Who is Osama bin Laden?

News Abroad

Mr. Markowitz is an associate professor of history at the New Brunswick Campus of Rutgers University and a writer for the History News Service.

Although it remains unclear in these early hours who was responsible for the suicide attacks that have destroyed the world trade center and left many thousands dead, the growing evidence against Osama bin Laden should be supplemented by an understanding of bin Laden's past, particularly his important involvement with the Central Intelligence Agency in the war against the Peoples Democratic Party government of Afghanistan and its Soviet military supporters. An excellent article by Dilip Hiro in the Nation in 1999 makes important points about bin Laden's anti-Communist cold war connections and the blowback effects of his actions. First, the CIA , its Pakistani equivalent (ISI) and the government of Saudi Arabia provided the money, weapons, and material to recruit both Afghani and non-Afghani contras, train them in camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and direct their activities. The feudal regime in Saudi Arabia and the rightist military dictatorship in Pakistan both used religious"fundamentalism" as a rational for their activities.

Bin Laden, scion of a wealthy Saudi family in the construction business, served as a leading organizer of Arab volunteers, a fund-raiser among wealthy Saudis for the campaign, and an important logistics person for the Afghan contras, working closely with the CIA and developing close relations with leaders of the present Taliban government. In the aftermath of the Gorbachev withdrawal and the CIA Afghan contra victory in Afghanistan, bin Laden emerged as a leader of Saudi veterans of the Afghan Contra war championing an extreme clerical policy in Saudi Arabia to the right of the feudal government, which banished him to Sudan in 1994. From then on, bin Laden, who went back to Afghanistan in 1995 and his supporters, called"Afghanis" in Saudi Arabia, have transferred the rhetoric that they used against Soviet Union to the United States,"Zionist Jews," and Christian"Crusaders." They have also applied the tactics of terror and murder that they were trained in by Pakistani and CIA personnel in the 1980s, first against U.S. installations in Saudi Arabia, then in Africa, possibly now perpetrating the greatest loss of life by a military attack on U.S. soil since the Civil War.

If bin Laden is responsible for these atrocities, he and the Taliban government that is his ally and friend are Frankenstein monsters of the U.S. rightwingers and cold warriors who trained them, armed them, and proclaimed them"heroic freedom fighters" in the 1980s. As the old German conservative Prime Minister Konrad Adenauer said to Dwight Eisenhower about Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, it is not so easy to get rid of such people once you create them (Adenauer was alluding to the German establishment's experience with Hitler). It is important that bin Laden's cold war and CIA connections not be forgotten, as were Saddam Hussein's and Manuel Noriega's.

It is also important that progressives in Congress demand a full investigation of what has been the most colossal failure of intelligence in U.S. history, since warnings of a major attack were coming in from many sources over the last few weeks. Calls for expanding the present $330 billion military budget should be answered forcefully by saying that a military industrial complex that exists to provide billions in profits for corporations and police the world, but was nowhere to be found when it came to defending the people of the United States, needs to be re-examined. That President Bush seemed to be running and hiding rather than offering leadership as the attack should also be investigated.

If we do not understand the policies that produced the horror that has now engulfed our nation and people, we risk an escalating cycle of violence that may repeat it.

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Bradley Skelcher - 2/22/2002

Mr. Salvador, please refer to me as Dr. Skelcher. I do not appreciate your insulting language. If you wish to carry on a discussion with educated people, please use educated language.

Vernon CLayson - 9/16/2001

This is mostly to Salvaldor. Salvador, you might lighten up a little on the intellectuals, there can be discussion without expressing rancor, a little sarcasm is okay, of course. I've been to your country several times, a long time ago, the last time was when some of your countrymen shot up the senate but the US didn't go ballistic, the perpetrators were taken into custody and processed routinely through the justice system, no thought was given that all Puerto Ricans should be punished. One of my more obviously Anglo-Saxon type crewmates, perhaps with a chip on his shoulder, was beaten up rather badly over the senate incident but I was never in fear and thoroughly enjoyed the musicians in the plazas, the beautiful evenings and women, and the rum - I didn't handle the latter well. Yours is a beautiful country, I don't believe we should use Vieques for bombing practice, but I think you should reject the Kennedy and Sharpton type opportunists as violently as you speak out on this subject. They are far more dangerous to you and yours than the intellectuals you condemn, the intellectuals drop no bombs and do not posture for political gain. Take the advise of this old man, this viejo, and direct your anger at the guilty parties, not the messengers and recorders.

