Osama Bin Laden and 9/11, Essay Example
For many Americans, the name “Osama bin Laden” was completely unfamiliar on September 10, 2001. That changed the following morning; first one and then another jet airplane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City followed by a third that plowed into the Pentagon in the nation’s capital. After the first plane struck the WTC, onlookers and television viewers hoped that it was simply an accident; when the second plane hit minutes later it was clear that someone was attacking targets in the United Sates at a scale never before seen. Questions about the attacks were rampant, as civilians and government officials speculated and theorized about who may have planned and carried out such horrific deeds. Fingers were pointed in several directions, including at then-President Saddam Hussein of Iraq (Jaquard, 2002).
Before long, however, a suspect was named: Osama bin Laden. For the millions of Americans who had never before heard the name, it was impossible to fathom why or how bin Laden had orchestrated the attacks. While bin Laden quickly rose from his status as a relatively unknown figure to a global bogeyman virtually overnight, he was quite familiar to intelligence agencies and governments around the world. The response to the events of 9/11 reshaped the lives of millions of people in the United States and around the world, giving rise to the never-ending “War on Terror.” Bin Laden’s road to infamy, however, was paved with circumstances and events dating back decades.
The Making of a Terrorist Mastermind
The Osama Bin Laden that most Americans knew –or at least think they knew- was in many ways merely a caricature, a portrait of an evil, almost superhuman enemy. Video footage of Bin Laden broadcast on television news shows offered the same few images: a tall, bearded figure dressed in the simple robes of Afghani tribesmen, often seen brandishing an automatic rifle or rocket-propelled grenade launcher as he mingled with his followers (Landau, 2012). Before Bin Laden became the almost cartoon-like evil villain that was presented to the American public he was a very different person. He was, among other things, one of dozens of children born to a Saudi Arabian billionaire who had amassed his great wealth in the construction industry during the era where the Middle East was emerging as the global epicenter of the petroleum industry. Bin Laden was raised to be a devout Muslim, and he attended secular and religious schools as a boy (Murdico, 2011). Bin Laden later attended university and received an engineering degree. According to accounts offered by some who knew him as a student, Bin Laden showed few signs of his devout upbringing in his time at university, and seemed destined to follow his father’s path and enter the construction field upon completing his studies (Murdico).
Following graduation, however, Bin Laden appeared to take the first steps on his path to becoming a terrorist mastermind. Upon the death of his father in the late 1970s Bin Laden inherited an estimated $30 million; he would soon put this money to use for political causes he supported. Although it remains uncertain exactly when Bin Laden first became enamored with the notion of taking up political battles, it is clear that by the time he was a young man he was beginning to develop strong anti-Western and anti-colonial attitudes (Mockaitis, 2010). The first cause Bin Laden aligned himself with was the resistance movement in Afghanistan that opposed the Soviet occupation of that country that began in the 1970s. It was during this time that Bin Laden began providing financial support to the mujahedeen, a loosely-knit but determined militia-style organization determined to drive the Soviet forces out of Afghanistan (Murdico).
The mujahedeen waged a long, slow, but ultimately victorious battle against the Soviets. In 1979 Bin Laden left Saudi Arabia for Pakistan, where he was first introduced to members and leaders of the mujahedeen; upset by the occupation, Bin Laden funneled millions of dollars from his personal fortune to the mujahedeen to fund the purchase of weapons and provide other support to the resistance movement (Murdico). The Soviet Army was armed with powerful tanks, guns, and helicopters, and seemed confident in its ability to take and keep control of Afghanistan. The mujahedeen were outgunned by the Soviets, and were unequipped to wage conventional war on battlefields or in the air. Rather than attempt to overthrow the Soviet occupation with brute force and direct attacks, the mujahedeen waged a guerilla-warfare campaign against the occupiers. One of the mujahedeen’s most effective weapons was the rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher (Jaquard). As Soviet helicopters targeted mujahedeen fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan, RPGs would be used to attack, and often destroy the Soviet gunships. The Soviet Union was pouring millions of dollars into maintaining the Afghanistan occupation and fighting the mujahedeen; the mujahedeen, by contrast, were simply fighting a war of attrition, slowly chipping away at the Soviet military forces and weapons (Jaquard).
