Bin Laden: the man, the legacy
To some he was a Muslim Che Guevara, to others a misguided leader with a limited world view. People who knew Osama bin Laden explain his life and death
NADIA AL-ALAMI and her two children were asleep in their apartment in Amman, the Jordanian capital, when the phone rang shortly after dawn on Monday. It was her husband, Ashraf, calling from Athens, where he was on business. “He told me to turn on the TV. He said Osama bin Laden had been found and killed,” she says. “I felt numb. I could hardly believe it.”
The couple, both Palestinian Muslims, are among the tens of thousands around the world whose lives have been torn apart by the violent ideology the Saudi-born militant helped spawn. Nadia lost both her parents and Ashraf his father when two al-Qaeda suicide bombers walked into their wedding reception on a November evening in 2005. Twenty-seven of the couple’s guests died in the blast, which was carried out as part of a simultaneous attack on three Amman hotels. Altogether, more than 60 people, most of them Arab and Muslim, were killed in the bombings.
At the time, I lived close to where their wedding took place and remember the scene at the hotel the following day: half-collapsed rafters falling on blood-soaked white linen tablecloths and the wilting remains of bridal bouquets ground into the carpet by screaming, panicking guests.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street thug turned militant who had attempted attacks in his home country before 2001, and his organisation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, admitted responsibility. He used the kind of language all too familiar from the justifications used for similar atrocities in New York, London, Madrid, Bali, Istanbul, Egypt and Morocco. The intention, they said, was to strike “the dens of evil . . . in order to protect the faith and raise the banner of tawhid [monotheism]”.
Since then Nadia and Ashraf have spoken out against al-Qaeda’s targeting of civilians. The news that its founder and figurehead had been killed by two bullets, one reportedly to the head, the other the chest, fired during an airborne raid by US special forces in a sleepy Pakistani town at the weekend filled them with the sense that justice had been done.
“I cannot say that I was glad to know he is dead: I cannot feel happy for someone’s death, even if his group was behind the killing of my parents, relatives and friends on my wedding day, and was responsible for tearing apart our happiness and changing our lives forever,” says Nadia.
“But I believe justice has been served . . . Attacking civilians, regardless of their religion or nationality, under the name of Islam is totally unacceptable. What bin Laden and al-Qaeda were doing was destroying the reputation of Muslims and increasing hatred.”
The end for Osama bin Laden came 13 years after he co-signed a fatwa (although, as Islamic scholars have since argued, he lacked the religious credentials to do so) saying it was a duty for Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, including civilians, wherever possible; 13 years after he and his cohort announced the formation of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Crusaders and Jews; and 13 years after the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania first turned that declaration into horrific reality with the deaths of hundreds, most of whom were locals.
His demise came just four months short of the 10th anniversary of what al-Qaeda viewed as the ultimate “propaganda of the deed”: the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
Between that day and bin Laden’s final moments, in a Pakistani villa last Sunday, the world has witnessed a string of further terrorist outrages that claimed inspiration from him and his ideas, a misguided US-led “war on terror”, and two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the shameful rowing back of norms relating to due process and the use of torture, and the amplification of siren voices on both sides warning of a supposedly inevitable “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West. For much of the past decade the world seemed locked in a debilitating binary frame created by bin Laden and his acolytes and complemented by the Bush administration.
SO WHO WAS the man who loomed larger than most in the global imagination during the opening decade of the 21st century? What drove Osama bin Laden, and what, in the end, ensured that his wish to create an unstoppable groundswell among the world’s Muslims remained unfulfilled?
Jamal Ismail, a Pakistan-based Palestinian journalist who had known bin Laden since 1984, remembers him as a “simple, modest man and a strong believer” – a description that chimes with those offered by several others I have met who knew bin Laden at different stages in his life. Ismail first met bin Laden in the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar. At the time the town was a staging post for those streaming over the border to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
“In those early days there were no indications that he would become the man he later became. He was not planning to be a leader: he was just trying his best to help the Afghan mujahideen. His ultimate wish at that time, which he often spoke about with friends and supporters, was to achieve martyrdom, whether in Afghanistan or anywhere else, for the sake and cause of Islam.”
