By Rajeev Sharma
I had written a book on Osama bin Laden “Pak Proxy War: A Story of ISI, Bin Laden and Kargil” that was published in 1999 by Kaveri Books, Daryaganj, New Delhi. Back then, the world was yet to discover bin Laden. He was to become a household name globally, the most wanted man on earth who carried a reward of $ 25 million on his head two years after my book came out. Now that bin Laden has been killed by a small force of elite commandos of the United States 56 kilometers north of the Pakistani capital in the wee hours of May 2, 2011, perhaps it is time to revisit my book. Below are some excerpts from my book that will tell experts and commoners alike the significance of the man called Osama bin Laden.
In early January 1980, a young Arab flew to Pakistan. That was a few days after the Soviet Union had invaded and occupied Afghanistan. His visit was in response to an international appeal for help by Mujahideen who were in disarray, stunned by an unexpected act of a super power.
The young man, a wealthy civil engineer whose business was booming, found the atmosphere in Pakistan nonchalant. No concrete action was taking shape in this Islamic country even though a neighbouring country had been attacked and occupied by a non-muslim State for the first time since World War II. Pan-Islamism and Arab unity were just empty words.
He found the situation in Afghanistan no better. The Mujahideen had no infrastructure to wage even a semblance of war to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. American help was coming covertly but the Mujahideen could hardly cope with the combined raids of the Soviets and the Soviet puppet regime of Afghanistan.
The young Arab was clear in his mind that Afghanistan needed him and decided to stay put there to organise “jihad” against the Soviets. In fact, subsequent developments were to prove that he needed Afghanistan as much as Afghanistan needed him. He was to say in one of his press interviews a couple of years later that Islam offered a special ) place in life-after-death for those who participated in a jihad and “One day in Afghanistan was like a thousand days of praying in an ordinary mosque.”
Osama bin Laden had arrived.
Like ordinary wealthy Arabs, bin Laden, too, was a happy-go-lucky, carefree bird and maintained a flashy lifestyle during his youth. Whenever he got a chance to go out of his puritan native country, Saudi Arabia, and visit the westernized Beirut city during his high school days, he used to visit night clubs.
Like other spoilt brats, he used to gamble in casinos and drink away to glory in bars, often getting into brawls. He had a hyperactive libido and was know n to be a womaniser, too.
But that was more than a quarter century ago. A turning point came in 1973 when his lifestyle started changing dramatically. He turned towards spirituality when he rebuilt two mosques.
Son of Mohammad bin Laden, an affluent businessman engaged in civil construction works, Osama followed in his father’s footsteps -initially- and became a qualified civil engineer. Mohammad bin Laden had migrated to Saudi Arabia from the province of Hadram out in South Central Yemen in early twenties. Osama is one of the fifty children his father had sired from several wives. The computer-literate Osama had studied economics and management in a top school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
He watched his father’s business empire expanding quickly during the oil boom of the 1970s. Mohammad bin Laden’s company, the Bin Laden Corporation, soon won favours of the ruling royal family of Saudi Arabia and secured many big government contracts. By mid-seventies, the Bin Laden Corporation had established itself as one of the top construction companies of Saudi Arabia and had expanded business in many Middle Eastern countries.
The most important turning point in Osama bin Laden’s life came when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the last days of 1979. His life underwent a sea change as he jumped into the Afghan war cauldron and emerged as a hero of the Islamic world.
There has been no looking back for him since then.
The United States turned a blind eye towards his exploits in Afghanistan, little realising that the same revolutionary fury of bin Laden would one day be directed against Washington.
For the United States today, bin Laden is the “Most Wanted Terrorist” on whose head Washington has kept a reward of five million US dollars. Probably never before in the history of terrorism, a super power has launched missile attacks in foreign countries as the US did in case of bin Laden in August 1998.
Though the US fired as many as sixty Cruise missiles on bin Laden’s suspected hideouts in Afghanistan and Sudan, the targeted Man remained elusive. The Americans came very close to tracking him down last year when they picked up his movement in Afghanistan as the fugitive’s whereabouts were revealed by his Satellite phone. But bin Laden proved to be one step ahead of the Americans here also and got away after switching off his satellite phone. Since then, probably he has not used his satellite phone.
When bin Laden reached Afghanistan, he was a family man Who had established himself as a civil engineer of repute. He had the reputation of building any types of bunkers in any terrain and he demonstrated his expertise soon. He gave up his palatial, air conditioned house in Saudi Arabia to dig trenches in Afghanistan and live in them. He continues to lead a Spartan life With his four wives -two Saudi, one Syrian-Palestinian and one Philipino- and some fifteen children. Two of his teenaged sons, Omar and Saad, are also in exile with him in Afghanistan since 1996.
