The Osama Bin Laden I Know

The Secret History of al-Qa’ida By Abdel Bari Atwan 236 pages, London: Saqi, 2006 In November 1996, five months after al Qaeda’s bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia and less than five years before al Qaeda would attack New York and Washington, Osama bin Laden’s "ambassador" to Britain approached the editor in chief ...

By , a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Secret History of al-Qa'ida
By Abdel Bari Atwan
236 pages, London: Saqi, 2006

In November 1996, five months after al Qaeda's bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia and less than five years before al Qaeda would attack New York and Washington, Osama bin Laden's "ambassador" to Britain approached the editor in chief of the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi. After exchanging some pleasantries, Khaled al-Fawwaz got to the point. His offer? A trip to Afghanistan to meet and interview Osama bin Laden, who had recently gone into hiding.

For the editor, Abdel Bari Atwan, an influential critic of both authoritarian Arab regimes as well as U.S. foreign policy, the proposal was both intriguing and odd: Usually it is the journalist who requests an interview. Nevertheless, Atwan wasn’t about to let the usual protocols stand in his way. He took al-Fawwaz up on his offer and several weeks later would spend two days interviewing, talking to, observing, and sleeping next to the internationally sought terrorist leader.

The Secret History of al-Qa’ida
By Abdel Bari Atwan
236 pages, London: Saqi, 2006

In November 1996, five months after al Qaeda’s bombing of the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia and less than five years before al Qaeda would attack New York and Washington, Osama bin Laden’s "ambassador" to Britain approached the editor in chief of the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi. After exchanging some pleasantries, Khaled al-Fawwaz got to the point. His offer? A trip to Afghanistan to meet and interview Osama bin Laden, who had recently gone into hiding.

For the editor, Abdel Bari Atwan, an influential critic of both authoritarian Arab regimes as well as U.S. foreign policy, the proposal was both intriguing and odd: Usually it is the journalist who requests an interview. Nevertheless, Atwan wasn’t about to let the usual protocols stand in his way. He took al-Fawwaz up on his offer and several weeks later would spend two days interviewing, talking to, observing, and sleeping next to the internationally sought terrorist leader.

The result is Atwan’s new book, The Secret History of al Qa’ida. In it, Atwan describes why he was called to meet the man who he "fully expected… would play a significant role in the history of his homeland, Saudi Arabia, and the Muslim world in general." Bin Laden "developed a very good sense of how to use the media over the years, and when he decided to declare war on the United States, he wanted it to be known the world over." Early on, bin Laden recognized that the media war is as important, if not more so, than the real war. He invited selected foreign journalists, such as Atwan, whom he considered sympathetic to Muslim causes.

Atwan is not the first to detail the media savvy of al Qaeda’s notorious leader. In the summer of 2005, the Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al-Awsat published the memoirs of Abu al-Walid al-Masri, a senior member of al Qaeda. Abu al-Walid was among the most senior of the Afghan Arabs (mujahideen) to break with bin Laden over the September 11 attacks and take his grievances public. He painted a dark portrait of bin Laden as an autocrat, running al Qaeda as he might a tribal fiefdom. The most revealing part of Abu al-Walid’s memoirs is his description of bin Laden’s "extreme infatuation" with the international media. He basked in the limelight, Abu al-Walid recounts, and not even Taliban leader Mullah Omar could restrain him. Bin Laden was prepared to sacrifice Afghanistan and Mullah Omar at the altar of his public relations campaign.

So concerned was bin Laden about his image that he refused to have his voice taped during Atwan’s interview. Why? Bin Laden’s media advisor later explained to Atwan (off the record, of course) that the "sheikh" was afraid he might make some grammatical or theological mistakes which, if these were recorded, could tarnish his public image. "I realized how conscious he must be of his image in the Islamic world," Atwan notes, "and that he desired to be a mufti (an authority trained in Shari’ah [Islamic law], who can pronounce fatwas)."