Abdullah Azzam, a radical Palestinian religious scholar whom bin Laden first encountered at university in Saudi Arabia, was instrumental in his decision to join the Afghan jihad. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan Azzam moved to Peshawar, declaring that it was the duty of all Muslims, not just Afghans, to fight the occupation. Azzam set up the Maktab al-Khadamat, or Services Bureau, to organise and train volunteers who had flocked from 20 countries.
Among them was bin Laden, scion of a prominent and extremely wealthy family from Jeddah who would later transform a nucleus of these men into what became al-Qaeda.
“At that time bin Laden was obsessed with the idea of being a holy warrior and bringing his kids up to be holy warriors,” Azzam’s son Huthaifa says in his home in Amman. “It was his life, his plan to be a mujahid [someone who undertakes jihad]. I remember he would take his three-year-old son away from his mother, and when my father asked why, bin Laden would say that he wanted his son to grow up a tough and brave mujahid.” Abdullah Azzam worked closely with bin Laden in Afghanistan, acting as a mentor of sorts until the young Saudi began to drift from his orbit.
Increasingly influenced by Egyptian militants, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden became obsessed with the notion of global jihad, while Azzam had his eye on the Palestinian cause.
In late 1989 Azzam was killed in Peshawar by a car bomb planted by unknown assailants, leaving bin Laden completely under the sway of the more radical al-Zawahiri, the man who later became his deputy in al-Qaeda.
Huthaifa Azzam, after spending his teenage years in Afghanistan, went on to volunteer in the Bosnian war of the early 1990s. He was also involved in the initial stages of the insurgency that followed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
Huthaifa Azzam argued that al-Qaeda had tarnished his father’s legacy by distorting his interpretation of jihad. “There is a war going on between my father’s ideology and that of al-Qaeda,” he told me in 2006. “They are trying to use my father’s name to justify and market their ideology. They have misused jihad and they are not working according to the Islamic rules of jihad.
“We know jihad. It is something very precious and very honourable for a Muslim to do but not in the al-Qaeda way. My father would have been completely against attacking civilian people living in their own countries like what happened in London, Spain and Amman. This is not jihad.”
Azzam justified the Iraqi insurgency as “defensive jihad” but deplored the extreme violence of al-Qaeda-linked elements, claiming his father would never have condoned the kidnapping, beheading and bombing of civilians.
“When the prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr [Muhammad’s successor] sent men to battle they gave strict instructions not to kill any woman, child or old man. These are the Islamic instructions on jihad. We should not kill civilians. It is like praying. As Muslims we have a way to pray. You cannot pray any way you want; you have to do it according to the rules. It’s the same with jihad.” Statements like this from the son of a revered figure like Abdullah Azzam caused ripples in militant circles. Huthaifa’s denouncing of the triple suicide bombings in Amman in 2005 provoked death threats from al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq outfit.
“The people who do this kind of thing have given the West a bad idea about Islam. Now if you say you are Muslim in many western countries, it means you are a terrorist,” Azzam said. “That is the last thing my father would have wanted. What is happening today with al-Qaeda is not his way.”
Another figure from bin Laden’s past who disagreed with the path he took and considered the 9/11 attacks a step too far was Hassan al-Turabi, the leading Sudanese Islamist. Turabi, who provided the ideological underpinning for Sudan’s disastrous experiment in Islamic government, turned the country into an international pariah by providing a haven for dozens of militants, including bin Laden, in the early 1990s.
Over tea served with tiny doughnuts at his Khartoum villa, the sprightly septuagenarian, who has a PhD from the Sorbonne, told me in 2007 that he remembered bin Laden as a “gentle, honest” man, but sniffed at what he described as his lack of intellectual depth.
“He is a Saudi and the Saudi education system is not one for broadening the mind. He is not an independent thinker,” Turabi said. “I used to talk to him within his limits. We would discuss issues such as the revival of Islam.” Turabi claimed he never heard from bin Laden again after he and his associates fled to Afghanistan following their expulsion from Sudan in 1996.
“They organised a small community over there and started communicating with the world through the media and the internet. And soon bin Laden became a world figure,” he said. “Unfortunately he got a lot of assistance from the media, especially in the West. He would never have inspired all these people if his message had not been transmitted through the media.” Turabi compared bin Laden with Che Guevara, arguing that both men became larger-than-life versions of themselves through the media.
“Che Guevara inspired many people, but if you study him you’ll find he was not much of an operator, actually,” he said. “In the same way, if you got someone like bin Laden to sit and talk with many of these young Muslims who consider him a hero, they would see that he is a pious, genuine person, but that’s it. It might shatter some of their illusions.”
