The death of Osama bin Laden

Kabul kids -- by Mark Knobil

In October 1998, Eqbal Ahmad, a brave Pakistani secularist reminisced:

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan received a group of bearded men…They were very ferocious-looking bearded men with turbans looking like they came from another century. President Reagan received them in the White House. After receiving them he spoke to the press. He pointed towards them, I’m sure some of you will recall that moment, and said, “These are the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers”. These were the Afghan Mujahiddin. They were at the time, guns in hand, battling the Evil Empire. They were the moral equivalent of our founding fathers!

In August 1998, another American President ordered missile strikes from the American navy based in the Indian Ocean to kill Osama Bin Laden and his men in the camps in Afghanistan. I do not wish to embarrass you with the reminder that Mr. Bin Laden, whom fifteen American missiles were fired to hit in Afghanistan, was only a few years ago the moral equivalent of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson!

Ahmad went on to describe meeting bin Laden in 1986, on the recommendation of an American official. Bin Laden was considered a ‘prize recruit’, because he was a multimillionaire, ‘willing to put his own money into … recruiting people for the jihad against communism’. Bin Laden proceeded to turn on the US in response to US soldiers remaining in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War. Elsewhere, Ahmad warned: ‘The United States has sowed in the Middle East and in South Asia very poisonous seeds. These seeds are growing now. Some have ripened, and others are ripening.’

In January 1998, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, was asked if he regretted arming the fanatical jihadis in Afghanistan:

B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? … What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, extremist warlords devastated the country, followed by the beginning of the Taliban’s cruel and oppressive rule (which at least offered the prospect of an end to decades of bloody war). More than three decades since the Soviet invasion, war continues to ravage Afghanistan; its long-suffering populace continues to live under brutal foreign occupation, a puppet government installed by invaders and the threat of terror from the Islamist warlords across the country.

The legacy of this jihad does not just live on in Afghanistan. In Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq executed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, and proceeded to Islamise the country, in an attempt to legitimise his rule. As Giles Kepel notes, his measures included ‘an examination of all existing laws to verify their conformity with sharia; the introduction of an Islamic penal code including corporal punishment or hudud (severing thieves’ limbs, stoning adulterous women, whipping drinkers of alcohol and so on); and the Islamization of education and of every aspect of the economy’.

From 1982 Zia received about US$1.2 billion annually from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, and the US to arm, train and organise the jihadis. The Islamisation of education included the extremist madrassas Zia set up across the country. Pakistani dissident and secularist Pervez Hoodbhoy estimates that there are some 18–22 000 madrassas across Pakistan today. They, too, have left a devastating legacy of fanatical extremism. For example, there is the Pakistani Taliban Movement (Tehreek-e-Taliban), who ‘have proudly claimed credit as Taliban fighters for suicide bombings of many funerals, rival mosques, hospitals, and public gatherings. After blowing up 350 girls schools they say they will blow up still more’.

With this history in mind, it takes some audacity for Western commentators to describe Pakistan as a notorious supporter of terrorism, wondering how we civilised folks should deal with such failure to properly address the evils of Islamist fanaticism and terrorism. Indeed, it may be worth also mentioning that secular voices in Iraq have cried out, largely to the indifference to the Western world, about similar policies in our war on Iraq.

In 2007, Madre wrote in an important report that since the 2003 invasion:

Iraqi women have endured a wave of gender-based violence, including widespread abductions, public beatings, death threats, sexual assaults, “honour killings,” domestic abuse, torture in detention, beheadings, shootings, and public hangings. … the most widespread violence has been committed by the Shiite militias affiliated with the US-backed government.

They noted that the US ‘decisively traded women’s rights for cooperation from the Islamists whom it boosted to power’. This trend continued when the US later supported the extremely misogynistic, al-Qaeda splinters in the Sunni Awakening, again hoping for short term gains, without reckoning on the predictable long-term consequences of the ‘poisonous seeds’ it was sowing.

