By: Mehdi Qazi
Just a month before the 20th anniversary of September 11, and during the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, Peter Bergen published his book written about a man who challenged the superpower in a multi-front war that spanned two decades. The book, The Rise and Fall of Osama Bin Laden, as its title suggests, describes the life of man.
Bergen, an American journalist associated with CNN, has studied and observed the Afghan war and al-Qaeda very closely. His work as an author from 2001 to date shows his deep understanding of terrorist organizations and US efforts in the war on terror.
As a specialist writer, Bergen has fulfilled all the required elements of a good book. His writing style immediately catches you; it is difficult to leave the journey in the middle as it outlines the situations quite nicely. We can not agree with him but his sourcing is impeccable as evidenced by the hundred pages he has allocated for references. He is impartial and never shows that he is concerned about OBL’s shortcomings.
Here are my big takeaways from reading his book.
Although OBL came from a wealthy and influenced family, growing up he was deeply affected by the absence of his father, Muhammad Bin Laden. As the son of an Alawite mother, Osama was not considered part of the Saudi mainstream of the family. Although he enjoyed the privileges of Muhammad’s other children, Osama was treated as though he belonged to the “other” family and developed many insecurities, such as attention seeking problems.
Bergen recounts how this insecurity of children followed him into adulthood even as he ruled Al Qaeda. For example, at daily family gatherings that Osama called, his family members were required to bow to him as if they were subjects before an emperor. The same goes for his political strategies with Al Qaeda – he wanted to be surrounded by “yes men” and ignored dissidents even if that meant losing battles as happened in Jalalabad in 1989. After years of silence, he would want to be in the limelight and try to win it over by posing statements, for example, on the Arab Spring.
Osama chose to lead a tough, hard life, surviving on subsistence levels in a quest to follow in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). He instilled hatred of Americans and Jews in the name of the supremacy of Islam. Their presence in the Arabian Peninsula was a constant source of Osama’s fury.
He also rooted a desire for shahadah in his followers. His boundless emotions and so-called loyalty to Islam blinded him to the basic principle of the Holy Quran which equates killing an innocent with killing all mankind.
Bergen also convinced me that it is ridiculous to say that there is no Islamic terrorism. Bin Laden did everything by opening this path and made his ground using Islam. His understanding of Islam was half-baked or maybe not even baked.
In the rhetoric of the supremacy of Islam or the establishment of the caliphate, Muslims have lost some great minds in this so-called holy war narrative which originated in their confrontation with the Soviets. Bin Laden himself had no authority in matters of religion, ”perhaps he would have acted as if he were to keep the clerics intact with him. At the time of recruiting fighters during the Soviet war in the early 1980s in Afghanistan, we hear about a few names like Abdullah Azzam (Juris Doctorate from Al-Azhar University), Essam al-Ridi (a pilot of University of Texas) and Wael Julaiden (a University of Arizona student) who came to Peshawar and then participated in this anti-infidel exercise. Bin Laden himself went to Oxford for a short course but like these they left the opportunity to become intellectuals.
Generation Z in Pakistan is offended when they hear that they have been complicit in the past because they do not realize how Pakistan has become a breeding ground for all these redlisted criminals. Places in Pakistan, especially Peshawar, are named in various ways in Bergen’s book. For Pakistani readers, it is inevitable to wonder if these things were happening under the nose of the state or if the state was ignoring it or had no idea what was going on?
Bergen does a good job of reporting how the Bush administration entered Iraq in an attempt to create a connection between Osama and Saddam Hussein. This despite the denial of several American agencies of any link between the two. The Bush administration imposed war on Iraq, which helped Al Qaeda regroup and create sectarian violence in Iraq. Bergen reports how this would later lead to Al Qaeda joining ISIS.
In the end, I was left with two questions that remain unanswered.
Un: Bergen claims that Pakistan did not allow the United States to have direct relations with the Mujahedin during Afghanistan’s war against the Soviets. How is this possible given that the United States claimed responsibility for the Soviet defeat by saying “We won”? How has Pakistan held the United States aside when it claims to have invested $ 3 billion?
Two: How could no photo of Osama’s corpse find its way into the media? Was President Obama in such a hurry to bury the case because a new leaf was being turned in the Middle East then? Is there a possibility that in the future new allegations will surface, similar to the claim that mistakes were made in imposing war on Iraq?
I’ve left a few more out because I don’t want to spoil the suspense by discussing Operation Neptune Spear and other events that Bergen reports so well in a balanced way. The reader will recognize that Osama’s journey that changed the dynamics of 21st century international politics certainly did not unfold in days, but decades.