Wednesday 12 September 2001
IS THE WORLD'S FAVOURITE HATE FIGURE TO BLAME?
By Robert Fisk
I can imagine how Osama bin Laden received the news of the atrocities in the United States. In all, I must have spent five hours listening to him in Sudan and then in the Afghan mountains, as he described the inevitable collapse of the US, just as he and his comrades in the Afghan war helped to destroy the power of the Red Army.
He will have watched satellite television, he will have sat in the corner of his room, brushing his teeth as he always did, with a mishwak stick, thinking for up to a minute before speaking. He once told me with pride how his men had attacked the Americans in Somalia. He acknowledged that he personally knew two of the Saudis executed for bombing an American military base in Riyadh. Could he be behind the slaughter in America?
If Mr. bin Laden was really guilty of all the things for which he has been blamed, he would need an army of 10,000. And there is something deeply disturbing about the world's habit of turning to the latest hate figure whenever blood is shed. But when events of this momentous scale take place, there is a new legitimacy in casting one's eyes at those who have constantly threatened America.
Mr. bin Laden had a kind of religious experience during the Afghan war. A Russian shell had fallen at his feet and, in the seconds as he waited for it to explode, he said he had a sudden feeling of calmness. The shell never exploded.
The US must leave the Gulf, he would say every 10 minutes. America must stop all sanctions against the Iraqi people. America must stop using Israel to oppress Palestinians. He was not fighting an anti-colonial war, but a religious one.
His supporters would gather round him with the awe of men listening to a messiah. And the words they listened to were fearful in their implications. American civilians would no more be spared than military targets. Yet I also remember one night when Mr. bin Laden saw a pile of newspapers in my bag and seized them. By a sputtering oil lamp, he read them clearly unaware of the world around him. Was this really a man who could damage America?
If the shadow of the Middle East falls over yesterday's destruction, then who else in the region could produce such meticulously timed assaults? The rag-tag Palestinian nationalist groups that used to favour hijacking are unlikely to be able to produce a single suicide bomber. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have neither the capability nor the money that this assault needed. Perhaps the group that moved close to the Lebanese Hezbollah in the 1980's, before the organisation became solely a resistance movement. The bombing of the US Marines in 1983 needed precision, timing and infinite planning. But Iran, which supported these groups, is more involved in its internal struggles. Iraq lies broken, its agents more intent on torturing their own people than striking at the US.
So the mountains of Afghanistan will be photographed from satellite and high-altitude aircraft in the coming days, Mr. bin Laden's old training camps highlighted on the overhead projectors in the Pentagon. But to what end? For if this is a war it cannot be fought at all without some costly military adventure overseas? Or is that what Mr. bin Laden seeks above all else?
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