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 vastness of the Afghan mountains,
as he described the inevitable collapse of the United States, 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
is one of the few Arabs who doesn't feel embarrassed to think before
he speaks. He once told me with pride how his own men had attacked
the Americans in Somalia. He acknowledged that he knew personally
two of the Saudis executed for bombing an American military base
in Riyadh. Could he have been behind yesterday's mass slaughter
Of course, we need a health warning here. If Mr. bin Laden was
really guilty of all the things he has been blamed for, 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, religious
feeling of calmness. The shell - and Americans may come to wish
the opposite happened - never exploded. The United States 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. It was his constant theme, untouched by doubt or the
real complexities of the Middle East. He was not fighting an anti-colonial
war, but a religious one. In the Arabia that he would govern, there
would be more, not less, head chopping, more severe punishments,
no Western-style democracy.
His supporters - Algerians, Kuwaitis, Egyptians and Gulf Arabs
- would gather round him in his tent with the awe of men listening
to a messiah. I watched them one night in Afghanistan in a mountain
camp so cold that I woke to find ice in my hair. They were obedient
to him, not the kind of obedience of schoolchildren but the sort
of adherence you find among people whose minds are made up. And,
the words they listened to were fearful in their implications. American
civilians would no more be spared than military targets. This was
not a man who would hesitate to carry out his promises if he could.
He was a man who would have appreciated the appalling irony of creating
a missile defence shield against "rogue states" but unable
to prevent men crashing domestic airliners into the centre of America's
financial and military power.
Yet I also remember one night when Mr. bin Laden saw a pile of
newspapers in my bag and seized upon them. By a sputtering oil lamp,
he read them page by page in the corner of his tent, clearly unaware
of the world around him, reading aloud of an Iranian Foreign Minister's
visit to Saudi Arabia. Was this really a man who could damage America,
who would have laughed when he heard that the United States had
placed a $5 million (£3.3m) reward on his head? Was it not
America, I wondered then, which was turning Mr. bin Laden into the
face of "world terror?" Was he really so powerful and
If - and we must keep repeating this word if - the shadow of the
Middle East falls over yesterday's destruction, then who else in
the region could produce such meticulously timed assaults on the
world's only superpower? The rag-tag and corrupt 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
old satellite groups that moved close to the Lebanese Hezbollah
in the 1980s, before the organisation became a solely resistance
movement, could plan something like this. The bombing of the US
Marines in 1983 needed precision, timing and infinite planning.
But Iran, which supported these groups, has changed out of recognition
since then, now more involved in its internal struggles than in
the long-dead aspiration to "export" a religious revolution. Iraq
lies broken, its agents more intent on torturing their own people
than striking at the country that defeated it so suddenly in 1991.
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 and perhaps a few new ones highlighted on the overhead
projectors in the Pentagon. But to what end? When America last tried
to strike at Mr. bin Laden, it destroyed an innocent pharmaceuticals
plant in Sudan and a few of Mr. bin Laden's Muslim followers in
Afghanistan. For if this is a war between the Saudi millionaire
and President Bush's America, it cannot be fought like other wars.
Indeed, can it be fought at all without some costly military adventure
Or is that what Mr. bin Laden seeks above all else?
Robert Fisk is a journalist in the U.K.
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