Bin Laden, a graduate from King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, addressed himself to two immediate tasks in Afghanistan.
First, to recruit as many volunteers as possible to take on the Soviets. The second task was much tougher: preparing a war Infrastructure in Afghanistan, a country to which he did not belong.
Starting from scratch, bin Laden raised an organisational Structure for recruiting volunteers to fight for Islam against the Soviets. He set up the Maktab al-Khidamat (the Mujahideen Services Bureau) for overseeing the recruitment work. Thousands of Mujahideen were eventually recruited by bin Laden in a couple of years. The first few batches of Mujahideen were brought to Afghanistan from different Islamic countries by bin Laden at his personal expense. His recruitment centres were spread across 50- odd countries, including the United States and United Kingdom.
Proving that he was an excellent organiser, bin Laden’s Mujahideen Services Bureau did not induct just fighters. Doctors, engineers, drug pushers and even terrorists were also brought to Afghanistan, each category having a specialist role. He simultaneously helped establish a drug trafficking network also to finance the ongoing’ jihad’
Simultaneously, he turned his attention to building fortifications to protect Mujahideen from the Soviet artillery. Bin Laden holds a degree in civil engineering as well as a graduate degree in Economics, obtained in 1979. One of the first tasks he undertook was bringing some of the family’s bulldozers to Afghanistan. He personally supervised construction of roads to transport heavy equipment which he was to get delivered from some Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, shortly later.
Bin Laden also constructed tunnels. These tunnels would open up near Soviet encampments and Mujahideen would come out and surprise the Soviets.
The importance of these fortifications was not lost on the Soviet Union and its puppet Afghan regime and soon their combined forces started launching air raids on the Mujahideen engaged in beefing up their defences. But bin Laden led the Mujahideen from the front and continued with his construction activities, risking his personal safety.
Afghanistan was thus ready with a basic war infrastructure of bunkers, trenches, roads, storage depots, tunnels and even hospitals. Bin Laden and his band of Mujahideen worked round the clock, many times in the face of Soviet fire.
Bin Laden always liked to work on several fronts simultaneously. He constantly kept shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the meanwhile, he was also busy with setting up camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan for training of the Mujahideen. A host of Arab terrorist groups soon started using Peshawar as a nerve center of their operations. By 1985, Afghanistan was swarming with Islamic militants from all over the world and an umbrella body, “International Jihad Organisation” was formed to coordinate among these outfits.
After having created the war infrastructure and organising a steady flow of the Mujahideen, bin Laden switched over to the next job he had not done so far: fighting along side the Mujahideen, he took to the battlefield as fish takes to water.
By now, bin Laden had developed connections with fundamentalist elements in Egypt and Algeria. He was used by Saudi authorities to promote political dissidence in Yemen. He used these contacts and his family’s wealth to set up his own empire of several companies and banks in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
In 1985, he also formed the Islamic Salvation Fund (AI Qaida), which was actively supported by functionaries of the Egyptian Al Jehad.
In 1986, another turning point came in bin Laden’s life. He moved into Eastern Afghanistan (Nangarhar) to take part in fighting against the Soviet forces there. By now he was involved in the fighting operations also, under the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar. One of his major scenes of action was The battle of Jalalabad.
Bin Laden serviced Hekmatiyar’s “AI.Badr” training camps in Khost, paying salary to instructors at the rate of 3500 to 4000 US dollars per month. About 700 Afghans and Arabs were trained at these camps, along with a few thousand Pakistanis and Kashmiris from POK and Jammu and Kashmir.
A Palestinian Mujahideen, Hamza Muhammad, who fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan, brought out the leadership qualities of bin Laden in an interview with a western news agency as follows: “He was a hero to us because he was always on the front line, always moving ahead of everyone else. He not only gave his money, but he also gave himself. He came down from his palace to live with the Afghan peasants and the Arab fighters. He cooked with them, ate with them, dug trenches with them. That was bin Laden’s way.”
Bin Laden is believed to have moved his residence from Saudi Arabia to Khartoum, Sudan, in 1991. This was the time when his relations with the Saudi rulers started souring as he did not approve of their pro-US policies.
He opened a bank account in the Al Shamall Islamic Bank, Khartoum with investments of over 50 million US dollars. He established several financial companies in Sudan – Wadi al Aqiq Company Ltd, dealing in exports-imports; Toba Investment Company Ltd, dealing in agricultural exports, covering gum, corn, sunflower and sesame projects; and Al Hijrah Construction and Development Ltd. He also established a trading company in Kenya and a ceramic manufacturing company in Yemen.
