Saturday 23 September 2017

Seeds of 9/11 sown long before shocking attack

By creating an outrage that nobody could ignore, Bin Laden lured the US into retaliation he craved

OSAMA Bin Laden, who has been killed by US forces aged 54, was the world's most wanted international terrorist and the presumed architect of the shocking events of September 11, 2001, when hijacked jets ploughed into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, killing thousands of people.

Bin Laden became the poster boy for Islamist anti-Western militancy, yet he had not always been seen as an enemy of the West. During the war to drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, he and his allies in the Mujahideen were feted as freedom fighters against communist repression.

His organisation, al-Qa'ida, had initially set its sights on fomenting jihad in "ungodly" Muslim states. Bin Laden's initial aim was to bring all Muslim lands and holy places into a "Caliphate" under strict Sharia law;and in the 1990s, extremists trained in al-Qa'ida camps became a destabilising factor throughout the Middle East.

In Algeria, they led the Armed Islamic Group in the vicious civil war that broke out in 1992. In Egypt, they led the struggle to overthrow the American-backed government of Hosni Mubarak and were behind the massacre of tourists at Luxor in 1997. They fought in Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Kashmir and the Philippines.

The road to 9/11 began in 1990 when an 800,000-strong American-led force arrived in Saudi Arabia following the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. To Bin Laden, America's presence represented a violation of Islam's holiest sanctuaries and proof of the irredeemable corruption of the ruling Al Saud dynasty.

As a result, he vowed to "liberate the Holy Places" in a jihad against the superpower and its acolytes in the region.

In the run-up to 9/11, al-Qa'ida terrorists were held responsible for a series of attacks on American targets, including the killing in 1996 of 19 US soldiers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; the bombings in 1998 of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 250 people and injured more than 5,500; and the bombing in 2000 of the US Navy destroyer Cole during a brief refuelling stop in Aden, which killed 17 US servicemen.

There was nothing inevitable about 9/11. Al-Qa'ida's previous attacks had left a trail of clues that could have been followed up, but were not. For the story of Bin Laden is also a story of bureaucratic bungling in the US intelligence services, and of tactical miscalculation and political failure at the highest reaches of the American administration.

Osama bin Mohammed bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on March 10, 1957.

His father, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, had started out as an illiterate dockside labourer in Yemen before buying a place on a camel caravan to the newly created kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There he grew extremely rich through the family construction company.

Osama (which means "young lion" in Arabic) was the 17th of Mohammed's 52 (or 53) children. His Syrian-born mother, Alia Ghanem, was Mohammed's 10th wife and the least favoured of his four wives at that time.

Osama was said to have resented living in the shadow of his older half-brothers and to being referred to by some of his relatives as "son of a slave".

When Osama was four or five, Mohammed bin Laden died in a plane crash. His estate passed to his children in the form of shares in the family company. Estimates of Osama's share range from $35m (€23m) to $250m (€168m).

Osama enrolled at al-Thager, Jeddah's best school. He was shy, immature and not particularly bright; but at the age of 14 seems to have experienced some sort of religious awakening, possibly influenced by a charismatic Syrian gym teacher who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, he stopped watching the Western films he had loved and refused to wear western dress outside school.

His religious views hardened at King Abdel Aziz University in Jeddah, where he studied economics and public administration during the late 1970s.

There he was inspired by the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a major figure in the Muslim Brotherhood and in radical Islam. True Muslims, Qutb said, must free themselves from the "clutches of jahili society" by jihad.

Bin Laden dropped out of university early to work for the family company, but in 1979 he found the cause that was to change his life when the Soviets launched an invasion of Afghanistan.

In 1984, Bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, a charismatic Palestinian theologian who had taught at King Abdel Aziz University, established the Maktab al-Khadamat (Services Office) to organise guesthouses in Pakistan and paramilitary training camps in Afghanistan for international recruits for the Afghan war front. The Bin Laden group became a pipeline for radicals who wanted to fight in Afghanistan, and Bin Laden emerged as a talented fundraiser, persuading wealthy individuals, including members of the Saudi royal family, to contribute to the cause. He brought in equipment from his family's firm to build tunnels, camps and hideaways in the mountains. In 1986, he established his own training camp for Persian Gulf Arabs called al-Masadah, or the Lion's Den.

Arab mythology holds that the "Arab Afghans" played a decisive role in the struggle against the Soviet Union. In fact, there were never more than about 2,000 Arabs fighting at any one time. They were a ragbag, ranging from disaffected radicals and suicidal zealots to rich kids looking for adventure.

In the dying days of the war in 1987, Bin Laden helped lead the Arab Afghans in defending the Lion's Den against attack by Soviet troops. From the Soviet perspective, the battle was a small episode in their retreat from Afghanistan, but for Bin Laden and his followers it was divine proof that they had crushed the mighty Soviets.

By this time, Bin Laden's politics had moved in a more radical direction. In around 1986, he had met Ayman al-Zawahiri, a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a long-time opponent of the secular regime of Mubarak. Zawahiri had moved to Peshawar after spending several years in a Cairo jail, from which he had emerged embittered, determined and short of cash. Bin Laden was exactly what he had been looking for.

