This article first appeared in the 10 September 2006 edition of The Sunday Business Post and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Osama bin Laden is one of the few people alive who has fundamentally changed the course of world history. Few people had heard of him before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
Now he is linked to every new terror threat, even if al-Qaeda is best viewed as an informal network of ‘believers’, rather than an organisation directed by him.
The extent of bin Laden’s influence is unquestionable. He has changed the way people live in the United States, and he has divided western diplomacy. He will see his biggest success as being the radicalisation of large numbers of Muslims.
The occupation of Iraq has given thousands of Muslims a laboratory to test their skills in urban warfare – skills which may yet be used in Europe.
September 11 opened a new era of suspicion between Muslims and the west.
A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey showed that one in seven Muslims in France, Spain and Britain would support the use of terror in certain circumstances.
While eschewing the western lifestyle, bin Laden has brilliantly used the mass media. One senior member of al-Qaeda who broke ranks with bin Laden, Abu al-Walid al-Masri, describes in his memoirs bin Laden’s ‘‘extreme infatuation’’ with the international media. His focus on his media campaign, which he has always seen as more important than jihad (holy war), is such that he was prepared to sacrifice Afghanistan and the Taliban.
Why? Bin Laden is attempting to disseminate a perception of himself, to Muslims in particular, as a virtuous, humble man venerated by his followers.
This is in contrast to most Arab leaders, broadly seen as corrupt, proud and hated.
He deliberately uses words, dress and images that model the Prophet Muhammad. The objective is to convince Muslims to follow his example, so that he can lead them to his promised land, removing most traces of modernity, and returning to the pure Islam of the seventh century.
But behind this pious mask, who is the real bin Laden?
He was born in 1958 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was given the name Osama – the lion – after one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. His mother was a 16-year-old Syrian, who appears to have initially been a concubine to his father, Muhammad bin Laden, ‘‘acquired’’ by him when she was 14.
Muhammad bin Laden was an illiterate Yemeni who emigrated to Saudi Arabia and worked for Aramco, the US/Saudi oil company. They helped him set up his own business which he grew to one of the biggest construction groups in the Middle East and Gulf.
He was the favourite builder to the Saudi royal family and his business made him a billionaire. By the time he died in 1967, he had officially fathered 54 children from 22 wives and many concubines.
When Muhammad bin Laden no longer wanted a wife, he would divorce her and marry her off to one of his employees.
When he decided to divorce Osama’s mother, he ‘‘awarded’’ her to one of his executives. Osama was four-years-old at the time and it is said that he met his real father on just three or four occasions.
Osama’s childhood coincided with a time of transformation for Saudi Arabia, because of the discovery of oil. The country changed from an almost feudal tribal community to one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
It is impossible to overstate the extent of the social upheaval and dislocation caused by this transformation. It produced a profound shock in many Saudis, particularly young males, with no outlet for their energies.
Living in a modest part of Jeddah, bin Laden was undistinguished in school until the age of 14 when he went through a profound spiritual change, probably through the influence of an Islamic society, the Muslim Brothers. He took to fasting twice a week, refused to wear western dress, and started to model himself on the Prophet.
He opposed the playing of musical instruments and behaved in a very austere fashion, clearly sexually repressed. In this, he shared a key trait of one of his heroes, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer and educator who died in 1966, and whose views eventually formed his core beliefs.
These were a belief that a tiny vanguard of true believers should lead the Muslim community back to the pure Islam of the seventh century; that all governments in the world, including Muslim governments, were illegitimate; that military Jihad was necessary and desirable – a kind of blood purification – to achieve their aims; and that suicide – ‘martyrdom’ – was legitimate to that end.
While still at school, bin Laden at the age of 17 married his first wife, aged 14. He attended King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. There he spent more time studying religion and Jihad than his chosen field of economics.
By then – 1976/77 – it was becoming socially unacceptable in Saudi Arabia to practice polygamy. However, bin Laden and a friend made a vow to practice polygamy and he eventually took four wives.