Throughout the 1980s Bin Laden continued to fund the operations of the mujahedeen. He and others recruited young men from across the Middle East to join the cause of jihad, or holy war (Jaquard). Many of these men were disaffected and disenchanted with the economic and political conditions in the Middle East; while leaders of nations such as Saudi Arabia made billions of dollars from the oil industry unemployment was rampant in many sectors of the Middle East as the promise of riches offered by oil was restricted to the select few (Mockaitis). A growing ant-Western sentiment was further strengthened by a strict –some would say radical- strain of Islam that came to serve as the ideological basis for the mujahedeen and its supporters (Mockaitis). During this period Bin Laden moved freely between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia as he worked to grown the ranks of the mujahedeen. Despite this undercurrent of anti-Western and anti-U.S. sentiment that motivated Bin Laden and the mujahedeen, the U.S. saw Bin Laden as an ally in the Cold War-era standoff with the Soviet Union (Murdico). The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the United States’ foreign intelligence service, offered financial support, training, and weaponry to the mujahedeen. Although Bin Laden would eventually plan and execute terrorist attacks on U.S. interests,, he was, in this era, a valued CIA asset.
The mujahedeen were ultimately successful, driving the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan and back to Moscow, where the defeated and humiliated Soviet government licked its wounds as it began to come to terms with the political and economic implications of its startling defeat by a relative handful of poor and ill-equipped insurgents. Although there were a range of different factors that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is little doubt that the costly invasion and occupation of Afghanistan had severely undermined the Soviet’s military strength and economic might (Jaquard). It would be the final major military operation undertaken by the Soviets before the breakup of the communist-bloc union; the fact that it had lost to the mujahedeen was a stinging blow to the once-mighty Soviet empire.
The startling nature of the mujahedeen’s victory over the Soviets provided a lesson to Bin Laden that would underpin his future strategies and inform his political and religious worldview. As Bin Laden –and millions of other Middle Easterners- saw it, nations such as the United States and other Western countries wielded far too much power and influence in the Middle East. Bin Laden viewed the U.S. in particular as a corrupting force, believing the presence of U.S. military and commercial interests in the Middle East to represent a threat to the region’s sovereignty and to its religious and cultural practices (Jaquard). Despite his Saudi Arabian roots, Bin Laden took on similar views regarding his birthplace, seeing the interdependent relationship between the oil industry, the United States, and the Saudi government as an existential threat to the Islamic religion. Having absorbed the lessons of the victory over the Soviet Union, Bin Laden and the mujahedeen turned their attention to the U.S. and began to position themselves as freedom fighters bent on driving out any and all Western forces from the Middle East.
The Formation of Al Qaeda
As Bin Laden’s role in the mujahedeen and the Afghanistan freedom-fighter movement began to grow, so too did his interest in consolidating his power and in shaping the movement according to his fundamentalist-Islam ideological viewpoint. Bin Laden was one of numerous operatives who provided money and support for the mujahedeen, though not all of them shared his religious views or his goals as a tactician and strategist. In 1988, roughly a year before the defeat of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, Bin Laden helped to form the group that would become known as Al Qaeda, roughly translated as “The Base” (Jaquard). With the collapse of the Soviet occupation appearing imminent, Al Qaeda’s primary purpose was to continue to grow the jihadist movement and to plan and promote other activities aimed at cultivating its particular political and religious goals (Murdico). With the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were viewed as conquering heroes by many Middle Easterners, though the governments of nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, with their close economic ties to the U.S. and the West, viewed him with suspicion and concern.
The year after the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Iraqi Army, under the command of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait. Although nominally a Muslim, Hussein’s leadership was primarily secular, and he was a supporter of pan-Arabism, a movement aimed at uniting the Arab nations along the lines of a European Union-style political arrangement (Jaquard). Believing that military force would be needed to fuel pan-Arabism, Hussein ordered the invasion and occupation of Kuwait as a means of consolidating his power and securing Kuwait seaports and oil fields for his use. The occupation by the Iraqi Army put Hussein’s troops perilously close to the Saudi border, and the Saudis became concerned that Hussein’s next move would be an attack on Saudi Arabia (Murdico). Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait turned to the U.S. military for support; the Saudi government allowed U.S. troops to deploy in Saudi territory and set up operational bases, while the Kuwait government enlisted the U.S. armed forces to help drive out the Iraqi Army.
