Bush and bin Laden

Bush and bin Laden

America must pursue the culprits while cultivating allies in the Muslim world.


With 7,000 employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation working round the clock and European intelligence agencies activelycooperating with their US counterparts, it is a matter of time before the Bush Administration apprehends the perpetrators of the terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington on September 11.

The US record in such investigations is impressive. The culprits of the explosion in the World Trade Center in February 1993, which killed six, were tracked down and punished. The same fate befell four of those responsible for bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, who were found guilty and given life sentences in New York in July. They were members of Al Qaeda (the Base), an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, the 44-year-old Saudi fugitive hiding in the mountain fastness of Afghanistan, a country administered by the Taliban Islamic movement according to puritanical interpretations of the Sharia (Islamic law) that most Muslims outside Afghanistan find repulsive.

While the Bush Administration pursues its official policy of arresting and trying bin Laden in a US court, however, it must also re-examine its policies in the Middle East: on the Israel-Palestine conflict, on economic sanctions against Iraq, on isolating Iran and on its stationing of US troops and military hardware on the Arabian Peninsula. That is the only sure way to prevent a recurrence of the September 11 tragedy.

In American eyes bin Laden is the epitome of evil. But, sadly and frustratingly, many Afghans and Pakistanis revere him as a veteran of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, which resulted in the expulsion of Soviet troops. He led the Arab section of foreign Muslims–the mujahedeen, based in Pakistan, who numbered 30,000 throughout the decade–in that campaign.

Working closely with the CIA–which embraced the mujahedeen to further its own cold war geopolitical aims–bin Laden collected funds for the jihad from affluent Saudi citizens, using hard cash in briefcases instead of banks, because of the poor financial infrastructure of Pakistan. These contacts remained useful to him after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1994.

After most of his and his front companies’ cash assets were frozen in the wake of the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania–in which he was a prime suspect–bin Laden is known to have raised funds by trafficking in heroin and smuggling durable consumer goods from the Persian Gulf port of Dubai into Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran. Instead of using conventional methods of raising and transferring funds through banks, bin Laden and his associates have adopted the informal “hundi” system in vogue in South Asia. A Pakistani or Indian expatriate working in the Gulf hands over his money to a local moneylender, who has agents in Pakistani or Indian townsand villages and who communicates with them through handwritten notes or faxes in coded messages. Last year, for every $27 remitted home by Pakistani workers in the Gulf through the normal banking system, an estimated $100 was transmitted through the hundi system, for a total of $3.7 billion. The hundi system has since been extended to Pakistani immigrants in North America and Britain, thus providing Al Qaeda with greater resources to tap.

The terrorist carnage in New York and Washington gave the hunt for bin Laden greater urgency, but it was already under way. Since the 1998 embassy bombings, he has been at the center of themost thorough intelligence campaign against any individual in recent years. This campaign consists of closely monitoring Afghanistan with US satellites, deploying the most sophisticated eavesdropping equipment to record bin Laden’s conversations and using supercomputers to track his bank dealings around the world.

When approached by the Clinton Administration in August 1998 to extradite bin Laden to the United States, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban regime’s chief, said: Pass on the evidence against him to us, and we will prosecute him according to Islamic law; we cannot hand over a pious Muslim to a non-Muslim regime for trial. When the United States failed to do so, the Taliban’s supreme judge declared bin Laden innocent. It is the same story now. Bin Laden denies any involvement in the September 11 attacks, and the Taliban regime has made repeated claims that, sitting in Afghanistan, he could not have masterminded a highly complex operation in the United States.

Capturing bin Laden without the cooperation of the Taliban willbe no easy task. Let us assume, however, the best-case scenario for the Bush Administration: It captures him, prosecutes him successfully and wins the death penalty from the court. Will that be the end of Al Qaeda, which has an estimated 5,000 members organized in cells in thirty-four countries, from the Philippines to North America–including South Asia, East Africa,the Middle East and North Africa? Not likely.

“I am ready to die for Islam,” bin Laden wrote in a letter delivered by hand to Hameed Mir, editor of the Peshawar-based Ausaf daily, after the bombings in New York and Washington. “If I am killed there will be 100 bin Ladens.” In other words, bin Laden represents a sociopolitical phenomenon rather than a one-man mission. For bin Laden and Al Qaeda, attacking American targets is a means, not an end, which is to bring about the overthrow of the corrupt, pro-Washington regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan through popular uprisings.

