Obituary: Osama bin-Laden, 1957 – 2011

The last act of Osama bin-Laden‘s life, just as many acts before, comes across as a mix of planning and improvisation. One of the US Navy SEAL team members had a microcamera attached to his helmet so as to transmit the operation Geronimo live onto a screen watched by president Barack Obama and members of his administration – a final showdown. The global public got a photo, not a movie, of Obama watching the Abbottabad operation. The president looked both tense and dignified, like a Chinese emperor watching the dismemberment of a rebel – even if from the White House situation room, and not from a wall within Beijing’s Forbidden City. The photo is meant to become iconic. The live coverage from Abottabad itself was probably much more poorly choreographed – OK, it was probably very messy.

Osama bin-Laden was aged 22 when he began to take on the Soviet Union. A Green Left article of September 19, 2001, describes the  – Soviet-backed – Afghan government of 1978 as follows:

In April 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seized power in Afghanistan in reaction to a crackdown against the party by that country’s repressive government.
The PDPA was committed to a radical land reform that favoured the peasants, trade union rights, an expansion of education and social services, equality for women and the separation of church and state. The PDPA also supported strengthening Afghanistan’s relationship with the Soviet Union.

Something neither landlords nor a Muslim religious establishment would put up with:

They immediately began organising resistance to the government’s progressive policies, under the guise of defending Islam.

Which suited Zbigniew Brzezinski‘s plans to block or roll back Soviet influence in Afghanistan. America took sides with the Mujaheddin, including Osama bin-Laden’s forces:

Between 1978 and 1992, the US government poured at least US$6 billion (some estimates range as high as $20 billion) worth of arms, training and funds to prop up the mujaheddin factions. Other Western governments, as well as oil-rich Saudi Arabia, kicked in as much again. Wealthy Arab fanatics, like Osama bin Laden, provided millions more.

From 1992 to 1996, Afghanistan’s militias were left to themselves and to doing what they were best at: they kept on fighting, now against each other. In 1996, the Taliban took control of the country, with support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Osama bin-laden personally. Also in 1996, bin-Laden wrote a fatwaa religious opinion concerning Islamic law issued by an Islamic scholar: his “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places”.

It is doubtful that Osama was in a position to write a fatwa at all, but let’s think of him as the Julian Assange among the Islamists of the 1990s. There will always be people who feel that they have the right to read and write everything, so long as they fervently believe in their own views.

What strikes me, now that we could take stock of bin-Laden’s life, is how little his sympathizers and those who welcome his sudden death (me included) alike seem to know about his actual thoughts. To either side, he seemed to be a projection screen for personal world views, rather than a fighter or believer in his own right. He would be a liberator for certain quarters of global opinion (somehwat beyond the Islamist quarter,  as his fan club seemed to include some rather secular do-gooders, too), and his name would be a metaphor of evil to others. Osama bin-Laden’s view of the world was radical, but simple. Most catechisms would be harder to learn by heart. But that  didn’t really help to spread his doctrine. How people perceived the man himself mattered much more.

Until Sunday night (or Monday morning GMT), when president Obama announced bin-Laden’s death and when feelings of happiness poured out publicly in Washington D.C., New York, and elsewhere, it had appeared as if bin-Laden had become history long before. Now that he is dead, he will fade away even faster, in the memories of most.

How will his death influence Islam-driven terrorism? How will it influence the development of civil society in Islamic countries?

The second question is no easier to answer than the first, but it will probably become the more relevant question, as Islamic societies, rather than fatwa authors, appear to have begun to search for answers – in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and maybe in Saudi-Arabia, too.

The most predictable effect of operation Geronimo will be on America itself. Obama may gain more clout domestically, on issues of education, innovation, and industrial policies. And maybe he has now gained the stature it takes to begin an overdue “war-on-terror”-related task, too: the restoration of rule of law in the field of “security legislation”, in Guantanamo and on U.S. soil. Hopefully, in legal terms, it will take less than ten years to recover the scorched earth of the past decade.

But bin-Laden’s effect on American and global politics has been huge. America lost about a decade in the Pacific region – being distracted in central Asia and the Middle East -, and many opportunities at home.

Maybe it is indeed time to forget bin-Laden.


General V K Singh: We Can, Too, Times of India / Economic Times, May 4. 2011
Jiang Yu: Pakistan can, too, Times of India, May 3, 2011

Pleased or not (Berlin), CS Monitor, May 5, 2011

12 Responses to “Obituary: Osama bin-Laden, 1957 – 2011”

  1. JR. I stopped here.

    It is doubtful that Osama was in a position to write a fatwa at all, but let’s think of him as the Julian Assange among the Islamists of the 1990s.

    Bin Laden was never in the position to write fatwas even if he scribbled out one as you note.

    What is this appalling parallel with Assange. A great fellow countryman right up there with Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. I’m being silly here JR because you have indulging in ….just lost for words on this one. Scowl. Eye roll. Slow burn.

    Information democracy can in no way be compared to the asymmetry of the car bomb, suicide bomber etc.


  2. My little – or outrageous – side blow at Mr Assange may be arrogant or out of proportions – but it isn’t baseless. After all, I thought about his mission carefully, and believe that his approach is out of proportions, illogical, and that it may result in very unexpected consequences for many people. Some weeks ago, I explained why I’m viewing him that way.