Vernon CLayson - 9/16/2001

This is mostly for student Lucas. Greg, I am going to butt out now and leave the discussion to you and the others but before I leave the discussion I have to say that I do know we largely carry Israel financially but they have a lot of clout on their own. They are one of the nuclear powers and have a modern well-trained military, with far more capability than any of their neighbors, yet respond to provocation with constraint - we will soon respond to a provocation much more harshly than they have to date. By the way, you should still look up some history and old maps, I doubt you will find any references where the Palestinian faction ever had an actual geographically delineated "homeland", certainly none before the Hebrew Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The Romans and other conquerors laid out these areas on maps, not by different tribes or types of people but by landmarks or even the distances they could travel in a time frame - something like the Europeans did here with the aboriginal people. I think the big difference as far the Palestinians and Israel are concerned, you, or any American, would be safe among Israel's citizens anywhere in Israel but there is no street, no path, that you could walk safely in any Palestinian occupied area, you would be defiling the very soil.

William Clayson - 9/16/2001

I still don't think anyone, other than Mr. Mayer, has addressed my original historical concern. Can we categorize Osama bin Laden with the other villainous benefactors of American foreign policy in the Cold War? Did, as Mr. Lucas suggested, "arming the Afghanis just to get the Russians out of Afghanistan" cause the bombings? How? Why would Osama bin Laden want to attack the United States because of our help to his movement during the 1980's? Because we withdrew our support after the Cold War ended? This seems too shallow a reason for such a vicious attack. THat the U.S. supports Israel is certainly a factor, but not the only one. Whoever conducted these attacks (it may not have been Bin Laden, as Prof. Mankowitz originally pointed out)did so because of a profound, irrational hatred of American civilization. Once again I suggest that this hatred is not simply the fault of "rightwingers and cold warriors." THe real irony of the whole thing is that they used the best of American civilization against us. Where else in the world could people both get into the country so easily and learn to fly an airplane?

Greg Lucas - 9/16/2001

Dr. Clayson's father seems to have made my point for me. Would I emigrate to any of those countries I named? No. Not at this juncture. Not only would I be despised as an American, it would be likely that I would suffer the same fate as the natives: being the subject of U.S. military attacks that destroy civilian homes and possible malnutrition do to food scarcity at least partly caused by sanctions imposed by the U.S., to name just two.

To address the Cold War portion of this debate, I do believe the U.S. was instrumental in the weakening of communism, however, communism cannot survive indefinitely and will eventually collapse under its own weight. Did we hasten the removal of the Berlin Wall? Certainly. Would it have eventually have happened anyway? I think so. In the mean time, as Mr. Mayers said, you get fleas when you sleep with dogs. Was the Sept. 11 price worth arming the Afghanis just to get Russia out of Afghanistan? I think not.

I do not suggeset isolationism. I recogize that we are a global society now and I understand everything that entails. What the politicians seems to be missing as that global encompasses a lot of nations, races, cultures and religious beliefs. We need to have alliances throughout the world. However, we need to recognize that democracy will not always prevail in these places, that the American Way isn't the only way.

And finally, the Palestinians cheering on TV were an isolated group of people and is certainly not indicative of the feelings of most Palestinians. It would appear, papa Clayson, you forget we also fund the Israeli cutthroats to the tune of billions of dollars in cash and arms. How can we be right to fund both sides and aid in the perpetuation of this tragic situation in Palestine? It is our money that is aiding the Israelis in their continued occupation of Palestinian lands, where they harass and kill innocent Palestinians on a regular basis. It is no wonder some Palestinians cheer at our misfortune (and please don't interpret that to mean I think it was right - I do not; I simply say that I understand).

Greg Lucas

Franklin Mayers - 9/16/2001

I would like to add my thoughts to the existing debate. I agree by and large with most everything said here. The trend towards vilification of American foreign policy by academics is almost amusing. It tends to consist exclusively of 20/20 hindsight, in which little is proposed in the way of alternatives to existing policy beyond an isolationist stance. Let's remember that isolationism was paid back by Pearl Harbor, the largest single loss of life via military attack prior to September 11.

