BRUSSELS – For the absolute majority of the Arab world, he remains Sheikh Guevara: a rich heir who could just have enjoyed a life of privilege, but instead he invested all his knowledge and connections to wage jihad.
Osama bin Laden may not be an Islamic Guevara, but he certainly read Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book. Bin Laden’s Long March took place when he had to leave Sudan and set up camp in Afghanistan (just like the communists had to set up theirs in the back and beyond of China). He organized a “base” – the term Qaeda is a literal translation of base, as theorized by Mao in the 1930s.
And just like the communists, the base spread out to conquer a countryside ripe for revolution: from Afghanistan to the Indus Valley, and then to Central Asia (Uzbekistan). Some countries accepted his missionaries – like Afghanistan and Sudan. Some accepted them only half-heartedly, like Somalia and Chechnya. Emissaries kept roaming the earth – from Chechnya to Kyrgyzstan, from London to Hamburg. Al-Qaeda invested heavily in the Pakistani army, in the Saudi Islamic police, in the Saudi ulemas (clerics), and until recently in the Sudanese Islamic regime. Any dividends would be welcomed – even if collected in the distant future.
Bin Laden is admired in the Arab world because he knows the Holy Koran and the hadith – the traditional teachings. He knows how financial markets work. And of course he knows everything about globalization.
No wonder. People from the bin Laden clan are Hadramis – Bedouin fishermen from the Hadramut region. They have been open to the world since time immemorial. Their ships have been everywhere since the Middle Ages. They always knew Africa very well: that’s why Osama was based in Khartoum, in Sudan. As with the Chinese guanxi, the whole thing about al-Qaeda boils down to connections. And bin Laden’s connections are also very well introduced in Southeast Asia. With Indonesian strongman Suharto, the Yemenite clan was in power for more than three decades. A few million Indonesians of Arab descent still have close contact with the people from the Hadramut.
Afghanistan, as far as bin Laden and al-Qaeda were concerned, was not a defeat. Afghanistan was just a remote outpost of global jihad. Bin Laden may be very well connected in Sudan, in the southern Philippines and Indonesia and Malaysia, but in al-Qaeda’s global jihad, the most important prizes remain Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan.
The key to all of bin Laden’s and al-Qaeda’s business is the intersection of the Iranian world, the Indian world and the Arab world: this means the deserts of Baluchistan (which are half-Iranian and half-Pakistani), and legendary Peshawar, capital of the ultra-volatile North West Frontier Province in Pakistan. Baluchis are redoubtable fighters. They comprise one-third of the army of their neighbors, the sultanate of Oman. Arabs from Oman and from the Hadramut region are the men who matter in Baluchistan ports.
Prophet Mohammed, 1,400 years ago, united the tribes of Arabia – some allied to Persia, some allied to the Byzantine Empire. Messianic bin laden wants to unite the tribes of Islam – some formerly allied to the US, some formerly allied to the defunct USSR. This means a restoration of the Caliphate. Bin Laden’s hardcore Islamism vows to immerse people in a glorious past that they have forgotten, but is revealed to be much more rewarding than the bleak Western-dominated present.
With help from selected sources in Peshawar – which used to be (and certainly remains) bin Laden’s main base, and European intelligence sources tracking al-Qaeda movements, it’s possible to infer how bin Laden’s strategy will guide him and al-Qaeda’s next steps. Some tribal leaders are claiming bin Laden is now comfortably living in Peshawar, a city he knows extremely well: al-Qaeda’s intelligence cells supposedly remain connected and supported by wealthy Pakistani and Saudi private donors.
Bin Laden knew that strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – Apocalypse Now-style – would provoke a devastating American response. But he was also counting on massive support from the Muslim world for his jihad. He was certainly betting on a surefire escape route from the American encirclement: that’s exactly what happened in Tora Bora last December. Like an Islamic version of a master Go player, he was betting on gaining strategic territorial and political advantages. Ten months after September 11, it’s not so far-fetched to think that things are going his way. There is extreme turbulence in Yemen, Egypt and Pakistan – not to mention Saudi Arabia.
