Saturday, December 29, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Behind the mask of a terrorist
Khushwant Singh

THE man most talked of in the world today is Osama bin Laden. He is worshipped by millions of Muslims all over the globe and reviled by many more both Muslims and non-Muslims. We know very little about him. Ever since he erupted as a global phenomenon, dozens of books have been published about him, mostly based on stuff lifted from other books, magazines, press reports and gossip. The latest is Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of a Terrorist (Vision Books) by Adam Robinson, a journalist who has covered West Asia over the last 10 years.

The earlier part of Bin Laden’s life reads like a chapter from The Arabian Nights. Bin Ladens were, and are Arabs. His father Mohammed bin Laden, was a coolie working in the dockyards of Jeddah. He got into the business of building. He built roads, palaces, mosques, airfields, dams across the Arab world. He became a multi-billionaire. He built palaces for the Saudi Royal family and built one for himself. Then like other rich Arabs, he acquired a harem: 11 wives of which three were ‘permanent’, the fourth divorced every two years to be replaced by a fresh one. Between them these ladies produced 54 children (24 boys and 30 girls). Osama was his 17th son. His mother Hamida was Syrian who did not get on with her husband and was given a villa out of town to live alone with her maid-servants. Osama continued to live with his father, his other wives, concubines, step-brothers and step-sisters. Since his mother had been discarded, he was tainted as ibn al abeda — son of a slave. His father was killed when his helicopter crashed. Osama was then 10 years old. The eldest brother Salim became the head of the family.

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The power of self-destruction
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Jaipur and its Rajmata
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Meting out humiliation as punishment
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Women like her do not die...
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The Karnataka-Canada connection
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Making English an Indian language
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Worshipping the mother of all rivers
October 13, 2001
Salman Rushdie: Genius or eccentric?
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A Telugu saga set in 19th century
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A blot on the face of Mother India
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Leaving for the heavenly abode
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Controlling the urge to backchat
September 1, 2001
A tale of modern India
August 25, 2001
Reflections on the brother-sister bond
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A dacoit or a dasyu sundari?
August 11, 2001
A case for moderate drinking
August 4, 2001
A dangerous twist to a harmless practice
July 28, 2001
No escape from pain and sorrow
July 21, 2001

Osama was a good student and did very well at school. During vacations, he went to Europe with some of his brothers. For a while he attended Language School in Oxford where he became a cinema addict. After he finished his secondary school education, he was sent to Beirut (Lebanon) for higher studies.

Osama was then 16, a handsome lad six-foot-four-inch tall and eager to savour the good things of life. He had a villa of his own with a maid servant, cook and a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz. And lots of money to squander. He started drinking — from beer to whiskey, brandy and champagne — and smoked Havana cigars and L.S.D. He acquired a Christian girlfriend, Rita. However, that did not prevent him from visiting casinos and sleazy night-clubs, Crazy Horse, Moulin Rouge, Eves, The Casabah, which besides drinking and dancing provided prostitutes. Osama liked them as well with distinct preferences for European blondes. He did not do too well in his studies and was summoned back home.

Osama continued drinking scotch even in strictly prohibitionist Wahabi country: the rich can get away with anything anywhere. He joined King Abdul Aziz University to study Islamic economics and also helped his elder brother in managing the ever-expanding construction business. He was 20 when Islam overtook him. He renounced drinking, started praying five times a day and let his beard grow. It is not known what exactly brought about this dramatic change in his character. Undoubtedly the creation of Israel out of what had been Arab lands and humiliating defeats Jews inflicted on their Muslim neighbours was one. Americans had made Israel viable and strong; so the two were enemies of Islam. The Soviets were a godless people in control of Muslim areas like Chechenya and remained the dominant power in central Asian Republics. That made it three. Logically the fourth would be India, predominantly Hindu ruling over a large Muslim population. So there were four evil powers — all legitimate targets of his notion of jehad. Propagators of this brand of Islamic fundamentalism were the Egyptian Syed Quth, who was hanged in 1966, and the Palestinian Abdullah Yusuf Azzam. They generated a school of thinking called Maktab al khidmat, which led to the formation of Al Qaida. "In our religion there is a special place in the hereafter (i.e. paradise) for those who participated in jehad," said Osama. The top priority was to expel Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Osama flew by his own helicopter to Islamabad and with Pakistani support entered Afghanistan. "We are a single nation with one religion". It was largely Osama’s organisational genius that was able to unify Pakistani patronage and US bounty to equip Taliban into a powerful guerrilla force. He continued to control his business and manage his family (He acquired another wife, the daughter of one-eyed Mulla Omar) making a total of four permitted by Shariat law. He led the Taliban and forced the Soviets out of Afghanistan. He became the hero of the Muslim world. Back home in Jeddah, his open criticism of the style of living of the Royal Family for allowing Americans to set up bases on Arabian soil in their war against Iraq forced the authorities to seize his passport. The CIA also put him on its hit list. Osama ignored the Saudi diktat and flew back to Karachi only to find that he was no longer welcomed in Pakistan.

The only refuge left for Osama was Sudan ruled over by an equal fanatic Hasan al Turabi. Osama had not run out of steam. In Sudan he once again reorganised his business operations and helped the government in many development projects. He turned the tide of war of attrition against his persecutors. American installations in Saudi Arabia were bombed, American missions in Africa were targeted with loss of American lives. With meticulous precision he planned the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington — both operations were successful and took a heavy toll of American life. From his hideout in Afghanistan, Osama watched with ghoulish glee these centres of American business and military might crumble in flames. He had planned to have President Clinton and Pope John Paul assassinated but the plan misfired. Now he has become the world’s most wanted criminal. He boasts "the dream to kill me will never be completed..... As long as I am alive, there will be no rest for the enemies of Islam."

Osama is the present day Scarlet Pimpernel:

We seek him here, we seek him there

Those Yankies seek him everywhere

Is he in heaven?

Is he in hell?

That damned Scarlet Pimpernel

By now they may have got him dead or alive.


Golf goes to Gulf

Banta was a hockey player of Olympic fame,

Wished to indulge in a social game

He took to golf with some hesitation,

Old man’s game was friends’ observation.

First encounter with golf was the funniest thing,

told the coach, all the fuss is about nothing.

Took out one wood and heaved a mighty swing,

The ball was still but Banta was spinning.

Tumbled and humbled he started the lesson by number,

Golf is the game he is determined to conquer.

While golf has gone to Gulf as a holiday maker,

Banta is stuck at Ludhiana in the bunker.

(Courtesy: Col D.S. Gurm, Ludhiana)



My son asked me — "Papa, why does the sun rise in the East?"

I replied, "Any stupid can answer that question."

"Papa, that’s why I’m asking you," he said.

(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)

Note: Khushwant Singh is on holiday. There will be no column next week.

..................................... This feature was published on December 22, 2001