The myth of Usama bin Laden

The myth of Usama bin Laden

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 2 August 1996

Usama bin Laden, the 44-year-old billionaire businessman and terrorist paymaster, has surfaced in Afghanistan two months after being forced to leave Khartoum. Interviewed by the British newspaper The Independent, he warned Britain and France to withdraw their troops from Saudi Arabia if they wished to avoid the fate of 19 Americans killed there by a bomb in June.

What Carlos the Jackal was to the 1960s and 1970s, bin Laden is rapidly becoming in the 1990s: a fugitive beyond the reach of law, with a worldwide reputation established partly by deeds but enhanced by myth. If intelligence services are to be believed, bin Laden and his associates have bankrolled armed Islamic struggles in such far-flung countries as Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Yemen.

The bin Laden family came originally from Aden in southern Yemen. A few of them moved north to Saudi Arabia, where they prospered and were joined by the rest of the family following British withdrawal from Aden and the Marxist takeover. Today there are about 50 members of the family - Saudi citizens - with interests mainly in construction. They are considered the wealthiest non-royal family in the kingdom.

During the Afghan war of the 1980s bin Laden - in common with many other Saudi businessmen - saw a religious duty to support the Islamic rebels financially against Moscow's puppet regime. He could afford to be more generous than most, and he also became more deeply involved than most. Not only did he pay for weapons and what, by his own account, were thousands of Muslim volunteers from the Middle East and North Africa to join the mujahideen, he went there himself and took part in the fighting. Using the resources of his construction business, he blasted new guerrilla trails across the mountains and tunnelled into the rock to create underground hospitals and arms dumps.

The Soviet withdrawal left many of these volunteer fighters at a loose end but still filled with the spirit of jihad. In some ways they were like the American veterans after Vietnam - deprived of adrenalin and unable to adjust to a quiet life. But unlike the Vietnam vets, their efforts had not been futile. They had defeated a superpower and were flushed with success. Many - including Osama - told of narrow escapes from death which led them to believe that God had preserved them for a purpose.

Unwelcome in their home countries, they dispersed throughout the Muslim world and often became involved in local Islamist movements, where they were known as "Kabulis" or "Afghans".

In 1989 he moved to Sudan where he founded the Bin Ladin Company of Khartoum, specialising in construction and the export of sesame seeds. He was also joined by many veterans of the Afghan war.

With the resources, both financial and human, to mount attacks in the name of Islam almost anywhere in the world, Osama and his associates have directed their efforts not only against unbelievers but against other Muslims who were deemed to have strayed from the True Path. As sometimes happens with the super-rich, his lifestyle is modest to the point of asceticism. In Khartoum, he is noted for his good works and his generosity.

Two years ago he was formally disowned by his Saudi relatives and stripped of his Saudi citizenship for "irresponsible activities" which had harmed the kingdom's international relations.

Although not convicted of any crime, he has been named by Egyptian, Algerian, Jordanian and Yemeni authorities as a source of funds for bombing and assassination campaigns.

In the United States, he was listed as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. He is wanted for trial in Yemen, in connection with a wave of bombings and assassinations directed mainly against the YSP. In Jordan in 1994 he was named in court as having funded a plot to assassinate politicians and bomb cinemas, night clubs, video shops and liquor outlets. The 25 accused included bin Laden's son-in-law, Muhammad Khalifa, who was tried in his absence.

Khalifa has business interests in the Philippines, where the authorities have linked him to the Abu Sayyaf ("Father of the Executioner") group which attacked Christians and also, allegedly, plotted to kill the Pope and blow up American airliners over the Pacific.

As bin Laden's reputation spreads, it becomes difficult to separate reality from legend. Local rebel groups are more likely to call on him for funds and can exaggerate their importance by claiming international links. Governments can make rebels appear mercenary by claiming that bin Laden has paid them large sums and, by attributing it to foreign influences, remove the need to find local causes of local terrorism. If he did not exist he would have to be invented.