OPINION

Osama Bin Laden -
Freedom Fighter or Terrorist?

sehgal

IKRAM SEHGAL looks at OSAMA BIN LADEN
in the light of his actions and recognized moral values

Till a few days ago, Osama Bin Laden was only known to the anti-terrorist and intelligence wings of the law enforcement agencies of the world. In a few days so much has become known, one doubts even Osama Bin Laden can keep up with the flow of information about himself. As is normal for intelligence agencies over the world, fact is usually embellished with fable, the subject of enquiry seeming to appear in all odd places and involved in every terrorist incident, major or minor. All of a sudden he has become a threatening colossus with an extensive network all over the globe, one may well ask what were the intelligence agencies doing while the so-called ‘network’ was being built-up?

Osama Bin Laden started off as a freedom fighter, a Mujahideen, against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. In the early 80s this was not unusual since the Afghan movement attracted activists from all over the muslim world, what was unusual was that this was a moneyed man, a scion of a famous construction family in Saudi Arabia, personally worth over US$ 300 million. That he chose to face the rigour and the risks was indeed worth notice - and praise. He was actively sponsored by the CIA and other intelligence agencies, soon making his mark by acts of bravery, leading his men in action from the front. As any person of any military consequence knows, the sound of a bullet is a great equalizer, it separates the men from the boys. As a leader Osama Bin Laden earned the respect of men hardened in battle. The purity of his purpose symbolised his penchant for sacrifice, at that time suiting CIA and other handlers. As the Afghan War wound down, Osama Bin Laden came into his own and started looking at horizons beyond Afghanistan, falling first out of favour in his own homeland for his rather ‘radical’ views with respect to the established customs and traditions.

As the Afghan cauldron heated up due to internecine quarrel in the aftermath of the Russian departure, Osama remained mostly neutral in the fray, building up strong relationships in the geographical areas adjacent to and/or in the proximity of Pakistan, roughly approximating the area of origin of the Talibaan. Commanding respect among all Afghan factions, obviously there was something much stronger in his bonds with the present rulers of Afghanistan. His sanctuary in Afghanistan became that much safer with their advent into governance.

Contrary to intelligent opinion, the Talibaan are sensitive to world attention when it focuses on issues away from their core principles of Islam. The Talibaan hierarchy requested Osama Bin Laden to respect the rules of ‘sanctuary’ and that was to refrain from statements and/or acts that may propagate cross-border violence. A Press Conference that he gave in Afghanistan several months ago was so full of brimstone and fire that it was frowned upon by the Talibaan hierarchy. He was ‘requested’ to refrain from further such activity, spoken or in deeds, particularly against the US and other western governments. By all accounts, till the bombings of US diplomatic buildings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam he kept his peace. While Osama Bin Laden has denied any involvement in the bombings, there is strong evidence given by held suspects to suggest a direct connection, a ‘smoking gun’ so to say. The moment non-essential US diplomatic personnel started being evacuated from Pakistan, even a layman could guess that a retaliatory US operation was very much on. With the arrival of US ships off the Pakistan coast, this was more or less a confirmed exercise. The lack of an aircraft carrier in the vicinity meant either that an assault would be mounted by air from the Gulf or more likely Cruise missiles would be used. On the evening of 20 August 1998, 60 Cruise missiles were fired at targets in Afghanistan. That it surprised official circles in Pakistan was a surprise since the Navy had already passed on to the Government the unusual presence of US warships outside Pakistan’s territorial waters. The discussions that Gen Jahangir Karamat, Chairman JCSC had with the Deputy Chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Ralston, ostensibly on a refuelling stopover between 7:30 and 10:30 pm the same night, evoked the possibility of an attack on terrorist targets. Not only did the Chairman JCSC hold this to be unwarranted he immediately passed the information to the government, directly to the PM. A man of Gen Ralston’s military stature does not just casually drop into the country for dinner alone, that also at short notice.

The Cruise missiles devastated a couple of training camps in Afghanistan (made originally by CIA and CIA funds) where Osama Bin Laden was suspected to be. At least one of the camps was being run by the Harkat ul Ansar (HUA) for training Kashmiri Mujahideen. The Durand Line is rather elusive in the tribal territory of North Waziristan, most Afghans depend upon adjacent Pakistani towns for their socio-economic needs. Other than some initial confusion about missile damage in Pakistan itself, the information of the attack was received in some detail and quickly. By the time the ‘fog of war’ (to quote Clausewitz) cleared, one thing was certain, the attack had missed the prime quarry, causing human and material damage of some consequence, about two dozen dead, many more injured. However, it set off a storm of protest in the muslim world, specially in Pakistan. Out of nowhere Osama Bin Laden became the long-lost hero craved for by the muslim world. The missile attack unleashed forces that unless harnessed have the capacity to destroy the world as we live in today. From the upper reaches of Chitral down to the sandy beaches of Karachi, such widespread support has rarely been seen, albeit this religious awakening may be a will of the wisp and may fade away after a short span of time.

The US cruise missile attack on the Afghan bases was uncalled for and wrong, as wrong as were the bombings of the US Embassy buildings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. Two wrongs do not make a right. A terrorist act cannot be met with retaliation in a form equivalent to a terrorist act, particularly when it infringes on sovereignty and self-respect. The moment Osama Bin Laden attacked non-combatant targets, he stopped being a freedom fighter in the classical sense and became a terrorist. The worst thing any soldier can do is to kill an unarmed prisoner, even worse than that is targeting old people, women and children. A majority who died in the blasts in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi had no idea of the secret war being waged between the US and Bin Laden and even if they had they wanted no part in it. They were innocents caught in crossfire, deliberately engineered. There is no bravery in planting bombs and maiming innocents, that is the stuff of cowards. Should we accept the RAW atrocities against us as an act of war or pure terrorism? Similarly the US Cruise missile attack was hardly defencible, there is no honour in killing people in so-called training camps without warning and without proven provocation. Purely on the logic of escalation it sets off a cycle of violence between civilizations bringing some truth to Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’. It puts at risk US citizens all over the world, in turn it invites US reaction on a majority of muslims who are innocent of even thinking of any wrongdoing. Above all, it provides adequate grist to the fire and brimstone-types whose only logic is to resort to violence at the slightest pretext. While the US, as any other country, is well within it’s rights to react to acts of terrorism against it’s citizens, the modus operandi should be to go in for precise, surgical operations and they should be prepared to take casualties in the accomplishing of the mission rather than rely on the Cruise missile all-encompassing method. Before such an operation is launched there must be incontrovertible evidence of guilt. As the Cruise missile failing to clear Balochistan Province for technical reasons can verify, machines can and do go wrong.

Freedom fighters have to work on a fail-safe line with respect to only targeting military assets, sometimes civilian targets are considered fair game when directly related to the enemy effort. In Kashmir this modus operandi has been meticulously followed. Deliberately targeting unconnected civilians makes Osama’s ‘holy war’ suspect, almost as if the act of violence is more important than the stated purity of his campaign. Today, our media is highlighting him as a hero, the US missile attack put him on that pedestal, would we really like our sons to emulate his rather murky agenda, particularly when targeting non-combatants? As for the US, their Cruise missile attack will cause terrorism to proliferate instead of containing it, it will provide the Bin Ladens of the world more recruits. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist and vice versa. That sums up the dilemma that confronts both the US and Osama Bin Laden, once the darling of the CIA (and by extension the US), now the object of it’s concentrated hatred. Can one contain terrorism by countering it with terrorism? l

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