Indeed bin Laden and his inner circle proved to be savvy media manipulators. After he was spirited away from what the US thought would be his final rout, at Tora Bora in late 2001, the al-Qaeda leader mocked Washington with the occasional video image or recorded message to remind the world he was still alive – and still at large.
IN DEATH, AS IN LIFE, Osama bin Laden represents different things to different people, as illustrated by the reactions to his passing, which have ranged from cheering to mourning, denial, ambivalence and a welter of conspiracy theories. An obscurantist terrorist he may have been to most, including a majority of Muslims, but there are others who considered him the charismatic epitome of what they understand to be a mujahid, or holy warrior.
Although support for al-Qaeda and its founder had been slipping away in Muslim-majority countries for several years as the ideology they espoused appeared increasingly irrelevant, a not insubstantial number – not just confined to militant circles – still view bin Laden as a hero, and now martyr. Some – including one Irish convert – named their children after him.
A survey recently conducted by the Pew Research Centre, which has been tracking public opinion in several predominantly Muslim countries since 2003, found that just over a third of Muslims polled in the Palestinian territories said they had confidence in bin Laden to “do the right thing in world affairs” compared with 72 per cent eight years ago. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, the figure was 26 per cent, down from 59 per cent in 2003; in Egypt 22 per cent; and Jordan 13 per cent, down from 56 per cent.
For Jamal Ismail, who interviewed bin Laden three times for Al Jazeera, and last met him in mid-2000, this rump of sympathisers is not surprising; he includes himself among them.
“Osama bin Laden symbolised resistance against American influence and hegemony. He represented the soul of Muslims who are not willing to accept any colonialism or interference in their own countries by foreign and non-Muslim powers,” Ismail says. “He raised his voice and arms against the US at a time when the whole world appeared as if it was prepared to accept American supremacy.
“I believe history will eventually record that bin Laden was no less than another Salah al-Din [known as Saladin in the West] because of the revolution he made in the minds of Muslims and because he struggled and defended his point of view, which, as many people who supported him believe, was in accordance with the teachings of Islam.”
Most Muslims would disagree. Indeed, much of the reason for al-Qaeda’s decline in recent years stems from the fact that it and its affiliates began carrying out attacks – like the Amman bombings – that appeared, in the eyes of former supporters, to have little to do with grievances, including western support for Israel and Arab despots or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They had more to do with a nihilistic, Manichean view of the world that fetishised violence and preached intolerance towards those who did not adhere to a particular reading of Islam.
Muslim clerics and intellectuals, including some of al-Qaeda’s former fellow travellers, began to unpick the shaky theological foundations of its ideology, isolating it even further. Last year, for example, a group of prominent clerics recast a famous fatwa on jihad by the 14th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who was regularly quoted by bin Laden and his followers, arguing that it did not fit the modern context.
Even before bin Laden’s death, many in the Middle East had observed that his was an increasingly marginal voice, with al-Qaeda’s message that change can come only through violence and terror being undercut by the revolutionary wave now cresting across the region, led by young Arabs seeking freedom and justice through peaceful protest.
As Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s main Islamist party, told Al Jazeera this week: “Bin Laden died in Tunisia before dying in Pakistan.”
In the brave new world promised by the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda has been found sorely wanting: despite all its bombast, it has never toppled any of the venal regimes it rails against, or won a war, or offered anything resembling a constructive and realistic vision for the future.
“Today, ordinary Arabs are fighting and dying for something – freedom – bin Laden and his followers would take away if they had the chance,” says Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Centre.
Having failed to build a significant following, the bin Laden franchise, while still lethal in terms of the jihadi subculture it inspires, has instead been reduced to affiliates in Yemen and north Africa or allies in Pakistan and Somalia. Depleted and dispersed al-Qaeda may be, but the menace it poses may never go away, as demonstrated by last week’s cafe bombing in Marrakesh, in which 16 people died.
In between fussing over her weeks-old son, Khaled, Nadia al-Alami has found time to reflect on how bin Laden’s death comes at a point when al-Qaeda’s appeal has diminished but has not yet been snuffed out.
“Osama bin Laden is gone, but his ideas and influence are still here,” she says, knowing from painful experience that it takes only a handful of individuals to turn al-Qaeda’s ideology into bloody reality.