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Where in the world did Osama bin Laden come from?

With all the hullabaloo about the murder of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan--and the creepy return of so many Bush era officials to the airwaves to savor this moment--it's perhaps good to remember exactly what were the origins of Osama bin Laden's role in recent history. William Duane reports.

15 May 2011

Back in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, due to the non-cooperation of the government there at the time (which was populist-leftist and not sufficiently oriented toward Moscow for the Soviets' tastes), the mujahideen fighters who would come to play such a large part in subsequent events were little more than goat herders and a handful of religious fanatics.

Despite the popular mythology about a timeless, lawless Afghanistan that has grown up in the West since, the country at that time was relatively advanced for the region, and one of the most secular of the Mideast states, too.

It was getting dragged into the geopolitical struggle between two powers that destroyed Afghanistan.  After the Soviet invasion, Washington dithered for some time about what to do.

The newly elected Reagan administration, full of ideas about economics but initially bland and noncommittal on foreign policy (except for some very traditional anti-communist noise), was not too eager to get involved.

And in spite of the mythos of "Charlie Wilson's War" there was very little support, either in terms of real arms or money, for the mujahideen, not until some charismatic and effective leaders stepped forward.

Osama bin Laden, it should be noted, was not one of these.

He came later to the conflict, quite late, and his men, while well organized and well supplied (by the Pakistanis as much as by us) were not the most reliable.  They tended to be criminals, like many of the mujahideen, and they tended to have their own ideas about how to prosecute the war against the Soviets.

Never on the front lines until near the end of the conflict, bin Laden funneled arms to his "volunteers" throught the Maktab al-Khidamat (or "Afghan Services Bureau") and other organizations, using money from the Saudi ruling elite, of which, it shouldn't be forgotten, bin Laden was still an estranged member at the time of his death.  The Maktab were funded mostly by the Saudi sources stirred up by bin Laden and by the Pakistani military.

It was the Pakistani military and intelligence (ISI) forces that did most of the training of the fighters inside Afghanistan.  For various reasons--not the least of which was the fear of a repeat of Vietnam--Washington did not want to get too closely involved in the actual combat.  And this continues to be a missing piece in the commentary in the West today.

The close relationship between the Pakistani military and ISI on the one hand, and jihadists in their own country and in Afghanistan on the other, dates from this period. This is why bin Laden was allowed to live inside Pakistan, relatively openly by all accounts, all this time after September 11th, and only a short distance from Islamabad.

He has had friends there for many years, a relationship that we initially did everything we could to encourage.  Up until September 11th, and perhaps for some time thereafter, he even continued to have regular contact with his handlers inside the ISI.

The best account of these early years of the organization that would become al-Qaeda is to be found in Yossef Bodansky's book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America.

We should also take some time to remember that Pakistan at the time of the Soviet-Afghan war was under the dicatorship of Zia-ul-Haq, a ruthless thug that was installed at least in part with support from the U.S.  He was widely considered to be behind the deaths of many of his political opponents, and he never had any trouble dealing with scum like the mujahideen.

He was also, according to Tariq Ali in The Clash of Fundamentalisms, "active [in the] imperial service in Jordan during the Black September of  1973 where he had led a bevy of mercenaries to crush a Palestinian uprising on behalf of Tel Aviv and the Jordanian King."  Scum gravitates to scum.

Later, as we all know, bin Laden became disenchanted with the U.S., first in Afghanistan (where he thought we failed to back up the mujahideen sufficiently), and then later for our invasion of Iraq in 1991.

He was especially incensed that his own people in the Saudi ruling elite would allow the U.S. military to use bases inside the country to attack Muslims, however much bin Laden despised Saddam Hussein.  After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990, bin Laden went to see the Saudi ruler, King Fahd.  Tariq Ali, in his excellent survey of contemporary U.S.-Iraq relations, Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq, recounts the event:

...bin Laden had returned home from the Pamir mountains [in Afghanistan] to be welcomed as a great 'freedom fighter' for his role in helping to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  Some weeks after the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, as the Saudi establishment talked of how to reverse this catastrophe, bin Laden asked for an audience with King Fahd.

This was granted.  During the meeting he pleaded with the King not to permit, leave alone invite, US troops to be stationed in Saudi Arabia.  When Fahd inquired how he intended to eject Iraq without the Americans, Osama is reported to have informed his monarch that an armed force of 30,000 fedayeen already in Saudi Arabia was ready to go into battle and motivated enough to defeat the unbeliever Saddam Hussein.

The King was more shaken by this news than by the occupation of Kuwait.  He hurriedly concluded the interview and then turned to a minister and asked whether it was possible that Osama had an army this size already in the country.  Only when he was reassured that this was all part of a fantasy did the King begin to relax again.

Osama bin Laden, suffice it to say, was not satisfied.  He would soon return to Afghanistan, where he would begin raising an army of new "freedom fighters," albeit with a different enemy in mind.  For years they trained, unmolested, under the protection of the Taliban, who had been left in charge of the country by the U.S. and ul-Haq.  One of the Taliban's first acts was to drag the former president out into the street and shoot him in the head.  There were no complaints from Washington.

It wasn't until much later, when the heinous crimes of the Taliban reached such proportions they gained global attention, that the American policy machine felt it had to do some finger wagging.  During this entire time, bin Laden was training al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan and dispatching sleeper cells around the world.  Then, September 11th, 2001...

Of the attacks, Ali concludes, with dramatic understatement, in the closing sentences of the paragraph describing bin Laden's fateful meeting with King Fahd, and his threat of raising an army of 30,000 fedayeen:

The figure, of course, may have been exaggerated, but Osama bin Laden was certainly not fibbing.  His total alienation from the Saudi ruling family and the attacks of 9/11 were an unexpected minor outcome of the 1990 conflict.  Blowbacks are never immediate.


William Duane worked for 20 years in the field of organizational conflict analysis and resolution with some of the largest corporations in the world. Semi-retired, he now divides his time between projects in independent media and consulting work with not-for-profit organizations. He no longer believes in the corporation, since it refuses to believe in us.


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