What Americans Know of bin Laden
On February 26, 1993 a devastating explosion rocked the World Trade
Center in New York. The country was in shock. "Bombings belong in Spain,
Ireland, or Israel, not the here," we thought. Speculation swirled about
who could possibly commit such a heinous crime. It would be early 1995
until Ramzi Yousef is captured in Pakistan for masterminding the bombing.
Subsequent searching of his residence showed a financial tie to Osama
bin Laden. This is the first most Americans heard of bin Laden.
Very few Americans tied him to the deaths of American troop in Somalia
a year and a half earlier.
Little was said about bin Laden
until three years later. On August 7, 1998, bombs
exploded in the US embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania. 224 people
died and over 4500 were injured in the two attacks. Of those dead,
12 of were Americans. The bombings are immediately tied to bin Laden.
Of little note to Americans was that this bombing occurred on the
eighth year anniversary of the United Nations sanctions against Iraq
and the ordering of US soldiers to the Middle East. Thirteen days
later, the United States retaliated. Like the dual bombings, dual
attacks by cruise missiles were sent to a training camp in Afghanistan
and a chemical plant in Sudan. Americans are unaware of the mounting
evidence that the Sudanese attack may have been unfounded.
This chapter closes one month ago today. Four men were convicted of
the embassy bombings.
The average American has heard little of substance about bin Laden in
the past few years. A few scattered news stories about his failing
health, but little else. This is what the average American knows about
bin Laden. Joe American knows about the actions of a wealthy terrorist,
but not his motive. Joe does not understand the context of his movement.
A Little More Background
Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden was born in Riyadh in 1957.
Osama's father, Muhammad, is leader of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest
construction firm. As the 17th of 52 children, he stands to inherit
over $300 million USD. Of course, that is when his father dies. He is
likely to not inherit this money as Saudi Arabia has frozen all assets of
Osama indefinitely. bin Laden graduated from King Abdul Aziz University
in Jiddah in civil engineering in 1979 and prompted left Saudi Arabia
Afghanistan, a predominately Muslim country, was occupied by the
Soviet Union in 1979. bin Laden joined a resistance movement against
the "godless" USSR. This resistance, the mujahedeen, was funded in
large part by the United States government. The enemy of our enemy is
our friend. For the next ten years, bin Laden provided logistical and
humanitarian aid to the mujahedeen. There is debate about whether he
actively participated in battles. Eventually, the mujahedeen forced the
Soviet Union to leave Afghanistan. This was an important turning point
for bin Laden. A small group of freedom fighters had managed to beat
one of the largest and most powerful armies in the world. This would
later serve as a metaphor for his battle against the US.
bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1989 a hero. He quickly continued
his work by denouncing the Saudi government. The government was seen
by many as a corrupt regime. King Faisal destroyed any hope of long-term
sustainability by focusing on short-term profits for himself. bin Laden
fit nicely into the familiar role of freedom fighter. For his actions,
he was confined to Jiddah. Normally, such vocal opposition would be met
much more harshly in Saudi. bin Laden's lineage protected him from more
In 1991 the Saudi government asked the United States to intervene in
the Iraq/Kuwait crisis. The United States sent troops over to Saudi
start the Gulf War. The Saudi government's request was not the reason
the US sent troops, but it is essential to understanding bin Laden.
From bin Laden and many others's perspective, this was the start of
the US occupation of Saudi Arabia. This occupation continues to this
day. The Saudi dissident movement seeks to oust the Saudi government.
The United States troops are a major obstacle. Saudi Arabia and the US
are allies. The US also has major economic ties to oil in Saudi Arabia.
The dissidents knew that the US normally responds with force when their
economic interests are threatened. If the dissident movement was to be
successful, it first needed to get the US out of Saudi Arabia.
How I See bin Laden
Up until this point, I have tried to be objective. What follows is my own
opinion and conjecture. bin Laden's cause is essentially nationalistic.
He wants the removal of the corrupt government. He is not alone. Saudi
dissident groups exist throughout the world, especially in large cities
such as London. His main concern is for his country and his people.
The United States stands in the way of bin Laden's goals. Our financial
and military ties to Saudi Arabia protect its government. bin Laden first
needs to oust the US troops before he can overthrow the government.
He has experience in fighting huge countries. The success of the
mujahedeen's conflict with the USSR has shown him that he can win.
To do so, bin Laden needs a large base of people to join in his cause.
Many Saudi's, however, are somewhat comfortable in their lives.
They don't want to overthrow the government. Saudi Arabia does not meet
the normal criteria of a state ready for a new government. Many of the
citizens derive their living from either the government or the US troops.
It is against their interests to change. As such, bin Laden needs to
recruit people from outside of Saudi Arabia in his goal.
bin Laden has found the perfect vehicle to gain support: religion.
Many Muslims, especially in the Middle East, already have at least
suspicion of the United States. The US and USSR played the Middle East
like cards during the cold war with little regard to how it effected
the people. The US has unilaterally supported Israel in any dispute with
Arab countries. Neocolonialism by American corporations is changing the
Middle East, not always for the better. bin Laden has struck a chord
with many Muslims, especially those living in the Middle East. He used
the existing antagonism and combined it with Islam. By invoking Jihad
on August 23, 1996, he catalyzed the more extreme Muslims
of the world. He further combined religion into his own
nationalistic cause when, in February 1998, he issued a declaration
with several extreme Muslim groups that Muslims should kill Americans
(including civilians) anywhere in the world. Osama bin Laden has taken
his nationalistic campaign global by exploiting Islam.
I believe Osama bin Laden is a freedom fighter, fighting against the
corrupt Saudi regime. His current war with the United States is a
strategic move, the first step in overthrowing the Saudi government.
Osama bin Laden has successfully abused Islam to achieve his own,
nationalistic goals. While I support his goals, I disagree with
the means. Religion has frequently been warped to suit the goals
of extremists. What he does not realize is the long-term effects of
his plan. Americans, in large, know nothing of Islam. What we do not
know, we fear. For most Americans, bin Laden has replaced this ignorance
with the conception that Muslim means terrorist. If all Muslims are
terrorists, then stationing US troops in the Middle East is even more
important. Americans will feel that we need to protect the Middle East
from the Muslims (as illogical as that sounds). In the United States,
bin Laden has found a different enemy than the USSR. His actions are
setting back his own goals.