David Miller: Who is Osama bin Laden?
Who is Osama bin Laden?
Since last Wednesday’s terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the name Osama bin Laden has been spoken with increased frequency. In the days that have followed the terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration has indicated that it believes bin Laden is the prime suspect behind the attacks and has become increasingly strident in its rhetoric that it will bring him to justice. His name is mentioned daily in the media around the world and any retaliation the US launches in the wake of the attacks will involve bin Laden. However, despite all this widespread belief, the question remains as to whom exactly is he. We know the name and have seen the face, yet who is Osama bin Laden?
Osama bin laden was born in Saudi Arabia. One of 54 children, he was born into a wealthy construction family and this is believed to be the source of his private wealth which he uses to finance his network. After serving as a Mujahadeen fighter against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, bin laden returned to his homeland where he called for insurrection against the ruling Saud family. Such action led him to be stripped of his Saudi nationality by the government and he was expelled from the country. This led him to Sudan.
Upon his relocation to the Sudan in 1994, he established numerous businesses which not only provided employment for veterans of the Afghan War, but which are also believed to be serve as the logistics network for his network. His expulsion to Sudan was not the first time bin Laden was believed to be involved with terrorism as the United States claims he was linked to the hotel bombings in Yemen which where aimed at US servicemen en-route to Somalia and included the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan in 1992.
His residency in Sudan was to last only two years. The Khartoum regime asked bin Laden to leave the country in 1994 in a bid to seek warmer relations with the West and the United States. Upon this request, he relocated to Afghanistan where he established his base of operations and where he is believed to be located at present. In Afghanistan, bin Laden lives under the protection of the Taleban militia who control 90 percent of the country and despite growing US and international pressure have thus far refused to hand him over to US prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.
Throughout the 1990’s, it appears that bin Laden’s words held more power than his actions. In this time he issued two Declarations of Holy War, or fatwa’s as they are also known as, and in these manifests he explains his opposition to the United States and its military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf and his belief that he and other Muslims are engaged in a holy war to drive the US out of the sacred lands of Islam. In these statements, he makes clear his violent intent and he displayed this when he publicly applauded the attack on the US military base at al-Khobar in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
However, it was the simultaneous bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that dramatically increased bin Laden’s worldwide profile. Following these attacks and the US cruise missile strikes on his assets in Afghanistan and Sudan that same year in an attempt to prevent any further strikes his name was spoken by the Clinton Administration, the US Congress and the media. From this point the cult of personality that now surrounds bin Laden developed and with the attack on the USS Cole in Aden in 2000 and a series of threats and alerts, bin Laden became recognized as the international terrorist leader of the new millennium.
It is estimated that bin Laden has over 3000 activists within his network, although this too cannot be confirmed. Details of his network, known as the al-Qaida (Translated means The Base) came to light when on August 15th 1998, when Mohammed Sadiq Odeh, a member of his network was arrested in Pakistan on a false passport. In his confession Odeh gave an extensive account of bin Laden’s network, including an acknowledgment of his role behind the embassy bombings in Africa. Odeh put the number of operatives in the network at between 4000 and 5000 personnel active throughout Africa and the Middle East, and claimed that bin Laden has a large arsenal of conventional weapons in his arsenal.
Perhaps the most effective weapon bin Laden has is that it is likely that his network is a loose structure of cells, groups and people that operate worldwide. The US believes that this is the case and this makes it extremely difficult to combat, as each cell is completely independent of the others. It is not clear the exact level of control bin Laden has over each cell or the people involved, and this is why establishing his level of involvement becomes difficult. Along with the missile strikes, the United States responded to bin Laden on August 20th 1998 when President Clinton issued Executive Order 12947 placing the network on it's list of groups that it considers terrorist and indicting him for conspiring to kill American citizens outside the US. The Executive Order bans US firms from undertaking any financial transactions with bin Laden’s network and allows the freezing of any assets that the network may have within the US.
Whether bin Laden had any involvement in last weeks terrorist attacks on the US is still unclear and if this the case then the next question is what exactly did this involvement entail. Was it that he planned these strikes down to the last detail, recruited the men involved, provided finance or simply gave them his blessing? Whatever proves to be the case, the US government has identified bin Laden as the man ultimately responsible for these attacks and has vowed to retaliate. The other interesting point here is the US media and public have made this conclusion as well, despite not knowing his exact involvement or whom he really is. Whatever his private thoughts and objectives, bin Laden has become the face and image to the vast and abstract concept of international terrorism. The US claims that it is now in a war with terrorism and this is true. However what does this mean? If someone is asked to provide an explanation for this statement or to clarify it would they be able to do so? With the existence and profile of bin Laden that is not required. The abstract nature to the concept of international terrorism, even Islamic terrorism disappears. People do not have to comprehend it or even have it explained as they see it all embodied in Osama bin Laden and this is why his name is perhaps one of the most well known in the world at this present time.