The Tribune - Spectrum

Special Issue: countering terrorism
Special Issue
Countering terrorism

Views of eminent experts and thinkers on countering terrorism

Hari Jaisingh

Kanti Bajpai

Asghar Ali Engineer

Owen Bennett Jones

Shelley Walia

G. Parthasarthy

T. V. Rajeswar

Gen V N Sharma

Ashok K. Mehta

Prakash Singh

M. J. Akbar

Sunday, January 5, 2003
Tribune special

Jinnah redux and the age of Osama

‘We went to the jihad filled with joy, and I would go again tomorrow,’ he said. ‘If Allah had chosen me to die, I would have been in Paradise, eating honey and watermelons and grapes, and resting with beautiful virgins, just as it is promised in the Quran. Instead, my fate was to remain amid the unhappiness here on earth.’ Defeat is only a setback in the holy war. The jihad goes on, records M. J. Akbar in his book The Shade of Swords.

IN an age of despair the need for a hero who can inspire pan-Islamic victories becomes acute. The situation today is akin to a thousand years ago, when Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and Christians established powerful states in the heart of Palestine, in territory approximate to where Israel exists today. A revival by Zengi, Nuraddin, and above all Saladin lifted Muslims from a morass then. There is no such hero on the horizon now. Despair can become a breeding ground for mavericks who believe in themselves and their version of the faith.

Osama bin Laden is in the tradition of another famous name from the eleventh century, Hasan i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountains, who has given the English language the word ‘assassin’. The year of his birth is not known, but he died in 1124: that, presumably, is what fame is all about. He was born in a Shia family in Qum in Persia and travelled restlessly when young, serving many masters. In 1090, he finally found a base for his militant creed in the castle of Alamut. On a high rock in the middle of the Elburz mountains, perched above a fertile valley. He did not leave this mountain for 34 years, until he died. From there he commanded a network of missionaries and terrorists who became the most feared force of their time.


For more than a hundred years the cult of assassins spread terror among both the Christian crusaders and the Arab emirs who had permitted Christians to triumph. Hasan i Sabbah promised paradise to martyrs in his cause, apparently with the judicious use of hashish, hence hashishin and then assassin. They perfected the strategy of suicide missions, and their secrecy was legendary. It reached a point where a sultan like Saladin could not be certain if his own body guards had not become assassins, waiting for a signal from their lord. Assassins made two attempts on the life of Saladin, once in the winter of 1174-5, when he was besieging Alleppo; and then on May 22, 1176 when, disguised as his soldiers, they attacked him with knives. After that Saladin slept under special protection, and only those who knew him personally were allowed to approach him.

When the Old Man would hear of a threat to his own life, he would laugh it off with a proverb: Do you threaten a duck with the river?

The cult’s greatest success came at a critical moment during Richard II’s Crusade. It was carefully planned and brilliantly executed. Two assassins entered the service of Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, in Tyre, as Christian monks and, after securing his complete confidence, killed him on April 28, 1192. It was the September 11 of its time. The assassins added ingenious salt to this wound by ‘confessing’ that Richard IIhad instigated the murder.

However, the romance of the assassin withered when the Arab establishment protected the victories of Saladin. Having found Saladin, Muslims did not need terrorism. The movement drifted into appalling heresy, and ended up on the margins until it was scattered into oblivion by the Mongol Hulegu. (It prospered in oblivion. The modern Aga Khan, head of the Ismailis, is a direct descendant of the Old Man of the Mountains).

There may be a lesson here for modern times. When Saladin gave a call for a jihad against Richard II, response came from as far away as India. The street is still ready, but there is no Saladin. Dictators like Saddam Hussein exploit this disenchantment to divert some of the anger against their own tyranny. The United States, most Muslims believe, only dispenses with those dictators who fall out with Washington; in other words, it is Washington’s interest that must always be served, not theirs. The Saud family remains the outstanding example of Washington’s tolerance for obedient kings. ‘King’ is not the most important of the titles of the Saudi monarch; he is also custodian of the holy places. To many Muslims, the Saud family is only the custodian of American oil...

...Osama bin Laden was 22 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. His father, Muhammad, had emigrated from his native Yemen and got his first job with the giant oil company, Aramco — as a bricklayer. By the time Muhammad bin Laden died in 1966, in a suicidal air crash (those searching for psychological clues might want to note this), he owned the world’s largest private contractor firm and probably also the world’s largest family. He had 52 children. One of them was destined to become a world figure.

Osama came to Pakistan in 1980, with encouragement from the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, and set up office in Peshawar. Any friend of Saudi intelligence was a friend of the ISI, and Osama flourished under the benign eye of General Akhtar. The mandate for the young man was to create a mobile Islamic strike force that could hit a target anywhere.

