Age of Terror: Legitimacy

In the post-Cold War world, Usama bin Laden was hardly in anyone’s thoughts. But he had high-flung dreams. And in the years that the world ignored him, he would brood, plot, train and struggle to gain recognition, and legitimacy…

At the Crossroads

Afghanistan, 1989. The last of the Soviet columns wound their way across the rugged roads of the countryside, with spectators watching by the wayside. They had come here almost a decade ago, to legitimize a puppet leader and further their pressure and influence on the Middle East. They suddenly found themselves the victim of the mujahideens, at first small bands of local resistance, then became a pan-Islamic jihad, reminiscent of the time when European adventurers and liberals swarmed into Greece to join that country’s independence movement against the Turks, back in the 19th century.

There were actually several factions of these mujahideens, and they weren’t always fighting alongside each other. The “international coalition” fought the Soviets, but rarely organized itself. Within the ranks of this disjointed body was an animated, idealistic Saudi named Usama (or Osama) bin Laden. He was flush with the victory over the “lesser Satan”, and he was inspired by the coming together of these fighters from different countries. His own group, though small, was nonetheless trained and armed by the United States. In a few years, he could expand this into a formidable army, using the element of an “international jihad”.

The world, by then, was in the throes of “the slow years”: the long-ominous Soviet Russia was being dismantled as a Communist superpower through the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, and Eastern Europe as a consequence was shaking off its dictatorships and Soviet overlords; Saddam Hussein was exhorting a financially and militarily bloody counterattack to Iran’s counter-invasion of Iraq; Lebanon’s people groaned amidst in-fighting and fighting with the Syrians and Israelis. All around the world, there was a sweeping spirit of change, or the feeling of a need for change. The enterprising Saudi was hardly in anyone’s thoughts. For many years, he would be obscure. But Osama had high-flung dreams. And in these years that the world ignored him, he would brood, plot, train and struggle to gain recognition, and legitimacy.

Raising an Army

Osama’s group was hardly distinguishable among the other mujahideen groups fighting against the Russians. By the end of the Afghan struggle, it became even more obscure. There were more major terrorist groups with their respective agendas: the Palestinian sympathizer groups, for one, scattered around the world that championed the cause of Palestine through “soft attacks”, like hijacking or bombings. Then, there were the groups inspired by Ayatollah Khomeini’s, or Libya’s Gaddafi.

Some of them weren’t even Muslim. Spain’s ETA and Northern Ireland’s IRA were mainly regional or nationalist movements. The Baader Meinhof Gang in West Germany was anarchist in character. There were even many others who were used and funded by the Soviets to subvert Western governments, though the Communists used “guerilla warfare” against the latter, achieving the same casualties.

Osama needed to expand his “international army”, but even with his finances, he could hardly gain a following. His victory in Afghanistan hardly registered in the world; he needed something more exclusive.


He thought an opportunity had risen: Saddam Hussein, his national treasury depleted from the wasteful war against Iran, defaulted the debts of Kuwait and seized the territory as payment. Naturally, the other Arab nations were worried, more so the Saudis, whose major oil refineries, would attract further Iraqi adventurism. Osama, in the midst of this Hussein-scare, offered the services of his “hundreds-strong” army to fight of the Iraqi army.

Did Osama overreach himself? With the Afghan war, he fought alongside other rebel groups, and there were the constant U.S. supply of arms. Saddam Hussein was no less ruthless than any of the Soviet generals during their campaign in the Afghan countryside. The Iraqi Army, before bloodying itself with Iran, was the fourth largest army in the world. One would therefore easily say that no, Osama’s rag-tag army might not even dent the Iraqi invasion. Then again, we may never know.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Royal Family decided to avail of U.S. military assistance. The world became witness to the first-time application of the new American Doctrine: the Hyper War. This was the New Blitzkrieg, with the simple proposition: render the conventional war extinct. Indeed, in a matter of days, the Air Force made so quick a work of the Iraqi Republican Army that some American soldiers bitterly complained that they experienced little or no fighting.


As for Osama, he reacted by declaring war against the United States and Saudi Arabia, claiming that those Muslims who “supported the Americans are traitors to the Faith and their enemies as well.” He went to Sudan and planned several attacks against the Americans. His notable accomplishments at this time were the bombing of the World Trade Center, which was actually masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, and the attack on the USS Cole. However, his name and his group remained “under the radar”, and for his pains he was ejected out of Sudan.

He eventually found refuge in Afghanistan, which had been taken over by the reactionary Taliban. They were actually formed by a group of radical students who were embittered about the collapsing Afghan morality and bitter sectarian infighting. With their acquiescence, Osama bin Laden founded training camps and soon came close to getting his “international army”. Now, he needed a legitimate war.

