What do we know about Osama bin Laden? Really know? Truth be told, most of us know nothing about him; we only have heard stories of him told by media of uncertain reliability and honesty. In fact, there are few among us who can attest that such a person actually existed. What can be reasonably guessed, however, is that there was such a person, but that the cartoon persona presented in the media, by government spokespeople and absorbed by the general public is a foolish simplicity devoted to propaganda, not reality.
But let us affect a certain credulity and assume that there was such a person and that some general information can safely believed to be true; what of the available stories can we accept as most believable? Here are my selections:
Osama bin Laden was the son of a wealthy Yemeni contractor of major industrial construction projects with connections to the Saudi royal family. He was one of 20 plus sons (his father had several wives) and of above average height. Though trained as an engineer, he had a philosophical turn of mind and fancied himself a warrior poet. He was political. He was a committed Muslim. His wealth, social position, height, attractiveness and manner would all suggest a person who could easily develop narcissistic tendencies, possibly seeing himself as important, even pivotal, in the struggle with modernity’s impress on Muslim beliefs and the political challenges from the USA and others as forces from outside the region attempted to dominate the Middle East for reasons of oil and its geopolitical centrality. Many events support this perception of him.
There will be more of this as I go along, but I want to dispense with the primary issue early on. I don’t know if Osama bin Laden was a bad man or not. I am told that he was; I am told that he was the worst of men, that he was the devil. It is repeated endlessly with no objection allowed.1 The image is posed of bin Laden as the central controlling agency for the US embassy bombings in Africa, the bombing of the USS Cole, the 9/11 attack and a list of bombings in Europe and Asia. This is all predicated on the importance of his role in the operation of an organization that has come to be called al Qaeda.
I will not dwell on the history or importance of al Qaeda, there are may sources that the reader can go to by googling “history al qaeda”, but I have no reason to believe that such an organization exists in the form that the media has come to reflexively present it. Almost no evil occurs in the present world without one media person asking another media person, “and what, do you think, was the role of al Qaeda?” For al Qaeda to be involved in all the actions associated with such questions would require it to have the powers, reach and structure of the CIA.2
The organization funded and directed by bin Laden in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion was more like the regiments raised by business and political figures in the American Civil War than the formation of a clandestine terrorist organization: a few thousand men brought into the country, equipped and funded by a self proclaimed “general.” It was during this time that bin Laden, a seemingly practiced networker, developed contacts with the American CIA. Given his education and knowledge of Middle Eastern history, he could not have trusted them. But his family’s close ties with the Saudi Royal family, the Royal family’s ties with the US government and his own family’s ties with US oil companies must have complicated the situation for him. It is almost too easy to speculate about how Papa Bush’s oil and CIA relationships might have figured in.
For all of the smoke and heat generated in the world media about this thing called al Qaeda there is little evidence of a consistently directed enterprise. The actions attributed to al Qaeda in the US include the fantasies of Jose Padilla, the burned feet of the Shoe Bomber, the burned groin of the underwear bomber, the smoking car of the failed New York city bomber and 2 or 3 clumsy entrapment stories from the FBI. The Fort Hood shootings in Texas seem not to be related to bin Laden although you wouldn’t know that from watching TV news.
Lacking better evidence than that delivered by a chronically dishonest media, the principle of parsimony forces the assumption that al Qaeda, in the form used to support the stories of Osama bin Laden as the ultimate terrorist, does not and has never existed. It seems to have begun as part of a record keeping project, a need to keep track of especially Saudis coming into Afghanistan in the 1980s, more a list than a political or religious movement; though bin Laden was almost certainly acting religiously, politically and militarily at the time.
Those who call themselves al Qaeda seem, today, to be largely self-assigned; at least in part as a result of the publicity given to the name by the media. The parade of ‘frightening’ foreign sounding names, the constant assertion of al Qaeda’s malevolent omnipresence and the attribution of unique evil to bin Laden all seem to be propaganda aimed at frightening and controlling the common folk, to create distractions from the truly devastating plans that the economic and power elite have for us.