In contrast to Abu al-Walid, Atwan’s portrait of bin Laden fits perfectly with the image that al Qaeda’s leader and his men wanted to project to the world — virtuous, charismatic, humble, nonauthoritarian, courageous, and venerated by his followers. On meeting bin Laden, the author says he was "transfixed" by him: "He embraced me warmly and asked about my trip. I felt like an honored guest and was treated with the greatest respect." Bin Laden’s charm worked on Atwan, who says that he felt at ease in his presence and seemed very familiar to him, even though he was meeting him for the first time — "perhaps that is the essence of charisma," writes Atwan. He also takes for granted bin Laden’s claim that he possesses no personal political ambitions and that he only aspires to paradise through martyrdom, sooner, rather than later.

But surely bin Laden is a more complex political animal than Atwan gives him credit. He has labored hard to construct a public image of himself as a moral leader ready to replace corrupt and submissive Arab rulers. He portrays himself as the ‘vanguard’ of a new selfless and sacrificing generation. Of course, it’s easy to look back at a pre-9/11 bin Laden as an almost quaint militant figure, and Atwan readily admits that even he could not predict how much blood would be on bin Laden’s hands in just a matter of years. But if bin Laden’s goal in inviting Atwan (and other notable journalists) to his hideout in Afghanistan was to disseminate a perception of himself in the wider media as a pious advocate of the Arab people, he succeeded.

Bin Laden’s careful cultivation of his image has won him widespread popularity among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims — as well as more than a few willing to die for his cause. Atwan details how the charismatic leader is perceived to have given voice to feelings of alienation, demoralization, and neglect, filling a huge gap for a strong Muslim leader to unify the global community of Muslims, the umma, in battle against America and its allies and to restore the world of Islam to its former glory. Equally important, bin Laden, Atwan reminds us, has become a figurehead for a resurgent Muslim "identity," one that is political and linked with a Salafist, ultraconservative interpretation of Islam.

In this sense, the al Qaeda phenomenon reflects a profound political crisis, not a cultural or civilizational one, that plagues a Muslim world weighed down by decline and defeat. This crisis, according to Atwan, propels young Muslims toward al Qaeda, which promises them either victory or heaven. Far from being the weakened organization that U.S. officials would have it, Atwan contends, al Qaeda has transformed itself into an ideology and a global umbrella for activists who share its ideology and is "growing more powerful." In Atwan’s judgment, there is no longer a need for a physical and geographic base; no need for a centralized leadership; no need for a command-and-control decision-making process. There is not even a need for bin Laden.

These are undifferentiated, absolute assertions that deserve critical scrutiny. September 11 was not all the blessing for al Qaeda that Atwan describes. It was bin Laden’s attempt to turn the wheels of political fortune in his favor — by proving to the Muslim world that he and his brethren now represented the vanguard of the umma. He believed that the outrageous boldness of the attacks would attract new recruits. But the success of the plan depended entirely upon America’s response. Were the United States to expand its war against al Qaeda into countries that had nothing to do with the attacks, bin Laden knew that fellow Muslims would react with anger — with jihad.

But the vast majority of Islamists and former jihadists did not join al Qaeda. In fact, September 11 showed how deep the fissures within the jihadist movement ran. It illuminated the split between the ultramilitant wing represented by al Qaeda and a nonviolent majority that commands greater political weight. Surely, if al Qaeda cannot speak for jihadists, it cannot claim to represent the umma. Moreover, the umma might sympathize with al Qaeda’s grievances but, as multiple studies and surveys show, it rejects its terrorist methods.

This civil war within the jihadist movement has been overshadowed by the war in Iraq, which was a godsend to al Qaeda because it diverted attention from its zero-sum game and lent it an air of credibility. By the end of 2002, al Qaeda was not only militarily crippled but also internally encircled within the Muslim world. Al Qaeda was in a coma and only a miracle could revive it. Until, that is, the second war in Iraq.

And if the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq fell right into bin Laden’s hands, it reflects a real miscalculation of Arab and Muslim public opinion on the part of the United States. Which is exactly why Atwan’s account demands to be heard. Disagree with him or not, Atwan is one of the leading oppositional voices in the Arab world, one who has his finger on the pulse of Arab and Muslim public opinion. His narrative reflects widely held sentiments and opinions in that part of the world. As important, his book is a primary source on one of the most reviled and important figures of our time.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of several books, including a new edition of ISIS: A History. Twitter: @FawazGerges

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