What comes next? On August 18, 1998, Israeli military intelligence sources reported that Osama bin Laden had paid over 2 million pounds sterling to a middle-man in Kazakhstan who promised to deliver a “suitcase” bomb to bin Laden within two years. The following month in Munich, Germany, on September 25, 1998, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, a top bin Laden aide, was arrested and charged with acting on behalf of bin Laden to obtain nuclear materials.
Less than two months later, a November 13, 1998, article in the Arabic news magazine Al-Watan Al-Arabi reported that bin Laden gave organized crime figures in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus $30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for an estimated 20 nuclear warheads. Citing inside information from top Russian intelligence sources, Al-Watan Al-Arabi maintained that bin Laden planned to have the warheads dismantled by his own team of scientists, who would then convert the weapons into “instant nukes” or “suitcase nukes.”
In 1996, Jamal Ahmad al-Fadl, a Sudanese national, turned himself in at an American embassy, claiming to have information vital to U.S. national security. On February 7, 2001, during the third day of the trial for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Al-Fadl testified before a federal jury in New York City that he was directly involved in late 1993 or early 1994 in arranging a $1.5 million purchase of uranium for bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, allegedly for the development of nuclear weapons for a jihad – a holy war – against the West.
On the afternoon of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Abu Dhabi television’s bureau chief in Islamabad, Jamal Ismail, reported that bin Laden, while claiming to have had no knowledge of the attacks ahead of time, praised the people who carried out the terrorist strikes in Washington and New York. From a hide-out in Afghanistan, a close aide of bin Laden gave Abu Dhabi TV the reaction from inside terrorist headquarters to the initial reports of American passenger planes being crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon: “Osama bin Laden thanked All Mighty Allah and bowed before him when he heard this news.”
On the following day, a London-based Arab journalist revealed that bin Laden’s followers had warned his newspaper by telephone three weeks earlier of an upcoming major attack against the United States. “They said it would be a huge and unprecedented attack, but they did not specify details,” said Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.
It was, of course, unprecedented. And we were warned. “I’m fighting so I can die a martyr and go to heaven to meet God,” bin Laden told the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper more than a year ago. It’s all about All Mighty Allah, in short, and heavenly deeds, like mass murder, and the Great Satan – about them and us, about nuking infidels for Allah. “Our fight now,” explains bin Laden, “is against the Americans.”
Here’s how ABC News put it last February, interviewing bin Laden: “The U.S. has said, in formal charges, that you are in a position to develop chemical weapons and try to purchase nuclear material for weapons. How would such weapons be used?”
Bin Laden’s reply: “This is a multi-dimensional question. It presupposes that I do possess such weapons, and goes on to ask about the way in which we will use them. In answer, I would say that acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. To seek to possess the weapons that could counter those of the infidels is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then this is an obligation I carried out and I thank God for enabling us to do that. And if I seek to acquire these weapons I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims. But how we could use these weapons if we possess them is up to us.”
And, similarly, it’s up to us how we use our weapons. And, said the Washington Post last week, Americans are now in “a determined and warlike mood, ready to strike swift and hard.” Some 94 percent of the U.S. public in last Tuesday’s Washington Post-ABC News poll, for instance, supports military action against those responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington. In his speech to the nation on the night of the attacks, President Bush said the United States “will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” In the Post-ABC poll, 84 percent of respondents were of the same mind, agreeing that the U.S. should launch military action against any countries that assist or harbor terrorists – action, for example, against places like Afghanistan, the nation that plays host to bin Laden, or the countries that the State Department names in its 2000 report as sponsoring terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya.
The irony in all this is that bin Laden, a millionaire Saudi engineer, came to prominence fighting alongside the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedeen, the “holy warriors” who fought Soviet troops in the 1980s with CIA training and an estimated $6 billion in American weapons. It was an Afghan jihad, backed with American dollars and blessed by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Fighting against a Soviet creed that held religion in contempt, thousands of Islamic fighters – Turks, Egyptians, Lebanese and others – joined bin Laden to aid the Afghan Muslim resistance against the Soviet army. Bin Laden, according to Middle Eastern analyst Hazhir Teimourian, received top-level security instruction from the CIA itself.
When the war ended, bin Laden, transformed into a radical Muslim, surfaced as the head of a group of battle-hardened religious fundamentalists, veterans who were ready to purge any and all non-Islamic influences from the Middle East. Bin Laden’s intense anti-Americanism emerged when U.S. troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War.
Issuing a public proclamation in 1992, bin Laden ordered strikes on U.S. military installations in both Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Within months, bin Laden-trained forces ambushed American troops in Somalia, killing 18 Army Rangers and dragging their naked mud-covered bodies through the streets. At around the same time, the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center occurred when a car-bomb exploded in an underground garage, killing six people and causing more than $300 million in damages.
What followed was an attack against a U.S. Air Force high-rise in Saudi Arabia, a call to arms against Americans published in the London Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, an Islamic Fatwa, or holy order, calling for Muslims to “kill Americans and their allies, civilians and military” wherever they’re found, the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and a strike against the Navy warship USS Cole in a Yemeni port. “If someone can kill an American soldier,” explained bin Laden, “it is better than wasting time on other matters.”
All U.S. citizens, in other words, soldier and civilian, became “legitimate targets.” It was, proclaimed bin Laden, time to “get ready for the holy war,” time for the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad and the Egyptian al-Gamma al-Islamiya “to put in place a common strategy against the United States,” time for a full-blown jihad that was the “obligation of all Muslims,” time for hijacked passenger planes to replace smaller scale boat-bomb attacks and suicide trucks.
The message was one of faith-based hatred, a message of alleged American fright and powerlessness. “The American army is going down hill in its morale,” declared bin Laden. “Its members are too cowardly and too fearful to meet the young people of Islam face to face.”
And so, now comes the toll in Manhattan. Not six people this time, but thousands, with Iraqi television playing a patriotic song that begins “Down with America!” as it shows the World Trade Center’s towers falling, and with young Palestinians cheering in the West Bank for the cameras, happy that Manhattan looked like Dante’s Inferno for a few days.
And the toll next time, unless we hit back, of a chemical or biological attack in the Holland and Lincoln tunnels? Or the toll next time, unless we assist bin Laden in reaching his dream of martyrdom, of a suitcase nuke detonation at the Empire State Building?
All told, September 11 was a wake-up call. We only lose if we roll over and go back to sleep again.