To understand bin Laden’s long-term view, it’s essential to consider his Four Pillars of jihad: 1) The Arab peninsula, with all its oil wealth, and most of all, Islam’s two most sacred sites – Mecca and Medina. 2) The Indus Valley, which means basically Pakistan – a technology-savvy nuclear state with an Islamic army permeated by fervent Islamists. 3) Egypt, the heart of the Muslim world, where he can draw support from Gamaa Islamiya, the organization founded by al-Qaeda’s brain, Ayman al-Zawahiri, alias “The Surgeon.” 4) This is the trickiest pillar: we could call it the Iranian Islamic counter-revolution, which bin Laden thinks will develop when his own Sunni Islamic revolution will be a superpower and Iranian Shi’ites will be forced to adhere to it.
In bin Laden’s not-exactly-worldwide strategy (he is only interested in selected areas of the Muslim world), he concentrates his attacks on what he qualifies as rotten regimes. His mapping is extremely coherent. His intuition has shown him that all traditional Muslim monarchies – from Jordan and Morocco to Saudi Arabia – are in deep trouble. The periphery – from Pakistan to the Central Asian republics – is bordering chaos. In Iran, a counter-revolution by secular and democratic forces is taking shape around President Khatami. And Indonesia and Malaysia – the Meccas of Muslim capitalism – were battered by the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis (most Arabs still firmly believe the crisis was detonated by Jewish speculators to get rid of Suharto).
For bin Laden, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt has to implode – because Mubarak, a thug, is also a beggar: in exchange of the annual American US$2 billion pocket money, he has to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel – an arrangement that enrages the Egyptian street. Bin Laden despises the Algerian regime – whose generals are dying to get a French passport. He despises both Baath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria – because they are despised by the majority of the respective populations, Shi’ite in Iraq and Sunni in Syria. But his strategy for Iraq and Syria is completely different from Egypt’s. bin Laden wants to recycle both Iraq and Syria – because for him the main enemy is Saudi Arabia. This goes some way to explain why al-Qaeda maintains a shady but arguably solid connection with the Lebanese Hezbollah – which is allied to Syria – and also a connection with a significant sector of Iraqi intelligence.
Of course, bin Laden’s noire is the Saudi Arabian regime, which was born from a Bedouin revolt and was supposed to reestablish the “purity of Islam” through the ultra-conservative Wahhabi faith. But for bin Laden, the Saudi royal family boils down to a bunch of cowards and traitors. It’s important to remember there is no hereditary monarchy in Islam. The only family widely respected is the Hashemite family – who are the legitimate descendants of Prophet Mohammed.
Bin Laden’s resentment against the House of Saud is widely shared by the majority of the Arab population (which, by the way, is not Wahhabi). And this includes the Yemenite minority. Rounding up his strategy, bin Laden was also the first to notice how Pakistan was in danger of being absorbed – economically and socially – by regional superpower India. He understood that after the end of the Cold War, Pakistan was literally left in the cold by both its crucial allies, China and the US.
The only missing link would be to seduce the Iran of the mullahs. And that’s exactly what bin Laden did. He recognized the merits of the Shi’ite Islamic revolution of 1979. But he promised much more to the mullahs: the keys to his all-embracing super-Sunni Islamic revolution, the only means to end the Iranian regime’s political isolation. Bin Laden may have started his career in the anti-Soviet jihad in 1982 as an American agent – but in the 1990s he did everything in his power to convince hardline Iranian mullahs that he was not an American ally anymore. Israeli commentators and a few CIA analysts swear that he got extremely valuable help from Iraqi intelligence – but there’s absolutely no evidence. At the time bin Laden was based in Khartoum, Sudan, working on subversive plots for Egypt. Sudan was pro-Iraq – and Iraq had a very imposing embassy in Khartoum. But this proves nothing.
