How did Osama bin Laden navigate the fierce clash of visions between his mentors and decide to publicly declare war on the United States?
by Joel C. Rosenberg | September 14, 2022
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, shown in this file photograph while addressing a news conference in Afghanistan on May 26, 1998 (Photo: Reuters)
Abdullah Azzam was the Palestinian radical who filled Osama bin Laden’s head with the theology of violent jihad.
Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was the Egyptian radical who showed bin Laden how to build and deploy a modern terrorist organization.
With the help of both men– combined with bin Laden’s ready cash – Al Qaeda was now a fast-growth company.
Money and new recruits were pouring in.
But tensions within the organization were mounting as well.
A FIERCE CLASH OF VISIONS
Azzam strongly disagreed with al-Zawahiri’s vision of a global jihadist movement, believing it was a waste of time and money to build on such a large and expensive scale.
Instead, Azzam implored bin Laden to turn his attention exclusively to helping Palestinians build an Islamist movement and muscle the secular nationalist Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization out of the way.
Azzam had helped create Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement of the Palestinians, in 1987.
With bin Laden’s money and intellectual leadership, Azzam believed together they could liberate Jerusalem and the Holy Land just as they had liberated Afghanistan.
Zawahiri, however, pushed back hard.
The Palestinian issue was important, he argued, but al Qaeda was not ready.
Liberating Palestine was simply too difficult for their next mission.
Yes, Allah would be with them, but they had to play it smart. They needed to find more donors. They had to recruit more jihadists. They needed to build their organization and gain more experience.
Moreover, they needed to focus on toppling apostate Arab leaders such as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.
If they could surround the Jews with Islamist states and muster a massive army of mujahadeen, not just a ragtag band of blessed but exhausted warriors, then they could pull off something truly spectacular.
Both men competed vigorously for bin Laden’s attention and resources.
It was a fierce clash of visions and for a while it was not clear which side bin Laden would choose.
As a fellow Palestinian (on his mother’s side), bin Laden was sympathetic to Azzam’s vision.
That said, his heart was with Zawahiri.
He certainly wanted to help liberate Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish and Christian infidels that had created and were actively supporting the modern State of Israel.
But he wanted more.
He now had a vision of building the largest and most aggressive radical jihadist organization in the world.
He wanted to take down the United States, a.k.a., the “Great Satan.”
And he agreed with Zawahiri that this would take more time and planning than Azzam, apparently, had patience for.
Azzam was deeply offended.
He believed bin Laden would not have become the rock star of Sunni Radicals if it had not been for him recruiting him to go to Afghanistan and become a hero of the mujahadeen.
What’s more, Azzam he resented Zawahiri’s claim to his protégé’s time and affections.
Zawahiri, in turn, was livid.
He worried that Azzam was trying to hijack al Qaeda and could, in the process, doom them to failure.
Zawahiri was not about to let that happen.
Something had to give.
On Nov. 24, 1989, the problem was solved.
Azzam and his two sons were killed by a roadside bomb on the way to a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan.
No one ever claimed credit.
But the tensions were gone.
Azzam was no more.
Only Zawahiri had bin Laden’s ear.
File photo dated May 1, 1998 of Osama bin Laden, with Ayman al-Zawahiri, his right hand man in Jamkha, Afghanistan. (Photo: Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM)
BUILDING A MOVEMENT
For the next decade, bin Laden and Zawahiri built the “company” of their dreams.
When opportunities arose to recruit new men, they took advantage.
In the summer of 1989, for example, they watched General Omar al-Bashir seize power in a military coup in Sudan, and they noticed that Bashir was close with Hassan Abdallah al-Turabi, a radical Sunni cleric.
Before long, it became clear that Bashir was dramatically changing Sudan’s course from a historic alliance with Libya—led by Moammar Ghaddafi, a secular Arab nationalist—to a daring new alliance with the revolutionary mullahs in Iran.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri were impressed.
Deciding this was a man and a regime with which they could do business, they flew to Khartoum, met with Bashir, and offered to help set up new terrorist recruitment and training bases, working side by side with the Iranians.
