Osama spoke out against the US invasion of Iraq in 1990 because it put troops on Saudi soil, a sacrilege to have the infidel so close to Mecca. He emigrated to Pakistan, Afghanistan and then Sudan to organise jihad against the foreign invader. From Sudan, Osama launched his first attack – on Yemen – and also fought against the Americans in Mogadishu in 1993. Under international pressure in 1996, Sudan president Bashir told him he could no longer protect him from assassination. After meeting Mullah Omah, he moved to Afghanistan and threw his weight behind the Taliban. That year he also sent his declaration of war against Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites to British based Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan.
Atwan interviewed Bin Laden at the Tora Bora Caves in the winter of 1996. He was struck by how modestly Bin Laden lived. His austerity contributed to an air of a champion of revolution. After the Taliban overran the Northern Alliance, they refused Americans demands to hand him over. These requests continued “until just days before” 9/11.
The Taliban wanted proof of his involvement in criminal offences; the US demurred. They would never offer the Taliban a face-saving way out and continued to insist bin Laden face trial in the US justice system. Even after 9/11, the Taliban offered to handover Bin Laden. Spokesman Amir Khan Muttaqi said in late October 2001, “we do not want to fight. We will negotiate. But talk to us like a sovereign country. We are not a province of the United States, to be issued orders to. We have asked for proof of Osama’s involvement, but they have refused. Why?”
The answer was that Osama had nothing to do with the American demand, nor was there any convincing evidence linking him to 9/11. The PNAC wanted war in Afghanistan and Iraq and capturing Osama would not aid that outcome. As Guy Rundle said, for Osama surviving the war by three months was an achievement, but 10 years was a major victory. “Bin Laden won this one, every year since 2001, a shelf of premierships, the phantom West versus the phantom al-Qaeda,” Rundle said. “If he lost in the Arab heartland, where it matters, it’s because, as a conspiracy rather than a movement, it was always going to, as a real historical process took over there.”
Though many in the Arab world supported Bin Laden after 9/11, his reputation has been nosediving in recent years. Al Qaeda’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Jordan and Iraq alienated many Muslims as did links to Wahhabi extremism. The Arab pro-democracy revolutions have also left the terror groups feeling irrelevant. Paul Mason at the BBC said Osama died politically on 25 January at Tahrir Square in Cairo.
His real death was not long in coming. The CIA found him through a Libyan named Abu al-Libi, who was with Bin Laden in Afghanistan and later fled to Peshawar. A courier named Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan contacted al-Libi and asked him to work for Bin Laden. Jan wanted al-Libi to collect donations, organise travel and distribute funds for families in Pakistan. In 2003 al-Libi moved to Abbottabad and worked the link back to Peshawar. The US captured Al-Libi two years later and he was among a network of couriers the CIA interrogated to pin down Bin Laden’s whereabouts.
He was found in the flash suburb of Bilal in the city of Abbottabad named for British army officer General Sir James Abbott. Abbottabad is a military-cantonment city in the hills north of Islamabad, where much of the land is controlled by the Pakistani Army and retired Army officers. Osama was housed under state control, protected by the human shield of a sympathetic Pakistani military and ISI, or so he thought.
On Sunday, US helicopters stormed the area. One eye witness stood on his roof and saw people attacking a house where women and children were screaming and crying. The women and children were loaded onto a chopper with “some other stuff” and flown away. “Geronimo EKIA,” the mission team reported back to the White House and Obama went on air at 11.55pm Eastern Time to tell Americans the news.
Obama said his troops had killed Osama. The justification was 9/11, “carried out by al Qaeda – an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe.” Death was the simplest solution, as Robert Fisk said a court would have worried more people than Bin Laden. America never wanted more than his body “in custody”.
Obama said intelligence led them to Osama in Abbottabad. “Last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorised an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.” Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA who ran the mission, was rewarded with the Defence Secretary job to replace retiring Republican appointee Robert Gates.
Now other Republicans want some of the credit for this “justice”. It was the strict laws and waterboarding Bush put in place, they argued, that laid the groundwork for the capture. As left-leaning Talking Points Memo acidly put it, the credit had to extend to two presidents: one who didn’t find bin Laden, and one who did.
Obama should soak it up while he can. For everyone saying this was a massive boost for Obama’s re-election there were others who said it was not. The question is how does Osama’s death affect Obama’s attitude to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Salman Rushdie has called on the world to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. The narrative propelling the $1.3 trillion war on terror and the Western presence in Afghanistan will prove harder to sustain. The truth of Bin Laden’s death will also struggle against the weight of conspiracy theories with Pakistan Taliban among those saying he is still alive.
It is not just the theorists having loopy moments, the media are too. There were fake pictures and a fake quote but Twitter bignoted itself best by breaking the news in “a CNN moment”. The firefight was live tweeted by someone who had no idea what he was seeing and then broken by Keith Urbahn, Rumsfeld’s chief of staff who heard rumours of the operation.
Within hours, the Internet was awash with speculation and memes. If social media really is the future of news it is a serious worry. As Twin Laden pointed out we “only deal with news through a prism of pop culture references, manic hysteria and unfettered ego”. Osama’s death will add to the myth of his life.