Many factors have combined to mythologize Osama bin Laden. The ineptness of his enemies, for one: that we Americans have been incapable of capturing him does wonders for the fugitive’s status. The pulp-press bin Laden gets helps too. The title of CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour’s documentary about the man—“In the Footsteps of Bin Laden”—is a play on an idiom that suggests reverence.
For her production, Amanpour even managed to dredge, among many other character witnesses, a swaddled female fan, who went into raptures over the arch-terrorist. Amanpour also labored bin Laden’s Scarlet-Pimpernel qualities—the manner in which he would materialize and dematerialize mysteriously for his spectacular cameos. This enhanced his elusive aura (although in reality, I’m sure perfectly prosaic things such as cars and camels were involved in schlepping him here and there).
But bin Laden is not what he is made out to be. A clue to his limitations came when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi ignored his request, via Ayman al-Zawahiri, to quit killing so many Shia in Iraq. And now two books, published earlier this year, and reviewed by Max Rodenbeck in the New York Review of Books, expose yet more frailties in bin Laden’s façade.
As Bruce Lawrence points out in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, bin Laden “bluntly denies that American arms and money (which included Stinger ground-to-air missiles, among other goodies worth some $3 billion, delivered between 1981 and 1989) had anything to do with the success of the Afghan Mujahideen in expelling Soviet invaders.”
More familiar is bin Laden’s bleating about the unacceptable presence of US troops on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia. But he has never cited the troops’ subsequent withdrawal in 2003. (Incidentally, some Muslims contend Mecca and Medina alone are holy sites in Saudi Arabia. And US soldiers have never circumambulated the Kaaba, at least not in their capacity as military men.)
Also conveniently bypassed by bin Laden is that “the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia [was] at the invitation of the kingdom’s rulers, to protect it from the ‘Muslim’ army of Saddam Hussein.” More revealing of the man’s motivation is that when Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden petitioned Saudi authorities with a plan to mount an attack on Hussein if he dared to threaten The Kingdom. Bin Laden was livid when the Saudis rebuffed his overtures and turned to the US instead.
Bin Laden treats truth and history selectively, shall we say. When he melodramatically asserts (in error) that “the Christian West has warred on Islam for 80 years,” he conveniently omits that “four in five Muslims live in countries that gained independence after World War II or that Bosnia, Albania, Azerbaijan, and the Stans of Central Asia have all won freedom from atheist communism in the past fifteen years. Nowhere does bin Laden credit American policy for any of this.” [Or for the help extended to Muslims in Darfur.] “Likewise, the generally untroubled presence of millions of recent Muslim immigrants in Western countries goes completely unremarked.”
In bin Laden’s philippics, the US’s support for Israel is a major impetus for Jihad. However, unfair favoritism or not, bin Laden would still consider Israel an occupier of Islamic land, even if a majority of Americans did not—as Phew polls suggest—find it difficult to identify with Palestinian savagery. Or if future American governments embraced the Palestinian national symbol: the suicide bomber. Like his Western exculpators, bin Laden doesn’t much care that Israel was Christian before the brutal Muslim conquest. To him, and to his ideological enablers, rights to that land begin with the Muslim conquest.
Amanpour’s myth-making notwithstanding, bin Laden was not the real hero of the Afghan war; Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, and the commander of the Northern Alliance was. “By all accounts,” writes Rodenbeck, “Massoud was the most brilliant and charismatic of Afghan guerrilla leaders. [A]s far back as the late 1980s, bin Laden expressed resentment and mistrust of Massoud, perhaps because he was a pure Afghan nationalist with little liking for Arab interlocutors and little time for al-Qaeda’s romantic notions of forging a puritan pan-Islamic state.”
From Peter Bergen’s well-researched account, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader, we glean that bin Laden was in fact considered reckless, if courageous, in battle. He and his “brigade of Arab recruits” “had no meaningful impact on the conduct of the war,” other than to assassinate the man who won the war against the Russians. Bin Laden dispatched al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as a television crew to kill Massoud.
Thanks to bin Laden, then, the Afghan people are saddled with Bush sock puppet, Hamid Karzai—also called the “Mayor of Kabul,” because of the limited loyalty and authority he commands.
With all his pretensions and pieties, bin Laden is revealed as nothing but a two-bit assassin, deeply suspicious of local—and legitimate—blood-and-soil Muslim leaders. This is no liberator of “Muslim lands.” Rather, bin Laden seeks to centralize power in the cause of a caliphate.
©2006 By Ilana Mercer