Some of these ventures were suspected to be fronts for channeling funds to Islamic militants in the Middle East, Africa, UK and USA. Bin Laden developed a special relationship with the Sudanese powerful leader, Hassan al Turabi and Tunisian leader, Rashid al Ghanouchi.
During his sojourn in Sudan, bin Laden revolutionised the infrastructure of that country by constructing airports, highways, dams and military installations worth billions of dollars, much to the consternation of the US.
By mid-1990s, he had forged very close ties with the Iraqi intelligence. So close that Iraq President SaddaQ1Hussain sent a diplomat, Faruq-al-Hijazi,as his personal envoy to, meet bin Laden in Kandahar. As a goodwill gesture, Saddam Hussein’s envoy handed’ bin Laden an invaluable gift which would ensure him safe international travel: a pack of blank genuine Yemeni diplomatic passports. These travel documents ‘were given to the Iraqi intelligence by the Yemen intelligence.
By early 1994, bin Laden was proving to be an acute embarrassment to Saudi Arabia. He was going full steam to create a formidable network of Islamic fundamentalists all over the world in such countries as Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey and several western countries, apart from Saudi Arabia itself.
Bin Laden had already come in close contact with such leading Islamic fundamentalists as Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman of the Egyptian Al Gama Al Islarniya, Sheikh Abdullah Azam (the Arabic cleric who was later murdered in Peshawar, possibly by the ISI), Ayman Al Zawahiri, the Egyptian terrorist belonging to Islamic Al Jehad and Saudi dissident and AI Mashari of the Council for Defence of Legitimate Rights (CDLR) of the UK.
In February 1994, under increasing US pressure, Riyadh revoked bin Laden’s Saudi nationality for acts against the State which were construed not in line with the official view of the regime.
Bin Laden’s involvement was suspected in the following terrorist actions:
* Providing safe house in Pakistan to World Trade Centre bombing suspect – Ramzi Ahmed Yousef.
* Attack on US soldiers in Yemen and Somalia during peacekeeping operations in 1993.
* Bombing of Khobar Towers, Dhahran, in 1996 in which] 9 US Servicemen were killed.
* Somalia’s daring, well-planned attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995.
* Bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. Mohd Sadiq Howaida, an arrested aide of Bin Laden, confessed to Bin Laden’s involvement.
In February1998, bin Laden formed an International Islamic Front (IIF) for ‘jihad’ against jews and crusaders and named as his d~Pl1ty,Mus’tafa Hamza, an Egyptian close associate of Zawahiri. Fazlul al Rahman, a top leader of Pakistan’s Harkat ul- Ansar is known to have been deeply involved with this organisation, thus proving bin Laden’s involvement in terrorism in Kashmir.
In July 1998, Sheikh Rafai Ahmed Taha, leader of Egyptian AI GamaAl Islamia (Agai) disassociated himself from the IIF.
Intelligence reports indicate that bin Laden’s above-named aides – Abdul Aziz Al Masir, Abu Haser, Abu Hazir and Aby Ibrahim have at different times used India as a transit point. In April 1997, for example, one Abdul Salam, a Yemeni, visited Kandahar via Amritsar, using Ariana Afghan Airlines, ostensibly to meet bin Laden.
In April 1998, there were reports of an attempt by a US commandos team to capture bin Laden. The American commandos had entered Afghanistan from Peshawar and proceeded surreptitiously towards Kandahar. The plan did not work as some former Khad agents, now in Taliban’s payrolls, betrayed.
Soon afterwards, bin Laden shifted his base from Kandahar to Fahimhaddah, near Jalalabad. His whereabouts have remained unknown, particularly since the US missile attacks in August 1998.
In February 1999, bin,Laden was reported to have disappeared from his hideout in Kandahar along with some of his supporters. Initial reports said his family was still in Kandahar, Pakistani media said bin Laden was sighted in Nimroz. An Arab daily, Al Hayat, reported that he had moved towards Baghlan, the area controlled by Hizb-e-Islami (H) pro-Taliban Commander, Bashir Baghlani.
Then there was another report which said the bin Laden was shuttling between four bases, two of which were in Kandahar, one in Farahand, one in Uruzgan. On February 23, an Arab daily claimed that bin Laden was in Jalalabad where a Taliban delegation met him. This was denied by Taliban. On June 21, for the first time since bin Laden went underground in February, Taliban spokesman, Mullah Abdul Hai Muttamain, admitted that he was still in Afghanistan but his whereabouts were not known.
