Thursday, August 11th, 2022 13:04:12

The Rise And Fall Of Osama

Updated: May 21, 2011 11:31 am

Now that bin Laden has been killed by a team of elite commandoes of the US Navy Seal 56 kilometres north of the Pakistani capital in the wee hours of May 2, 2011, perhaps it is time to revisit the making of Osama bin Laden. Rajeev Sharma writes:

Like ordinary wealthy Arabs, bin Laden, too, was a happy-go-lucky, carefree bird and maintained a flashy lifestyle during his youth. Whenever he got a chance to go out of his puritan native country, Saudi Arabia, and visit the westernised Beirut city during his high school days, he used to visit night clubs. Like other spoilt brats, he used to gamble in casinos and drink away to glory in bars, often getting into brawls. He had a hyperactive libido and was known to be a womaniser, too.

                But that was more than three decades ago. A turning point came in 1973 when his lifestyle started changing dramatically. He turned towards spirituality when he rebuilt two mosques.

                Son of Mohammad bin Laden, an affluent businessman engaged in civil construction works, Osama followed in his father’s footsteps—initially—and became a qualified civil engineer. Mohammad bin Laden had migrated to Saudi Arabia from the province of Hadramout in South Central Yemen in early 20s. Osama was one of the 50 children his father had sired from several wives. The computer-literate Osama had studied economics and management in a top school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

                He watched his father’s business empire expanding quickly during the oil boom of the 1970s. Mohammad bin Laden’s company, the Bin Laden Corporation, soon won favours of the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia and secured many big government contracts. By mid-70s, the Bin Laden Corporation had established itself as one of the top construction companies of Saudi Arabia and had expanded business in many Middle Eastern countries.

                The most important turning point in Osama bin Laden’s life came when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the ends of 1979. His life underwent a sea change as he jumped into the Afghan war cauldron and emerged as a hero of the Islamic world. There has been no looking back for him since then. The United States turned a blind eye towards his exploits in Afghanistan, little realising that the same revolutionary fury of bin Laden would one day be directed against Washington.

                For the US, bin Laden was the “Most Wanted Terrorist”, on whose head Washington has kept a reward of $5 million. Probably never before in the history of terrorism, a super power has launched missile attacks in foreign countries as the US did in case of bin Laden in August 1998.

                Though the US fired as many as 60 Cruise Missiles on bin Laden’s suspected hideouts in Afghanistan and Sudan, the targeted man remained elusive. The Americans came very close to tracking him down last year, when they picked up his movement in Afghanistan as the fugitive’s whereabouts were revealed by his satellite phone. But bin Laden proved to be one step ahead of the Americans here also and got away after switching off his satellite phone. Since then, probably he had not used his satellite phone.

                Bin Laden, a graduate from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, addressed himself to two immediate tasks in Afghanistan. First, to recruit as many volunteers as possible to take on the Soviets. The second task was much tougher—preparing a war infrastructure in Afghanistan, a country to which he did not belong.

                Starting from scratch, bin Laden raised an organisational structure for recruiting volunteers to fight for Islam against the Soviets. He set up the Maktab al-Khidamat (the Mujahideen Services Bureau) for overseeing the recruitment work. Thousands of Mujahideen were eventually recruited by bin Laden in a couple of years. The first few batches of Mujahideen were brought to Afghanistan from different Islamic countries by bin Laden, at his personal expense. His recruitment centres were spread across 50-odd countries, including the US and the UK.

                Proving that he was an excellent organiser, bin Laden’s Mujahideen Services Bureau did not induct just fighters—doctors, engineers, drug pushers and even terrorists were brought to Afghanistan—each category having a specialist. He simultaneously helped establish a drug trafficking network to finance the ongoing “jihad”.

                Bin Laden always liked to work on several fronts simultaneously. He constantly shuttled between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the meanwhile, he was also busy with setting up camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, to train the Mujahideen. A host of Arab terrorist groups soon started using Peshawar as a nerve centre of their operations. By 1985, Afghanistan was swarming with Islamic militants from all over the world and an umbrella body, “International Jihad Organisation” was formed to co-ordinate among these outfits.

                After having created the war infrastructure and organising a steady flow of the Mujahideen, bin Laden switched over to the next job he had not done so far—fighting along side the Mujahideen, he took to the battlefield as fish takes to water.

                By now, bin Laden had developed connections with fundamentalist elements in Egypt and Algeria. He was used by Saudi authorities to promote political dissidence in Yemen. He used these contacts and his family’s wealth to set up his own empire of several companies and banks in Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In 1985, he also formed the Islamic Salvation Fund (al-Qaeda), which was actively supported by functionaries of the Egyptian Al Jehad.

                In 1986, another turning point came in bin Laden’s life. He moved into Eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar) to fight against the Soviet forces there. By now he was involved in the fighting operations also, under the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar. One of his major scenes of action was the battle of Jalalabad.

                Bin Laden was believed to have moved his residence from Saudi Arabia to Khartoum, Sudan, in 1991. This was the time when his relations with the Saudi rulers started souring, as he did not approve of their pro-US policies.

                By mid-1990s, he had forged very close ties with the Iraqi intelligence. So close that Iraq President Saddam Hussein sent a diplomat, Faruq-al-Hijazi, as his personal envoy to meet bin Laden in Kandahar. As a goodwill gesture, Hussein’s envoy handed bin Laden an invaluable gift, which would ensure him safe international travel—a pack of blank genuine Yemeni diplomatic passports. These travel documents were given to the Iraqi intelligence by the Yemen intelligence.

