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Who was Osama bin Laden's enemy?

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan


“An unthinking adherent of a narrow, rigid version of Islam”

He was as vituperative about Shia Islam as he was about the U.S.


That Osama bin Laden was a man capable of bitter hatred and that he could act on his hatreds with meticulous calculation is not in doubt. There is, nevertheless, evidence that many of his sworn enemies, despite their expressed repugnance at his and his followers' most violent acts, may have concurred with him on some of the things he craved most, even to the point of doing what he wanted.

It is well enough known that Osama could be persuasive. Ziauddin Sardar, an authority on the history of the sciences in Islamic cultures and a writer always sensitive to the idea of adab, the etiquette of being human, writes in his collection Breaking the Monolith (imprintOne, 2008) about the time he heard Osama speaking in Pakistan and was captivated by the latter's eloquence and knowledge, particularly on the double standards in United States foreign policy. Yet Sardar recognises that when Osama detailed what he thought should be done he revealed himself to be a man of violence and an unthinking adherent of a narrow, rigid version of Islam, a version which Sardar says is filled with ‘obnoxious' tribal customs and practices.

The distinguished British journalist Robert Fisk, who met Osama in 1993 when the latter was building roads in Sudan and then in Afghanistan in 1996, makes similar inferences. He wrote in the Independent in March 2007 that Osama's post-9/11 videotapes had an increasing amount of historical content about West Asia, about, for example, the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the Ottoman Caliphate; in the 1996 meeting, the demagogue was also “raging” about what he called the corruption of the Saudi royal family and was “contemptuous” of the West – but showed no contrition or regret for anything he had done or had inspired others to do.

In that regard, the terrorist was less disingenuous than he might have been expected to be. In 1993 he was doing more than build roads. He wanted, as Greg Palast points out in his book Armed Madhouse (Dutton, 2006), to develop Sudan's oil industry, as a counter not to the U.S. or any other Western country but to Iran, whose clerics' increasing influence in Afghanistan was obstructing his own plans to join forces with Central Asian fundamentalists and take control of oil fields around the Caspian Sea.

He was as vituperative about Shia Islam and its adherents as he was about the United States, but he was also after oil; he hated Saddam Hussein for ruling a country with some of the world's largest oil reserves, and, Palast concludes, his aim was the creation of a new Caliphate, a “Petroleum Kingdom of God” which would cover the area from Sudan to Kazakhstan. His family own a range of successful businesses in oil and construction among other things.

If Osama's loathing for Iran was something he shared with his enemies in the United States, he found the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, which dated from the first Gulf war in 1990-91, nothing less than an obscenity.

In 1996, he declared war against the American “infidels,” adding an injunction that they be driven from the territory. In April 2003, a few days before the then U.S. President George W. Bush made his notorious “mission accomplished” speech on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, Washington stated that it would remove its troops from Saudi Arabia. As Palast says, it was Osama's mission that had been accomplished.

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