Picking a Fight

But it was easier said than done. The Clinton era was busy with “UN-led interventions” in Somalia, and the Balkans. Except for the bombing of the USS Cole and the World Trade Center, Osama’s actions were hardly noticed by the international press, let alone the American one. He sponsored other terrorist attacks against American targets, and pressed on his “war against the United States.” However, as almost all of them were conducted outside US soil, they were largely ineffective psychologically.

Even Bojinka—his one major operation involving the bombing of airlines while on flight (apart from the planned assassination of the Pope and suicide bombing of Langley), failed dismally when it was discovered through the most ironic of circumstances. With some of the major planners captured by the United States, Osama bin Laden’s group again went out of the radar. The bombings continued, and in 1998 America finally retaliated with a series of air strikes on the Afghan training camps. All it did was raise a howl among the American press, accusing Clinton of trying to divert public attention from the then brewing scandal involving him and a White House intern.

A BBC documentary claims that the al-Qaeda name (“the Base”) was first used by the Americans, the movement using it ever since. Whether or not this is true, it is even more striking evidence of the state of the movement at the time. It was probably a curt, tentative name, which they took as they could not take a more formal name. They did not yet have international recognition, notably, among the Arab world.

But success was just around the corner. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, having escaped the “American dragnet”, finally laid out a plan that adapted elements of his failed Bojinka operation into what he deemed would be their most ambitious plan to date.

Legitimacy in the Rubble

They needed precision. They needed idealists who were willing to pull it off. Most of all, they needed luck. The Bojinka catastrophe was a clear proof that even the best plans could be defeated by a random element. The Americans had a vast network of intelligence assets and their police was considered the best in the world. These, or that one random element, could ruin the operation.

It ended as an almost-perfect success. The sight of America’s World Trade Center towers, churning off gray-black smoke against blue skies was enough to cement al-Qaeda’s reputation. No other terrorist organization had been able to strike deep into America’s heart. It exceeded Usama bin Laden’s expectations. He had international recognition, at last. Now, he waited for America’s reaction.

President Bush unwittingly gave the movement legitimacy by declaring a “War against Terror”. This was a blanket declaration, taking all the other terrorist organizations, and bundling them with al-Qaida. That it was a war, and not just a police action, gave recognition to al-Qaida as a legitimate, political body.

The final catalyst to defining this tragic age was the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The first some nations saw as an overreaction—and most certainly it played to Osama’s plan for a legitimate battleground—; the second the world recognized as a fatal mistake. Bush justified his invasion of Iraq as part of the “War on Terrorism”, as he did attacking Afghanistan for harboring the al-Qaeda movement. This, however, had this dangerous implication: the legitimate, political body not only comprised terrorist groups erroneously “umbrella’ed” under Osama’s al-Qaeda, but also states that it deemed terrorist through their direct or indirect support of the terrorist organization. Worst of all, Bush forced an international coalition to prosecute this war, thus cementing al-Qaeda’s political status as a sort of state without a state, covering an ambiguous whole consisting of terrorist groups and states. The result? Al-Qaeda became a generic word.

The Patsy?

Osama bin Laden is an idealist who helped form an “international army” to fight the United States. It was a movement, pan-Islamic in character and utilizing extreme methods to get their message across. Fundamentalist Islamic movements have rallied to the magic word “al-Qaeda”, though they may have little to no contact with the organization itself. Arab states diametrically or secretly opposed to the United States have communicated their support, whether financially or otherwise.

But for all this posturing, what does Osama bin Laden stand to gain? The pragmatic Arab leaders, no doubt, have recognized him as some mad Lawrence channeling Arab energies at America. Despite all his efforts, al-Qaeda remains a shadow group without a state. It holds nominal sway over other terrorist groups, but if their unifying goal of defeating America (now given physical form in the Iraq insurgency) is achieved, what will stop them from breaking off into regional goals?

And will Iran or Syria allow such a movement to continue, when it will most necessarily subvert their respective authorities? They will act the way Faisal acted when Lawrence won independence for the Arab states: give recognition as a hero, maybe martyr, and a pat on the back; then make sure that he fades into obscurity, or use him to legitimize their own claims to the Middle East.

If only the United States saw beyond their “terrorist war” mindset, they could still emerge as victors from this war (correction: insurgency). They would not even have to employ the force of armies, but only the cunning of realpolitik diplomacy; for there will always be Lawrences in the Middle East, as there will be dreamers anywhere, but kings must remain kings.

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