We Do Not Excuse, But We Must Understand

I don’t give Robert Fisk enough praise. No other Western reporter even comes close to him in covering the Middle East.

The fact that Fisk interviewed Osama bin Laden on three separate occasions should be evidence enough that his is a voice to be listened to in the wake of the mass murderer’s death. As usual, he says what we need to hear, though not necessarily what we want to*:

A middle-aged nonentity, a political failure outstripped by history — by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East — died in Pakistan yesterday. And then the world went mad.  

“A resounding triumph,” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu boasted. But after 3,000 American dead on 9/11, countless more in the Middle East, up to half a million Muslims dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and 10 years trying to find Bin Laden, pray let us have no more “resounding triumphs”.

But the mass revolutions in the Arab world over the past four months mean that al-Qa’ida was already politically dead. Bin Laden told the world — indeed, he told me personally — that he wanted to destroy the pro-Western regimes in the Arab world, the dictatorships of the Mubaraks and the Ben Alis. He wanted to create a new Islamic Caliphate. But these past few months, millions of Arab Muslims rose up and were prepared for their own martyrdom – not for Islam but for freedom and liberty and democracy. Bin Laden didn’t get rid of the tyrants. The people did. And they didn’t want a caliph.

Of course, there is one more obvious question unanswered: couldn’t they have captured Bin Laden? Didn’t the CIA or the Navy Seals or the US Special Forces or whatever American outfit killed him have the means to throw a net over the tiger? “Justice,” Barack Obama called his death. In the old days, of course, “justice” meant due process, a court, a hearing, a defence, a trial.

But a court would have worried more people than Bin Laden. After all, he might have talked about his contacts with the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, or about his cosy meetings in Islamabad with Prince Turki, Saudi Arabia’s head of intelligence. Just as Saddam — who was tried for the murder of a mere 153 people rather than thousands of gassed Kurds — was hanged before he had the chance to tell us about the gas components that came from America, his friendship with Donald Rumsfeld, the US military assistance he received when he invaded Iran in 1980.

Fisk’s newspaper, The Independent, has also published an excerpt from his 2005 book The Great War for Civilisation. In the spirit of empathy, I implore you to read this interview, if only to prevent future 9/11’s*:

Just 10 days before, a truck bomb had torn down part of the US Air Force housing complex at al-Khobar in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and we were speaking in the shadow of the deaths of the 19 US soldiers killed there. And Bin Laden knew what he wanted to say. “Not long ago, I gave advice to the Americans to withdraw their troops from Saudi Arabia. Now let us give some advice to the governments of Britain and France to take their troops out – because what happened in Riyadh and al-Khobar showed that the people who did this have a deep understanding in choosing their targets. They hit their main enemy, which is the Americans. They killed no secondary enemies, nor their brothers in the army or the police in Saudi Arabia… I give this advice to the government of Britain.” He said the Americans must leave Saudi Arabia, must leave the Gulf. The “evils” of the Middle East arose from America’s attempt to take over the region and from its support for Israel. Saudi Arabia had been turned into “an American colony”.

“The explosion in al-Khobar did not come as a direct reaction to the American occupation,” he said, “but as a result of American behaviour against Muslims, its support of Jews in Palestine and of the massacres of Muslims in Palestine and Lebanon — of Sabra and Chatila and Qana — and of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference.

The Saudi royal family had promised sharia laws while at the same time allowing the United States “to Westernise Saudi Arabia and drain the economy”. He blamed the Saudi regime for spending $25bn in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and a further $60bn in support of the Western armies in the 1991 war against Iraq, “buying military equipment which is not needed or useful for the country, buying aircraft by credit” while at the same time creating unemployment, high taxes and a bankrupt economy. But for Bin Laden, the pivotal date was 1990, the year Saddam invaded Kuwait. “When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two Holy places, there was a strong protest from the ulema [the religious leaders] and from students of sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops. This big mistake by the Saudi regime of inviting the American troops revealed their deception. They were giving their support to nations which were fighting against Muslims.

Bin Laden paused to see if I had listened to his careful, if frighteningly exclusive history lesson. “The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems… the ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now the people understand the speeches of the ulemas in the mosques – that our country has become an American colony. What happened in Riyadh and al-Khobar is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America.”

He was alarming because he was possessed of that quality which leads men to war: total self-conviction.

Bin Laden had asked me — a routine of every Palestinian under occupation — if Europeans did not resist occupation during the Second World War. I told him no Europeans would accept this argument over Saudi Arabia — because the Nazis killed millions of Europeans yet the Americans had never murdered a single Saudi. Such a parallel was historically and morally wrong. Bin Laden did not agree. “We as Muslims have a strong feeling that binds us together… We feel for our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon… When 60 Jews are killed inside Palestine” — he was talking about Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel — “all the world gathers within seven days to criticise this action, while the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children did not receive the same reaction.” It was Bin Laden’s first reference to Iraq and to the United Nations sanctions that were to result, according to UN officials themselves, in the death of more than half a million children. “Killing those Iraqi children is a crusade against Islam,” Bin Laden said. “We, as Muslims, do not like the Iraqi regime but we think that the Iraqi people and their children are our brothers and we care about their future.” It was the first time I heard him use the word “crusade”.

*All the emphasis is mine. There was no bold-face in the original articles.