As to bin Laden himself, one can rehash old ground. He was a Wahhabi fanatic, and, as As’ad AbuKhalil said, a ‘fanatical terrorist’. However, notwithstanding the length of his beard, many people in the West don’t seem to realise that bin Laden was not a religious scholar. At university he studied management and administration. The fact that he considered his actions sanctioned by god doesn’t endow them with any religious significance, any more than President Bush claiming divine endorsement does. After 9/11, leading Muslim clerics denounced the atrocity, including the Saudi Mufti, the clerics of Al Azhar, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and influential tele-Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi. While the current Hamas leadership was stupid enough to praise bin Laden in death, Hamas’s founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin condemned 9/11 when it happened.

Bin Laden claimed to have been greatly influenced in his hatred of the US by the brutal Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. One can dismiss this out of hand: bin Laden was then allied with the US against the Soviet oppressors. However, the question of Palestine is very close to the hearts of many throughout the Muslim world, and bin Laden undoubtedly sought to gain adherents to his great jihad through more secular issues with widespread support, rather than his extremist ideology. As experienced Middle Eastern correspondent Nir Rosen notes, there were no more than a few hundred members of al Qaeda, out of more than a billion Muslims – ‘a fringe organisation without roots in the Arab world.’

Even General Petraeus says there are less than 100 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s terrible crimes on September 11 constituted rather spectacular successes for such a small group. One does not expect any repeat performances from them. Nir Rosen writes that al Qaeda’s ‘most important legacy’ is as ‘a Sunni group fighting Shiites in a sectarian war’ throughout the Middle East.

That is not to say that we in the West are now safe from the threat of terrorism. After reviewing bin Laden’s recorded statements, American journalist Charles Glass noted:

He does not appear to be deranged, as his detractors insist he is. His message is plain: leave the Muslim world alone, and it will leave you alone. Kill Muslims, and they will kill you. ‘America won’t be able to leave this ordeal unless it pulls out of the Arabian Peninsula, and it ceases its meddling in Palestine, and throughout the Islamic world,’ bin Laden told the al-Jazeera correspondent Taysir Alluni six weeks after the 11 September attacks.

‘So, as they kill us, without a doubt we have to kill them, until we obtain a balance of terror. This is the first time, in recent years, that the balance of terror has evened out between the Muslims and the Americans; previously, the Americans did to us whatever they pleased, and the victim wasn’t even allowed to complain.’

Plainly, no sane person should support terrorism, regardless of who is targeted by it. However, it might be a good idea for people in the West to consider the Muslim grievances such rhetoric draws on. Bruce Lawrence, introducing Bin Laden’s Messages to the World, wrote that ‘he is first and foremost a polemicist’. Those who cannot understand why his words against western imperialism resonate so strongly will not be able to understand how to respond effectively to future threats of terrorism.

There was a time when such analysis was considered apologetics for terrorism. This should have been put to rest when the last President Bush declared that the American ‘policy of tolerating tyranny is a moral and strategic failure’ which ‘does not lead to peace – it leads to September the 11th, 2001’. The execution of bin Laden does not change the truth of these words. The elimination of one man does not end the threat to us, nor does it change the moral case for changing our foreign policy.

I have described above one such example: US support for perhaps Pakistan’s most brutal dictator. It is also worth noting, US drone attacks on Pakistan were estimated to have killed between 1283 and 1971 people. As Johann Hari revealed: ‘David Kilcullen is a counter-insurgency expert who worked for General Petraeus in Iraq and now advises the State Department. He has shown that two per cent of the people killed by the robot-planes in Pakistan are jihadis. The remaining 98 per cent are as innocent as the victims of 9/11.’

It is also worthwhile remembering Edward Peck’s interview on Democracy Now:

In 1985, when I was the Deputy Director of the Reagan White House Task Force on Terrorism, they asked us—this is a Cabinet Task Force on Terrorism; I was the Deputy Director of the working group—they asked us to come up with a definition of terrorism that could be used throughout the government. We produced about six, and each and every case, they were rejected, because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities.

Five days before bin Laden was killed, on April 27, Orlando Bosch died ‘at a hospital in Miami. No cause of death was reported’. This obviously was not considered an important story, and has not rated comparably to the coverage of bin Laden’s death. The Washington Post noted that Bosch was ‘linked to the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner’. This is a polite way of saying he was one of the leading figures in organising the bombing, which killed 73 people, including the entire Cuban national fencing team (remember the outrage over Munich?).