These decisions by the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments reportedly enraged Bin Laden; when Iraq first invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden had offered the services of the mujahedeen as a mercenary fighting force to defend Saudi Arabia and to combat Iraqi forces in Kuwait (Jaquard). This offer was rejected by both nations, a decision that would have unforeseen and significant consequences. Bin Laden viewed the decision to invite U.S. troops onto Middle Eastern soil as sacrilege, and his determination to promote and provoke jihad against the West was cemented (Mockaitis). Bin Laden was still seen as a hero to millions of Middle Easterners; when he denounced the Saudi government he was exiled from that country, first to Sudan and later to Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda and the Taliban
In the wake of the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan a new hard-line Islamist movement flourished. The government that would emerge in Afghanistan over the next several years was known as the Taliban; this government was determined to establish a strict, even extreme form of Islam-centric rule (Jaquard). The Taliban and Al Qaeda shared similar ideological viewpoints, and Bin Laden was welcomed in Afghanistan along with the mujahedeen and members of Al Qaeda leadership. Throughout the 1990s Afghanistan largely served as a base of operations for Al Qaeda as the terrorist organization planned and carried out a series of attacks on U.S. and other Western interests. Among the attacks which were credited in part or entirely to Al Qaeda was the truck bombing of the World Trade Center in 1990 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 (Mockaitis). In between these two events were a string of other attacks by Al Qaeda on embassies, businesses, and other Western interests, though these attacks were largely confined to regions of the Middle East and Northern Africa.
September 11, 2001
Osama bin Laden was not yet the globally-recognized figure he would become after the attacks of 9/11, but he was certainly well-known to U.S. intelligence services. The administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton reportedly made several efforts to capture Bin Laden, and in 1998 a U.S. Naval ship launched a cruise missile attack on Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in an unsuccessful effort to kill him (Jaquard). When George W. Bush succeeded Clinton as U.S. President, the Bush administration reportedly turned its focus in the Middle East on Iraq, with some critics from the former Clinton administration accusing the Bush team of failing to recognize the threat posed by Bin Laden (Landau). Despite the warnings issued by U.S. intelligence services that Bin Laden was planning terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the Bush administration –and the rest of the nation- were completely caught off guard by the events of September 11, 2001.
As subsequent investigations would reveal, the attacks of 9/11 had been in the planning stages for months or even years (Landau). A number of Al Qaeda operatives originally from Egypt and Saudi Arabia had taken up residency in the U.S., and several had even attended U.S. flight schools to learn how to fly airplanes (Murdico). It was later discovered that these student pilots had been interested in learning how to fly, but not land, airplanes; the fact that this information had been overlooked or ignored by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies was later viewed as a massive intelligence failure (Rollins). The events of 9/11 have been widely reported; repeating the details of such reporting here is beyond the scope of this paper. The fallout from, and responses to the 9/11 attacks, however, would have significant, far-reaching, and lasting implications for the U.S. and the world.
The Aftermath of 9/11 and the Global War on Terror and the New Security State
The Bush administration was seen by many critics as having failed to adequately prepare for potential attacks by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and Bush almost immediately took military action in response to the attacks. Declaring the launch of a “Global War on Terror” (GWOT), Bush first ordered an invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation against the Taliban for offering support and refuge to Al Qaeda (Landau). Bush further seemed determined to establish a connection between the 9/11 attacks and the nation of Iraq, and the Bush administration would publicly claim that Iraq was linked –if tenuously- to Al Qaeda and was also developing nuclear weapons and other so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) (BBC, 2013). It would eventually be determined that neither of these claims were accurate, though the political climate in the U.S. at the time allowed Bush to sell his plan to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein to the people of the U.S. as a component of the GWOT. Despite the calls of many critics at the time who protested the claims about Iraq and WMDs, the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq beginning in late 2003.