When Bashir readily agreed, bin Laden and many of his top advisors moved their headquarters to Sudan.
The al Qaeda leadership was also on the lookout for opportunities to give their “employees” experience in attacking infidels in high-profile ways, which was good for publicity and thus allowed more fund-raising and recruiting.
In 1992, they noticed that U.S. Navy ships en route to Somalia were docking in Yemen’s port city of Aden for refueling and to give the American sailors a short breather before going back into harm’s way.
Bin Laden, whose father was originally from Yemen, was enraged.
He ordered his team to hit the Americans, and on Dec. 29, 1992, al Qaeda launched its first terrorist attack, bombing two hotels in Aden.
No Americans were actually killed in the operation, but the Navy did stop making port visits there for a while.
Bin Laden considered it a small but important first victory.
The Americans, he concluded, were weaker than most Muslims thought.
Throughout 1992 and 1993, al Qaeda funneled money, weapons, and even some personnel into Somalia to attack Americans and try to drive U.S. military forces out of a country they considered Muslim territory.
“In 1993, bin Laden issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling for Somalis to attack U.S. forces and drive them out of the country,” recalled James Phillips, the senior Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a D.C.–based think tank.
Phillips has also noted that al Qaeda members were suspected of teaching the Somalian militia “how to shoot down U.S. helicopters by altering the fuses of rocket-propelled grenades so that they exploded in mid-air. This tactic [was] developed by the Afghan mujahideen in their war against the Soviets.
As former Delta Force commander Jerry Boykin has noted, the al Qaeda operation in Somalia proved phenomenally successful in terms of propaganda, fund-raising, and recruiting after Washington was seen as cutting and running following the “Black Hawk Down” events.
“After our victory in Afghanistan and the defeat of the oppressors who had killed millions of Muslims, the legend about the invincibility of the superpowers vanished,” bin Laden would later gloat in an interview on American television. “Our boys no longer viewed America as a superpower. . . . America had entered [Somalia] with 30,000 soldiers in addition to thousands of soldiers from different countries in the world . . . [but] the American soldier was just a paper tiger. He was unable to endure the strikes that were dealt to his army, so he fled. . . . I was in Sudan when this happened. I was very happy to learn of that great defeat that America suffered; so was every Muslim.”
Osama bin Laden is seen gesturing during a videotaped statement broadcast November 3, 2001, in this still taken from the footage. (Photo: REUTERS/Al-Jazeera TV)
“KILL AMERICANS… AND THEIR ALLIES”
By 1996, Sudanese officials were under pressure from the U.S. and the Saudis not to harbor al Qaeda any longer, and President Bashir told bin Laden he had to leave.
Unable to return to his home country due to all his rhetoric denouncing the Saudi royal family, bin Laden and his team returned to the mountains of Afghanistan, where they were warmly received by the leadership of the Taliban, the Radical Islamic group that had recently seized control of Afghanistan.
Buoyed by early successes and once again in a secure base of operations, bin Laden, now thirty-nine, revealed the object of his fondest wishes and most fervent prayers. He issued a formal “Declaration of War against the United States” on Aug. 23, 1996.
O you who believe, be careful of your duty to Allah. . . .
It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam have suffered from aggression, iniquity, and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators. . . . [Muslim] blood was spilled in Palestine and Iraq. . . . Massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, the Philippines . . . Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina took place, massacres that send shivers in the body and shake the conscience. . . .
The latest and the greatest of these aggressions . . . is the occupation of the land of the two Holy Places [referring to Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia] by the armies of the American Crusaders and their allies. . . .
Today, your brothers and sons [the al Qaeda forces] . . . have started their Jihad in the cause of Allah, to expel the occupying enemy from [Saudi Arabia]. . . .
A few days ago the news agencies reported that the Defense Secretary of the Crusading Americans [William Perry] said that “the explosion at . . . the Khobar [Towers] had taught him one lesson: that is, not to withdraw when attacked by coward terrorists.” We say to the Defense Secretary that his talk can induce a grieving mother to laughter and shows the fears that have enshrined you all. Where was this false courage of yours when the explosion in Beirut took place on 1983? . . . You were turned into scattered pits and pieces at that time [when] 241 mainly Marine soldiers were killed. And where was this courage of yours when two explosions made you leave Aden in less than twenty-four hours!