Were the Bush Administration to overreact and perpetrate a slaughter in Afghanistan or another Muslim country, it would likely aggravate the grievances that many Muslims throughout the world nurse against America: its close alliance with Israel againstthe Palestinians and its immunity to the suffering of Iraqis caused by United Nations sanctions, which have claimed an estimated 500,000 lives in eleven years (the Iraqi authorities put the figure at over 1 million). It might raise the temperature to the point of explosion in some Arab capitals, and thus inadvertently play into the hands of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Bin Laden’s dispute with the status quo in the Middle East started with his native Saudi Arabia. When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and menaced Saudi Arabia, bin Laden proposed a defense plan, based on popular mobilization, to Saudi King Fahd. It was dismissed outright. Instead, the Saudi monarch invited US troops into the country, despite the argument of bin Laden and others that under Islamic law it was forbidden for foreign, infidel forces to be based in Saudi Arabia under their own flag. They referred to the Prophet Mohammed’s words on his deathbed: “Let there be no two religions in Arabia.” Their discontent rose when, having liberated Kuwait in March 1991, the Pentagon failed to carry out full withdrawal of its 550,000 troops from the kingdom while the Saudi authorities kept mum on the subject.

Following a truck bombing in June 1996 near the Dhahran air base in Saudi Arabia, which killed nineteen US servicemen, the Saudi authorities grudgingly acknowledged the presence of 5,000 American troops on their soil. This figure is widely believed to be only a quarter to a third of the actual total.

That is when bin Laden, then based in Afghanistan, issued his call for a jihad against the Americans in Saudi Arabia. “The presence of the American Crusader forces in Muslim Gulf states…is the greatest danger and [poses] the most serious harm, threatening the world’s largest oil reserves,” he said.

“The ordinary Saudi knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services,” he added. “Our country has become a colony of America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America.” Then, taking advantage of the series of crises between Baghdad and Washington on the question of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, bin Laden widened his political canvas.

“Despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the Crusader-Zionist alliance…the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres,” he said as the leader of the International Islamic Front, consisting of militant organizations from Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in February 1998. “The Americans’ objectives behind these wars are religious and economic; their aim is also to serve the Jews’ state, and divert attention away from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.” The eruption of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000 gave further fillip to bin Laden’s rhetoric.

In July an Al Qaeda recruiting videotape, released in the Middle East, intercut gory images of Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinian protesters with Al Qaeda volunteers undergoing military training in Afghanistan.

To counter such propaganda effectively, the United States would need to address certain specific issues urgently. One is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Interestingly, the Bush Administration dropped its insistence on “total quiet” for one week by the Palestinians as a precondition for the peace talks to resume. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rebuffed a personal appeal by President Bush and vetoed Shimon Peres’s scheduled meeting with Yasir Arafat on September 16. In response, the least Bush can do is to publicly ban the use of US-made and -supplied F-16s and Apache attack helicopters against the Palestinians. This would make Sharon sit up and take notice. And it would go some way toward pacifying popular opinion in the Muslim world.

Second, there is the question of the presence of American troops on the Arabian Peninsula. Is it absolutely essential to station 170 US fighters, bombers and tank-killers on the soils of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait? Those who say yes, and argue that they are needed to enforce the no-fly zone in southern Iraq, must remember that these planes complement the ones parked on US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. There is no military reason why the Pentagon cannot shift the responsibility for monitoring the no-fly zone exclusively to these carriers, and thus deprive bin Laden and company of an effective propaganda tool.

Most fundamentally, the United States must sensitize itself to the feelings and perceptions of Muslims everywhere. President Bush’s use of the word “crusade”–a highly loaded and negative term from the Muslim viewpoint, referring to the Christian crusades intoMuslim lands, and mirroring bin Laden’s labeling of Americansas crusaders–illustrates the enormous gap that exists between the White House and the Islamic world. One way for Bush to counter the rising popular animosity toward the United States in the Islamic world would be to appoint a Muslim American to a high-profile Administration post.

Those who argue that now is not the time for Washington to review its Middle Eastern policies for fear of appearing to appease the terrorists miss the fundamental point: Cause precedes effect. To remove the symptom you must tackle the root cause–and the sooner the better.

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