In 1988, with the Soviets in full retreat, a meeting took place in the Afghan town of Khost at which it was agreed to establish a new organisation that would wage jihad beyond the borders of Afghanistan. The organisation came to be called al-Qa'ida ("the Base") and was conceived as a loose affiliation among individual mujahideen and jihadist groups dominated by Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad. The ultimate leader, however, was Bin Laden, who held the purse strings.

When Bin Laden returned to Jeddah and to the family business in 1989, he was hailed as the conquering hero who had humbled a mighty superpower.

But it was America's involvement in the Gulf War that turned Bin Laden into an implacable opponent of the Saudi royal family. The Saudis were not disposed to tolerate his calls to insurrection, and quickly acted against him. In 1991, he was expelled from the country. Together with his family and a large band of followers, Bin Laden moved to Khartoum in Sudan, where he was joined by Zawahiri and his followers in Islamic Jihad.

In the early 1990s, al-Qa'ida-trained fighters were involved in a number of attacks around the world, including the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing. But by the mid-1990s, very little had come of them, there had been a series of high-profile defections and most of Bin Laden's business ventures had lost money.

After the 1995 Islamic Jihad suicide bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, which killed 17 people and wounded 60 others, the Sudanese authorities yielded to Saudi and American pressure to expel the two men and their followers.

In May 1996, Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan, where he was greeted by a delegation sent by the Taliban's leader Mullah Omar. Working through faxes, satellite telephones and the internet, he kept in touch with his followers all over the world. From then on, Bin Laden began to lay out his case against America in a series of fatwas faxed to the outside world.

The fatwas received little attention until August 1998, when hundreds of people were killed in simultaneous car-bomb explosions at the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The attacks, linked to local members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, brought Bin Laden and Zawahiri to US attention for the first time, and resulted in the FBI placing Bin Laden on its 10 Most Wanted list.

In retaliation for the attacks, US President Bill Clinton ordered a series of military strikes. The Americans fired some 100 cruise missiles at Bin Laden's guerrilla bases in Afghanistan. Though around 20 casualties were inflicted, none of al-Qa'ida's leaders was harmed.

The effect was to expose the inadequacy of US intelligence, while establishing Bin Laden as a heroic symbol of resistance to the American superpower. As a result, donations began to pour in, and recruits -- disaffected men from the Muslim world and Muslim enclaves in the West -- began to flock to al-Qa'ida training camps.

The Taliban refused to hand Bin Laden over to the Americans despite punitive sanctions imposed by the UN; but with a $5m (€3.4m) reward on his head, Bin Laden could not afford to take chances. He led a peripatetic life, moving frequently between several bases in Afghanistan.

The three years between the embassy attacks and 9/11 were notable for a series of bureaucratic and diplomatic blunders by those whose business it was to prevent another outrage. From phone tapping activities, the CIA knew that high-level al-Qa'ida operatives had held a meeting in Malaysia in January 2000 and, later, that two of them had entered the US.

Both men turned out to be part of the team that hijacked the planes on 9/11, yet the CIA failed to inform the FBI -- which might have been able to locate the men and break up the plot -- until it was too late.

Bin Laden's goal in striking the US embassies and bombing Cole in 2000 was to lure the Americans into that same trap the Soviets had fallen into: Afghanistan. When these attacks failed to provoke the massive retaliation he craved, he set to work to create an outrage that no one could ignore.

After the 9/11 attacks, US government officials named Bin Laden and the al-Qa'ida organisation as the prime suspects and offered a reward of $25m (€16.8m) for information leading to his capture or death.

A month after the attacks, the US and its allies launched an invasion of Afghanistan with the stated purpose of capturing Bin Laden, destroying al-Qa'ida and removing the Taliban.

The initial attack removed the Taliban from power, but was less successful in locating Bin Laden. A mystery remained over his whereabouts and over the next few years various claims were made. The consensus among experts was that he and his followers had slipped away into the tribal areas along the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it was here that they began to regroup.

The July 7 bomb attacks in London in 2005 and the discovery of a plot in August 2006 to blow up 10 aircraft en route from Britain to the US provided incontrovertible evidence that al-Qa'ida was back, and that it was prepared to go after hard targets.

On September 17, 2001, President George W Bush had publicly proclaimed that he wanted Bin Laden brought to justice "dead or alive".

But when Bush left office in 2009, Bin Laden was still at large and still dangerous.

Bush's successor Barack Obama had a vivid reminder of that fact when, shortly after his inauguration, an audio message was posted on an Islamic website in which Bin Laden could be heard warning the new president that he had inherited "a long guerrilla war against a patient, stubborn adversary" that was looking to open new fronts. In the event, it was Mr Obama who, in the early hours of May 2, announced Bin Laden's death at the hands of US forces in a targeted attack on a compound 35 miles from the Pakistani capital Islamabad.

Bin Laden seldom referred to his own family, but it is widely believed that he married his first cousin when he was 17 and later married four other women. He is believed to have fathered at least 13 children. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in World News