Osama bin Laden’s greatest strategic success wasn’t just 9/11, it was re-energising disparate Islamist groups in South Asia

Osama bin Laden while he was in hiding. Source: Abdel Bari Atwan

In their second essay, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, authors of the new book “The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden”, explain how Osama helped stitch together and re-focus the scattered jihad front groups in South Asia. (You can read the first part here

ADRIAN LEVY & CATHY SCOTT-CLARK

A popular line drawing of Osama bin Laden, one advanced by himself, was of a messianic desert dweller, an ascetic who also was content to live in caves, and who was as impoverished as he was miraculous in beating the odds and winning against the West.

However, he was also an extraordinary networker, a gifted snake-oil salesman, who calculated the impact of his reputation upon every relationship he sought to cement.

Work on Osama bin Laden’s least talked about, and most brilliant project, began eight years before 9/11. Then Masood Azhar, a plump cleric from Bahalwalpur, in the Pakistan Punjab, started agitating in his reedy voice over the arrest of 400 mujahids from the United Arab Emirates, seized in Peshawar by the Pakistan authorities. This over-spill from civil war had been stripped of their nationality, and unable to leave for the Gulf, they were shipped from Islamabad to Sudan and Somalia.

Maulana Masood Azhar in a screengrab.

There, they joined an Al Qaeda linked fighting group, Ittehad-e-Islami, and sent letters back to the young Masood expressing their outrage at having been exiled by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan that now was also shooting at them as part of a United Nations’ Africa mission. Masood took a team of journalists to Nairobi to witness the ‘betrayal of jihad’ by Pakistan and on his return, did what he was born to do – talked up a storm.

When Masood got into difficulties in 1994, and was captured in Kashmir by the Indian army, it was Osama who repaid the favour. Masood’s family and al-Qaeda orchestrated the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in December 1999 to set him free. Flown from his jail cell in Jammu to Kandahar, a jubilant Masood was feted at a homecoming banquet, thrown by Osama.

Masood left for the Punjab where he formed Jaish e-Mohammed (JeM), whose first act was a joint operation with al-Qaeda: a suicide bombing outside the army headquarters at BB Cantt, Srinagar, carried out by Asif Sadiq, a 24-year old student from Birmingham, England. JeM’s second, was the attack on India’s parliament on December 13 2001, an action designed to trigger a near war with Pakistan, leading to the rapid reassignment of Pakistan troops stationed on the Afghanistan border, where they had been positioned at the behest of America to capture fleeing al-Qaeda fighters and Osama himself.

Osama bin Laden on the run. Source: Abdel Bari Atwan

These linkages would be exposed in the pocket litter left behind by 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his sidekick Ramzi bin al Shibh, when they were run to ground in Pakistan in March and September 2003. The paper trail revealed how JeM and Lashkar-e-Toiba had helped Osama flee from the caves of Tora Bora, crisscrossing Afghanistan to reach Karachi.

His family, fighters and thinkers required a legion of guides and a network of safe houses run by JeM and LeT too. And once Osama and family were ensconced in the Pakistan garrison town of Abbottabad, documents recovered from there showed how these groups with hooks into the Pakistan deep state were joined by Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI), and even the viciously sectarian Lashkar-y-Jhangvi (LeJ).

The Khalid Sheikh Mohammed cache exposed another member of the Pakistan coalition of terror enabled by the deep state: don Dawood Ibrahim. While living in exile in the Gulf in the 1980s, Dawood began financing jihad fronts. When he flitted to Karachi in the mid-1990s, after the Mumbai bombings, French intelligence spotted him travelling to Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban, and then Osama.

Afterwards, Dawood’s money-laundering network was found to have transferred funds to the 9/11 hijackers in the U.S, more cash going to JeM and LeT operations in Pakistan and Kashmir. Finally, in 2003, CIA analysts began tracing a Dawood-constructed al-Qaeda funding pipeline that stretched from Dubai to Tehran, where the outfit’s key military and religious leaders had been ensconced since 2002, and the U.S. Treasury designated him a ’global terrorist’, the Goldman Sachs of organized Islamist mayhem.

Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad. Source: Abdel Bari Atwan

The LeT association with Al Qaeda began to divide it, as a faction led by veteran former ISI agent Ilyas Kashmiri partnered with Osama, rejecting an aging Hafiz Saeed with his narrow India-centric strategies. To repair the outfit, Saeed reluctantly backed a plan to attack Mumbai – an old-school LeT assault on India – combined with an attack on Western tourists and businessmen there – a new school al-Qaeda device. Osama, according to senior LeT figures, and several in Osama’s inner circle, risked capture to travel to Mansehra to attend planning meetings for the 26/11 operation.

But this was not his first outing from the Abbottabad bolthole, and it would not be his last. Osama first ventured out in October 2005, clipping his famed beard so he could go incognito to meet with Fazlur Rehman Khalil, the founder of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a two-hour drive away, in a village in the Tribal Areas. In 1999, Khalil had helped in the hijacking that sprung Azhar. Now he brought news of a deal from retired ISI officers, led by Hamid Gul, the former Director General. They suggested passing Osama off as dead, as they would do with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who lived in ISI safe houses in Karachi, sick with diabetes until 2013.

The home in Abbotabad where Osama lived. Source: Abdel Bari Atwan

With Osama “killed off,” he ventured out more confidently, to stitch together his cape of invisibility. In August 2009, he travelled to Kohat to meet up with Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the leader of the banned Islamist group Harkat ul-Jihad al-Islami (HuJI). Finally, in the summer of 2010, Khalil arranged a meeting between Osama and Hakimullah Mehsud, to discuss the degenerating al-Qaeda and TTP relationship. Osama’s entourage arrived and left the meeting, passing through several army checkpoints, showing chits of paper as if they were working for the chief of the army staff.

On reflection, one of Osama bin Laden’s greatest strategic successes was not just getting behind the murderous  9/11 attacks, a plan even his closest aides vetoed as too indiscriminate and volatile. Or the naked cunning that saw him and al-Qaeda outwit U.S. hunter killer units targeting them from above and below for more than nine years. Arguably, the al-Qaeda emir’s most enduring feat was slowly weaving a shawl of viciously sectarian jihad fronts that previously had expended as much energy attacking each other as they had bloodying India. And then refocusing the shock troops of Islam so that they lent him invisibility – while targeting Western interests.

 

You can read more about the book ‘The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden’ and the authors here

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here