Maybe it would have been better if Osama were still with us

Published May 25, 2015
What an old softie Osama was, compared with the throat-cutting killers of the “Islamic State”.—AP/File
What an old softie Osama was, compared with the throat-cutting killers of the “Islamic State”.—AP/File

What an old softie he was, compared with the throat-cutting killers of the “Islamic State”. The black-bannered executioners are back at work in Ramadi and Palmyra and yet, back from the dead, old Osama bin Laden returns once more, fished out of the Indian Ocean (if he was ever there) for one final reappearance.

He loves his wife, he wants his son to take over the whole Al Qaeda outfit, he studies (if he can read English) Noam Chomsky.

Surely he’s a chap we could do business with, the “moderate” we are always searching for when we fail to destroy our enemies? A “middle party” to start a “dialogue” with these unruly IS fellows?

The French, in their search for the “interlocuteur valable” who would chat to the revolutionary FLN when General de Gaulle chose to throw in the towel in Algeria, found they had already assassinated all their potential interlocuteurs. And we, goddammit, did the same with Bin Laden. Having liquidated the Fountainhead of World Evil in 2011, we’ve no one left to represent us if we want to negotiate with the new Fountainhead of World Evil in 2015.

But … I have the suspicion we’re being fooled. I’m puzzled about the CIA’s latest dip into the barrel of the collected works and thoughts of the Old Man of Abbottabad. Why now, so long after they released the first tranche of fascinating but occasionally boring tracts between Bin Laden and his lads in Yemen, do they pop up with yet more of his junk-mail? Because Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist, has just presented us with a more disturbing version of the Bin Laden myth, in which the guy, after, in effect, falling under Pakistani intelligence control, was blown to bits by his American killers in Abbottabad – and then had some of those bits thrown over the Hindu Kush? (The sea burial was a lie, according to Hersh.) Why were the new Bin Laden videos silent? And why were some of the documents, like the previous set, censored – “redacted” – by the CIA? Weirdly, not a soul asked why.

Journalists waffled on about a “treasure trove”. I’m not so sure. What was it that the CIA knew and Bin Laden knew and which we mustn’t know? My meetings with Bin Laden – in 1993, 1996 and 1997 – long ago became an albatross for me, a piece of tat to hang on a reporter’s CV. But I recall how at our second meeting, in 1996, he was obsessed by Saudi Arabia’s corruption, how its royal family had betrayed Islam. Then I learned that the Saudis were still offering him (via a Saudi diplomat who visited him in Afghanistan) millions of dollars and the return of his passport if he would “return” to Riyadh.

And there’s an intriguing paragraph buried in Hersh’s version of events (or “counter-narrative”, as colleagues insist it be called) in which Hersh’s “retired official” source tells him that, during the hunt for Bin Laden, Saudi Arabia was a worrying factor because the kingdom “had been financing Bin Laden’s upkeep since his [post 9/11] seizure by the Pakistanis”.

The Saudis, according to Hersh’s source, “feared … we would pressure the Pakistanis to let Bin Laden start talking to us about what the Saudis had been doing with Al Qaeda. And they were dropping money – lots of it”.

I have too many questions about the latest Bin Laden mail. We don’t know who translated this stuff, let alone who censored it. I don’t doubt the authenticity of some passages; the letter to his wife Khairiah Sabar – mother of Hamza, whom Bin Laden wished to be the next leader of Al Qaeda – contains a moving paragraph about his desire to see her in the afterlife and to be her husband there again (even if she marries in the real world after his “martyrdom”). But the fear of US drone attacks (Bin Laden’s only advice is to travel under cloudy skies) the forlorn and belated understanding that education is necessary for real revolution, and the determination to strike at the US rather than its Middle East puppets, does not suggest that the Abbottabad recluse was running a “terror” control centre.

So why is all this material coming piecemeal and truncated? The 103 letters, reports and videos released last week come three years after West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center released an earlier 175 pages of Bin Laden chit-chat, which was equally truncated and oddly translated. For example, when an agent in Yemen sent his master a copy of an article of mine, which described Al Qaeda as “the most sectarian organisation in the world”, the second half was translated by the Americans back from Arabic into English (with obvious deviations from the original English used in The Independent).

But the first half was a straight lift from the paper, with no attempt to translate from Arabic.

Now we’re told that even more documents from Abbottabad await “declassification”. From what do they have to be declassified? It’s one thing to declassify government information for the world to read, but to declassify Bin Laden’s secrets for the world to read? What does this mean? Saudi material, perhaps?

I won’t delve into the “porn” stash supposedly found at Abbottabad, which it took the CIA four years to watch before deciding not to release it. Is the organisation that waterboards victims and stuffs food up their rectums really so prissy?

And then there are the books, Chomsky, Woodward and co. Quite an English-language reading list. But, when I met him in 1997, he could hardly speak a word. Did he have language tutors in Abbottabad? He did read Arabic- language books. Which of them were found by the Americans? Or did they contain too many works on Saudi Arabia?

Certainly, the previous batch of mail suggested the old boy was prepared to contemplate negotiating with the Brits; there’s nothing to suggest this in the latest collection. Could he have been useful as a bridge to the “moderates” that the West will undoubtedly discover inside the abominable IS? Oh, if we could only read the letters in their archives. But maybe they would have to be censored, too. Which is why I can suggest at least one interlocuteur valable for IS, despite Bin Laden’s demise: Saudi Arabia.

By arrangement with The Independent

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2015

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