POSTSCRIPT / September 16, 2001 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Insight into the mind of Osama bin Laden

BEFORE anything else, we want to refer back to our Postscript written Sept. 12 expressing disappointment that, according to us, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did not express solidarity right away with the US government and the grieving American people.

It turned out that she did so early enough, only we failed to catch any mention of her statement of support and sympathy despite our being glued to the TV (CNN actually) monitoring the early bulletins.

We apologize for missing that one.

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WAR WITHOUT AN ENEMY: War to most of us laymen is a period of fighting between countries or states deploying armies using weapons of destruction.

We find it difficult imagining a superpower such as the United States waging war against a person or a band on the run or huddled in scattered locations. To us, the pursuit of such persons would be mere police action and not war.

In that context, we see the authority given by the US Congress to President George W. Bush to use the military to hunt down the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center not as a formal declaration of war.

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NO WORLD WAR, YET: The news headlines announcing World War III about to break out were alarmist. We do not see such a global war erupting in the immediate future. Until last night, the US could not even say who the enemy is.

Even assuming that the US would attack, say, Afghanistan, that poor country cannot fight back in the classic notion of a world war. Neither do we see Kabul’s friends in the Muslim world becoming so reckless as to join the fray on its side.

We doubt if Iraq, still smarting from its humiliation in the hands of the US, would make a false move that could give Bush an excuse to bomb it back to the Stone Age.

Pakistan and Russia, the neighbors of Afghanistan where prime target Osama bin Laden is presumed to be hiding, had the sense to align themselves with the avenging Americans.

Who will oblige and engage America in a major war?

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GOOD vs EVIL?: Despite our sympathy for the thousands of innocent victims, some of them Filipinos, in the WTC attacks, we find difficulty swallowing the US government declaration that the coming retaliation is a showdown between Good and Evil.

The world is not black and white. Nobody has a monopoly of truth and goodness. The US will have to come clean and admit its own errors of judgment that had injured innocent people and poor countries.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the US owes it to humanity — if not to Americans themselves — to rethink many of its overbearing policies that impact on minorities and less developed countries.

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WHO’S BIN LADEN?: American officials have pointed to Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden as the instigator of the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon.

To give readers an insight into the mind of bin Laden, we’re printing excerpts of an interview (sent by reader Edgardo Icasiano) by ABC reporter John Miller two months before the car bomb attacks on some US embassies in 1998. Here are portions of the interview held in the mountains of Afghanistan:

OSAMA bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden was born 41 years ago in Saudi Arabia, one of 20 sons of wealthy construction magnate Muhammad bin Laden. The Bin Laden Group is a $5-billion concern. Osama could have gone to school, settled in London, and focused on living comfortably — if history hadn’t intervened.

On Dec. 25, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Bin Laden, then 22, left for the fighting immediately. Spending his own money, he financed the recruitment, transportation, and arming of thousands of Palestinians, Tunisians, Somalians, Egyptians, Saudis, and Pakistanis to fight the Russians.

“We went through vicious battles with the Russians.” he recalls, “The Russians are known for their brutality. They used poison gases against us. I was subjected to this. We lost many fighters. But we were able to deter many commando attacks, unlike anything before.”

I asked him why a man of wealth, from a powerful family, had gone to Afghanistan to live in trenches and fight the Russian invaders on the front lines.

“It is hard for one to understand if the person does not understand Islam,” he said, patiently explaining his interpretation of Islam for a citizen of his sworn enemy.

By the time of our meeting, the enemy had shifted. The Soviet Union no longer existed. The enemy was us (United States). And when I asked bin Laden if he was worried about being captured in an American raid, he quickly dismissed the possibility, turning instead to the reasons why he hates the United States.

“The American imposes himself on everyone. Americans accuse our children in Palestine of being terrorists — those children, who have no weapons and have not even reached maturity. At the same time, Americans defend a country, the state of the Jews, that has a policy to destroy the future of these children. We are sure of our victory against the Americans and the Jews as promised by the Prophet.”