Religious organisations like the Jamaat and the ISI were already looking ahead to a jihad that would liberate all the Muslim nations under Soviet domination in Central Asia after victory in Afghanistan, Zia created, to use Musharraf’s phrase, this state within a state; a set of institutions and individuals who would implement a not-so-hidden agenda in both international and domestic policy. Osama used personal funds and institutional support to create what was in effect a private army, mostly Arab, but also with Muslims from across the globe. Osama proved a capable fighter during his occasional stints on the warfront, but his principal contribution was organisation and, even at that young age, leadership. When in Karachi, Osama operated from the Binori mosques the imam there was a certain Mullah Omar.

Osama emerged out of the Afghan experience with an unshakable conviction, which he repeated to anyone who would listen: with insignificant numbers and limited capability, a jihad could defeat even the greatest empire in the world. If the Soviet Union could be humbled, then the same spirit could renew Muslim power and confront Islam’s more powerful enemy, America, the superpower that had usurped the oil wealth that Allah had given to Muslims. When Osama returned home to Saudi Arabia, he was welcomed as a hero by its government and the people.

On August 2, 1990 Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait, convinced he could get away with his audacity. The Arabs, publicly, and America, more discreetly, had been supportive of his war against Iran. The Saudis said thank you in the only way they knew — hard cash. America was relieved to see Ayatullah Khomeini’s energies diverted from the Great Satan to a local horror. However, instead of acquiescence, the world mobilised against Iraq. The terrorised Saudi ruling family believed that its turn was next. Osama bin Laden sent his government an offer. He could raise a force of at least 10,000 mujahideen, more than a match for the Republican Guard, against Saddam, he claimed. A Muslim army, he argued, should defend his homeland. For a few days Osama believed that his offer was under consideration. On August 7 he heard the announcement that American troops would protect Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves. He was given a private assurance that the Americans would leave once Kuwait had been liberated. When they did not, Osama went public with his resentment. He would make his accusations more explicit later: the Saudi family had betrayed the Muslim people, befriended Christians and Jews, and were no longer fit to be custodians of the holy places. They would he said, disperse and disappear like the Persian royal family. As for the Americans, he promised that they would leave Saudi Arabian in Coffins.

Osama was told to leave Saudi Arabia. The government returned his passport. Osama’s first stop was Pakistan, en route to his old haunt, Afghanistan. Liberated Afghanistan was an appalling, self-destructive mess by then. Dr Hassan al Turabi, the soft-spoken, scholarly leader of the Sudan National Islamic Front, gave Osama and his entourage of Afghan veterans shelter in Khartoum in 1991. Al Qaida, or The Foundation, became the vehicle for his politics, while his shrewd business acumen increased his wealth during his years in Sudan.

Osama began to see himself as a new caliph, or imam, who would safeguard Muslim interests across the world. His allies in the mission were groups like the Egyptian Gamaa al Islamiya and Al Jihad, who had conspired in the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The network grew. Governments in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen found his hand in their troubles. The world began to explode with bursts of terror in the most unexpected places.

Osama bin Laden also turned east for shelter. By 1996 it became impossible for Sudan to resist regional and American pressure, so Osama was told to pack. This time there was a place for him in Afghanistan, thanks to a government placed in Kabul with Islamabad’s assistance. His old friend from the Karachi days, Mullah Omar, was the supreme authority in what was known as a Taliban government.

Mullah Muhammad Omar Akhunzadeh was born in the Maiwand area of Kandahar, where peasants cultivate opium for a living. Those who have met him describe him as tall, thin, and rather elegant. He would speak in an almost inaudible voice, and sport a broad beard and black turban. He was injured thrice in the battles that swept the Taliban to power; wounds that he took pride in.

In 1994 Benazir Bhutto may have been in office, but she was not in charge of the parallel state that continued on its own course, and considered her an abomination. However, she did support the Taliban as it served a major foreign policy interest of Pakistan, being inimical to ‘infidel’ India. The Taliban served Pakistan in significant ways, apart from ensuring an increasingly brutal stability. A perennial strategic aim of Islamabad has been to end the two-border squeeze, from both India and Afghanistan. Pakistan did not have to worry about the west with the Taliban in Kabul. The Taliban also became the pride and ally of the ‘state within a state’ in Pakistan. It was convenient for the government in Islamabad, which could push off those terrorists and groups who could not be given sanctuary in Pakistan because of its vulnerability to America. Osama bin Laden fell in this category.

America was initially reluctant to worry too much. It may have been influenced too by arguments of the ‘larger interest’, and particularly those advanced by the oil lobby. We have met Socal before, in Saudi Arabia. It now lobbied for a trans-Afghan pipeline from Central Asia to the Indian ocean, whose security and therefore viability, would be guaranteed by an apparently impregnable Taliban.

