Jan 27, 2002

The last revolution: The US won the war in Afghanistan, but bin Laden’s ideology lives on

Copyright 2002 Guardian Newspapers Limited The Observer January 27, 2002 SECTION: Observer Review Pages, Pg. 17 LENGTH: 1498 words HEADLINE: Review: Books: The last revolution: The US won the war in Afghanistan, but bin Laden's ideology lives on BYLINE: JASON BURKE BODY: Holy War Inc by Peter L. Bergen Weidenfeld & Nicolson pounds 18.99, pp302 The Age of Terror eds Strobe Talbott, Nayan Chanda Perseus pounds 8.99, pp224 How Did This Happen? eds James F. Hoge,Gideon Rose Perseus pounds 8.99, pp352 Two Hours that Shook the World by Fred Halliday Saqi pounds 7.99, pp256 A SUPERPOWER sends an expeditionary force armed with the latest in military technology to fight a small war against a ragged, if fanatical, army led by a mysterious cleric, known as as the 'Mad Mullah'. Thousands of tribesmen, equipped with ludicrously inadequate weapons, die under the withering fire of cutting edge weapons for the loss of a handful of the victors' troops. The war is over, the threat is ended and everyone goes home happy (except the dead locals). Sounds familiar? Rewind to 1898 and the British campaign in the Sudan - the world's premier nation flexing its vast military muscle to swat a new and unforeseen threat to its interests. But quite how unforeseen was the more recent threat posed by Osama bin Laden? He did not suddenly appear to ruin any putative 'New World Order' or to restart history like a video that was paused when the Berlin wall came down or the US won the Gulf War. The threat he poses to America, like that posed by the Mahdi to Britain, is rooted in historical trends that go back at least 40 years. Westernisation and the political and cultural dominance of America, the resurgent fundamentalist religion that is partly a reaction to westernisation and the Cold War have all played a part in the genesis of bin Laden. The bare facts about bin Laden - the illiterate self-made construction magnate father, the youthful attraction to radical Islam - are now familiar. Other biographical details are still being contended - he did not, as has been widely reported, go whoring and drinking in Beirut. Nor did his daughter marry Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader. Bin Laden became profoundly interested in the radical strain of Islam that provided solace to many millions of alienated young Muslims in the late Seventies. He was heavily influenced by radical thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Abdullah Azzam who both rejected Western culture and the 'apostate' regimes who collaborated in its spread. Bin Laden's ideology evolved to combine the rigour of the Wahhabi school of Islam with the aggression of the less theological 'Jihadis'. By 1979 the attempt to return to unpolluted religious texts and the reaction to Westernisation had taken on its own dynamic. Islamic radicals seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, an Islamic revolution deposed the decadent West-worshipping Shah of Iran and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. All these events were rooted in westernisation, the reaction to it and the Cold War. At first bin Laden fought the Russians from an office in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar. He cannot have, as Adam Robinson has it in his sloppily researched Bin Laden: Behind the Mask of a Terrorist , (Mainstream Publishing, pounds 7.99, pp286) arrived in a helicopter in the middle of the city's main bazaar. Such a feat is a) physically impossible and b) utterly out of character. Men who knew bin Laden say he was an introverted and quiet man,who was happiest when deep in late night sophomoric discussions about the history of Islam and the Arabs. In the late Eighties, bin Laden fought in Afghanistan alongside thousands of motivated men who would, once the Soviets had been defeated, spread out across the world as an Islamist diaspora, searching for a new Jihad. Months after arriving in Afghanistan from the Sudan in 1996, the then 39-year-old signed his first communication to the world 'from the Hindu Kush'. Bin Laden was at Tora Bora, the cave complex made famous by al-Qaeda's final stand last month. His point was clear: I may be stuck on a scrub-strewn hill in a country almost without roads, let alone telephones but I am still here. I am still a force. Many authors stress the role of technology in bin Laden's rise. Although it has undoubtedly aided him and his al-Qaeda group, bin Laden's attempts to build an army by publicising himself and his cause in the media may have been less effective than he and others think. The real publicity has come from his enemies. In early 1998, days before the bombing of the East African embassies and the subsequent US retaliation, I asked a score of young Taliban soldiers in Kabul about the Saudi-born dissident. None had heard of him. Last month I asked an old man near Jalalabad a similar question. 