But your most disgraceful case was in Somalia, where—after vigorous propaganda about the power of the USA and its post–Cold War leadership of the New World Order—you moved . . . 28,000 American solders into Somalia. However, when tens of your solders were killed in minor battles and one American pilot was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu, you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat, and your dead with you. . . . You have been disgraced by Allah, and you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear. It was a pleasure for the heart of every Muslim and a remedy to the chests of believing nations to see you defeated in the three Islamic cities of Beirut, Aden, and Mogadishu.
[Our forces] have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you [Americans]. . . .
The most honorable death is to be killed in the way of Allah.
Bin Laden’s objective at that point was to drive the Americans out of Saudi Arabia.
But over the next two years, he came to the conclusion that hitting Americans solely on the Arabian Peninsula was a mistake.
Thus, on Feb. 23, 1998, bin Laden issued a new fatwa declaring that every Muslim in the world was now obligated to attack and kill Americans anywhere and everywhere and to liberate, not only Saudi Arabia, but Jerusalem and Palestine as well.
“We—with God’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim [nations], leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”
The fatwas were not mere bluster.
Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and their team began to make good on their threats as well.
First, they accelerated their training of as many jihadists as they possibly could, both for their own organization and for other radical groups.
According to U.S. intelligence insiders, between the time bin Laden moved his operations to Afghanistan and the deadly attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda trained between ten and twenty thousand jihadists in their camps.
“In addition to training fighters and special operators, [al Qaeda’s] network of guesthouses and camps provided a mechanism by which [bin Laden and his senior leaders] could screen and vet candidates for induction into its own organization,” noted The 9/11 Commission Report. “From the time of its founding, al Qaeda had employed training and indoctrination to identify ‘worthy’ candidates. Al Qaeda continued meanwhile to collaborate closely with the many Middle Eastern groups—in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Somalia, and elsewhere—with which it had been linked when bin Laden was in Sudan. It also reinforced its London base and its other offices around Europe, the Balkans, and the Caucasus.”
Second, they began to launch actual operations against U.S. interests outside of Saudi Arabia.
On the morning of Aug. 7, 1998, two truck bombs exploded in front of the U.S. embassies in the African cities of Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, within minutes of each other.
The Nairobi attack killed 12 Americans and 201 others, mostly Kenyan citizens, and injured some five thousand more.
The attack in Tanzania killed 11 people, though none of them turned out to be Americans.
Bin Laden did not hesitate to take credit for the attacks.
He said publicly that if calling for jihad against Americans and Jews “is considered a crime,” then “let history be a witness that I am a criminal.”
In December of 1999, Jordanian officials intercepted a phone conversation between senior al Qaeda operatives and members of a jihadist cell group based in the Hashemite Kingdom.
They were hatching a plot they referred to as “the day of the millennium.”
Jordanian police units moved quickly, arresting 16 terrorists who were planning to launch a chemical weapons attack by releasing hydrogen cyanide in a crowded movie theater in the capital of Amman, blow up tourists at the SAS Radisson Hotel in Amman, and attack Christian pilgrims at John the Baptist’s shrine along the Jordan River.
On Oct. 12, 2000, al Qaeda used a small fishing boat to launch a suicide bombing attack against the USS Cole, a billion-dollar guided-missile destroyer, in the port of Aden, Yemen, which was once again being used by U.S. Naval forces.
Seventeen American sailors were killed, and another 40 were wounded in the blast, which tore a massive hole in the side of the ship, nearly sinking it.
Bin Laden’s senior staff had wanted to hit an oil tanker or some other commercial ship, but the al Qaeda terror master insisted they target an American warship.
All the while, however, senior al Qaeda operatives were planning the most daring and deadly attack on U.S. soil in history.
[Tomorrow, Part 4 — Who was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and how did this ‘personification of
sheer evil’ help Osama Bin Laden plan deadliest terror attacks in US
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