As far as bin Laden is concerned, let's take the debate beyond his rise to prominence, because I don't see anyone challenging the method by which he came to power. We have a man and a movement with three fairly succinct demands.

First, there is the liberation of Palestine. There is a desire to have Israel end its occupation of the Palestinian homeland. One could argue that in the post-WWII world, we had a hand in creating that problem, because we and other allies decided that the land previously known as Palestine was a perfect place to relocate displaced Jews and call it a new homeland. Well, did anyone bother to check with those residing there already? The nomadic lifestyle and lack of international recognition should not have justified this dislocation of a people. The following military conflicts that led to Israeli military dominance in the region can be skipped over for the purpose of this discussion. The bototm line here is that Jewish Zionism does equate to racism, as evidenced by the prevailing opinion at the UN's recent conference on racism, in whcih the US and Israel found themselves on the outside looking in, as non-participants, despite Sec. of State Colin Powell's assertion to the contrary. As a Caribbean American US citizen, I found this policy gaff by Secy. Powell embarassing at best, and a betrayal at worst. The other bottom line is that Israel is a mistake of sorts that cannot be reversed. Israel is there, we all need to recognize it, and that shall not change. Achieving military stability, religious tolerance, and the SHARING of Jerusalem is part of the solution. The other part of the solution is to provide the same level of technical assistance (non-military) to Palestinians in the region, including political advisory for the establishment of a democratic state. Creation of a true self-giverning Palestinian homeland with the resources to thrive economically as Israel has should begin to mollify the current calamity.

The second demand is withdrawal of the American military presence in Saudi Arabia and the severing of ties between Islamic states and the U.S. This includes the Saudis, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. One should take note that early reports indicate that those involved in the Sept. 11 attack hailed from those 3 countries. Our support of non-democratic states such as those mentioned and Kuwait (let's not forget that Kuwait is a dictatorship as well) is what is cited as the source of a number of current and not-so-current foreign policy issues (Hussein, Castro, Marcos, Noriega, Duvalier, the Shah of Iran, and others of whom we are not yet aware). You get fleas when you sleep with dogs, so we basically need to wear a flea collar. Support of this kind is obviously necessary to achieve larger goals for which we set aside democratic ideals. It was true previously, and it will continue to be that way, unless we are willing to take upon the world on our own. That won't happen, so compliance with this demand is untenable as well.

The final demand is a cessation of American occupation of Iraq, via enforcement of the no-fly zone. I believe it has been well-established that Hussein is a madman bent on destruction, regardless of who stands in the way. The Kuwaiti conflict is one steeped in history far predating the Gulf War conflict, and one not necesstating treatment here. Suffice to say, Iraq may have a point in the territorial dispute, but the method by which it was addressed is unacceptable. The continued desire to resolve this conflcit in that matter makes this demand as untenable as the prior demands.

Bottom line of the whole argument: the demands are untenable, bin Laden will try to impose these demands by "killing every single American", and bringing this fight to the U.S. and involving innocents in a plot to destroy the country's economic engine demands an answer. The answer? Cut off the snake's head and any heads that grow to replace it. It's going to be a protracted struggle, and one that will involve the sacrifice of individual civil liberties to some degree. I work in Midtown NY, and upon visiting another of our firm's buildings, I was greeted w/ a security officer requesting a bag search. I unzipped the big compartment of my knapsack, and he waved me on. I did not move, but rather advised him that if he's going to conduct a bag search, he'd better do it right and open all compartments, as I advised him that a firearm or explosive could easily be hidden anywhere else in my rather large bag. If I have to empty my pockets, then so be it...

Salvador Vargas - 9/15/2001

Mr. Skelcher, don't be such a colosal fool. Those mistakes you mention... where not mistakes. War is dirty and part of the business of war is sleeping with unsavory characters to avoid getting our throats cut. Had we done to Osama bin Laden what we did to Salvador Allende, who was well executed and sent to kinngdom come, we wouldn't be mourning the thousands of our own citizens from the devastating acts of war suffered in our very own soil. Now the inevitable deaths of the inminent conflict are going to come by the bushell. As I said before had we done to Osama what we did to Chile's Allende, a sensible action against an enemy of the United States which has been the source of criticism from so many pseudointelectual elitist and politically correct imbeciles, we would not be mourning so many of our own and preparing to mourn so many others in the war to come. That was the true mistake. But take comfort, if not you at least those others with a little something called basic common sense, it could well be the last one, which can be started by repealling the President's Executive Order against the killing of foreign heads of State and other enemies of the United States.

