This illustration taken on May 2, 2011 in Kaufbeuren, southern Germany, shows the websites of different anglophone newspapers reporting on the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. - Photo by AFP

Born into a wealthy family in Saudi Arabia, Osama Bin Laden is said to always have been conservative, but not a fanatic. Little is known about his past which was most probably unremarkable with him being one of the many children of a multi-married Saudi construction tycoon. In fact he was the seventeenth child of a man who fathered up to 52 children.

Interestingly, although Osama’s father became extremely rich thanks to his contacts with Saudi Arabia’s royal family, he remained a strict adherent of his country’s puritanical Sunni Wahabi Muslim faith, whereas Osama’s mother, a Syrian woman, did not prefer wearing the veil and was said to be more educated than her billionaire husband.

Osama’s first marriage was to a 14-year-old Saudi girl (he was 17 at the time), and in 1974 he enrolled in the economics and management faculty of Jeddah's King Abdul Aziz University.

The university, at the time, was bustling with young radical militants most of whom had begun to arrive from Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Morocco in the late 1960s where their comrades had been persecuted by those countries’ secular Arab nationalist governments.

Saudi Arabia’s monarchy had been alarmed by the rise of secular nationalist regimes in various Arab countries, most of whom had also tilted towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

That is why the Saudi regime began to openly receive young militants who were opponents of these nationalist governments, many of whom became students and ideologues at the King Abdul Aziz University. These young ideologues were almost entirely unopposed here, quite unlike the situation they had faced at university campuses in Egypt and Syria where student outfits of various Marxist and Arab nationalist parties were also strong.

Many of these young militants had also escaped to study in Pakistan. Although they found sympathy from Jamat-i-Islami’s student wing, Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were also confronted  by a strong presence of various left-wing and liberal student groups who supported Arab nationalist regimes.

In those days, universities in Karachi and Lahore had large numbers of Palestinian students, many of whom, with the support of Z.A. Bhutto’s government and leftist student groups, set up a student wing of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) whom the militants had opposed.

At King Abdul Aziz University, Osama discovered the political dimension of puritanical Islamic discourse (later labelled as ‘Islamism’), where an exhibition of piety is coupled with political and militant action to help create a ‘true Islamic state and society’ ruled by a revived Islamic caliphate.

When a group of Saudi Wahabi radicals took over the holy mosque in Mecca in 1979 and were eventually cleared out through a bloody gun battle between Saudi forces (trained and maneuvered by French military experts) and the rather delusional militants (who had with them a man who claimed to be Islam’s awaited avenger, Mehdi), Osama sympathised with the militants.

Then the same year, Soviet troops began settling in Afghanistan to protect and aid the country’s new revolutionary Marxist regime.

Propelled by such events and now armed with a new-found understanding of political Islam, Osama decided to join a number of Arab fighters who began arriving in Pakistan to take part in the CIA-ISI-Saudi backed ‘jihad’ against the Soviet-backed ‘infidel’ regime in Kabul.

But writing in The Guardian, Jason Burke and Lawrence Joffe, are right to suggest that Osama did not play such a huge role in the so-called ‘jihad.’

They correctly report that Osama’s military contribution was negligible. ‘The "foreign legion" (of which Osama was a part of) never numbered more than a few thousand, of whom most never saw combat but ran charities caring for refugees or wounded Afghan fighters. It was to the seven Afghan mujahideen groups, and only to them, that the Pakistanis disbursed American and Saudi aid. Likewise, it was only the Afghans who received training. Bin Laden was not, despite later claims, created by the CIA, who had no contact with such people.’

Exploits of Arab fighters like Osama in the anti-Soviet insurgency were mostly the creation of al Qaeda propaganda in the 1990s and 2000s. I remember how in 1993, a pamphlet distributed by Pakistan’s Jamat-e-Islami in which it claimed how Soviet tanks simply exploded in front of some Arab fighters whenever they chanted Allah’s name!

Though Osama did take part in some light episodes of fighting, his central role in the conflict was to raise money for Afghan mujahideen outfits and later, use his financial clout to mediate between warring mujahideen factions after the Soviets exited from Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda is said have been formed in 1989 by Osama and radical Egyptian surgeon, Ayman al-Zawahiri. After failing to take over Jalalabad after the Soviet withdrawal, Osama and Zawahiri were still convinced that it were Arab fighters who helped the Afghans defeat the Soviets.

They were not bothered by the fact that, to begin with, it was Soviet Union’s collapsing economy, coupled by billions of dollars worth of aid that came from the US and Saudi Arabia and the determination of Afghan mujahideen that actually did the trick.

Al Qaeda was set up to incite (through violence) Islamic uprisings in various Muslim countries. It decided to group together various militant cells that had been active against the Soviets, and through militancy, violence and eventual revolution, impose an international Islamic caliphate.

From 1994 until the tragic 9/11 events, al Qaeda began conducting terrorist attacks against various Arab regimes. In 1996 when the Pakistani government and intelligence agencies helped impose a deadly radical regime in Kabul by a group of Afghan Islamic puritans who had been raised in isolated madrassas in Pakistan, Osama cut a deal with them.

He bankrolled their regime and in exchange the Taliban allowed him to set up numerous training camps in Afghanistan.

In 1998, the al Qaeda decided to intensify its operations by forming "The World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” that included militant outfits from Bangladesh, Egypt and Pakistan.

Soon, the al Qaeda were murdering Muslim civilians as well, frustrated by their fellow Muslims’ failure to rise up against their regimes. Then came 9/11, planned and executed by al Qaeda cells. American action against the Taliban regime toppled the fanatical set-up and saw bin Laden and his fighters escape to Pakistan.

As the Taliban (both in Pakistan and Afghanistan) began their own bloody reign of terror and bloodshed against civilians, and government and security personnel, the al Qaeda became merely a symbol as its cells became largely independent (but deadlier and even more blood thirsty).

Osama was also said to have fallen sick.

It is believed that for almost four years the Americans knew about Osama’s presence in Pakistan, but were not sure where he was hiding. Constant denials by Pakistan, busy playing its own little game of kill some, spare some against the Taliban, did not help either.

Then, a series of extraordinary events took place in the last one month or so. A CIA operative, Raymond Davis, was arrested in Lahore after he shot dead two (armed) Pakistani civilians. It is believed that CIA operatives like Davis are hired to track down those militants that the Pakistani military-establishment is alleged to protect for ‘strategic’ purposes.

Nevertheless, after Davis’ release, came a surge in anti-American rhetoric on the media (said to be prompted by the ISI to pressurize the CIA).

To further achieve this, came Imran Khan’s dharna (again, very much prompted) against American drone strikes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Something was afoot.

It was obvious some sections of the local intelligence agencies were getting desperate to stop the US from attacking ‘good militants’ (through drones), or those whom Pakistan can use in Afghanistan once the Americans leave that area.

As respected columnist Ayesha Siddiqa suggested, there are three opposing factions in the ISI/army. One is pro-US, one is pro-China and one is pro-Taliban.

Osama’s discovery and death in Pakistan at the hands of US marines, possibly aided by the Pakistani intelligence agencies, can be taken as a major demoralising factor for the activities of the so-called pro-Taliban sections of the military.

A good omen, indeed.


Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and



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