Few individuals in recent history have exerted greater influence on world events than Osama bin Laden — and even fewer have inspired as much mythology. From the origins of the al-Qaeda terrorist network to the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, to the manhunt that came to an end with such drama last Sunday, bin Laden’s life has been shrouded in mysteries and misconceptions.
Common among conspiracy theorists is the notion that bin Laden was a CIA creation and that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were blowback from an agency operation gone awry. Typifying this view is filmmaker Michael Moore, who on the day after the terrorist attacks wrote: “WE created the monster known as Osama bin Laden! Where did he go to terrorist school? At the CIA!”
In fact, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the CIA had no dealings with “Afghan Arabs” such as bin Laden and had few direct dealings with any of the Afghan mujaheddin. Instead, all U.S. aid to Afghanistan was funneled through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI. Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, the ISI officer who coordinated Pakistani efforts during the war, explained in “The Bear Trap,” his 1992 book: “No Americans ever trained or had direct contact with the mujaheddin.”
Since 9/11, al-Qaeda insiders have responded in writing to assertions that they had some kind of relationship with the CIA. Bin Laden’s top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in his autobiographical “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” wrote, “The truth that everyone should learn is that the United States did not give one penny in aid to the [Arab] mujaheddin.” Similarly, Abu Musab al-Suri, long an associate of bin Laden’s, explained in his history of the jihadist movement, “The Call to Global Islamic Resistance”: “It is a big lie that the Afghan Arabs were formed with the backing of the CIA.”
There are very few things that al-Qaeda and the CIA agree upon — except that they have never had any relationship.
This was a common trope of President George W. Bush. Nine days after Sept. 11, Bush addressed Congress. “They hate our freedoms,” he said, “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Yet, in all the tens of thousands of words uttered by bin Laden, he was strangely silent about American freedoms and values. He didn’t seem to care very much about the beliefs of the “crusaders.” His focus was invariably on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
In a review of 24statements made by bin Laden from 1994 to 2004, political scientist James L. Payne found that 72 percent of the content of the speeches referred to alleged Western or Jewish attacks against Muslims, while only 1 percent criticized American culture or way of life.
In a 2004 video, bin Laden directly rebutted Bush’s assertions about al-Qaeda’s motivations for attacking the United States: “Contrary to what Bush says and claims — that we hate your freedom. If that were true, then let him explain why did we not attack Sweden.”
To his credit, Bush was quite firm that al-Qaeda represented a perversion of Islam, and one of his first acts after 9/11 was to visit a mosque in downtown Washington. But members of al-Qaeda firmly believe that their struggle has everything to do with the defense of what they consider true Islam. And bin Laden found ammunition in the Koran to give his war some Islamic legitimacy, often invoking the “Sword” verses of the holy book, which can be interpreted as urging attacks on those who won’t submit and convert to Islam. They read: “Once the Sacred Months are past (and they refuse to make peace), you may kill the idol worshipers when you encounter them, punish them, and resist every move they make. If they repent and observe the Prayers and give the obligatory alms-giving you shall let them go.”
Of course, that is a selective reading of the Koran, but for believers, this is not a mere book — it is literally the word of God.
The conventional view is that Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor and al-Qaeda’s longtime second in command, has been bin Laden’s “brain.” But in making the most important strategic shift in al-Qaeda’s history — identifying the United States as its key enemy, rather than Middle Eastern regimes — bin Laden brushed aside Zawahiri’s obsessive focus on overthrowing the Egyptian government. Noman Benotman, a Libyan militant who has spent considerable time talking with both of al-Qaeda’s leaders, told me in an interview that “Osama influenced Zawahiri with his idea: Forget about the ‘near enemy’; the main enemy is the Americans.”
Bin Laden also kept Zawahiri in the dark for years about al-Qaeda’s most important operation — the planning for the 9/11 attacks — cluing in his deputy only during the summer of 2001.
Many commentators have asserted in the past week that the death of bin Laden won’t make much difference to the wider jihadist movement that he helped spawn. There is some truth to that, but balanced against this are the facts that al-Qaeda was bin Laden’s creation and he was the ultimate author of the 9/11 attacks. When new recruits joined al-Qaeda, they pledged a personal oath of religious allegiance to bin Laden, rather than to the organization. Similarly, when affiliated jihadist groups have attached themselves to al-Qaeda central, as al-Qaeda in Iraq did in 2004, their leaders pledge their fealty to bin Laden personally.
Bin Laden is one of the few men in recent decades who truly changed the history of the world. With him gone from the scene, there is no one of his stature and charisma to become not only the leader and strategic guide of al-Qaeda, but to inspire the group’s affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa and the wider jihadi movement around the globe. For that, we can all be grateful.
Peter Bergen is the director of national security studies at the New America Foundation and the author of “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda.” In 1997, he produced the first television interview of Osama bin Laden. Bergen will be online to chat on Monday, May 9, at 11 a.m. ET. Submit your questions or comments now.
Want to challenge everything you know? Visit our “Five myths” archive.