An intelligence report said in July 1999 that bin Laden may have shifted his hideout to a newly-constructed location in the vicinity of Bola Boluk, a hilltop in Farah province, off the road from Farah to Daulatabad. Constructions in this area are duly camouflaged and guarded by armed personnel. Bin Laden, the reports say, travels in this region in a 50- Viper car which is fitted with sophisticated weapons. For security reasons, several of his bodyguards travel in similar cars, masquerading as bin Laden.
US President Bill Clinton signed an executive order on July 6, 1999, imposing economic sanctions on Taliban for harbouring bin Laden. Reacting to this, the Taliban spokesman said Taliban was unaware of bin Laden’s movements, though he admitted that the wanted fugitive was in Afghanistan.
In November 1998, bin Laden was invited to attend an Islamist conference in Pakistan. But he dropped his plan to attend the meet as Islamabad discreetly asked him that his proposed visit would cast a shadow over Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s forthcoming visit to Washington. Bin Laden sent his brief speech to the organisers in which he stressed the need for continuing ‘jihad’ against Christians and Jews.
“…It is obligatory for all Muslims to continue jihad by sacrificing their wealth and life as long as their holy places are not liberated from the subjugations of Jews and Christians. This freedom is not possible until we sacrifice all our wealth and our lives. As it is a religious obligation for every Muslim to support the Mujahideen fighting for freedom of sacred places, similarly they are also obligated by their religion to support the Taliban government in Afghanistan, because by enforcing Sharia in Afghanistan, Talibanhave established the system of God on God’s land,” bin Laden said in his speech which was read out at the Islamabad conference.
In fact, his unflinching dedication to Taliban and Taliban’s refusal to hand over bin Laden to the US even in the face of missile attacks and economic sanctions have given rise to an assessment in the West that bin Laden is actually the chief of Taliban. There are also unconfirmed reports that bin Laden’s daughter is married to Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.
Bin Laden’s links with Kashmiri militants are well established. There are intelligence reports that Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure was also closely worked out between the ISI and bin Laden. There were also “reliable” reports of bin Laden’s presence in the POK during the Kargil conflict.
Yossef Bodansky recounts an interesting episode in his book “Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America”. Bodansky’s account, given below, also drops enough hints which explode the myth that the ISI was not involved in the Kargil conflict:
“By early December, Osama bin Laden had already ackowledged that he was ready for the escalation of his jihad… At this time, an Iraqi intelligence official held a series of meetings in the Iraqi Embassy in Islamabad with the leaders of several Pakistani militant Islamist movements and representatives of the Taliban. These meetings took place with the full knowledge and endorsement of the ISI.
“In the first half of December, bin Laden and Zawahiri arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, to chair a periodic meeting of the Arab ‘Afghan’ leaders residing in Pakistan. About a dozen people participated, including Asadallah Abdul Rahman, the son of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman of World Trade Centre fame, who was seated next to Zawahiri, symbolising the enduring importance of Sheikh Omar.
“Bin Laden’s visit was not a clandestine surge into Pakistan. He was the guest of North West Frontier Province senior officials, including relatives of his fourth wife, and as before during his frequent visits, Pakistani security authorities provided him with a special escort. Bin Laden’s other recent visits had been kept quiet, but the Pakistani Islamists highlighted the early December visit as proof of the cooperation they enjoy with Sharif’s Islamabad. As for official Islamabad, the NWFP authorities .:appeared to be ignorant about the reported presence of Saudi dissident, wanted by (the) USA, Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’, when they were contacted by a correspondent from Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper.”
This conclave of Mujahideen in Pakistan coincided with the Pakistani Army’s incursions into Kargil in the guise of Mujahideen.
Bin Laden’s contacts with Kashmir terrorists are about a decade old. A Palestinian, Abu Mahmood, was suspected to be an intermediary between bin Laden and Al Faran group of Harkat ul-Ansar militants who kidnapped four Western tourists in Jammu and Kashmir in 1995.
One Asadullah, a Muslim of Indian origin residing in Peshawar, is believed to be his contact man for coordinating activities in Jammu and Kashmir. Some Afghan militants and other infiltrators from POK and Pakistan, who were arrested or killed in security operations in Jammu and Kashmir, have been found carrying posters and pamphlets of bin Laden and his statements on Islamic jihad.
The bin Laden menace has assumed even more importance for India now that he has openly declared a ‘jihad’ against India. On September 17, 1999, a news agency report from Islamabad quoted bin Laden as saying, “Our biggest enemies are the US and India and we should target them using the best of our efforts.”
(The writer is a New Delhi-based strategic journalist and journalist-author who has so far written seven books including “Pak Proxy War: A Story of ISI, Bin Laden and Kargil”)