We need only compare the danger of being harmed by a crazy person empowered by some dream of glory to the possibility of being harmed by having access to medical services reduced or removed; it is obvious where the greater danger lies. Compare the odds of a terror attack with the harm created by the increased redistribution of wealth to the top 1%; doubling and tripling the wealth of the wealthiest contributes to social instability, economic weakness, loss of economic safety and actual starvation on a scale hundreds of times greater than all the terrorism of the last 20 years.3 But I wander in my intended purpose.
Removed from the prejudgments constantly applied by the media and government, Osama bin Laden appears to have been a regional actor trying to protect his religion, his tribal and national affiliations and the resource/economic base of his homeland.4 Foreign invaders, for thousands of years, had marched across Arabia and for thousands of years the desert tribes had driven them away. This was the tradition in which bin Laden probably saw himself. The rest is detail – some of it quite damning to be sure.
His relationship with the CIA, his willingness to fund and otherwise support the killing of innocent human beings, his associations with Pakistani intelligence services, his association with drug smuggling and other unsavory activities, but these are all obligations in the world of armed conflict – and these are the people that own the ball with which the game is played.
From the information available to us, information with some reasonable value, we can be confident that there is a much deeper game being played here. We can also be sure that the real Osama bin Laden is (was) nothing like the cartoon one used to frighten the children. And if he died as he is said to have died, then it was the murder of one of the players of that deeper game and not the removal of evil incarnate making this a safer world.
And that funny aftertaste; that is the bitterness of being lied to yet again. Neither bin Laden or al Qaeda were in charge of the narrative; US and British officialdom and corporate actors used the events that occurred, created those didn’t occur on their own and constructed from the disconnected, even unrelated, stories, narratives to support their goals. bin Laden’s death is no different – and ultimately will make no difference on its own terms.
- Another part to this story is the irony of bin Laden’s code name for the operation that killed him: he was codenamed Geronimo. Geronimo, a hero to his people, was fighting an overwhelming power with, what would be called today, terrorist tactics; bin Laden might have chosen such a name for himself. It is entirely possible that Osama bin Laden was, right-headedly or wrong-headedly, trying to defend his view of his people, religion and region from the oppressive influence, domination and thievery of the Western powers. Certainly the case can be made that the US and Europe have used the Middle East’s peoples, land and resources for their own interests and in the process caused no end of suffering and troubles there. What is difficult to understand is how few prominent freedom fighters there have been from the Middle East, not that they occasionally occur.
The indignation of many Indigenous peoples at the codename represents the (mis)understanding of bin Laden as a bad man; this is the same kind of prejudiced and “simplistic” understanding suffered by the Indians during their struggles with the US government, business interests and media. Geronimo was maligned in the media and was the ‘devil’ of his time in the American southwest. In fact, the treatment of those who have been fighting against the destruction of historical Middle Eastern culture by colonial powers is not dissimilar to the treatment, and its explanations, once (and to some extent continuing to be) delivered to Indigenous peoples. This is something that Indigenous peoples should understand.
The military’s use of Geronimo as a codename for bin Laden was a thoughtless and stupid choice, but finally not because of the insensitive use of the name of a good man for a bad one, but for the more telling prospect that a man once vilified is used to name a man presently vilified – and the possibilities of understanding therein. [↩]
- Consider the madness! Media Story: years of planning, millions of dollars, thousands upon thousands of man-hours, extensive training, deep infrastructure of information collection, analysis and military acumen required to discover and invade a house with about 7 or 8 adults and some children. But bin Laden is supposed to be controlling the world’s most dangerous terror shop out of a cave with a few hundred to a few thousand half literate followers… and using ‘runners’, not radios, to deliver messages. [↩]
- An honest comparison would be the human costs of the Middle Eastern Oil Wars over the last 90 years with the retributive response of oppressed peoples that we call terrorism; the differences would be on the order of many thousands to one. [↩]
- Furthermore, the national governments of the Middle East had all been to some extent co-opted by the Western powers, political and corporate, so as to allow the slow and not so slow appropriation of resource and culture. [↩]