Monday, 2 May 2011


Osama bin Laden's legacy will be very different for the US than for Afghanistan, different for many Christians and Jews than for many Muslims whether they felt embarrassed by him or quietly backed his cause. He rose into prominence as a result of sacrificing his vast fortune for a fanatic political/religious cause that attracted a core group of people willing to sacrifice themselves. Unlike paramilitary groups like the IRA for example that enjoyed a broad following among nationalist elements, al-Qaeda was never such an organization, bound by religious identity and using substantial sums of money to remain active in its operations.

To a large extent, the US made this man into a hero totally unworthy of his place in history, totally unworthy of the trust and hope many Muslims placed in him and his pitiful organization. The death of bin Laden marks a belated but categorical political triumph for the US, a personal political bonanza to Obama running for reelection on a pathetic record, a temporary boost for the US politically and militarily. The news comes as welcome development for most governments around the world, including the Gaddafi government that al-Qaeda had targeted along with NATO for elimination.

History will have to judge this religious fanatic who used  paramilitary methods to deliver a message of his twisted vision of the Islamic world, yet finding followers among many for whom he is now a martyr, a few who would be willing to die for his cause. A product of resistance guerrilla fighting during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, bin Laden's role was always to destroy what did not conform to his vision.
Using highly-publicized violent incidents to make a political statement, al-Qaeda's appealed to angry Muslims. In the 1990s and until 9/11, al-Qaeda found expression in a religious fanatics against the West that many viewed as threatening Islam.

Coming from a very wealthy Yemeni family, Osama bin Laden was a political non-entity until the US, and specifically the military and CIA, made him into an Arabic rambo-style hero. The origins of bin Laden's rise date to April 1978 when the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took control of the government in Afghanistan in order to promote land reform, labor rights, extensive social services, health and education, gender equality, separation of church and state, and closer ties with the Soviet Union. Why stop such a government from proceeding, instead of helping it? Because Moscow was behind it and the Cold War was the only way to view Afghanistan.

The Muslim clerics and feudal landlords opposed the secular regime. Mujaheddin rebels that US supported to topple the regime marked a new chapter in Afghanistan's history. The USSR made the grave mistake of sending troops to help the PDPA government, thus affording legitimacy to the rebel movement and giving the pretext to the US that Moscow was interested in expanding its influence in the Middle East. The Soviet invasion more or less coincided with the Iranian Revolution that denounced the US as satanic. Given that the entire US intelligence, foreign policy, and defense establishment conceived of developments in the bipolar Cold War mode of thinking, it made perfect sense to support a reactionary religious fanatics, including bin Laden, against the PDPA.

In 1980, bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan armed with enormous amounts of money (some allegedly coming from the Saudi royal family). Bin Laden's mercenaries were bent on fighting for Allah against the Moscow-backed PDPA government and US could not have found a better ally. In 1987, bin Laden established 'the base' al-Qaeda, behind which was Pakistani intelligence, and behind that was the CIA.

It is estimated that the US, backed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, provided between $6 and $20 billion to finance the rebel movement in Afghanistan, but there is no empirical evidence to pin down exact figures and how the money was distributed. In that movement was Osama bin Laden as an ardent US supporter against atheist Moscow pushing secularism in Afghanistan.

While there is no hard evidence that the US or Saudi Arabia for that matter collaborated provided in any way, helped train, or funded al-Qaeda, there is no question that at the very least the US and Saudi Arabia were on the same side as al-Qadea and mercenaries in Afghanistan. Former US officials admit that US money, training and arms went to 'foreign volunteers' but it was for the good cause of defeating the Soviets! The CIA was very active in the 1980s guiding the anti-Soviet rebel movement, in everything from opium-heroin operations to arms smuggling.

In 1986, CIA director Bill Casey cooperated with Pakistani intelligence to recruit more than 100,000 Muslim rebels to fight against the pro-Soviet regime whose main goal was to secularize and modernize Afghanistan that lived in a Medieval mode. The US financed and trained some of the rebels that would later join bin Laden and the US embassy bombings of Tanzania and Kenya.  However, Cold War ideological considerations took precedence over the reality that it was in the interest of Afghan people and the world to have the PDPA regime succeed.

Osama followed a long-standing tradition of Arabs that out of anger, frustration, and apparent lack of other alternatives, chose violence carried out by trained cells that operated in different parts of the world, instead of a single country. Instead of trying to organize Muslims at the grass roots and to allow the people to be engaged in their own struggle for social justice, the bin Laden group opted for high-publicity 'hits'. Such acts gave the US the pretext to launch its own war on terror campaign for its own political, ideological, and economic reasons.

Bin Laden is not in the same category as the great Salāh-ed-Dīn-e Ayyūbī (1138 –1193) who fought against the crusaders and relied on grass roots mobilization, diplomacy and on force only when needed in order to forge solidarity among Arabs. Nor was bin Laden like Mohammad Ali (1769 –1849) who struggled to modernize Egypt and prevent it from falling into the hands of European imperialists. Although it is certain that millions of Muslims may think of him as a hero and martyr who gave his life for the cause of freedom from foreign subjugation, he did not opt for a constructive course or goals toward social justice, preferring instead publicity through paramilitary hits on civilian targets.

Just as there was 'terrorism' long before bin Laden, this chapter in human history is not closed. Al-Qaeda did not invent anything, it merely continued on what already existed on the part of groups and states for centuries. The death of bin Laden is an opportunity for the US to reassess its war on terror, to put behind the diplomacy of adventurism, double-dealing, intrigue, and military solutions to political problems. It is within the power of the US to put an end to policies that give rise to more Muslim 'rambos'. Given the statements of US officials after Obama announced bin Laden's death, I fear that the US wants to continue using the war on terror for both domestic and foreign policy considerations.

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