Bin Laden never raises his voice, and to listen to his untranslated answers, one could imagine that he was talking about something that did not much concern him. Nonchalant. He does not smile.

He continued, looking down at his hands as if he were reading invisible notes: “Your (American) situation with Muslims in Palestine is shameful — if there is any shame left in America. Houses were demolished over the heads of children. Also, by the testimony of relief workers in Iraq, the American-led sanctions resulted in the death of more than one million Iraqi children.

“All of this is done in the name of American interests. We believe that the biggest thieves in the world and the terrorists are the Americans. The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means. We do not worry about American opinion or the fact that they place prices on our heads. We as Muslims believe our fate is set.”

Bin Laden believes that the US, which was so heavily involved in supporting the Afghan rebels, misses the profound point of that exercise: Through sheer will, even superpowers can be defeated.

The war against the Soviets changed bin Laden. “It cleared from Muslim minds the myth of superpowers,” he said. He was bloodied, a hero among militant Muslims, with perhaps 3,000 men waiting to follow him. But follow him where, into what battle?

Many of these men had not been home for years. By then, fighting was all some of them knew. And there were huge stockpiles of weapons and grenades and rocket launchers, many of them bought for the mujahideen rebels by the CIA.

In December 1992, bin Laden found the battle he’d been waiting for. The US was leading a UN-sanctioned rescue mission into Somalia. In the midst of a famine, the country’s government had completely broken down, and warring tribes — largely Muslim–had cut off relief efforts by humanitarian groups.

Somalians were starving to death in cities and villages, and the US, which had moved quickly to rescue oil-rich Kuwait, had come under mounting criticism for doing nothing.

When the Marines landed in the last days of 1992, bin Laden sent in his own soldiers, armed with AK-47’s and rocket launchers. Soon, using the techniques they had perfected against the Soviets, they were shooting down American helicopters.

The gruesome pictures of a young army ranger being dragged naked through the streets by cheering crowds flashed around the world. The year-long American rescue mission for starving Somalians went from humanitarian effort to quagmire in just three weeks. Another superpower humiliated. Another bin Laden victory.

“After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle, thinking that the Americans were like the Russians,” bin Laden said. “The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat.”

I asked bin Laden why he would kill American soldiers whose work was to restore order and allow for the distribution of food.

“Why should we believe that was the true reason America was there?” he replied. “Everywhere else they went where Muslims lived, all they did was kill children and occupy Muslim land.”

For the future, bin Laden told me his first priority is to get the American military out of Saudi Arabia, the holiest of lands in Islam. “Every day the Americans delay their departure, they will receive a new corpse.”

Already, US forces have been dealt devastating blows there. Nineteen servicemen were killed in the 1996 bombing of the air force barracks in Dhahran, and five US military personnel were killed in a similar bombing in Riyadh in 1995.

Bin Laden said that the American military would leave Saudi Arabia, regardless of the fact that the Saudi royal family welcomes the American presence. “It does not make a difference if the government wants you to stay or leave. You will leave when the youth send you in wooden boxes and coffins. And you will carry in them the bodies of American troops and civilians. This is when you will leave.”

Civilians? “We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets in this fatwa.” Bin Laden argued that American outrage at attacks on American civilians constitutes a great double standard.

“American history does not distinguish between civilians and military, not even women and children. They are the ones who used bombs against Nagasaki. Can these bombs distinguish between infants and military? America does not have a religion that will prevent it from destroying all people.”

Bin Laden believes that what we consider to be terrorism is just the amount of violence required to get the attention of the American people. His aim is to get Americans to consider whether continued support of Israel is worth the bloodshed he promises.

“So we tell the Americans as people,” bin Laden said softly, “and we tell the mothers of soldiers and American mothers in general that if they value their lives and the lives of their children, to find a nationalistic government that will look after their interests and not the interests of the Jews. The continuation of tyranny will bring the fight to America…”

“This is my message to the American people: to look for a serious government that looks out for their interests and does not attack others, their lands, or their honor. And my word to American journalists is not to ask why we did that, but ask what their government has done that forced us to defend ourselves.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 16, 2001)

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