Salvador Vargas Rivera,
Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico.

William Clayson - 9/15/2001

I have to admit I'm a little embarassed that my Dad had to come to my defense in an intellectual debate, but I also feel the need to reply to Mr. Lucas. First, I don't advocate the bombing of civilians (the fact that I feel the need to say that disturbs me). I agree that U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War and after has led to strong anti-American sentiment worldwide (foreign policy is, of course, not the only thing that has created anti-American sentiment). I also agree that the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians has been racist and unnecessarily violent. IN fact, I agree with just about everything Mr. Lucas said. Yet, I think he missed my point. I was trying to point out that Prof. Mankowitz' categorization of U.S. support for the Talliban, including Bin Laden, was not the same as support for right wing dictators elsewhere in the third world during the Cold War. What bothered me about the reactions I've heard and read from my fellow historians is the knee-jerk impulse to blame the United States, specifically to blame our undeclared war against global communism from 1945-1989, for the tragedy on September 11. Since the rise of the New Left in the 1960s, we as historians have been trained to always find the source of any villainy in the American right wing. While its true that U.S. foreign policy makers did countless unconscionable things during the Cold War, the Soviets weren't angels either. I'm as liberal as most other historians (voted for Clinton and Gore), but I'm troubled by the impulse to blame Cold War foreign policy for this recent incident. The reasons for the hatred behind the attack run deeper than our foreign policy failures in the Cold War. Mr. Lucas is probably correct to point to our support of Israel in the mideast conflict as a primary cause, but it seems to me that American support of Israel has more to do with domestic politics and oil than Cold War anti-communism.

Vernon CLayson - 9/15/2001

I'm not sure what Student Lucas is trying to say. If there is such world wide scorn of America, why do so many immigrate, legally and illegally, to these scornful shores? Would he emigrate to any of the nations he named; if he even visited any of them as a tourist he would be placing himself in danger. Despite the pain he apparently feels for them, they would treat him as just another American to be reviled. As an aside, I think all have to be considered dubiously classified as "nations" in the true sense of the word as they are mostly a rabble led by dictators enriching themselves while using religion as the controling factor. Does he believe we should have remained passive to world events during the so-called Cold War era? Does he think, for example, the Berlin Wall would have come down if not for the American efforts? And, student Lucas, spare the pity for the Palestinians, we largely fund Arafat and his band of cutthroats and they repay us by cheering the recent death and destruction in New York and Washington. They do have a right to a homeland and have been offered it through peaceful means but they don't want it that way because that would require sharing Jerusalem with the other faiths. And by the way, student Lucas, look up some old history and some old maps, you will find the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah sharing space with other nations for centuries in the area called Palestine. They all stem from the same basic peoples, their divisions are merely religious, and fairly recent versions of religion at that. Most of both sides of their ancestors fervently worshipped Ra, the Sun God, and lived and died under that now discredited deity. There is hardly anything new here; Cicero (ca. 106-43 BC)said "Only the dead have seen the end of war." You will not see the end of it in your lifetime, student Lucas.

Greg Lucas - 9/14/2001

I am forced to disagree with Dr. Clayson. While he has specifically mentioned Cold War foreign policy as not creating the hate leading to the attacks, it was, in fact, our foreign policy in general, for the last several decades, that has led to world-wide scorn of America.
U.S. sanctions against Iraq, U.S. bombings of innocent civilians in Iraq, Libya, the Sudan, Afghanistan and Panama, and, our ongoing support of Israel as they continue to occupy territory that rightfully belongs to the Palestinians and force those same Palestinians to live in a constant state of terror are more than enough reasons for America to be hated throughout the world.
It is high time we reconsider our foreign policy, both where Israel is concerned and where the bombing or innocent civilians is concerned.
Greg Lucas
University of South Alabama

William Clayson - 9/14/2001

While I can't agree with the bellicose sentiment of the "There They Go Again" comment, I am disturbed by the impulse among academics to find some way to blame the United States for this tragedy. Whether it be cold war foreign policy, prejudice against Islam, our unquenchable thirst for oil, or capitalist imperialism, the historians I've spoken with or read in the past few days seem trained to conclude that, in some fundamental way, the American way of life is to blame. Such conclusions are usually prefaced with comments like "I am horrified by the loss of innocent life, but..." The implication of this blaming is that those killed on September 11 were not really innocent because they were Americans.