As U.S. forces were expanding their reach in the Middle East in the early 2000s, similar developments were taking place domestically. President Bush announced the creation of a new Cabinet-level position, Secretary of Homeland Security, and the formation of a massive new intelligence and law enforcement organization, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The operations of organizations such as the CIA, the National Security Agency (NSA) and the various border-security agencies were retooled to fit under the operational umbrella of DHS. This new department is responsible for protecting and securing U.S. borders, investigating terrorist organizations and operatives domestically and outside the borders of the U.S., oversight of immigration, and other security-related functions. The operations of DHS and the U.S. military under President Bush were harshly criticized in many quarters, as the Bush administration admitted to using torture, warrantless detention, and other methods to investigate and combat terrorism and terrorists.
The GWOT had, and continues to have, significant implications and consequences for the U.S both domestically and globally. Although an outpouring of goodwill was offered by much of the world in the aftermath of 9/11, the military actions undertaken by the Bush administration would serve to undermine the credibility and reputation of the U.S. both at home and abroad (Landau). The Bush administration had proclaimed that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would not last long (BBC); both wars ended up lasting for years, and U.S. forces continue to serve in both nations, despite efforts by the current President, Barack Obama, to lower troop levels and bring the wars to a close. The role of security agencies in the U.S. grew considerably; air travelers are now used to facing long lines and tight security measures at airports; the Patriot Act made it legal for the government to spy on the private communications of many people both inside and outside the U.S.; and the political position of the U.S. on the world stage has been considerably undermined due to the responses to 9/11.
The Death of Osama bin Laden and the Post-9/11 World
On May 2, 2011Osama bin Laden was killed in raid by U.S. forces. Although some reports had indicated that Bin Laden, if he was still alive, was hiding out in the caves in the rugged mountain terrain on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; it turned out that he had been living in a sprawling compound in suburban Abbotabad, Pakistan (Landau). Years of intelligence gathering and investigations had finally led to the conclusion that a high-value target was living in the compound, though CIA director Leon Panetta was not sure if it was Bin Laden. President Obama, convinced that Bin Laden was likely living in the compound, ordered the assault by Seal Team Six, a group of covert military operatives. Bin Laden was found on the top floor of the compound, and was killed by gunfire during the raid.
In the decade between the events of 9/11 and the death of Bin Laden, much had changed. The U.S. continued to wage the GWOT, now with President Obama in command. The rise of the security state has become the new normal; when it was recently revealed that the extent of domestic spying by the NSA far exceeded what was previously known, it created a media stir, but prompted no significant legislative or policy changes. Bin Laden had long been a marginalized figure by the time of his death; largely cut off from direct communication with the outside world, he no longer appeared to play a significant leadership role in the operations of Al Qaeda (Landau). At the height of his power in Al Qaeda, Bin Laden proclaimed his desire to draw the United States into the same sort of long, drawn-out conflict that had helped to bankrupt the Soviets in Afghanistan (Mockaitis). While the U.S. economy has not collapsed, there is little question, in retrospect, that it poured untold trillions of dollars into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without achieving the stated goals of spreading peace and democracy in those countries. By rushing quickly into conventional wars in the Middle East and the GWOT, the United States appears to have fulfilled at least some of Bin Laden’s wishes. If Al Qaeda measures victory by how much fear they can provoke and their ability to trap their opponents in a military and political quagmire, then by that standard the fallout from the events of 9/11 represents perhaps the only victory in the never-ending war on terror.
BBC (2013, November 1). BBC News – US spent trillions and left Iraq in violent pieces. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-24730270
Jacquard, R. (2002). In the name of Osama bin Laden: Global terrorism & the bin Laden brotherhood. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press.
Landau, E. (2012). Osama bin Laden: The life and death of the 9/11 al-Qaeda mastermind. Brookfield, CN: Twenty-First Century Books.
Mockaitis, T. R. (2010). Osama bin Laden: A biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.
Murdico, S. J. (2007). Osama bin Laden. New York, NY: Rosen Central.
Rollins, J., & Library of Congress (2011). Osama bin Laden’s death: Implications and considerations. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.
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