Saddam Hussein’s main strategy to rally worldwide Muslim public opinion is to emphasize his commitment to the Palestinian cause. In this context, bin Laden could not be further from Saddam. He never demonstrated any interest in Palestine. Sources in Peshawar remember how disgusted he was when in the peace negotiations in Madrid in 1992 the Palestinian spokesperson was an unveiled Christian woman, Hinane Ashraoui (nowadays she is assistant secretary to the Arab League). The Palestinians are way too “modern” for bin Laden. He firmly believes that they cannot extract anything out of the Jews because they are led by a cocktail of women, Christians, homosexuals and Marxists. In this case, bin Laden is nothing more than reproducing the ideas of his mentor, Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian Palestinian academic killed by a massive explosion in Peshawar in 1989. Azzam was the brains behind the new ultra-hardcore wahhabis of Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan is vital to bin Laden’s design. It’s nobody’s secret in Pakistan that President General Pervez Musharraf has virtually no clue of what his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is up to. It’s an extraordinary “revenge of history”: the Pakistani army, which according to much evidence never respected civilian political power, now is constantly upstaged by an intelligence agency. But the ISI is not just an agency: it is a state within a state. Bin Laden immensely profited from the fact that in the 1980s he had two key Pashtun allies. General Hamid Gul was the architect of the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad – alongside the “moneyman,” Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia. General Nasirullah Babar – today living a cozy life in Peshawar – was no one else than the man who invented the Taliban. These two generals were the real masters of Afghanistan. They were Afghans, anyway, because they belonged to prominent Pashtun families.
As the evidence collected by Western intelligence shows that al-Qaeda is directed by a sort of central committee, it’s important to point out that this committee also includes high-ranking Pakistani generals, some from the ISI, and some of them Pashtun.
American pundits seem to be startled that terrorism central has moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Time to wake up: this is exactly what bin Laden wanted. He always knew that post-September 11 the conditions were ripe for Pakistan to explode or implode at any moment. This fits his plans for more power for the Islamist contingent (according to official Pakistani figures, around 15 million people), but most of all for the crucial ISI Islamist sectors with access to the Pakistani nuclear bomb.
No news is sweeter news for al-Qaeda at the moment than the killing of Haji Qadir, one of the Afghan vice-presidents. Haji Qadir was the self-styled “liberator” of Eastern Afghanistan from the Taliban last November. His brother, the notoriously brave mujahideen, Abdul Haq, was captured and executed by the Taliban during the war, in October last year. It’s not implausible at all to consider the possibility of an al-Qaeda and Taliban involvement in Haji Qadir’s death. This would prove that not only are they extremely active in the tribal areas – as everybody knows – but that they have managed to infiltrate the fragile Hamid Karzai’s administration in Kabul as well. Not only al-Qaeda, but the majority of Pashtuns on both sides of the border consider Karzai’s as nothing more than a puppet government.
The most plausible definition of victory for Osama bin Laden, even long-term, means the end of Saudi Arabia as we know it – where Islam’s sacred sites are not guarded by “traitors” and where 50 billion barrels of oil reserves would not revert to the West’s benefit; a nuclear Pakistan not constrained by any form of nuclear deterrence; and the death knell to any Muslim regime defined as moderate or allied with the US. This is what bin Laden really wants. He always wanted the US to declare war on Pakistan – not Afghanistan. But there he made a major mistake. He overvalued the military capability of his Afghan and Arab fighters in Afghanistan. And the coup d’etat in Pakistan – provoked by Muslims disgusted with the American bombing – never happened.
Bin Laden dreamed – and still dreams – that with a destabilized Pakistan capturing the imagination of the Muslim world, he could return to Yemen and really attack what is closest to his heart: the destabilization of Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden’s most hardcore supporters were not in Afghanistan. They are in Yemen – a federation of tribes where Shi’ites and Sunnis are equally represented. If the ruler, Shi’ite Colonel Ali Saleh, started getting cozy with the US because he fears bin Laden, Yemeni secret services remain in al-Qaeda’s pocket. They control as many as 50,000 fighters in north Yemen. All of them Sunni. And all of them religiously ultra-hardcore.
It’s important to know that all the Saudis in the Boeings-turned-into-missiles on September 11 came from tribes in the province of Assir. This province was taken from Yemen by Ibn Saud himself. This is the place that bin Laden will go to when things really get hot – which means, from his point of view, ripe for an attack on Saudi Arabia.
Bin Laden wants to reign not only over Riyadh, but most of all over Mecca and Medina. He may be terribly wrong about a multitude of factors: his belief that Muslims won’t go to war against other Muslims; the strength of Islamists in different areas; the anti-Islamist stance of most of the Pakistani population; the force of will of his two mortal enemies, Musharraf and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah (no, George W. Bush is not the main enemy). He may be wrong, but he will keep on trying to detonate his super Sunni Islamic revolution, his Allah-blessed self-appointed mission – the stuff of dreams emanating from the bowels of the big Pakistani city where he is hiding right now.