The National Security Archive website features declassified CIA and FBI documents, including:

CIA trace reports covering the Agency’s recruitment of Posada in the 1960s, as well as the FBI intelligence reporting on the downing of the plane. The Archive also posted a second FBI report, dated one day after the bombing, in which a confidential source “all but admitted that Posada and [Orlando] Bosch had engineered the bombing of the airline … The documents… include CIA records confirming that [Luis] Posada [Carriles] was an agent in the 1960s and early 1970s, and remained an informant in regular contact with CIA officials at least until June 1976.

Bosch was held for eleven years in Venezuela, and then moved to Miami in 1988 – where he was arrested for violating parole of an earlier terrorist offence. The US Attorney General wanted to deport Bosch, as he had been ‘resolute and unwavering in his advocacy of terrorist violence’ and had repeatedly ‘demonstrated a willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death’. Senior President Bush, however, released Bosch from prison in 1990.

Earlier in April, Posada was acquitted of: ‘11 counts of perjury, obstruction and immigration fraud in connection with a 1999 bombing of a Havana hotel that killed an Italian businessman … The acquittal virtually insures that Posada will never be brought to justice for his role in the 1976 bombing.’ Venezuela has sought to extradite him for the bombing, but, the Economist reports: ‘a Florida judge refused to deport him to Venezuela because of the risk that he might be tortured—a curious ruling, given that Hugo Chávez’s government has no significant track record of torture, while the conditions to which America subjected its detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo were already well-known.’

Suppose Cuba (or Venezuela) were to adopt American standards of justice. They would not have bothered with seeking to extradite Posada or letting Bosch die of natural causes at the age of 84. They would not have declared that they had the right to kill terrorists anywhere in the world. They would have sent hit teams into the US and executed both of them, without informing the US of their plan in advance.

I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere advocates this. Certainly, no-one thinks either country would be able to take such action.

The reason is clear, and demonstrates, in my view, that this was not about the delivery of justice. The Nazis were allowed trials at Nuremberg. Even Israel gave Eichmann a trial, and the US gave Saddam Hussein a semblance of a trial before he was executed. Does anyone think bin Laden more heinous than them?

We know the US has summarily bombed alleged terrorists in Pakistan for years. We now know bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed. There were instructions to kill him unless they found him naked. They presumably did not expect to. It seems this constituted yet another extrajudicial execution.

However enthusiastic the reaction has been in the US, this does not constitute justice. A system whereby justice can only be attained by the strong and powerful is not justice. It is simply the rule of the strong. Surely, the US could have thought of a wiser response to bin Laden. It has triumphed over bin Laden; it has not used the opportunity to repudiate the values of bin Ladenism.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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  1. Well, if this isn’t a well-written, eloquent and hard-hitting piece of blogging I’m Donald Rumsfeld.Thanks Michael.

  2. Michael, you write, “Plainly, no sane person should support terrorism, regardless of who is targeted by it.” This is a problematic formulation because plenty of sane people not only support it but plan and execute terrorist acts. Indeed, there is a strategic logic to suicide terrorism, that most unnerving terrorism of all, that Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has analysed quite well from an essentially liberal perspective: Suicide terrorism works to achieve limited political goals.

    The problem for the Left in the Muslim world (and elsewhere) has long been its inability to offer an alternative strategy that is better and actually likely to lead to liberation rather than narrow (and despairing) political goals. Indeed, historically, in many places it is the despairing secular Left that has turned to terrorism as a way to challenge a seemingly all-powerful state.

    The Arab revolutions show an alternative path to weakening imperialist hegemony to that proffered by Bin Laden and his ilk, one that clearly also holds the prospect for greater democratic rights, social justice and even a fundamental re-ordering of the social order. But it’s early days yet… we cannot rule out the resurgence of terrorist activity as the imperial powers and local states step up their use of violence to reassert control. State violence begets this kind of thing.

    The key will not be in questioning the sanity of those people who see some hope in terrorist strategies but in posing a more relevant (and therefore attractive) alternative strategy in practice. I’m hopeful it can happen.

  3. Pingback: My speech at Limmud Oz « Michael Brull

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