Saturday, January 14, 2006

“Osama Bin Laden in His Own Words”
Randall Hamud Promotes His Book, Discusses “War on Terror”

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

“You defeat an enemy by knowing and understanding him.” At the First Unitarian-Universalist Church January 11, attorney Randall Hamud offered that quote from Chinese military historian and philosopher Sun Tzu to explain why he had published a book called Osama bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words. According to Hamud, the Bush administration has not only ignored the actual public statements bin Laden has made to explain why he sponsored the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., it got dangerously sidetracked by its attack on Iraq. “Osama bin Laden is so rarely mentioned by the Bush administration or the media, I call him ‘Osama bin Forgotten,’” Hamud said.

Hamud went on to argue that the U.S.’s military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — plus its down-the-line support for the unilateral actions of Ariel Sharon’s government in Israel to “settle” the Israeli-Palestinian issue on Israel’s terms — have not only ignored bin Laden’s central role in anti-U.S. terrorism but have actually played into his hands. “The ‘war on terrorism’ got off to a bad start when, on September 16, 2001, Bush referred to it as a ‘crusade,’” Hamud explained — and the Muslim world heard the word “crusade” as an attack by Christians and Jews in coalition, which to a lot of ordinary Arabs and Muslims just reinforced bin Laden’s contention that the U.S. and Israel together are “one of the great contagions in the Middle East.”

Ironically, Hamud said, Osama bin Laden didn’t start out targeting the United States. In fact, his relatives and the construction company his family founded were among the biggest beneficiaries from U.S. and Western European involvement in their home country, Saudi Arabia. “The bin Laden family are the largest contractors and best friends of the Saudi royal family,” Hamud explained. “Osama bin Laden was involved in the construction company in his early years” — where, he sardonically added, he learned not only how to put up buildings (including most of the installations built by Western oil companies to run their operations in Saudi Arabia) but also how to bring them down.

As bin Laden grew older, Hamud explained, “he foreswore his wealth and became more religious.” He also started to read the works of Islamic political writers like Al-Azzam and Sayyid Qutb, who in the aftermath of World War I — particularly the collapse of the Muslim Ottoman Empire and the colonization of the Middle East by Christian European countries — called for a Muslim response that would include revolutionary violence against the leaders of Muslim countries. One obstacle to this strategy was the teaching of the Quran that Muslims must not kill fellow Muslims — but Azzam and Qutb worked their way around this by saying that if a government wasn’t following correct Islamic principles, it could be declared “apostate” and then it was O.K. for Muslims to overthrow it and kill its leaders.

Ironically, bin Laden’s commitment to revolutionary violence at first put him on the same side as the United States in the war in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, Hamud explained. Bin Laden and Azzam went to Afghanistan in 1979 to organize a resistance movement, the mujahedin (“freedom fighters”), against the existing Soviet-dominated secularist government. The CIA got involved and the U.S. and Saudi governments each put $600 million into bin Laden’s Islamic revolution, Hamud explained. “Islamic fighters were recruited from all over the world,” he said. “Saudi Arabia funded madrasas [religious schools] on the Afghan/Pakistan border and taught the conservative, fundamentalist Wahabi version of Islam, which believes in the use of force.” As a result of the Afghan revolution — which ended with the fall of the Soviet-backed government and the murder of its officials — Osama bin Laden became a rising star in Saudi Arabia and Prince Turkai, an influential member of the royal family and now Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., called bin Laden “our man in Afghanistan.”

All that changed in 1990, when bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia just before Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait. “Bin Laden offered his forces to defend Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi regime rejected his offer and instead accepted help from the U.S.,” Hamud explained. The U.S. set up military bases in Saudi Arabia from which to launch the first Gulf War in 1991 — and, to bin Laden’s horror, kept them there after the war ended. “By 1991, bin Laden was exponentially angry that U.S. and coalition forces were occupying land in the country where Islam’s two holiest shrines [the cities of Mecca and Medina] are,” Hamud said. Bin Laden called the U.S.’s continued military presence in Saudi Arabia “a Crusader plot,” and the Saudis responded by stripping bin Laden of his Saudi citizenship and expelling him from the country. Bin Laden wrote a blistering letter to Saudi King Fahd, who “suffered a debilitating stroke after he read it,” Hamud said — implying cause and effect — and was incapacitated for the remaining 30 years of his life.

“By 1996, Osama bin Laden’s attention was more focused on the U.S. because of its support for the ‘apostate’ Saudi regime,” Hamud explained. “In 1996 he issued a declaration of war against America, targeting our forces in the Middle East. By 1998 his focus shifted and he issued a fatwa [religious decree] calling for the killing of Americans, civilian or military, wherever they were found. That was when the alarms should have gone off in Washington. The people in the U.S. who were the least surprised by 9/11 were the ones who were monitoring Osama bin Laden. I really believe 9/11 could have been prevented had we been more aware of who Osama bin Laden was and what he stood for.”

But Hamud’s criticism of the U.S. “war on terror” doesn’t stop with the failure to prevent 9/11. Even worse,he said, is the way the U.S. has responded to 9/11 by unwittingly playing into bin Laden’s hands. “He has discrete complaints that are shared across the Middle East and the Islamic world generally,” Hamud said. He argued that the West’s ongoing legacy to the Middle East was the post-World War I policy of establishing autocratic puppet states throughout the region. “Osama bin Laden gets a lot of traction when he attacks these autocratic regimes that don’t allow parties or elections,” Hamud argued. “He speaks more freely than the populaces of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya or Egypt are allowed to speak in those countries. He plays to that and says the U.S. has been supporting those regimes” — which is accurate: Saudi Arabia is kept alive mostly by U.S. and European payments for its oil, and Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. (Israel is first and Colombia is third.)

