Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, died on May 2nd, aged 54
May 5th 2011 | from the print edition
WHEN he gave interviews to foreign journalists, which he did rarely, Osama bin Laden had a way of looking down at his hands. This, and his soft, slightly raspy voice, and his gentle eyes—as well as the fact that he allowed no instantaneous translation—helped conceal what he was saying: that it was the duty of all Muslims to kill unbelievers, especially Americans, and that when he had seen the bodies of the infidels flying “like dust motes” on September 11th 2001, his heart had filled with joy.
His mien was that of the sage, not the killer. He seldom shed blood himself, though his treasured Kalashnikov, which he carried everywhere, was said to have been wrested in single combat from a Russian soldier in Afghanistan. As a rule he observed from afar as “his boys” blew up the American base at Khobar in Saudi Arabia, or the USS Cole in Yemen (he wrote a poem about that, the little dinghy bobbing on the waves) or the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, where in 1998 more than 200 died. Terrorism could be commendable or reprehensible, he smoothly agreed, but this was “blessed terror”, in defence of Islam. At first he denied any part in the 9/11 attacks, but at last pride got the better of him: yes, it was he who had guided his 19 brothers towards their “easy” targets.
How he really saw himself was as a construction engineer. Construction had made the bin Laden family fortune, $5 billion at least, from which he had inherited $25m-30m. (There had been much more, perhaps $250m, and a yearly stipend of $7m, until his native Saudi Arabia expelled him in 1991 and froze his assets; but Allah provided for his servant, and some of his several dozen half-brothers and sisters slipped him money.) In the 1980s he bought excavators, dump trucks and bulldozers, sometimes driving them himself, digging trenches for the mujahideen to fight along in Afghanistan against the Soviet invaders, blasting tunnels in the mountains for their arms dumps and field hospitals, until in 1989 the unbeliever-enemy withdrew in shame and disgrace.
He made roads in Sudan, too, when he was exiled there in the 1990s, including a new highway from Khartoum to Port Sudan. But he was mostly building his terror network, starting with the guesthouses and weapons he provided in Afghanistan through his maktab al-khidamat (“services office”), then creating al-Qaeda, “the base”. Much of this was done with Abdullah Azzam, his religious mentor; later, the terror-work was directed by Ayman al-Zawahiri and others; but it was he who first recorded, in hundreds of individual files, the details of each eager recruit, the date of arrival, what he had done for the cause. Keenly, he followed the media coverage of the atrocities he inspired, playing the world’s press like a violin when he chose. He built the brand and turned it into a global franchise; his face advertised it, even as he disappeared. If just two fighters held up a piece of cloth with “al-Qaeda” on it, he said proudly, American generals would run to the place in swarms.
His mind and approach were those of a businessman. The same caution that characterised his fugitive existence in Afghanistan and Pakistan—avoiding phones, the internet, even watches, anything that might be used to track him, slipping from cave to safe house to compound—featured in his investments, which were profitable and practical. No political ideology guided him, though he might lie for hours at night thinking, or read for most of the day. The polite, pious rich boy, who had left university without a degree, became neither an intellectual nor a visionary.
Pure rage was all he needed, roused especially by the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the arrival of American troops in Saudi Arabia, on the holy ground of the two mosques in Mecca and Medina, in 1990. Hatred of America had tormented him for as long as he could remember. To drive out the infidels, to establish Palestine and destroy Israel, to eject the “heretics” who ruled in Saudi Arabia, to purify Islam itself with Wahhabist fundamentalism, were his ambitions. If they boiled down to a doctrine, it was a violent form of jihad, the holy duty of all Muslims, to make God’s word victorious; or just what he called “reciprocity”, an eye for an eye.
Facing the assassins
Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars; who enjoyed the BBC World Service and would go hunting with friends each Friday, sometimes mounted, like the Prophet, on a white horse. He liked the comparison. Yet the best thing in his life, he said, was that his jihads had destroyed the myth of all-conquering superpowers.
The price set on his head for more than a decade never bothered him, for Allah determined every breath in his body, and could ensure that the bombs dropped on his hideout at Tora Bora, or on his convoy through the mountains, never touched him. His martyr’s time would come when it came. The difference between pure Muslims and Americans, he said, was that Americans loved life, whereas Muslims loved death. Whether or not he resisted when the Crusaders’ special forces arrived, their bullets could only exalt him.