                By early 1994, bin Laden was proving to be an acute embarrassment to Saudi Arabia. He was going full steam to create a formidable network of Islamic fundamentalists all over the world, in countries such as Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey and several western countries, apart from Saudi Arabia.

                Bin Laden had already come in close contact with leading Islamic fundamentalists such as Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman of the Egyptian Al Gama Al Islarniya, Sheikh Abdullah Azam (the Arabic cleric who was later murdered in Peshawar, possibly by the ISI), Ayman Al Zawahiri, the Egyptian terrorist belonging to Islamic Al Jehad and Saudi dissident and AI Mashari of the Council for Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) of the UK.

                In February 1994, under increasing US pressure, Riyadh revoked bin Laden’s Saudi nationality for acts against the US, which were construed not in line with the official view of the regime.

                In February1998, bin Laden formed an International Islamic Front (IIF) for “jihad” against Jews and crusaders and named an Egyptian, Mus’tafa Hamza, close associate of Zawahiri, as his deputy. Fazlul al Rahman, a top leader of Pakistan’s Harkat ul-Ansar is known to have been deeply involved with this organisation, thus proving bin Laden’s involvement in the terrorism in Kashmir. In July 1998, Sheikh Rafai Ahmed Taha, leader of Egyptian AI GamaAl Islamia (Agai) disassociated himself from the IIF.

                Intelligence reports indicate that bin Laden’s above-named aides—Abdul Aziz Al Masir, Abu Haser, Abu Hazir and Aby Ibrahim—used India as a transit point at different times. In April 1997, for example, one Abdul Salam, a Yemeni, visited Kandahar via Amritsar, using Ariana Afghan Airlines, ostensibly to meet bin Laden.

                In April 1998, there were reports of an attempt by a US commandos team to capture bin Laden. The American commandos had entered Afghanistan from Peshawar and proceeded surreptitiously towards Kandahar. The plan did not work as some former Khad agents, now in Taliban’s payrolls, betrayed. Soon afterwards, bin Laden shifted his base from Kandahar to Fahimhaddah, near Jalalabad. His whereabouts had remained unknown, particularly since the US missile attacks in August 1998.

                In February 1999, bin Laden was reported to have disappeared from his hideout in Kandahar along with some of his supporters. Initial reports said his family was still in Kandahar, Pakistani media said bin Laden was sighted in Nimroz. An Arab daily, Al Hayat, reported that he had moved towards Baghlan, the area controlled by Hizb-e-Islami (H) pro-Taliban Commander, Bashir Baghlani.

                An intelligence report said in July 1999, that bin Laden may have shifted his hideout to a newly-constructed location in the vicinity of Bola Boluk, a hilltop in Farah province, off the road from Farah to Daulatabad. Constructions in this area are duly camouflaged and guarded by armed personnel. Bin Laden, the reports say, travelled in this region in a 50-Viper car which was fitted with sophisticated weapons. For security reasons, several of his bodyguards travelled in similar cars, masquerading as bin Laden.

                Former US president Bill Clinton signed an executive order on July 6, 1999, imposing economic sanctions on Taliban for harbouring bin Laden. Reacting to this, the Taliban spokesman said Taliban was unaware of bin Laden’s movements, though he admitted that the wanted fugitive was in Afghanistan.

                In November 1998, bin Laden was invited to attend an Islamist conference in Pakistan. But he dropped his plan to attend the meet, as Islamabad discreetly told him that his proposed visit would cast a shadow over Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s forthcoming visit to Washington. Bin Laden sent his brief speech to the organisers, in which he stressed the need for continuing “jihad” against Christians and Jews.

                In fact, his unflinching dedication to Taliban and Taliban’s refusal to handover bin Laden to the US, even in the face of missile attacks and economic sanctions had given rise to an assessment in the West that bin Laden is actually the chief of Taliban. There were also unconfirmed reports that bin Laden’s daughter was married to Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.

                Bin Laden’s links with Kashmiri terrorists are well established. There are intelligence reports that Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure was also closely worked out between the ISI and bin Laden. There were also “reliable” reports of bin Laden’s presence in the PoK, during the Kargil conflict.

                This conclave of Mujahideen in Pakistan coincided with the Pakistani Army’s incursions into Kargil in the guise of Mujahideen. Bin Laden’s contacts with Kashmiri terrorists are about a decade old. A Palestinian, Abu Mahmood, was suspected to be an intermediary between bin Laden and Al Faran group of Harkat ul-Ansar militants, who kidnapped four Western tourists in Jammu and Kashmir in 1995.

                One Asadullah, a Muslim of Indian origin residing in Peshawar, was believed to be his contact man for co-ordinating activities in Jammu and Kashmir. Some Afghan militants and other infiltrators from PoK and Pakistan, who were arrested or killed in security operations in Jammu and Kashmir, were found carrying posters and pamphlets of bin Laden and his statements on Islamic “jihad”.

                The bin Laden menace had assumed even more importance for India as he had openly declared a “jihad” against India. On September 17, 1999, a news agency report from Islamabad quoted bin Laden as saying: “Our biggest enemies are the US and India and we should target them, using the best of our efforts.”

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