According to Hamud, U.S. support of authoritarian governments in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt gives bin Laden the opening he needs to argue that the U.S.’s stated reason for invading Iraq (at least once it turned out that there were no weapons of mass destruction) — to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime and establish “democracy” — is hypocritical. “The U.S. supposedly wants ‘democracy’ in the Middle East, yet Bush congratulated [Egyptian president] Hosni Mubarak on the rigged elections he held recently, and embraced [Libyan dictator] Muhammad Khadafy after he gave up his nuclear program.”

Bin Laden was the right man with the right message at the right time in the Middle East, Hamud argued. “Osama bin Laden, who predicted a U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1995-1996, gets a lot of traction when he says the U.S. speaks out of both sides of its mouth,” he said. What’s more, he argues that just about any Muslim or Arab country that makes a transition from autocracy to “democracy” is going to elect an Islamist government — as has happened in Algeria and Turkey as well as Iran and Iraq — “because the governments have repressed all other centers of organizing except the mosques. The U.S. has to lose its phobic fear of Islamist governments and not assume they will be anti-democratic.”

Hamud also said that bin Laden wasn’t especially concerned about Israel — despite his pre-9/11 rhetoric lumping together “Crusaders and Jews” among his enemies — until George W. Bush became President in 2001 and “basically lost any sense of neutrality for the U.S. with regard to Israel and the Palestinians,” Hamud explained. “Bush basically sided with Sharon and let him impose unilateral solutions on the Palestinians, including building a barrier down the middle of Israel, taking 20 percent more Palestinian land, cutting people off from their families and keeping East Jerusalem from becoming a Palestinian capital. This is not a recipe for peace. Neither is turning Gaza into the world’s largest prison or building Bantustans in the West Bank. Bin Laden continues to get traction because of Bush’s support for Sharon’s activities.”

But of all the U.S.’s mistakes in prosecuting the “war on terror,” the attack on Iraq was “probably the most inexcusable failure to neutralize Osama bin Laden,” Hamud said. “The U.S. invaded iraq by choice, and when the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down the Islamic world saw it as a Christian army taking down the seat of the [former] Islamic Caliphate in Baghdad. This morphed the ‘war on terrorism’ into a war of religions. … The war gave tremendous traction to Osama bin Laden’s message: a Christian country invaded a Muslim country that was not a strategic threat.”

What’s more, Hamud said, the Bush administration makes the “war on terrorism” look more like a holy war against Islam with each new justification it comes up with for invading Iraq. The latest rationale, he explained, is “to prevent the establishment of a new Caliphate from Spain to the Pacific Coast. Number one’ it’s up to Islam whether or not to re-establish the Caliphate. Number two, the Caliph had only secular authority, not religious authority. Number three, a lot of Muslims think the Caliphate should be re-established because it would have more authority than the discredited governments of the Middle East and the religious leaders associated with it could say, ‘Osama bin Laden is not a religious scholar and therefore has no authority to issue a fatwa.’ But Bush’s administration is religiously driven and Muslims all over the world see it as a new Crusade. There are 1.2 billion Muslims all over the world — and if only one percent of them follow Osama bin Laden, that’s a real problem.”

So how can the U.S. work itself out of the pickle it’s got into, where its policies seem only to add to bin Laden’s popular appeal? First, said Hamud, “we need to be a more fair arbiter between Israel and the Palestinians. A Palestinian state has to have control of its airspace, ingress and egress. In Iraq, we need to get out as soon as possible. They’re in a civil war and we are the catalyst. Iraqis are fighting as part of the insurgency and they’re also fighting each other, and the Bush administration is lying to the American people when they say things are going well. … We need to end our presence in Iraq immediately and let the U.N. put in a peacekeeping force. If we get out and let the Iraqis develop their own government their own way, we’d do a lot to undercut Osama bin Laden.” If we withdrew from Iraq, he added, “we could redirect all the soldiers in Iraq to the Afghan-Pakistan border” where bin Laden is probably located now, and stand a far better chance than we do now of apprehending him.

One of Hamud’s more radical suggestions is that we “call Osama bin Laden’s bluff” on the matter of responsibility for 9/11. Bin Laden has said on several occasions that he would be willing to be judged by a court of Muslim judges applying the Shari’a, Islamic law. Hamud said the U.S. should call for just such a court to try him. What’s more, Hamud added, such a court would have the power to impose the death penalty — and an Osama bin Laden formally tried, found guilty and executed by Muslim clerics of murdering 3,000 people in the U.S. on September 11, 2001 would cast a far weaker shadow over the Muslim world than a bin Laden captured or killed by U.S. forces. “It would discredit him, rather than turn him into a martyr,” Hamud explained.

Hamud’s book, Osama bin Laden: America’s Enemy in His Own Words, consists of 20 of bin Laden’s public statements from 1994 to 2004, along with summaries, a preface, extensive footnotes to put bin Laden’s words in context and explain some of his historical references (familiar to his intended Arab and Muslim audiences but almost totally unknown to Americans). Since Hamud’s command of Arabic isn’t anywhere near what would be required for the project, he enlisted various scholars he knows and agreed to keep them anonymous because, though they live in the U.S., they have families in their Middle Eastern countries of origin and frequently fly back and forth to visit them. “It’s not a book you should be seen with anywhere around an airport,” he grimly joked.