Whatever became of Osama bin Laden?
How the US and the rest of the world bought the Saudi myth and got Osama all wrong
The jets are roaring over the Mediterranean and gods in human form are crumbling or being made. Theogony, Hesiod called it 2,700 years ago: god-making, and still it goes on in the Age of PR.
In an oblique way, theogony is at the heart of Michael Scheuer's new book, Osama bin Laden.
Scheuer knows his stuff. He spent over 20 years in the CIA, much of it devoted to trying to kill Osama. In 2004 he published, anonymously, Imperial Hubris, in effect saying the US had got it wrong. He was outed, and in 2007, Osama himself gave the book a plug, saying it explained why the West would lose the war with al-Qaeda.
Now Sheuer's back, with a kind of theogony which is also a kind of vengeance, but perhaps a shade too late.
It's a hell of an analysis and a hell of a tale, not least because everyone involved seems petty, nasty and barking mad. There's barely one of the cast who you wouldn't want to punch in the face.
It is also hard - nobody else will admit this - for a non-Arabist to keep the names straight. You hit a stretch like "Veteran Arab Afghan Abu Musab al-Suri [...] a.k.a. Umar Abd al-Hakim; true name: Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar" and your rear wheels lose their grip.
But it comes clear, with concentration and pencil-and-paper to hand, and what it comes down to is that the United States - and the Rest of the West - have bought the Saudi PR version which is why they've failed.
The Saudi story is designed to make the Saudis look good (which can't be done, of course), and says that Osama was a good boy led astray by the evil al-Zawahiri, leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Not so, says Scheuer. Osama was the one who influenced al-Zawahiri. Nor is he a takfiri, a sort of puritanical axeman, like the Taliban but without the singing and good times and the ability to laugh at themselves.
No; Osama is a good Muslim, accepted as such by the umma (the nation of Islam) even if the majority don't agree with his promotion of violence.
He is, you may be surprised to learn, a commanding and rational actor on the world stage; a "pious, generous and personally brave man" who was "happiest when away from the city", growing the world's biggest sunflowers.
So: how many have died in the hunt for Osama bin Laden? How many billions have been spent in trying to destroy this "Great Man" who "has had a greater impact on how Americans view their society, government and security than any other individual in the last fifty years?" How many lives destroyed?
And still he's free (unless you subscribe to what Arnaud de Borchgrave calls the "Elvis bin Laden" notion, that "the bin Laden myth is kept 'alive' to justify the Afghan war and the global war on terror").
It must be hard to live with, if you're Scheuer and you've spent all those years trying to catch him and no one listened to you, choosing to buy the Saudi bullshit. No wonder you end up turning Osama into a sort of superman.
But now, Raytheon Tomahawk IV missiles are cranking into Gadaffi's "compound". Tunis has gone over. Egyptians have been queueing up to vote. Colicky anxiety grips rulers throughout North Africa and the Middle East, and the Saudi royal family has cornered the world market in incontinence pants.
So where is Osama bin Laden? Where is al-Qaeda?
Right now, nowhere to be seen. Is it because they have no mechanism for an overall co-ordinated response to realpolitik? Is it because they have no idea how to respond to an apparently grass-roots demand for democracy outside the narrow sectarian hostilities? Is it because they cannot grasp the intervention of the West yet again, ripping the prospect of the holy Caliphate from under their feet?
In what could be a permanent transformation of (in the broadest sense) the Arab world, and thus a big chunk of the umma, isn't it a little ironic that Osama - Prince Al-Amir, the Sheikh, Abu Abdallah, Sheikh Al-Mujahid, the Lion Sheik, the Director - is nowhere to be seen? And that the simple curse of Harold Macmillan's time as prime minister - "Events, dear boy; events" - could have brought him low in a way that all the intelligence and firepower of the USA failed to do?
• Osama bin Laden by Michael Scheuer, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-973866-3 ·
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