Inside the mind of Bin Laden

The world's most wanted terrorist continues to inspire brutal attacks like those in Jordan last week and Baghdad yesterday. Now a remarkable new work reveals his true thoughts. Mary Braid reports
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The Independent Online

For years, Osama bin Laden, the man whose messianic power over his followers has inspired them to murder on a massive scale - including 57 people slaughtered at a Jordan wedding party last week - has been hidden to all but his closest circle.

Millions of dollars have been spent trying to hunt him down, and he has appeared to his disciples only as a face on a screen or a voice on a tape. No one has known where he is, or where he wants to go, assuming he is still alive.

But now the first collection, in English, of every public statement Bin Laden has made will be published in the United States and the UK in an attempt to shed light on the motives and thinking of the world's most wanted man.

It goes a long way to explain how it is that this pampered son of a self-made billionaire traded in a life of Saudi luxury to become the fugitive mastermind of global jihad. It reveals why he thinks one of his biggest assets is the foreign policy of the Bush White House; the point at which his revolutionary Islamic fervour tipped over into megalomania; and answers the question that constantly nags away at Western security services: do his messages to his followers contain coded messages?

Messages to the World - the Statements of Osama bin Laden - covers 24 pronouncements and interviews. They range from Bin Laden's angry but comparatively cautious criticism of Saudi Arabia's senior judiciary in 1994 - from exile in Sudan - to his blistering and unambiguous call for the Saudi royal family to be violently removed - made last year from wherever he was hiding. Collectively, these messages are the closest we will ever have to the terrorist leader's Mein Kampf.

"Until now Bin Laden's messages have been presented in a piecemeal fashion and that gives a skewed view," says American Arabist and professor of religion Bruce Lawrence, who edited and annotated the book.

Lawrence has already been accused by right-wing American groups of being an apologist for Bin Laden. "But military strategists know that you keep your friends close and your enemies even closer," he says. "It's necessary to understand Bin Laden to refute his arguments." He says Bin Laden soundbites - the result of poor translations and, sometimes, tacit media censorship - have, until now, concealed from the wider public what lies at the root of Bin Laden's power to incite violence - his extraordinary language skills.

"At times he is quite poetic," says Lawrence. "If he were writing in English, he might be compared to Chaucer. He is not an original thinker - what sets him apart from other fundamentalists is that he is a highly skilled polemicist."

Messages to the World starts with a letter Bin Laden sent in 1994 to Bin Baz, Saudi Arabia's Chief Mufti (Islamic judge). Lawrence believes it marked a major stage in his metamorphosis into international terrorist.

By 1994, Bin Laden's opposition to the Saudi government had already radically altered his circumstances. His father, Muhammad, had risen from illiterate Yemeni to billionaire by building up a construction empire in Saudi that specialised in the renovation and maintenance of holy buildings.

Muhammad became a trusted confidant of the al-Saud family. Saudi-born, ultra-devout Bin Laden, one of Muhammad's 54 children by at least 20 wives, had inherited the right contacts and enough wealth for a cushy life. But when he wrote to Bin Baz he had already been in exile for three years, living in a large, protected, compound outside the Sudanese capital Khartoum. He had been stripped of his Saudi citizenship.

Bin Laden's hatred of the House of Saud was sown before Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. He had spent the 1980s fighting in Afghanistan with the mujahedin against the Soviet Union - in collaboration, ironically, with the CIA.

When he returned home to Saudi in 1990, the affluent and battle-hardened Bin Laden offered to form an Arab-Afghan veteran army to defend his homeland against Iraq. But the royal family chose, instead, to invite half a million American and other foreign troops into the country.

Bin Baz supported the decision. When Bin Laden and others protested that the royal family's renunciation of Islam was at the root of their reliance on foreign troops, they were harassed or jailed. After a stint of house arrest, Bin Laden was allowed to go to Sudan where it's thought he organised underground opposition to the Saudi rulers.

In the Bin Baz letter, Bin Laden criticises the Mufti's collusion with the House of Saud. Lawrence points out that, despite widespread claims that Palestine is a late addition to Bin Laden's agenda, in the 1994 letter Palestine was already a central theme. Referring to the 1993 Oslo Accords, agreed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel, Bin Laden complains to Bin Baz about "your latest astonishing decree justifying peace with the Jews, which is a disaster for Muslims".

Bin Laden argues that the Mufti's real "legal duty ... is to motivate our umma [global Islamic community] to jihad [defensive war] so that Palestine may be completely liberated and returned to Islamic sovereignty."

In another early letter a year later, to Saudi scholars, the ambitious scope of Bin Laden's blossoming jihad is becoming chillingly obvious as he includes Bosnia and Chechnya among the places where "destruction and slaughter are being meted out to Muslims". Jihad, he menacingly promises, will "go on until the Day of Judgement".

Lawrence argues that, almost uniquely for a revolutionary figure, Bin Laden's offers no alternative, earthly ideal society to his followers. Reward comes only with death, and the sacrifice of his followers' lives for their religion is its own reward.