American reluctance to chase enemies in the region also stemmed partly from embarrassment, for many of the monsters had been created by a Frankenstein called the CIA. When the director of FBI in New York. Rober Fox, suggested on television in 1993 that some of the World Trade Center bombers had received CIA training, he found a transfer order on his desk in a few weeks. Washington could not however be squeamish for ever.

In February 1998 a meeting took place in Afghanistan between Osama bin Laden. Ayaman Zawahri of the Egyptian Al Jihad, Rahman Khalil of the Pakistani Ansars, and Abdul Salem Muhammad from Bangladesh, and Abu Yassir Ahmed Taha representing the Maghreb. They agreed to coordinate their efforts through an Islamic Struggle Front. Whether all that happened in 1998 can be directly attributed to this meeting is impossible to confirm, but we can flag the incidents, and add that Osama was never shy about claiming credit for any jihad mission in America. In June he declared war on America through an interview to John Miller of ABC News, and you can hardly go more public than that. The Saudis, worried, exerted pressure on their clients, the Taliban, to persuade Osama to calm down. They already had some experience of Osama’s reach. On November 13, 1995 a Saudi-US military office in Riyadh was attacked, killing five Americans; and on June 25, 1996 a housing complex for American servicemen at Khobar Towers was hit by a truck bomb, killing 19 and injuring over than 400. Mullah Omar however made it clear then and later, that Osama was one of them, and would never be handed over.

On August 7, 1998, truck bombs hit American embassies in Dar es Salam, Tanzania, and Nairobi in Kenya. In Nairobi 247 people were killed, including 12 Americans. Ten died in Dar es Salam. President Bill Clinton ordered Osama’s death by cruise missiles, and they hit Osama’s camps at Khost in Afghanistan and what turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant near Khartoum, on August 20, 1998. The plan was codenamed Operation Infinite Reach. It reached nowhere. American intelligence teams swept through the world for clues. Among the first to be arrested was a Palestinian who had become a naturalized Kenyan, Muhammad Sadek Odeh. Odeh was arrested neither in Palestine nor Kenya, but in Pakistan.

The culture of guns and drugs sponsored by General Zia ate up Pakistan’s credibility, and was a permanent threat to its internal stability. On the eve of her visit to the United States in April 1995, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto remarked that Pakistan’s very existence was threatened by this drug-gun culture. Her own existence certainly was. One person who tried to assassinate her was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who failed in an attempt to blow up her Islamabad residence, and along with it, her. He did not quite succeed when he bombed the World Trade Center either.

Just before he was sentenced Ramzi Ahmed Yousef told the tough, acerbic US District Court judge, ‘Yes, I am a terrorist, and proud of it.’ America had made him a terrorist, he said. He told Americans, ‘You are more than terrorists. You are butchers, liars and hypocrites.’

Ramzi Ahmed Yousef dreamt of toppling those twin towers. He was arrested; but the towers came down, over eight years later, on September 11, 2001, because that dream was never arrested.

The Taliban, and Al Qaida, and many organisations with a similar dream, can survive without a government, or even a country, because the recruitment is done in the mind. You cannot fight a battle in the mind only with special forces and cruise missiles.

On October 7, 2001 the United States of America answered 11 September. It declared war on the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and terrorism. The defeat of the Taliban and Osama was complete, but not decisive.

A jihad is never over. In the last week of January 2002 Pulitzer-prize winner John F. Burns, who had earlier done breakthrough reporting on the ethnic-cleansing in Bosnia, sent a story from Azhakhel Bala, Pakistan, to The New York Times:

Little in the manner of Ijaz Khan Hussein betrays the miseries he saw as a volunteer in the war in Afghanistan.

Mr Khan, a college-trained pharmacist, joined the jihad, or holy war, like thousands of other Pakistanis who crossed into Afghanistan. He worked as a medical orderly near Kabul, shuttling to the front lines and picking up bodies and parts of bodies. Of 43 men who boarded a truck to travel with him to Afghanistan in October, he said, 41 were killed. Now with the Taliban and Al Qaida routed, have Mr Khan and other militants finished with jihad?

Mr Khan, at least, said he had not.

‘We went to the jihad filled with joy, and I would go again tomorrow,’ he said. ‘If Allah had chosen me to die, I would have been in Paradise, eating honey and watermelons and grapes, and resting with beautiful virgins, just as it is promised in the Quran. Instead, my fate was to remain amid the unhappiness here on earth.’

Defeat is only a setback in the holy war. The jihad goes on.

(Excerpted from The Shade of Swords by M.J. Akbar. Roli Books)