Al Qaeda have released a new video marking the seventh anniversary of 9/11 which claims Osama Bin Laden and former Taliban leader Mullah Omar are both alive and well. The 90 minute video also contains speeches by Al Qaeda’s number two Ayman al-Zawahiri and the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq Abu Ayyub al-Masri, (also known as Hamza al-Muhajir) as well as a reading of the will of 9/11 Flight 93 hijacker Saeed al Ghamdi. Al Qaeda’s video production arm As Sahab released the footage in full on jihadi websites this week after Al Jazeera had broadcast excerpts on 8 September.
The full video comes just days after two suicide car bombers claimed the lives of 17 people (including 6 attackers) at the US embassy in Sana the capital of Yemen. A group calling itself Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the attack but the group is almost certainly linked to Al Qaeda. Bin Laden’s father Muhammad was born in Yemen and Osama remains extremely popular in the Gulf state. A large percentage of his followers and all his bodyguards are Yemenis or from the nearby Assir region of southern Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda’s first ever attack bombed US soldiers in Aden in 1991. And one of its most notorious attack before 9/11 was on the USS Cole also at Aden in October 2000 in which 17 American sailors died.
The British based Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan would not be surprised to hear the news that Osama is still alive. Atwan is the editor of the London based Arabic newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi and the author of the book The Secret History of Al Qa’ida. He is also one of the few Western based journalists to interview Bin Laden in person. He tells the story of that hair-raising interview in the first chapter of his book. After a secret and dangerous trip via Peshawar and Jalalabad, he arrived at the Tora Bora caves in the Winter of 1996. Atwan complained to Bin Laden how cold it was in the caves. Bin Laden said he was lucky; when the UK Independent journalist Robert Fisk arrived, it was Summer and the caves were infested by scorpions.
Atwan was struck by how modestly Bin Laden lived. His manner, austere living habits, and renouncement of comfort and wealth have all contributed to his air of a champion of revolution and rebellion to many Muslims. He was born in Riyadh in 1957, of a Syrian mother and a self-made construction contractor father Muhammad Awad bin Laden. Muhammad was from the Hadramaut region of southern Yemen whose inhabitants are renowned for their business prowess. Bin Laden senior fit the mould and rose from being a labourer to a billionaire presiding over the largest construction empire in the Arab world.
Osama was the forty-third of fifty-three siblings and the family was adopted by the Saudi Royal Family after his father died in a plane crash. Osama was just 10 years old. He was educated at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah where he studied Islamic trends under Muhammad Qutb (brother of the Egyptian Father of Islamism Sayyid Qutb) and Abdullah Azzam. Azzam was a highly influential Palestinian-born scholar and theologian, and a central figure in preaching for jihad.
Azzam became Osama’s mentor and encouraged him to join the mujahideen rising in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion. He moved there in 1982 and became a key role in fundraising and organising Saudi volunteers for the jihad. He set up his own camps and created a register to inform families of those who were killed. The name of the register was Al Qaeda (“the base” or “the foundation”). After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, he and Azzam fled back to Saudi Arabia, having been warned by Pakistani intelligence that the pair were a target for CIA assassination.
The Saudis placed him under house arrest in 1990 after he was too outspoken about the threat from the “godless regime” of Saddam Hussein. He also predicted Iraq would invade Kuwait. When the panicked Saudis invited US troops into the country after his prediction came to pass, Osama described the deployment of the “infidel soldiers” as the “biggest shock of his life”. He used his royal connections to get a passport and moved to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan where he prepared to organise a new jihad against the invaders of his homeland.
After threats on his life, Osama moved to Sudan in 1991 where he was made welcome by the Bashir Islamic regime which had taken power in a coup two years earlier. Osama invested $200 million in Sudanese infrastructure including an airport in Port Sudan and the 400km Defiance Highway between Port Sudan and the capital Khartoum. From here, he launched his first attacks against the US, the Yemen incident mentioned earlier and he was also instrumental in bringing down two Black Hawk helicopters in the US 1993 mission in Mogadishu.
But under increasing international pressure, Sudan looked for a way to expel its increasingly dangerous guest. In 1996 Bashir told him Sudan could no longer protect him from assassination. Osama took the hint and moved his operation back to Afghanistan. The country was then in chaos as the Taliban were taking city after city. Osama was initially wary but changed his mind after meeting Mullah Omar in Spring 1996. He gave his bayat (pledge of allegiance) to Omar and threw his forces into battle against the Northern Alliance. The safe haven provided by Omar’s successful capture of Kabul allowed Osama to do longer term planning against his implacable enemy – the US.
That year, he faxed Atwan’s newspaper his declaration of war against the US, which he called the “jihad against the Americans occupying the land of the two sacred places” (Mecca and Medina). Atwan believes that planning for 9/11 started in 1998. Under the influence of his Egyptian 2IC Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Osama saw the advantages of the military strategy of suicide bombing. They looked for recruits with religious zeal, courage, mental agility, a clean criminal record, and those with no spouses or family to support. There were hundreds of eager applicants.
Al Qaeda are also sophisticated users of the Internet. Electronic jihad is a “sacred duty” in which believers are called on to defend Islam and also hack into, destroy American and Israeli websites. Jihadi groups have four elements: a leader, religious guide, members and IT specialists. Prior to his death in 2006, Iraqi Al Qaeda leader Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi gained enormous status almost entirely due to his use of the Internet. He averaged nine communications a day and released numerous videos on the Net. Al Qaeda is now believed to have almost five thousand websites promoting the movement.
Al Qaeda has been mostly extremely successful in meeting its goals. Its 9/11 operation cost $500,000 to fund and caused billions in financial damage. American troops left Saudi Arabia in 2003 and a year later Spain overthrew its pro Iraqi invasion right-wing government just three days after the Al Qaeda killed 200 people in the Madrid bombings. Osama has tapped into the worldwide Muslim umma, most of whom see him as a David figure, bringing down the American Goliath. As Atwan says, not many Muslims necessarily want Wahhabi-style caliph rule that Osama says he wants to bring back, but that is not an issue for now.
Osama is hoping to stretch American hegemony in the Middle East to breaking point (much like how the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989). Then, he believes, it will be easy overthrow the weak and corrupt Arab and Gulf regimes once US power in the region is destroyed. As Atwan concludes matter-of-factly and chillingly “as long as connections continue to be made between US policy, actual or perceived, and the continuing instability in much of the Middle East, we can expect that Al-Qaeda will grow stronger and expand the sphere of its operations”.