    Besides, the line in my post will be of no consequences for Mr Assange, but I enjoyed writing it. Given that I’m providing these posts for free, I think some enjoyment on my part is an absolute must.


  3. JR Weblords righ to pleasure I agree, but a site without value adding commenters …

    About time I attended to my own self-expression platform.


  4. An assassination – even if I agree that it was a deserved one, I cannot think of it as anything else.

    If I had to make a comparison to Bin Laden, it would not be with Assange, but with the RAF. No, not the Royal Air Force, but the Red Army Faction, AKA the Baader-Meinhof gang. My hope is that the death of Bin Laden has the same effect of pointing out that there is little future in the terrorism game as the arrest and deaths of the Baader-Meinhof gang’s leaders did.


  5. No intention to be mean, KT, but e-mails to traitorous scum, i. e. an elected official or member of parliament in the case of Bill Shorten, anyway, can’t make a great difference. It would need to be a registered letter at least, and an inquiry with your local bar about how best to file a complaint of unconstitutionality or illegality – would be even better. That’s one of my problems with the Wikileaks debate – too much anger, too little argument. “If they can read my e-mails…” My next argument would then be that if the police have a right to arrest my spiteful neighbor, why can’t I do it myself? I know even better how much he deserves to be remanded in a cold prison cell with nothing but a Chinese loo as furniture for three months or longer. Much of what I have read in Wikileak’s favor, on many web pages, looks arbitrary to me (to put it politely). The whole catchy campaign seems to target peoples’ nerves, rather than appeal to their judgment.

    I hope that al-Qaeda and the Baader-Mainhof (RAF) gang are somewhat different, FOARP. After all, the RAF’s “struggle” went on for about another decade and a half after the deaths of their “first generation”. Maybe al-Qaeda’s war will end at an earlier date.
    The two organizations were different in another way, too. Al-Qaeda has dominated American policies to such a degree that other, much more urgent issues, have been ignored. That wasn’t the case in Germany during the 1970s or 1980s – all kinds of reforms and policies did continue during the RAF era, plus German unification (the man in charge of privatizing state property in East Germany, Karsten Rohwedder, was murdered during that process by the RAF, in 1991). States of emergency may do as much harm, as the forces they mean to contain. Above all, they put minds into a state of alarm which disables sound judgment among the general public.

    But then, the times were different in the 1970s, anyway. My feeling is that both the American and the German public were more liberal – both more focused and more relaxed – twenty to fourty years ago than what they are now.

    More in general: I think this blog can testify that I’m a very opinionated man. But I’m aware that there are many different realities in different peoples’ lives, and that mine is only one out of many. That’s why I left the question open if bin-Laden was in a position to write a fatwa, or if he wasn’t. I don’t care about fatwas, because they are none of my business. I don’t believe in their religious foundations anyway, and those who do differ about bin-Laden’s “declaration of war”.

    I’m not trying to make up my mind yet if bin-Laden was assassinated or simply killed in a raid. The campaign against terrorism is legally flawed in many ways either way, and the way bin-Laden was killed – even if most lawfully -, won’t change that. But I do hope that once the current “got-him” rituals are over, more urgent issues will be addressed. Terrorism of one or another kind will stay around for the foreseeable future, I guess, but it is only one of many challenges.


  6. Well, Bin Laden’s daughter says he was executed, and anonymous sources in the US government have said this was a “kill mission” so I guess it comes down to who you believe. I guess that brings us to the question of whether Baader actually did commiting suicide with a gun he had smuggled into a high-security prison.


  7. … which, in turn, brings us to the question as to why someone else than Baader himself should have killed Baader once he was in prison anyway… 😉


  8. In contrast, just about all The Weather Men/Women in the US – Rudd, Dorhn, Jaffe etc – are out of the Big House now and holding down decent jobs.

    But the Panthers were systematically murdered off by the FBI’s Cointelpro program.

    Always wanted to put up this link

    I Spy for the FBI …the second version of a Brit northern soul classic by Luther Ingrams…the one with the incredible slideshow. Who ever did the visuals is brilliant. Okay, we are all too cool for youtube, but watch this and get back to me.

    I can’t recall Britain having a armed faction at the time if we exclude the IRA. The French had Action Directe, Greece M19 a bit later, Italy the Red Brigade. Oh yes, the Swiss had cuckoo clocks and chocolate.


  9. Took me a while to get it that you are referring to an American organization, KT, not to an Australian.
    I think that my post shows that I have no illusions about American law and order in particular times. Sacco and Vanzetti or the case of Joe Hill alone are reason enough for me to take every “justice has been done” from the other side of the pond with a pinch of salt. Have I mentioned before that I’m a social democrat, and that I grew up with such stories, always told with an overtone of solemn indignation?
    A politician known for having spied on his own labor union (as Ronald Reagan did) wouldn’t have won a top job in this country any time past world war 2.
    But I have no reason to believe that Stammheim is Chicago. Many aspects of American politics are more professional than Germany, but that doesn’t apply when it comes to the judicial system, and to the bit of the executive branch that oversees it.



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