Friday, December 06, 1996

bin Laden Interview with Robert Fisk (1996)

In his last recorded interview, Usama bin Ladin tells Robert Fisk why he so despises America.

Osama bin Laden is a tall, slim man, and when he walks towards me surrounded by his Arab mujahideen guerillas in the mountains of Afghanistan, he towers over his companions. Huge insects fly through the night air, settling like burrs on his Saudi robes and on the clothes of his men.

Bin Laden's narrow eyes and long beard were familiar amid the battlefields of Afghanistan where he and his guerillas fought the Soviet invasion army of the '80s. His appearance is little changed, the beard a trifle greyer, perhaps, but the fierceness unquenched. Then he fought the Russians. Now, determined to overthrow the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and oust the Americans from that kingdom, he is describing the bombings that slaughtered 24 Americans in Riyadh [in 1995] and Khobar-Dhahran [in 1996] as a symbol of Saudi anger, the presence of US forces as an "insult" to the Saudi people.

For bin Laden, the betrayal of the Saudi people began 24 years before his birth, when Abdul Aziz al-Saud proclaimed his kingdom in 1932.

"The regime started under the flag of applying Islamic law, and under this banner all the people of Saudi Arabia came to help the Saudi family take power," he says as the night wind moves through the darkened trees, ruffling the robes of the Arab Afghan fighters around us. "Abdul Aziz did not apply Islamic law; the country was set up for his family. Then, after the discovery of petroleum, the Saudi regime found another support - the money to make people rich and give them the services and life they wanted and to make them satisfied." He is picking his teeth with a piece of miswak wood, a habit that accompanies many of his conversations.

History - or his version of it - is the basis of almost all his remarks. And the pivotal date is 1990, the year Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

"When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy places [Mecca and Medina], there was a strong protest from the ulema [religious authorities] and from students of the sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops. This big mistake by the Saudi regime of inviting the American troops revealed their deception. They had given their support to nations that were fighting against Muslims. They helped the Yemeni communists against the southern Yemeni Muslims and helping [Yasser] Arafat's regime fight Hamas [who opposed the peace process in the Middle East]. After it insulted and jailed the ulema 18 months ago, the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy ...

"The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems. The ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world, yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now the people understand the speeches of the ulemas in the mosques - that our country has become an American colony. They act decisively with every action to kick the Americans out of Saudi Arabia. What happened in Riyadh and Khobar [when 24 Americans were killed in two bombings] is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America."

IT was a construction company that made bin Laden's family into millionaires, but it was its convoys of earth-moving trucks, bulldozers and quarrying equipment that took him to war. The Afghan conflict against the Russians moulded bin Laden, taught him the meaning of his religion, made him think.

Anyone who wants to understand the man whom Bill Clinton dubbed "America's Public Enemy No1" should study this moment in his life. The West regarded him as a hero. In those days the young Arabs whom he brought to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation army were treated as heroes; in Britain, The Times used to call them "freedom fighters". Few noticed, or bothered to study, the theological implications of the West's support for the mujahideen.

One of the reasons Leonid Brezhnev was persuaded to send his troops into Afghanistan was the reports that large areas of the country had fallen under the sway of Muslim fundamentalists. Schoolteachers, installed by the communist regime in Kabul, were being assassinated. Even when the mujahideen were shooting at civil airliners with British-made Blowpipe missiles, they were not called "terrorists".

Bin Laden saw his comrades die in their hundreds, while he survived Russian kidnap attempts. Eventually, he was sickened by the factional fighting among the Afghans that followed the departure of the Russians and he moved to Sudan, using his wealth to finance road construction projects north of Khartoum. It was while he was here, in the years after the Afghan war, that reports came from Egypt and Algeria of Arabs returning home in Afghan clothes, many of them deeply religious, contemptuous of the corruption of secular governments, doctrinal to the point of self-righteousness.

When I first met bin Laden, in 1993, he was building a highway to connect the village of Almatig to Khartoum for the first time, shaking hands with the grateful villagers, worshipped by the local sheikh. Bin Laden shook hands with each man, watched by the young Arab fighters and clearly enjoying the adoration.

There is something of the evangelist about bin Laden; not the friendly apostle but the fire-breathing preacher, a hermit of such conviction that argument is out of the question. For the Americans, his epic certainties constitute his greatest danger. Bin Laden is not a man who does deals.

He embarked on another construction; a new motorway between Khartoum and Port Sudan. By now, Egyptian newspapers were claiming that bin Laden was helping to organise an Islamist resistance to President Hosni Mubarak's rule from "training camps" in Sudan. "The rubbish of the media and the embassies," bin Laden retorted. He kept a home in Khartoum, only a small apartment in his native Jeddah. His four wives lived with him in Sudan. Three of them were later to follow him back to Afghanistan, along with his two sons.

He had watched his beloved Afghanistan torn apart by greedy men who had forgotten their religion. Now he saw corruption in Egypt, in all the Arab nations that had adopted a facade of Western life; above all, in Saudi Arabia. Under pressure from the Americans, the Sudanese told bin Laden to leave and so he returned to the land where he had been a hero. Some say he travelled back to Afghanistan via Saudi Arabia; certainly, he has many sympathisers there, including some members of the royal family. In those initial months back in Afghanistan, he must have decided that if he could defeat the Russians he could also defeat America.

Saudi Arabia, he concluded, had become "an American colony". Ordinary Saudis realised the imprisoned ulemas were right: US troops had stayed on in the kingdom, despite their promise to leave. "The Saudis now know their real enemy is America." Did not the Europeans resist German occupation in World War II? bin Laden suddenly asked. I told him this parallel was morally wrong, that no European would accept the argument because the Nazis killed millions of Europeans; the Americans had never murdered a single Saudi.

"We as Muslims have a strong feeling that binds us together," he replied. "We feel for our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon. The explosion at Khobar did not come as a direct result of American occupation but as a result of American behaviour against Muslims ... When 60 Jews are killed inside Palestine [in suicide bombings earlier this year] all the world gathers within seven days to criticise this action, while the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children [after UN sanctions were placed on Iraq] did not receive the same reaction. Killing those Iraqi children is a crusade against Islam. We, as Muslims, do not like the Iraqi regime but we think that the Iraqi people and their children are our brothers and we care about their future."

Ultimately, all Muslims will unite in the fight against America, says bin Laden. "I believe that sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia and that the war declared by America against the Saudi people means war against all Muslims everywhere. Resistance against America will spread in many, many places in Muslim countries. Our trusted leaders, the ulema, have given us a fatwa that we must drive out the Americans. The solution to this crisis is the withdrawal of American troops ... their military presence is an insult for the Saudi people."

Yet did not the Americans support the mujahideens' war against the Soviets? "We were never at any time friends of the Americans. We knew that the Americans support the Jews in Palestine and that they are our enemies. Most of the weapons that came to Afghanistan were paid for by the Saudis on the orders of the Americans because Turki al-Faisal [the head of Saudi external intelligence] and the CIA were working together."

So what kind of Arabian Islamic state does he wish to see? Would thieves and murderers still have their heads cut off, for example, in a sharia-governed state? Bin Laden's answer is unsatisfactory. All Muslims would love to live under true sharia, he said. A guilty man would only be happy if he was justly punished.

Dissident bin Laden may be. But moderate, never.

The Independent

Based on the last recorded interview given by bin Laden, in 1996

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