Was it really bin Laden? The question is moot. The U.S. needs a face to put on the enemy as it prepares to retaliate for the suicide bombings of September 11, and he’s our man. The Bush administration announced late Sunday that it would soon release a briefing paper summing up the case against bin Laden. If his resume is any guide, the case will be circumstantial and inconclusive, a catalog of first- or second-hand ties to the suicide bombers and their associates. Chances are it won’t really prove much, but the U.S. hopes at minimum that it will offer moderate pro-Western governments in the region a plausible pretext for supporting, at least passively, U.S. efforts to wipe out bin Laden and his closest colleagues.
There’s no doubt bin Laden is a pivotal figure in the broad, loosely affiliated network of radical Islamic guerrilla bands now operating not only in the Middle East but around the world, from the Phillipines to-as we have so forcefully learned over the past two weeks-the United States itself. But is he a mastermind and direct financier of terror operations, or mainly an inspirational figure? No one knows for sure. Just how integrally involved he has been in past assaults on U.S. interests remains a murky question. To see why, and to understand what the U.S. now finds itself up against, one has to consider the rise of bin Laden and the groups to which he is tied.
The bin Laden saga commenced with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia was among the first and most avid backers of the Afghan resistance fighters; one of the forms its support took involved the large-scale infusion of cash and expertise by the best and brightest sons of the Saudis. Bin Laden, then in his early twenties, went to Afghanistan and quickly made a name for himself. Drawing on the resources of his family’s construction firm, he built roads, supply depots, and medical facilities for the Afghans. Tales of his generous support to the families of the wounded and killed became legend. Bin Laden was also an instrumental figure in raising funds for the Afghan war effort. By the estimate of one CIA official interviewed in a BBC documentary, the sums he helped raise ran to $20-25 million a year.
The efforts of bin Laden and friends were abetted mightily by the U.S. government, which, through the CIA, funneled enormous amounts of aid to the Afghans. The American stake in the war was a cynical one; the Carter administration saw it as an opportunity to embroil the Soviet Union in “its own Vietnam,” in the words of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. It isn’t clear whether the CIA worked directly with bin Laden, but the point is academic. In coming to the aid of the resistance, it helped forge the backbone of al-Qaeda and organizations like it.
By the time the Soviets withdrew in defeat ten years later, bin Laden was a budding icon among the newly invigorated forces of Islamic resistance. And his stature only grew in the subsequent decade following strikes at U.S. forces and facilities in Somalia, Kosovo, Kenya and Tanzania, and the U.S.S. Cole. There is no analogous figure in the recent history of the West; to members of al-Qaeda and their brethren, he is Elvis, Che Guevara, and the Rockefeller Foundation rolled into one.
But a myth such as bin Laden’s is bound to obscure more than it reveals. Start with the matter of his role as financier in the Afghan war. Even the most lavish estimates of his personal fortune place it in the $250 million range. He could not have supplied $20-25 million a year on his own without exhausting the bulk of it. He was a fundraiser, and there was apparently no shortage of wealthy, like-minded souls willing to answer the call. There is every reason to expect this is more true now than ever, following the Gulf War and a decade of periodic U.S. missile assaults in places like Iraq and the Sudan. Americans who would like to believe that killing bin Laden or freezing his assets would deal a crippling blow to the finances of al-Qaeda and others are simply kidding themselves.
The same goes for bin Laden’s putative “control” of these operations. To listen to the public fulminations of American officials, you would suppose that bin Laden sits at the head of a board of terrorists, calling shots. Against this image, consider the words of the Robert Fisk, the British writer who probably knows bin Laden and his world better than any other English-speaking journalist. “Is he capable of it?” Fisk asked himself in talking to a Radio New Zealand interviewer last week. “Look, I’ll give you one tiny example. The second time I met him in Afghanistan, four years ago he walked into the tent I was sitting in and sat down opposite me, cross-legged on the floor and noticed in the bag I usually carry some Arabic-language newspapers. He seized upon these and went to the corner of the tent with a sputtering oil lamp and devoured the contents.
“For 20 minutes he ignored us, he ignored the gunman sitting in the tent, he ignored me. He didn’t even know, for example, that the Iranian foreign minister had just visited Riyadh-his own country, Saudi Arabia (well, until he lost his citizenship). So he seemed to me at the time to be very isolated, a cut-off man, not the sort of person who would press a button on a mobile phone and say, ‘Put Plan B into action.’ So I don’t think you can see this as a person who actually participates in the sense of planning, step by step, what happens in a nefarious attack.”
You can’t crush the gathering Islamic revolt against the U.S. and the West more generally by crushing bin Laden; you can only make a martyr who will draw still more men and money to the cause. Privately American officials know this, which is why they are careful to couch their move against bin Laden as merely the first step in a long war. This kind of rhetoric may be inevitable in the wake of events as terrible as those in New York and Washington, but if the U.S. sticks to this course for the long haul it will be a losing proposition: There is no way to wipe out what is in the end a popular movement for local sovereignty.
If the United States wants to blunt the insurrectionary impulses reflected by al-Qaeda et al, it can only do so by changing its policy in the Middle East. That would mean, as a first step, moderating its support for the Israelis and pushing them toward a more equitable co-existence with the Palestinians; it would also mean a more flexible, variegated policy toward the governments of the Middle East as they come to terms with the oppositional elements inside their own countries. Ultimately, too, it would involve finding means of reducing our reliance on the oil reserves of that region. These are immense changes, but they pale beside the prospect of waging endless hot and cold wars against an Islamic resistance that will only gain in size and determination with each new Western offensive.
Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.