Aaj TV

By: Mehdi Qazi

Just a month before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and during the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, Peter Bergen published his book written on a man who defied the superpower in a two decade long multi-front war. The book, The Rise And Fall of Osama Bin Laden, does just as its title says, describe the man’s life.

Bergen, an American journalist associated with CNN, has studied and observed Afghan war and al-Qaeda very closely. His work as an author from 2001 till date shows his deep understanding of terrorist organizations and US efforts in the war on terror.

As a specialist writer, Bergen has fulfilled all required elements of a good book. His writing style hooks you in immediately; it is difficult to leave the journey in the middle as he sketches the situations quite beautifully. One can disagree with him but his sourcing is impeccable as evidenced by the approximately hundred pages he’s allocated for references. He is unbiased and never shows he is preoccupied with OBL’s faults.

Here are my big takeaways from reading his book.

Though OBL belonged to a rich and influenced family, while growing up he was deeply impacted by his father’s, Muhammad Bin Laden, absence. As the son of an Alawite mother, Osama wasn’t deemed as belonging to the family’s Saudi mainstream. Although he enjoyed the privileges as Muhammad’s other children, Osama was treated like he was from “the other” family and developed many insecurities, like attention seeking issues.

Bergen narrates how this children insecurity followed him into adulthood even as he headed Al Qaeda. For example, during daily family meetings which Osama convened his family members were expected to bow before him like they were subjects before an emperor. The same is true for his political strategies with Al Qaeda – he wanted to be surrounded by “yes men” and did not take dissenters into account even if it meant losing battles as happened in Jalalabad in 1989. After years of silence, he would crave being in the limelight and would attempt to gain it by positing statements, for example, on the Arab Spring.

Osama chose to pursue a hard and tough life, surviving on subsistence levels in a quest to follow the footprints of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).He inculcated the hatred of Americans and Jews in the name of supremacy of Islam. Their presence in Arabian Peninsula was a constant source of Osama’s fury.

He also ingrained an urge of shahadah in his followers. His limitless emotions and so-called loyalty with Islam blinded him from the basic tenet of Holy Quran that equates killing an innocent with killing entire humanity.

Bergen also convinced me that it is ridiculous to say there is no Islamic terrorism. Bin Laden did everything by paving this path made his ground using Islam. His understanding of Islam was half baked or perhaps not even baked.

In the rhetoric of supremacy of Islam or the establishment of caliphate, Muslims lost some great minds in this so called holy war narrative which originated in their confrontation with the Soviets. Bin Laden himself wasn't any authority on religion’ perhaps he might have acted like he was to keep the clerics intact with him. In the days of recruiting combatants during Soviet war in the early 1980s in Afghanistan, we hear of a few names like Abdullah Azzam (doctorate in jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University), Essam al-Ridi (a pilot from Texas University) and Wael Julaiden(a student at University of Arizona) who came to Peshawar and then went on to participate in this exercise of fighting infidels. Bin Laden himself went for Oxford for a short course but like the aforementioned, they left the possibility of becoming intellectuals.

Pakistan’s Generation Z is offended when it hears it was a partner in crime in the past because they don’t realize how Pakistan became a nursery for all these red-listed criminals. Places in Pakistan especially Peshawar are named in Bergen’s book in various ways. For Pakistani readers, it’s inevitable to ask if these things were happening under state’s nose or was the state ignoring it or did it have no idea what was going on?

Bergen does a good job in reporting on how the Bush administration went into Iraq in a bid a bid to create a connection between Osama and Saddam Hussein. This was despite several US agencies’ denial of any connection between the two. Bush administration imposed war on Iraq which helped Al Qaeda regroup and create sectarian violence in Iraq. Bergen reports how this would later lead to Al Qaeda joining ISIS.

In the end, I was just left with two questions which remain unanswered.

One: Bergen claims that Pakistan did not allow US to have direct dealing with mujahedeen during Afghanistan’s war with Soviets. How is it possible given that the US claimed Soviet defeat by saying “We Won”? How did Pakistan keep United States aside as they claim they had invested $3 billion?

Two: How could no picture of Osama’s dead body make its way to the media? Was President Obama in such hurry to bury the case because a new leaf was turning over in Middle East then? Is there any possibility that in future new claims will surface similar to the claim that mistakes were made in the imposition of war on Iraq?

I’ve left a few others out because I don’t want to spoil the suspense in discussing Operation Neptune Spear and other happenings that Bergen reports so well in a balanced manner. The reader will recognize that Osama’s journey which changed the dynamics of international politics of 21st century definitely did not happen in days but decades.