist. Then the US pressured Sudan to expel him, and he went to Afghanistan. He initially hooked up with his old Mujahidin buddies, but he was introduced to Mulla Omar, leader of the Taliban, and ultimately became very close to him.
They were all dictatorships– the Soviet Union, the Communist government of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Sudan, and the Taliban. Usama learned to take the law into his own hands because he had no other way to effect change. He wanted to see the region’s dictatorship overthrown in favor of his renewed Islamic Caliphate. It was a crackpot, fringe, pipe dream, but he brought to the aspiration all the experiences and training he and his men had learned during the Reagan Jihad against the Soviets. Then he and his number two man, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, came to the conclusion that the reason they could not overthrow the governments of Egypt (Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship) and Saudi Arabia and so forth was that these were backed by the United States. They decided it had been a mistake to hit the “near enemy” first. They decided to hit the “far enemy” on American soil. Bin Laden thought that if only he could entice the US into the Middle East, he could do to it what he thought he had done to the Soviet Union.
Hence the horrific attacks on the US of September 11, 2001.
It was those attacks that created Informed Comment. I started it in spring of 2002 initially to cover al-Qaeda and to present analysis about how to defeat it. Like all Americans, I was personally devastated by September 11. I was depressed for a year. I felt it in distinctive ways because I had lived nearly 10 years in the Greater Middle East. Most of that time I was a student or, later on, academic researcher. But although I studied history, I was living in the present. I had been in Egypt in the late 1970s when Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad began becoming notorious. I lived in Pakistan off and on in the early 1980s and went up to Peshawar and talked with Mujahidin.
I supported the first phase of the Afghanistan War, which involved a light Western footprint in that country. There were 40 al-Qaeda training camps, which produced thousands of potential terrorists, and if they had not been destroyed they would have gone on manufacturing threats to the US. I discovered that there was a lot of good information on the Arabic internet about al-Qaeda, and I paraphrased the reports I thought significant. I began being invited to private security conferences in Washington, sponsored by think tanks at the request of government agencies, where the audience was typically inter-agency. There, I presented my analyses of al-Qaeda along with other academics and security experts. I hoped that the insights might be useful to State Department, Pentagon, CIA, DIA and other officials on the front lines of dismantling al-Qaeda. I had opposed the Vietnam War, something that had been painful for my father, who was a 20-year man in the army. But if the US government could benefit from my studies of al-Qaeda and other radical fringe movements trying to hurt Americans, I was just delighted.
(Just a note: I often challenged Washington orthodoxies, the honoraria were small, and I was only invited a few times a year, so the suggestion of some of my detractors that I sold out by doing these presentations is frankly silly. I just want my government to be as informed as it can be, and I’ll tell them the same things I tell the peace groups who also invite me to speak. If I had wanted to sell out, I could have formed a consultancy and purveyed the party line and made big bucks).
I was deeply dismayed when it became apparent that the Bush administration intended to use September 11 as a pretext to launch an illegal invasion of Iraq. I thought it was most unwise, and would be seen as an act of neo-imperialism and resisted. I told friends that if the UN Security Council voted against it, and Bush proceeded, I’d be out in the streets protesting. But then the UNSC never really was given a chance to vote, and Bush ran off to war. I prefer peace to war, but am not a pacifist. I don’t believe the use of military force is always wrong or counter-productive. I am from an army family after all. But I do believe that wars should be like abortion: rare and legal. The UN was established after the horrors of the Axis in WW II in an attempt to deploy collective security to stop the practice of aggressive wars of conquest and annexation. President Dwight Eisenhower invoked the UN Charter when he made Britain, France and Israel withdraw from Egypt in 1956-1957. By waging a war that was neither in self-defense nor authorized by the UNSC, in contravention of the UN Charter (a treaty to which the US is signatory), W. and Dick Cheney were throwing away the achievement of the founders of the UN, and returning us to the international jungle, where the strong fall upon the weak with no framework of law.
I was also dismayed by the propagandistic way the White House promoted its war on and then occupation of Iraq. They only had two speeds, progress and slow progress. A big bombing that killed hundreds was “slow progress.” Fantastic historical analogies were trotted out. The reality was obscured. Since I know Arabic, I read the multiplying Iraqi newspapers on the web, watched Arabic satellite t.v., developed correspondents in Iraq, and tried to describe the situation more realistically at this blog. Interestingly, I still got invited to Washington to speak to audiences of security and intelligence personnel. Then-senator Joe Biden asked me to testify on Iraq before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And I even got invited to share my (pessimistic) views with the British foreign ministry, the French foreign ministry, the Japanese Institute of Middle East Economies, etc., etc. Not to mention a lot of correspondence with people in similar institutions in other countries.
What pained me most of all, aside from the sheer scale of destruction in Iraq set off by Bush’s illegal and ill-considered adventurism, was that the Iraq War clearly gave al-Qaeda an opening to grow and expand and recruit. I think if Bush had gone after Bin Laden as single-mindedly as Obama has, he would have gotten him, and could have rolled up al-Qaeda in 2002 or 2003. Instead, Bush’s occupation of a major Arab Muslim country kept a hornet’s nest buzzing against the US, Britain and other allies.
Now that Obama has eliminated the monster Usama Bin Laden and vindicated the capability of the United States to visit retribution on its dire enemies, he can do one other great good for this country abroad. He can get us out of Iraq altogether. The US military presence there is the fruit of a poisonous tree. It will always provoke Iraqi Muslim activists, whether Sunni or Shiite or secular nationalist. And it angers the whole Arab world.
The Arab Spring has demonstrated that the Arab masses yearn for liberty, not thuggish repression, for life, not death and destruction, for parliamentary democracy, not theocratic dictatorship. Bin Laden was already a dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War and the age of dictators in which a dissident such as he had no place in society and was shunted off to distant, frontier killing fields. The new generation of young Arabs in Egypt and Tunisia has a shot at a decent life. Obama has put the US on the right side of history in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya (where I see crowds for the first time in my life waving American flags). People might want a little help from a distance, but they don’t want to see Western troops deployed in fighting units on their soil.
If Obama can get us out of Iraq, and if he can use his good offices to keep the pressure on the Egyptian military to lighten up, and if he can support the likely UN declaration of a Palestinian state in September, the US will be in the most favorable position in the Arab world it has had since 1956. And he would go down in history as one of the great presidents. If he tries to stay in Iraq and he takes a stand against Palestine, he risks provoking further anti-American violence. He can be not just the president who killed Bin Laden, but the president who killed the pretexts for radical violence against the US. He can promote the waving of the American flag in major Arab cities. And that would be a defeat and humiliation for Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda more profound than any they could have dreamed.