I agree with Professor Markowitaz that American foreign policy in the Cold War was misguided. Containment and anti-communism had tragic results in Korea and Vietnam. It was wrong for the United States to back right wing dictators against popular left wing movements in the third world because of an unreasonable fear of global communism. But the parallels with the American support of right wing dictators and that of Afghani guerillas seems misplaced. The CIA "rightwingers and cold warriors" helped Osama Bin Laden and the Talliban fight off an aggressive invasion. The Soviets were doing a bad thing to Afghanistan in the 1980s and, dare I say it, the CIA had good intentions in assisting the Afghani resistance.

The wrongs of American foreign policy in the Cold War did not create the hate that led to these vicious attacks. The irrational hatred of a handful of anti-American extremists killed thousands of innocent people -- mothers, fathers, children, friends -- who had nothing to do with Cold War foreign policy.

William Clayson, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor
University of Southern Mississippi

Bradley Skelcher - 9/14/2001

This is a response to the response on the informative article discussing Osama bin Laden. I attempt to come to Norman Markowitz's defense regarding his article. This is a history journal, and we must try to look at the origins of current events in order to understand them. Clearly, we are still suffering from the Cold War hangover. The U.S. supported anyone who claimed to have been anti-communist. This put the U.S. in bed with some very unsavory characters throughout the world. Now we have to clean up not only our mess, but the mess left by the former Soviet Union.

I believe the when the dust clears, we will begin to take a hard look at the Reagan-Bush years and their foreign policy. It is clear to me that they supported vicious killers to fight communism in central America, Africa, Middle East and throughout the world. At this point, it seems to me that the Reagan and Bush administrations were dupes of the fundamentalist Islamic factions throughout the world. Now we have to deal with them.

I don't understand how practicing freedom of speech is tantamount to treason. If we had been more critical of U.S. foreign policy in the past, we may have avoided many of the problems that we are experiencing today. Furthermore, I don't think there are many Americans who do not want to strike back at the people responsible for this horrendous act. I believe that true patriots also want to look at the past to try to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future.

Salvador Vargas - 9/14/2001

It had to be, expecting a little decency and patriotism from these pussy footing pseudo-intelectual liberal bastards seemed like asking to much. The smoke hasn't cleared from the rubble which burries our staggering deaths and there is already somebody pointing fingers at the United States policy around the world for causing this apocaliptic catastrophe in our own soil. The only thing wrong with U.S. policy is that it was too lame and diplomatic, allowing the enemies of our country to continue breathing in the name of restraint. That was the mistake! Mistake that I trust, and demand, never to happen again. It is a lot easier to pinpoint the enemies of the United States that it seems. It is all those who wishes us ill; those who have manifested their intentions whether express or implicitly. Whether foreign or domestic these people need to be destroyed lest it happens again. The idea of a palestinian state is over. They had their chance and they blew it; now Israel should be given cart blanche and all the wherewithal necessary to secure their safety in their own land which reasonably and logically includes, not occupying, invading and taking the rest of Palestine for good. No longer threats against the United States should be seen as such. Any shuch deed should be seen as a hostile act and restled with correspondingly. While Arafat shed his crocodile tears his people where chanting in the streets at the scenes from New York and Washington D.C. In the meantime palestinian schools where teaching children from kinder on up that it is good to kill themselves while shedding the blood of jewish and americans. Those are the training grounds from which Osama bin Laden's fighters came. Destroy them! The blood he, donated!, for the american victims should be dumped into the waters before the isle of Manhattan as a symbolic gesture of what we intend to do with the blood of all our enemies, foreign and domestic. He never negociated peace in good faith and therefore needs to be held accountable for his responsability in creating the conditions that led to the bombing of our soil. There is nothing hard about finding our enemies; pointing fingers at the U.S. government and its intelligence systems, which from now on will need to be strenghthened, is not going to help. Criticizing the U.S. at this time in our history is tantamount to treason.

Salvador Vargas Rivera,
Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico.