A bitter harvest
Sep 13th 2001 | LAHORE
From The Economist print edition
The sufferings of Afghanistan come to New York
IN ITS understandable rage for justice, America may be tempted to overlook one uncomfortable fact. Its own policies in Afghanistan a decade and more ago helped to create both Osama bin Laden and the fundamentalist Taliban regime that shelters him.
The notion of jihad, or holy war, had almost ceased to exist in the Muslim world after the tenth century until it was revived, with American encouragement, to fire an international pan-Islamic movement after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. For the next ten years, the CIA and Saudi intelligence together pumped in billions of dollars’ worth of arms and ammunition through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) to the many mujahideen groups fighting in Afghanistan.
The policy worked: the Soviet Union suffered such terrible loses in Afghanistan that it withdrew its forces in 1989, and the humiliation of that defeat, following on from the crippling cost of the campaign, helped to undermine the Soviet system itself. But there was a terrible legacy: Afghanistan was left awash with weapons, warlords and extreme religious zealotry.
For the past ten years that deadly brew has spread its ill-effects widely. Pakistan has suffered terrible destabilisation. But the afghanis, the name given to the young Muslim men who fought the infidel in Afghanistan, have carried their jihad far beyond: to the corrupt kingdoms of the Gulf, to the repressive states of the southern Mediterranean, and now, perhaps, to New York and Washington, DC.
Chief among the afghanis was Mr bin Laden, a scion of one of Saudi Arabia’s richest business families. Recruited by the Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al Faisal, to help raise funds for the jihad, he became central to the recruitment and training of mujahideen from across the Muslim world. Mr bin Laden fought against the Russians on the side of the ISI’s favourite Afghan, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, whose Hezb-e-Islami party became the largest recipient of CIA money.
After the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the Americans quickly lost interest in the country and a struggle for power erupted among the mujahideen. But since no group was strong enough to capture and hold Kabul, the capital, Afghanistan slumped into anarchy. In 1995-96, a movement of Pathan students—Taliban—from religious schools in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan swept the country, promising a restoration of order. They enjoyed Pakistani backing, and almost certainly the approval of the Americans.
Meanwhile, Mr bin Laden had become a self-avowed enemy of America, appalled at the presence of American troops on holy Saudi soil during the Gulf war. Exiled to Sudan, he was soon forced to leave. He secretly returned to Afghanistan, becoming a guest of the Taliban, whose interpretation of Islam and hostility to the West he shares. After attacks on two American embassies in 1998, America tried to persuade the Taliban to surrender him. When the regime refused, the Americans retaliated by raining cruise missiles on guerrilla camps in Afghanistan. The Taliban have steadfastly refused to hand Mr bin Laden over. As their guest he remains.
Who did it?
Sep 14th 2001
From The Economist Global Agenda
The prime suspect is Osama bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire and bitter enemy of America, who is thought to be behind earlier attacks. But it may not be possible to prove this, or even be very certain of it
Bin Laden denies it all
AS SOON as the scale, ferocity and boldness of the attack on September 11th became clear, suspicion immediately fell on the FBI’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden. Linked to an earlier attack on the World Trade Centre, as well as the bombing of American embassies in Africa, Mr bin Laden has long declared himself a bitter enemy of the United States. He speaks in apocalyptic terms about a holy war against America. He has access to large amounts of money, and is known to be at the centre of a network of extreme Islamic groups. Although the day after the attack he summoned Arab reporters to his hideout to deny that he was behind it, he has regularly made such denials in the past, and few have believed them. He also accompanied his latest denial with praise for those who carried out the attack. On September 13th, Colin Powell, America's secretary of state, confirmed that Mr bin Laden is the prime suspect.
On the other hand, establishing Mr bin Laden's involvement with any degree of certainty may be difficult. American intelligence about the Middle East has suffered lately, thanks to Arab anger at the plight of Iraqis under sanctions and Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Since the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began last year—and amid ever more frequent suicide bombings in Israel—the State Department has worried that an outraged Arab might try to visit similar suffering on Americans. It has issued several warnings about the threat of terrorist reprisals, incuding one on September 7th suggesting that militants might target Americans in Japan or South Korea. That implies that America not only expected an attack, but also had disastrously bad intelligence about its nature.
There is no shortage of angry Arabs
Investigators have already turned up evidence pointing to Arab involvement. The American officials believe that several men from the United Arab Emirates, including a trained pilot, had boarded one of the hijacked flights. Flight-training manuals in Arabic have been found in a car parked outside Boston airport, where two of the planes were hijacked.
But even if, as seems likely, the authorities soon establish that the perpetrators were Middle Eastern militants, they will find it harder to work out who sent them. Latter-day Islamic terrorists operate more through a vague fraternity than through rigidly hierarchical organisations. Past arrests of suspected militants in Canada, Germany, Britain, France and Jordan, as well as America, have painted a picture of like-minded individuals, providing one another with frequent advice and support, and occasionally coalescing into groups for specific attacks.
Many of them, including Mr bin Laden, their leading light, made one another’s acquaintance while fighting in Afghanistan. It may well be possible to show that he knew whoever committed yesterday’s attacks, that they had visited one of his training camps in Afghanistan and that he served as a source of inspiration to them—but the paper trail is unlikely to reveal more than that.
Nonetheless, there are several reasons to suspect Mr bin Laden. First, he has shown himself one of the few terrorists capable of orchestrating such a daring and complicated series of attacks. For example, American investigators have blamed Mr bin Laden for the audacious assault on the USS Cole in Yemen last year, when suicidal militants steered a dinghy full of explosives into an American warship in Aden harbour—although, predictably enough, they have had trouble proving a direct connection.
In particular, Mr bin Laden specialises in multiple attacks. It was members of his organisation, al-Qaeda (Arabic for “the base”), who carried out simultaneous attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, according to testimony given earlier this year in the trial of some of those convicted for the bombings. Again, however, prosecutors could not prove that Mr bin Laden himself had personally ordered the attack. America also fingered him for another (foiled) plot, to bomb a string of airports and planes around the world to disrupt the millennium celebrations.
Furthermore, Mr bin Laden himself recently released a long video, during which he repeated his usual fulminations against America. An Arab journalist in London says he had heard talk of an “unprecedented” action against the United States. That fits Mr bin Laden’s habit of circulating virtual advertisements of his attacks before they occur.
Above all, the World Trade Centre has particular resonance for Mr bin Laden. It was there that the first major terrorist attack on American soil was mounted, in 1993, when a group of Egyptian, Pakistani and Palestinian terrorists planted a car bomb in the basement car park of one of the now-toppled twin towers. American investigators have long suspected that Mr bin Laden was involved. At any rate, he moved in the same demi-monde as those who were eventually convicted of the bombing. It doubtless brings him particular pleasure to see their work completed.
Indeed, the recent testimony of several witnesses in the trial of the East African bombers provides the only reason to doubt Mr bin Laden’s involvement. Although he is a member of one of Saudi Arabia’s richest families, and is thought to have stashed away millions of dollars before becoming a wanted man, his accomplices in that attack suggested that he was running short of funds. They also described endless bickering and confusion among his cadres. His former accountant, America’s star witness in the trial, stormed out of al-Qaeda after rowing with his boss about his salary and stealing some of his money. If Mr bin Laden was indeed behind yesterday’s horrors, he must have found some more dedicated employees.
[This message has been edited by AKosha (edited September 14, 2001).]
[This message has been edited by AKosha (edited September 14, 2001).]