He is quoted as saying: ‘‘One is okay, like walking. Two is like riding a bicycle: it is fast but a little unstable.
“Three is a tricycle, stable but slow. And when it comes to four. . . ah, this is the ideal.
” Now you can pass everyone!”
At university, he was seen by many of his peers as calm, shy, a good speaker and slightly girlish. He lived a varied life, with his own farm outside the city where he stabled 20 horses, and holidayed abroad, game hunting and climbing.
He seems to have been driven by the need to equal or surpass his father’s achievements. He also picked up one of his father’s key traits – an abiding interest in, and a desire to be seen as an expert on, the minutiae of Islamic doctrine and religious interpretations.
Osama has issued many religious rulings (fatwas) including one in 1998 when he created the International Islamic Front against Jews and ‘‘Crusaders’’. This stipulated that ‘‘every Muslim who is capable of doing so has a personal duty to kill Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military personnel, in every country where this is possible’’.
Bin Laden has been described as being just over six feet tall, handsome with fair skin and a beard. He is remembered as being very thin from fasting and physical work, and as confident and magnetic.
From an early age, he was prepared to act as an equal to religious scholars and to be individualistic in a society which frowned on such. His interests were religion, poetry, horses and adventure.
Without any major external shocks, he probably would have become a very successful businessman in Saudi Arabia.
What brought him to international notoriety was the communist coup d’etat in Afghanistan in 1978, followed by the Soviet invasion. This galvanised Muslims worldwide in opposition to the control of a Muslim country by communists.
Despite his own propaganda, it is clear that bin Laden did not join that war until four or five years after the invasion.
However, he leveraged one successful battle against the retreating Soviets into a myth of combat success.
When he returned to Saudi Arabia, he expected to be treated like royalty, but was quickly disabused of this idea. Following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq on August 2,1990,bin Laden offered to help defend Saudi Arabia, but the ruling family did not see him and his small group of Afghan militants as capable of stopping an invasion by the million-strong Iraqi army.
Instead, under a UN mandate, the US and its allies were granted access to Saudi Arabian territory to expel the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait. Such access by non-Muslim armies required high level clearance by the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia.
This was opposed by almost all militants and significant elements of the population in the Middle East and Gulf, and crucially by bin Laden. He then broke with Saudi Arabia’s rulers and left the country for the Sudan.
There he was joined by many veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan. They were attracted by bin Laden’s views, his religious certainties, and his money – they got good pay and benefits. The international terror campaign started soon after from the Sudan and subsequently from Afghanistan, culminating in the September 11 attacks.
Today, he is reputedly in hiding in the Pashtun tribal area of Pakistan, an area which has had no government presence in over a century. While the core al-Qaeda group he heads has been decimated, it’s influence is much stronger today than it was in September 2001.
Many of the other terror groups who adhere to his beliefs have also been destroyed or disrupted, but the number of Muslims who share his beliefs has grown dramatically.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq has convinced many Muslims that the West is, as bin Laden says, involved in a conspiracy to destroy Islam, and so must be confronted with Jihad.
Today al-Qaeda is best thought of as a belief system, which is shared by the original core group, numerous terror groups and millions of individual Muslims. Bin Laden and his deputy, Al-Zawahiri, provide mainly ideological and propaganda direction, with complete operational control left to the local group or individual.
Many of the terror groups have been severely weakened, with the most active and dangerous militants remaining in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Philippines and Thailand. Although a minority, a significant number of radicalist Muslims now live in Europe.
Most Muslim governments have successfully clamped down on these militants. The US is ‘‘protected’’ by homeland security and by better integration of its Muslim immigrants.
Most experts therefore see Europe as the easiest and most likely target, especially for Europe-based battle-hardened veterans of Iraq.
Bin Laden’s disregard for casualties and a dangerous combination of nihilism, idealism, and religious certitude, has led many of his close supporters to break from him.
His desire to reverse modernity and return Islam to the purity of the seventh century is a threat to most Muslims. Only they can stop him.