The international outcry that has been generated by the Taliban’s dramatic takeover of Afghanistan has inevitably focused attention on the original justification for the US-led coalition’s military intervention: namely Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s role in the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The US accused bin Laden of masterminding the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil from his base in Afghanistan, where he had been granted a safe haven by the country’s Taliban rulers. And it was the Taliban’s refusal to hand over bin Laden to the American authorities that prompted military intervention, which resulted in Taliban government being overthrown and the destruction of bin Laden’s terrorist infrastructure.
US President Joe Biden has made frequent references to these key events as he has sought to justify his controversial decision to end American military operations in Afghanistan in time for the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Speaking at the White House shortly after the Taliban had regained control of the country, Biden remarked: “We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as well as getting Osama bin Laden. And we did."
Biden’s claim that the US-led coalition has succeeded in ridding Afghanistan of the menace posed by Al Qaeda is open to question, especially following reports that their fighters have been volunteering to fight alongside the Taliban.
Nevertheless, bin Laden’s role in provoking the intervention in the first place, and the long-running manhunt that followed and resulted in his assassination in the Pakistani frontier town of Abbottabad in 2011, remains one of the central themes of the long-running Afghan saga.
In his new book, The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden, veteran American journalist Peter Bergen seeks to provide a detailed revaluation of bin Laden’s role in precipitating Washington’s two-decades-long campaign against Al Qaeda and the other Islamist terrorist groups, such as ISIS, that it has spawned.
Having met bin Laden as a producer with CNN at his Afghan hideout back in 1997, Bergen has become one of the world’s leading authorities on bin Laden and has written several previous books detailing the Al Qaeda leader’s exploits.
In his latest effort to shed light on the Al Qaeda founder’s mindset, Bergen travelled to bin Laden’s final Abbottabad hideout, where the terrorist managed to live with his 27-strong entourage, including 16 family members, for several years under the noses of Pakistani security authorities. Bergen makes the point that, while bin Laden became one of the world’s most notorious terrorists, he was at heart a family man who was happiest in the company of his many wives and children.
Bergen’s book will also make for uncomfortable reading for the American president, as the author helpfully reminds the reader that Biden, then serving as Barack Obama’s vice president, was a lone voice in opposing the daring US special forces operation that resulted in bin Laden’s demise, preferring the safer option of an air strike. So much for Biden’s claim to be an expert on national security policy.
Bergen’s well-written and meticulously researched book draws heavily on the treasure trove of material that was captured by the US Navy Seal team that carried out the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad lair that resulted in his death. A total of 470,000 files captured during the mission were subsequently released by the Trump administration in late 2017, which included a family journal that the bin Laden entourage kept in the final weeks of the Al Qaeda leader’s life.
Drawing on these documents, as well as exhaustive interviews with key American officials involved in the hunt for bin Laden as well as many of his associates, Bergen portrays bin Laden as a deeply insecure and vain man whose primary motivation in life is to overcome his humble Saudi origins. So obsessed with his appearance that Bergen later found a bottle of Just for Men black hair dye in the bathroom of his Abbottabad hideaway.
Bergen believes that bin Laden’s low social status was one of the driving forces behind his rise to prominence as Al Qaeda's founder and leader. One of 55 children born into an obscure Alawite sect, his father was of Yemeni descent and became one of Saudi Arabia’s most successful businessmen.
Claiming the mantle as the global leader of a holy war was one way for bin Laden to overcome his humble origins and, even after he was forced to flee into hiding following the September 11 attacks, Bergen relates how bin Laden continued to micromanage Al Qaeda right up to his death. He also relied heavily on his many wives for advice and guidance, with one of his favoured brides, Siham, providing assistance in drafting speeches and statements.
At the heart of bin Laden’s ideology was a desire to end America’s involvement in the Middle East, and Bergen says the Al Qaeda leader thought the September 11 attacks would result in the US withdrawing its troops from Saudi Arabia and other locations in the region.
Twenty years later, with US forces finally completing their withdrawal from Afghanistan, it appears that bin Laden might ultimately have achieved his goal.