Who is Osama bin Laden


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Category: Profiles Date: 23 Sep 01

A war unfolds


This is the first in a series of interviews conducted via e-mail with middle eastern expert Lawrence Joffe following the horrific events of September 11 in which up to 7,000 people may have perished in terrorist attacks in the US. An Oxford graduate in philosophy and politics, Mr Joffe, based in London, is the author of Keesings Guide to the Middle East Peace Process, freelance writer for The Guardian (UK) and BBC News 24 and Sky News commentator.


Who is Osama bin Laden, America’s prime suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks?


Osama bin Laden was born 44 years ago to an immensely rich family which runs the largest construction company in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His personal wealth has been estimated at US$300 million.


What has spawned him?

Curiously enough, bin Laden is very much a product of the old Cold War. During the Afghan civil war, where he made his name, the USSR provided him with an enemy. The USA was then his friend and sponsor.


In those days, it was deemed to be in America’s interest to back whoever opposed the Soviets. The paradox is the USA despised the “fundamentalists” who had taken power in Iran in 1979, and who had overthrown their ally, the Shah. Yet, at precisely the same time, they began pumping vast amounts of arms and money into the hands of the fundamentalists of Afghanistan, known as the Mujaheddin, who they hailed as “freedom fighters.”


Why is bin Laden America’s prime suspect and most wanted man?

This is at least the fourth major attack bin Laden has launched on US citizens. First, he helped corral the Somali rebels who humiliated US troops in Somalia.


Next, according to the tremendous welter of evidence from the recent trial, he masterminded the bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and Nairobi in Kenya in 1998, which killed well over 200 innocent Africans, and 12 US embassy staff.


Last October, a suicide squad allegedly affiliated with bin Laden tried to sink the USS Cole off Yemen, killing 18 navy personnel. And now we have the World Trade Center atrocity, the targeting of the Pentagon, and with them, the deaths of up to 7,000 people.


Considered together, the events of September 11 constitute the most serious and devastating attack yet attributed to bin Laden’s organisation. They also were the first carried out in the USA itself. Over the last week, compelling evidence has emerged that all 19 hijackers, in some way or other, were connected with bin Laden’s al-Qa’eda network. Even if bin Laden did not personally oversee this operation, it appears incontrovertible that his so-called “fatwa” against the USA of May 1998 inspired the operation.


What is al-Qa’eda?

Al-Qa’eda simply means “The Base” in Arabic.

It has become the general umbrella name for bin Laden’s organisation in Afghanistan - and, in a broader sense, for his entire network of activists throughout the Middle East, Europe, Africa, America, Asia.


It is said bin Laden has agents in 60 countries. The group musters some 3,000 fighters in various bases (other than the 5,000 worldwide). It is now closely affiliated with the Taliban, and is better equipped than the regular Taliban forces.


Bin Laden set up the al-Qa’eda in the 1980s, inspired ideologically then by the Palestinian militant, Sheikh Abdallah Azzam, but reactivated it as its more determined leader, when he returned to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996.


The group has stinger missiles, numerous caves and training grounds, armoured vehicles with Internet facilities and reputedly small suitcase nuclear weapons. Politically, al-Qa’eda became increasingly affiliated with the Taliban in their battle against other Mujaheddin.


In earlier days, bin Laden used al-Qa’eda as headquarters for a vast construction, hospital, welfare and social support network for Mujaheddin fighters and their families. His millions went far in a dreadfully poor nation like Afghanistan. This explains much of his undeniable popular appeal at grassroots level.


Isn’t bin Laden and al-Qa’eda the symptom of America’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world rather than the problem?

That begs the question: What is “the problem”?

It is certainly true there are profound grievances in the Arab and Muslim world, and bin Laden feeds on these feelings of unease.

To list a few: Awful disparities of wealth between rich and poor in the Arab world; a feeling of humiliation engendered by military defeats, whether of Arab states at the hands of Israel, or Saddam Hussein at the hands of the 1991 pro-Kuwaiti “coalition” (though largely the USA and UK).

In addition, many Arabs refuse to accept the idea of an “alien” Jewish state (namely Israel) residing in the heart of the Muslim world. Even amongst those Arabs who recognise Israel’s right to exist, most resent the support the USA lavishes on the State.

Furthermore, there were “moderate” Arabs who hoped the Madrid conference of 1991 and the Oslo peace process would herald the creation of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. That has failed to materialise.

The intifada that re-erupted exactly a year ago has merely exacerbated these feelings of disappointment and resentment. Many Arabs accuse the USA of double standards by chastising Arabs for not adopting democracy but turning a blind eye to perceived Israeli crimes, like cordoning off the occupied territories, continuing to build settlements there, and assassinating Palestinian leaders with apparent impunity.

Another glaring grievance is the continuing sanctions regime on Iraq, which commentators claim has led to - or even caused - the deaths of half a million Iraqi infants.


Is there any religious or other justification for the terror attacks on America?

No. There might be reasons to explain what inspired misfits to do this, or explanations of political grievances, real or perceived - but, to paraphrase the leading Sunni mufti of Al Azhar, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi, “there is no justification for killing innocent people, in any of the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.”


Next week: A war unfolds continues, with expert analysis from Lawrence Joffe.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur