Bin Laden Retrospectives

“U-S-A! U-S-A!” Europeans woke up to the news, while cheering Americans put off bedtime for a while to go congregate and rejoice. The killing of Osama Bin Laden dominates world news today, while analyses of the consequences and of Bin Laden’s extraordinary life are likely to occupy much print and many pixels in the days to come.

Naturally, such pieces are already forthcoming. One of the best I’ve seen so far comes from an expected source, Prof. Juan Cole’s blog Informed Comment, although it does veer at the end to the realm of personal reminiscences. (The September 11, 2001 attacks were after all the inspiration for setting up that blog, as they were for so many other things e.g. US Army/Marines enlistments.)

Plus, as always Prof. Cole’s treatment is in English, which is not really within the remit of the blog you’re reading now. Let’s turn to Der Spiegel instead:

That link leads to an article entitled The Prince of Terror, by Yassin Musharbash. (Despite the name, a born-and-bred German journalist.) The photo-series you’ll find starting at the article’s head – basically a series of Osama TV-stills – is nothing to write home about, but what Musharbash writes about his historical background is quite interesting. For the world’s premier terrorist could very well have become its leading playboy instead; he was born into quite a wealthy Saudi family, which had made its money in the construction business. But no, he chose religion over worldly things, and became known over his lifetime for his qualities of patience, modest living, and friendliness – “friendliness” to a select few, at least, since he never was so enthusiastic about Westerners and his strict religious convictions kept him from shaking any female’s hand from an early age, as well from any music, photography, or television (except for the news).

Nonetheless, from a position as an outsider he soon became one of the leading heroes within the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation. Of course, it was from the (mostly Arab) fighting elements he assembled there for that original purpose that he would go on to build his “Al-Qaeda” network. (The name in Arabic literally means “network,” as well as a number of other things.) But Musharbash helpfully reminds us of another, later instance when the West’s and Bin Laden’s military interests coincided, namely in Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s: A nascent Al-Qaeda then supplied fighters to defend that break-away republic from Serb depredations long before Europe or the US had made up their mind what to do themselves.

The Dutch paper De Volkskrant is also quick off the blocks with its own Profile: This is how Bin Laden became the most-wanted terrorist on Earth. No photo-series this time – but really, by now haven’t we all had to gaze on his face more times than we have really wanted? – just a Bin Laden background, with a couple new and interesting facts. Supposedly he originally started working in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion there just to try to recruit for and supply the resistance, not take up arms himself, but he changed his mind one day when he happened to be attacked by some Russian helicopters. Also, although after his success there he returned to his native Saudi Arabia as a famous hero, he soon fell afoul of the authorities there by shooting his mouth off against them too often, to the point that they confiscated both his passport and much of his property. (Of course, that didn’t stop him from moving to Sudan, by way of Yemen, and thence back to Afghanistan.)

There’s just one strange thing here: the (unnamed) Volkskrant reporter writes about how, even after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Bin Laden still managed to run Al-Qaeda – in a loose way – “with his satellite and computer.” I can easily imagine Bin Laden weilding a laptop (although the power-supply could have been problematic), but not a “satellite” as the world’s authorities keep careful tabs on what’s allowed up into space. Perhaps the author meant “satellite-telephone.”

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