'Bin Laden?' he answered. 'What village is he from?' Very few recruits who came to the Afghanistan training camps before 1998 were drawn in by bin Laden. In their statements to the FBI they say they only heard about 'the sheikh' on their arrival. They came because they wanted to fight their Jihad. Since then they have come in their thousands to join al-Qaeda's cause. If bin Laden was a by the cross-currents of geopolitics in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties then he was picked up and borne along by the fast flowing events of the Nineties. In 1994 the Taliban - backed by Pakistan, the US and Saudi Arabia - began their rampage across Afghanistan. For bin Laden they provided a haven. And, as Middle Eastern governments cracked down on a wave of Intifada-inspired unrest, thousands of Islamic recruits flowed into the camps built for an earlier conflict. We all know what happened: how the towers fell; how the US military machine chewed up the Taliban; how the formal structures of al-Qaeda fell apart. Bin Laden has disappeared, for the moment, but no one, believes that the cancer has been cut out. For bin Laden was not a chief executive running Holy War Inc , a global conglomerate with market penetration in scores of countries as Peter Bergen in his otherwise excellent, meticulously researched and highly readable book has it, but the titular head of a huge and amorphous movement. There is no top-down hierarchy that can easily be disrupted, no carefully organised cell structure that resists but is ultimately vulnerable to covert subversion, no nation state that can be battered into submission. The difficulty bin Laden has in keeping in contact with active cells overseas demonstrates this. He has had to rely on couriers to carrying computer disks, videos or even bits of paper to get his orders out. For most operations one of bin Laden's top men had to travel to the country where the planned attack was to take place. As a global business al-Qaeda would not survive long. The nearest parallel to bin Laden's 'organisation' is the anti-globalisation movement. It too is inclusive; joining hardcore Italian anarchists with Surrey housewives concerned about GM crops. It too crosses national frontiers without problem, has esoteric sources of funding, has forced world leaders into well-defended citadels, has a multiplicity of fiercely particularist strands as well as an incoherent, diffuse ideology and a tendency to mythologise. There is now no individual figurehead for anti-globalisation but if there were, would anyone think that chasing him into a cave in eastern Afghanistan would end support for his project? There are deeper resonances here too. There is clearly a strong anti-globalisation element to the ideology of bin Laden and his followers with its resistance to the hegemony of market capitalism and Western culture. Niall Ferguson, in his excellent essay in the very fine Age of Terror calls Islamic fundamentalism 'centrifugal', seeing it as part of the continuing disintegration of the nation state around the globe. To Fred Halliday, blaming the world's ills on globalisation is a 'caricature', yet it is a key part of al-Qaeda's world view. Al-Qaeda's people are revolutionaries in a truer, more original sense than the rioters in Genoa: they want a 'revolution', a return to an earlier more righteous, more just time, when a religion (which, as even its defenders admit, has deep difficulties in looking forward) will be paramount. Those surprised by the level of literacy and wealth of al-Qaeda recruits. have forgotten that, historically, starving people don't make good rebels. Last week the Saudis appeared to be questioning the American presence in their country. Time magazine spoke of the need to tackle global poverty as a root of terrorism. Other writers call for pre-emptive intervention by America across the world. Newsweek has run a series of comment pieces by Fareed Zakaria - who contributed an excellent essay in the useful How Did This Happen? - in which he tried to answer the question 'Why do they hate us?' The debate in the US is, thankfully for all of us, heated. A few days ago Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, made clear that America was not 'the problem'. He may or may not be right. What is certain is that the US has to provide the answer.