By 1997, Bin Laden had become a political nomad. Holed up in Afghanistan, after US and Egyptian pressure led to him being asked to leave Sudan, the increasingly celebrated radical gives an interview to CNN's Peter Arnett.

He forbids any questions about his family or finances but it is obvious that his ambitions have grown further and become even more hardline. He no longer wants American troops simply to leave the Arabian peninsula, but to withdraw from the entire Muslim world.

Bin Laden seldom refers to his own family but it's widely believed that he married his first cousin when he was 17 and has since married four other women. He is believed to have fathered at least 13 children.

Bin Laden revealed that the Saudi government has recruited members of his large family to pressurise him to give up his jihad calls.

The family business Saudi BinLaden Group - at that stage worth some $5bn and employing thousands, and, licensed by Disney to produce books in Arabic - was also being squeezed.

"They sent my mother, my uncle and my brothers on almost nine visits to me in Khartoum, asking me to stop and return to Arabia to apologise to King Fahd," said Bin Laden. "I apologised to my family kindly because I know that they were driven by force to come and talk to me."

Scorning the Saudi authorities for thinking "a Muslim may bargain on his religion", the increasingly resolute Bin Laden pledged to continue his call to arms. He argued it is "much better for us to live under a tree here on these mountains than to live in palaces" in a godless land such as Saudia Arabia.

Death appears to hold no terror for him. In fact his passionate anticipation for his own eventual annihilation would chill all but the most religiously fanatical. He seems to taunt the West to consider what it can possibly muster to counter the jihadis' willingness to die. "We love this kind of death for God's cause as much as you like to live," he says.

The following year, 1998, Bin Laden delivered his promised destruction with simultaneous bomb attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, the first terrorist atrocities that could unequivocally be connected to him.

When the US retaliated with a missile attack on a jihadi training camp in eastern Afghanistan, more than 30 militants were killed but Bin Laden was unharmed. The US offer of $5m for information leading to Bin Laden's arrest did not deliver a result.

Finally, 11 months after the African atrocities, Bin Laden popped up for the first time on al-Jazeera TV, to respond to the launch of US bombing on Iraq.

Bin Laden's agenda had expanded again. Now it was the religious duty of Islamic countries to develop nuclear weapons in their jihad against their enemies.

His view, as always, was of a timeless worldwide conflict involving just two camps - the Muslims and the Jews/Christians. He complains of US imperialism but his wider analysis is always, at root, religious and the battle is, as it has been for centuries, between Islam and the Crusaders.

According to Lawrence's analysis of Bin Laden's language, it is around this point that he starts to regard himself as a towering historical figure in the making, and to identify himself with Islamic history's earliest heroes. That tendency becomes more pronounced in his statements after 11 September.

"By the grace of God Almighty, I have brought happiness to Muslims in the Islamic world," he tells al-Jazeera, praising the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, while not claiming responsibility, just as he would do after 11 September.

In fact it is 2003 before he waxes most lyrical about 11 September, in a 53-minute audio-taped sermon, circulated to various websites. He marries his lyrical archaic speech with the latest communication methods to rant against America for claiming that al-Qa'ida hates the Western way of life when "we strike at them because of their injustice towards the Islamic world."

Quoting the Koran, he talks of the bombers as "young believers with dishevelled hair and dusty feet" who "attacked the enemy with their own planes in a brave and beautiful operation, the like of which humanity has never seen before, destroying the idols of America... They rubbed America's nose in the dirt, and wiped its arrogance in the mud."

When the US, furious at the Taliban's failure to surrender Bin Laden, launched its anticipated attack on Afghanistan, Bin Laden had pre-delivered a video to al-Jazeera. He argued that the West was two-faced in the use of the term terrorist. He claimed a million children had been killed in Iraq by UN sanctions but no one cared. "What America is tasting today is but a fraction of what we have tasted for decades," he said.

Bin Laden called Arab leaders who condemned 11 September hypocrites. Lawrence says an enduring feature of Bin Laden's statements is his projection of himself as "the counterweight to both American hegemony and Arab perfidy". He talks over the heads of Arab leaders, to the youth, his potential jihadis.

Lawrence argues that if you accept Bin Laden's irrational premise that the world has developed along a simple religious divide (Islam v Crusaders), his poetic polemic is very powerful, especially combined with the injustices so keenly felt in the Middle East.

US officials have warned that Bin Laden should not be heard or read unedited because his utterances are coded with secret messages to his followers. Lawrence thinks this is a myth. He reiterates the point that to read and understand him is essential to counter his arguments. "I don't surrender the Koran to him," says Lawrence. "I show how he has picked, chosen and distorted."

Amid the carnage last week at the Radisson Hotel in Amman, the distraught bridegroom Ashraf Da'as, who lost his father and father-in-law in the blast, cried: "This isn't Islam." In the collected writings of Osama Bin Laden, Lawrence hopes he makes just that point.

'Messages to the World', edited and introduced by Bruce Lawrence, is published by Verso, £10.99

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