Osama bin Laden is dead. To read the news stories today in South Africa, I am suddenly filled with a mixture of unexpected emotions. One of the first things I felt was homesickness. To hear that the man who orchestrated so much damage, so much hatred is now dead, makes me want to talk with those who felt the pain of the 911 attacks, close up.
I can’t believe I am hearing the news on foreign soil.
I can’t believe I am hearing the news on foreign soil.
As an American I cannot begin to tell you how overwhelming and immediate the effects of September 11th, 2001 had on us as individuals, and as a country. We had never, in my lifetime, been as devastated by a terrorist attack, with the exception of the Pearl Harbor. Even so, those bombings in 1941, while the World around us was at war with Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito, was with their own planes, and not so unexpected. On this day, our commercial flights had fallen victim to hijackers bent on jihad, a word that I had just heard.
That day in September was a shock to all of us – our beloved Twin Towers in New York City crumbled after the planes crashed into them and caught fire. The Pentagon became a four-sided building that morning, with the remnants of another hijacked plane burning next to it. United Airlines Flight 93 crashed mysteriously into a field near Somerset County, Pennsylvania. It was later revealed that crew and passengers attempted to seize control of the plane from the hijackers after learning through phone calls that similarly hijacked planes had been crashed into buildings that morning.
It seemed as if our whole world had come to a crashing halt. Our airports instantly shut down, and flights were cancelled. Canada received 226 of the diverted flights and launched “Operation Yellow Ribbon” to deal with the large numbers of grounded planes and stranded passengers. We watched, horrified, as the reports of destruction multiplied. Many police officers and rescue workers (the untouchables of public servants) were killed trying to rescue the barely alive, or recover bodies from the twisted remnants of the Twin Towers.
Regardless of what people think, Americans aren’t strangers to destruction. We’ve survived a myriad of natural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, and drought that changed the landscape of the Midwest. This was so different: it was an unexpected terrorist attack designed to hurt and cripple us, and inflict fear into our beloved country and its people. In our hearts, we were (in true American fashion) both devastated and stirred to get the bastards who did this.
Who would do this?
It didn’t take long to find out.
“We’re making a list,” one of the interviewed Army Generals said later at an impromptu press conference. “And it’s not a long list.”
While leaders of most Middle Eastern countries, and Afghanistan, condemned the attacks. Iraq came forward with an immediate (almost rehearsed) official statement that "the American cowboys are reaping the fruit of their crimes against humanity". Our President, his Vice (Dick Cheney) and his Secretary of Defense (Donald Rumsfeld) seemed as if they could see this was coming.
The afternoon of September 11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was issuing rapid orders to his aides to look for evidence of Iraqi involvement; Dick Cheney was taken somewhere secret for the purposes of protection and stealth command; Bush kept making statements, trying to rouse our courage as a nation... and most of the neighbourhoods in the country met their neighbors for the first time, to have prayer in the street or to sing “God Bless America”.
The FBI released information the following day that the ones taking responsibility for the bombings were a small sect calling themselves “al-Qaida” (in Arabic “the Base”), led by a man named Osama bin Laden. I had never heard about him, so I researched about who he (and al-Qaida was).
Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden in Arabic is spelled أسامة بن محمد بن عوض بن لادن and cannot really be translated into English, so there are many spellings of his name. I was shocked to learn that this man, who didn’t look much like an old ayatollah, was born into a wealthy Saudi family. It turns out that the real fatherly influence came from his step-father, a devout Wahhabi Muslim, an orientation most other Muslims consider ultra-conservative, or even heretical. Wahhabism upholds the letter of Islamic law, with much focus on dealing with the surrounding infidels, or enemies of Islam. It is, to this day, the fastest growing religious sect of Islam for young people in the Middle East, able to show considerable influence in the Muslim world in part through Saudi funding of mosques, schools and social programs.
As he became a man, it is said that Osama appeared to be gentle, and loved to read and write poetry. He was enrolled in a small but elite secular Al-Thager Model School. Although he never completed his courses or earned a college degree, it was widely circulated that he did. At university, his main interest was religion, and it was there that his ideology began. Convinced that the restoration of Sharia law would set things right in the Muslim world, and that all other ideologies—"pan-Arabism, socialism, communism, democracy"—must be opposed.
In mid-1979, he moved to Afghanistan, then under the rule of the Taliban, believing it was "the only Islamic country" in the Muslim world. About the same time, the Soviet Union deployed troops into Afghanistan, making the Taliban victims of a new order: communism and a full-fledged army. As the Soviets began to claim Afghanistan as part of the USSR, the United States began giving several hundred million dollars a year to the Afghan Mujahideen ( "strugglers" or "people doing jihad”) fighting the Afghan Marxist government and the Soviet Army in Operation Cyclone (remember Charlie Wilson’s war?) The most famous of the Afghan Arabs was Osama bin Laden, known at the time as a wealthy and pious Saudi who provided his own money and helped raise millions from other wealthy Gulf Arabs.
As the Afghan war neared its end, bin Laden organized al-Qaeda in order to carry on armed jihad in other venues, primarily against the United States — the country that had helped fund the mujahideen against the Soviets.
If you asked Osama WHY he would bomb the twin towers, why he would advocate such violence, he would answer that he was only exposing us as perpetrators of the same thing. It is 1982, during the Lebanese war, and the Sabra and Shatila massacre (at least 800 civilians were slaughtered by Israeli backed troops) that he made up his mind to commit Jihad against the USA – the main supporters of Israel. Bin Laden became consumed with the need for violent jihad (literally translated: “the struggle”) He preached, with great conviction that the crimes against Muslims were perpetrated by the United States and Israel, convincing his followers that violent jihad must be done if necessary.
"Allah knows it did not cross our minds to attack the towers but after the situation became unbearable and we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, I thought about it. And the events that affected me directly were that of 1982 and the events that followed – when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the U.S. Sixth Fleet. As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me punish the unjust the same way (and) to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women."
– Osama bin Laden, 2004
As a result of his dealings in and advocacy of violent extremist jihad, Osama lost his Saudi citizenship and was disowned by his billionaire family. Although he didn’t seem to care, the blow to a Muslim man when his family rejects him is usually fierce.
Settling into our lives here, I had never thought I would see the headlines I did today. Osama found?? ...and KILLED?? Where is the proof?
Apparently the CIA had knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts for awhile. They also seemed to know something else: that Osama was at death’s door from advanced kidney disease, based on the drugs he’d been taking. Although he only had six to 18 months to live, the terrorist leader was in good health last night since it is reported that he fought with the American invaders who eventually had to kill him.
While the world waited for bin Laden’s body to be shown, it was reported to be “not recognizeable” as the once fit revolutionary. Bin Laden’s body had to be identified genetically with a match from his sister, and was later disposed of in the North Arabian Sea , off the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. With so many in doubt, it will be interesting to see what will be said of capture, death and burial. The Vinson’s official, noted the burial at sea in his log, though, making the death and the dispose of the body official. In his notes, it reads:
"Preparations for at-sea burial began at 1:10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time and were completed at 2:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Traditional procedures for Islamic burial were followed. The deceased's body was washed and then placed in a white sheet. The body was placed in a weighted bag, a military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased body eased into the sea."
Today from the gym I watched “alerts” for USA travellers: Be careful, as you travel overseas. Don’t go somewhere where there will be large crowds. Don’t identify yourself as an American.... blah blah blah. I refuse to live safely, and refuse to be dictated by fear.
Is the United States any safer today than it was on September 10, 2001? Experts mostly believe -- some strongly, some tentatively -- it is.
The real question is, can we live without fear?