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OSAMA BIN LADEN: 1957-2011


3 May 2011

Global franchise of fear changed the way we live

By Christopher Kremmer

Whether we like it or not, the name of Osama bin Laden will occupy a prominent place in the history of our times. He stoked anger against local tyrants in Muslim countries and the Western governments that backed them, and effectively channelled it into a terrorist movement committed to an improbable, almost mediaeval agenda.

In his dream, one-fifth of the world's population, perhaps all of it, would be ruled by a conservative caliphate, a Sunni Muslim version of Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary Iran. Did he realise that this was a preposterous idea? That Sunni Islam, far more populous and diverse than the Shiite branch that accepted Islamist rule in Iran, would never buy it en masse? Was it a marketing tactic to get the true believers motivated, or was there really a chance his revolution would sweep the Muslim world, much as democratic uprisings are sweeping the Middle East?

For nearly a decade, Osama bin Laden was enemy number for the United States. But bin Laden's hatred of the US can be traced back long before the September 11th attacks.

We'll never know, and the months ahead may be rocky. We should assume his short-term legacy will be a spurt of terrorist attacks, lethal fireworks intended to celebrate the passing of the man. Some Muslims will sincerely honour him; certainly in Pakistan, where there will be questions about the government's role in providing intelligence that led to his death, and possibly street violence. But there is a big difference between getting free publicity and seizing power.

The quiet majority of Muslims, the ones routinely ignored by most of the media, are probably glad it's over. For they too suffered, were tarred with the image of being fanatics simply because they were born into a particular religious faith. Bin Laden hijacked them just as surely as his men hijacked planes. He also hijacked the Western debate about how best to relate to Muslim people and nations, empowering the divisive voices that poured fuel on the fire bin Laden started, making an unavoidable struggle harder than it needed to be.

He was a formidable opponent. Inspired to resistance, first by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he showed courage on the battlefield, an experience that honed the ascetic side of his personality and allowed a wealthy man to live for long periods in caves, despite a kidney ailment that required ongoing medical treatment.

No theologian, despite his pretensions and selective quoting from the Koran, he also lacked the military muscle of a Mubarak or Assad. His primary assets were an inherited fortune and a cultivated persona as a prophet of revolution. Those inclined to believe in him and his message did so with absolute faith. To inspire such a following required more than mere talk; he had to act; to cause sensations; and he did so on a grand scale. Whether holed up in an Afghan cave, or working from protected bases in neighbouring Pakistan, he refused to be ignored, always made us react to him.

The first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993, carried out by Ramzi Yousef who trained in al-Qaeda camps, the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, September 11, Bali, London, Madrid, all served the same purpose: to spread fear in the West and boldness among his followers.

Yet even he was shocked by the spectacular horror unleashed by the September 11 operation. It was the most lethal attack ever launched by a foreign hand on US soil, and it made bin Laden the world's most wanted man, one of the most wanted men in history. It triggered a war in Afghanistan, and became the pretext for another conflict in Iraq, the latter being the major strategic diversion that set back progress and may have crippled hopes for a good outcome in Afghanistan.

It inspired or tricked, depending on your viewpoint, a legion of angry Muslim men to join the jihad. Al-Qaeda became a global franchise, a powerful brand that turned not particularly religious Muslim men into ''holy warriors'', playing on the need for personal identity that's such a feature of the modern world. And it spread fear worldwide. Its enduring monument is the infrastructure of security, the tighter borders and the profitable government, publishing and academic empires, all devoted to control that we now live with, sucking up billions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on roads, schools, and hospitals.

Yet it was always a somewhat Quixotic quest. In a world where most people's main priority after food and transport is to get online, al-Qaeda has struggled to stay relevant. The democratic nature of the current Middle East revolution was a repudiation of the alternatives, including bin Laden's. The ''Sheikh'' as he liked to be called, and his No.2 Ayman al-Zawahiri would have reassured one another that the long game still suited them; that when these democratic uprisings are crushed or fail due to their own internal contradictions, fundamentalist Islam will have its day. We'll see.

Bin Laden may, in relative power terms, have been a wasp on the hide of an elephant, but he had a vicious sting. He lived by the gun, and sent thousands of people, friends, enemies and bystanders alike, to their deaths in suicide attacks, 3000 alone in a single day on September 11, 2001. He did not deserve to live out his days in comfort. He died violently, vanquished by his enemies, and in Pakistan too, which had been his safest of safe havens.

We have mourned his victims, Australians among them. They should not be forgotten. Willingly, like our soldiers doing their duty in Afghanistan, or unknowingly like those who died in Bali, they lost their lives in the struggle against Islamist terror. Among some people, especially in the US, which has given the most lives in this cause, there will be a desire to dance on bin Laden's body, and a degree of relief is understandable. For he made the world, ours and theirs, a much grimmer place.

Yet his death provides no silver bullet. The triumph is minor compared with the task of solving the problems that beset the Muslim world and our relations with it. It does, however, provide an opportunity to pause and reflect on bin Laden's decade, what we got right and what we got wrong. But the more important question is what's next. How do we build the safer, saner, more tolerant, equitable and prosperous world that is the best answer to the fundamentalist challenge?

Christopher Kremmer covered the Afghan war and wrote The Carpet Wars: A Journey Across the Islamic Heartlands.

-- The Sydney Morning Herald

photo credit - unsplash


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