People of the decade: From Osama to Obama
Illustrations by Beto Alvarez
Osama bin Laden and Barack Obama are the two men who are the symbolic bookends of the 2000s: bin Laden, the man who masterminded the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001, ushering in the age of mass terror and bringing war to Iraq and Afghanistan. And Obama, America’s first black president, the man the world hopes will bring peace to the Middle East and put things right again. Emile Hokayem, Effie-Michelle Metallidis and Sean McLain discuss how each man shaped the first decade of the 21st century.
For many people around the world, this decade began not on January 1, 2000, but on September 11, 2001.
With the attacks on the United States, the world was shaken out of the complacency into which it had sunk since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But perhaps even more shocking than the events of that morning was who lay behind it.
This most modern of attacks on the world’s most powerful country was orchestrated by men hiding out in caves in Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries. And it was carried out by people moonlighting as students and professionals, who had infiltrated modern society the better to hurt it. This plan was the product of a complex ideology that few understood or recognised as lethal and expansionist. Writing in 2003, two prominent terrorism experts, Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin (now a senior US counter-terrorism official), labelled it the Age of Sacred Terror: mass terror and suicide attacks justified in the name of religion. And because there was a significantly Islamic slant to this terrorism, it gained an unmistakable face: Osama bin Laden.
Nothing in the early life of the shy, quiet 18th son of a wealthy Saudi family gave any hint of future global notoriety. He was born into a family construction empire whose members lived a comfortable, even lavish, life. As a teenager, bin Laden owned many cars, which he drove recklessly, wrecking at least one. All the bin Laden sons were rash, but he was the rashest: “Osama who drives his cars too fast in the desert and then leaps out of his car to climb mountains that are too rugged for any human being” as a family member recalls in Growing Up Bin Laden.
A devout youth, he married young, taking his first cousin Najwa as his first wife. She reportedly knew nothing of her husband’s rising militancy as his religious beliefs hardened into ideological tenets. “I noticed that a new and broader awareness of the outside world began to occupy his mind,” she remembers. But, “No one in our family took umbrage. Osama was highly praised for his keen interest in supporting Islam.”
At home he was strongly conservative. He forbade the use of the refrigerator and air-conditioning, and much to the irritation of his children, he forbade toys, music and American products such as Pepsi-Cola. He would eventually take multiple wives and have more than 20 children.
It is hard to pinpoint when devotion turned into political dogma.
Bin Laden’s beliefs were the product of the complicated encounter between Salafism, the austere branch of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia, and modernity. Although profoundly conservative, he was no prime ideologue or terror master. Others, such as Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading intellectual, or bin Laden’s first theological mentor, Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian Sheikh who first conceptualised global jihad, have laid out the theological tenets of jihadist terrorism better than he.
According to his biographers, bin Laden was a profoundly imperfect, sometimes cocky, often hesitant man who embarked on a mission that had internal coherence and momentum in his mind, but in reality was shaped by the vicissitudes of political Islam, the changing fortunes of jihad and its strategic shifts, all developments over which he had little control.
He came of age during the jihadi mobilisation against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and he lived through the humiliation of seeing “infidel” troops from the US and other western nations protect his native country from the Iraqi threat. In response, he antagonised his Saudi patrons by criticising their corrupt ways and unholy alliances, exiled himself to Sudan and then Afghanistan to build his organisation and live in line with the Prophet’s teachings – or so he thought. There, he dreamt of hitting the greatest enemy, America. As early as 1998, he published a fatwa, declaring war: “To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible...”
It was this rhetoric, combined with his mastery of modern technology and feel for propaganda, that allowed him to achieve global notoriety by simplifying and broadening al Qa’eda’s extremist message. In the years following his fatwa, he used his Afghan refuge to organise his movement. His armed branch backed the Taliban – his like-minded hosts who were busy imposing an extreme form of Islamic government. And he formulated his most brazen plan: to hijack commercial airliners and attack the United States.
Of course, humanity was no stranger to the threat of terrorism before 2001. Since the 19th century, a variety of groups, from the Russian anarchist group, Narodnaya Volya, to the Irish Republican Army to Egyptian Islamic Jihad, had used violent tactics to further their political agendas.
The US itself had been attacked by al Qa’eda before September 11; at the World Trade Centre in 1993, when a bomb killed six people and injured more than 1,000; in 1998 when truck bombs exploded at US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and in 2000 when a US Navy ship in Yemen was bombed. It had also experienced home-grown terrorism when right-wing activists bombed a federal building in Oklahoma in 1995.
But none of these incidents carried a fundamental message of global terror. Nor did they profoundly transform US policy, or have the same impact on international affairs. This may be the real lesson of September 11: rather than changing the world, it changed America, provoking an awakening that would leave a mark on global affairs for the decade to come. As an emotional George W Bush declared to America on September 20, 2001: “We will direct every resource at our command – every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence and every necessary weapon of war – to the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network.”
Bin Laden was comfortable with this declaration of war. He wanted to pit the Islamic world against a decadent, exploitative West, creating a global narrative of oppression and resistance that transcended narrow local agendas. To recruit followers, al Qa’eda exploited the alienation of Muslim European youth, the sense of injustice and humiliation felt by many Arabs towards an imperialist West, and the solidarity of South-east Asian Muslims.
In an interview recorded shortly after September 11, he boasted about the humiliation he was about to inflict on the US when it entered Afghanistan: “This battle is not between al Qa’eda and the US. This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders [...] God, who provided us with his support and kept us steadfast until the Soviet Union was defeated, is able to provide us once more with his support to defeat America on the same land and with the same people. ”
Using his experience in his family business, he prepared himself by building a global structure. By September 2001, al Qa’eda was a truly global venture, whose forces comprised a dozen nationalities, mostly Saudis, Egyptians, Yemenis and Pakistanis, but also Europeans. With cells spread around the world united in spirit, but separate in organisation, al Qa’eda was quickly becoming a franchise.
And yet what followed was retreat and disarray. Bin Laden lost key commanders and his base of operation when the US and the Afghan Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban in 2001, forcing him to seek refuge in Pakistan. Several al Qa’eda cells were broken around the world. Outrage in the Muslim world at the loss of innocent life prompted theological and political challenges to bin Laden’s outlook. After September 11, members of the Palestinian Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, J amaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and 40 other Muslim scholars and politicians issued a statement condemning the attacks, saying that “the Noble Laws of Islam forbid all forms of attacks on innocents”.
By early 2002, al Qa’eda’s legitimacy and efficacy had been challenged by the military might of the United States. Denounced in Afghanistan and undermined by the exposure of the backwardness of Taliban rule, bin Laden seemed to be fading into obscurity. Even his relationship with his family, according to his first wife, had “slowly shrivelled to the size of a dried fig”.
Then the US committed its biggest mistake. It turned its attention to Saddam Hussein, exaggerated the Iraqi threat and diverted resources to depose him. In the minds of US strategists, bin Laden was a symptom of the ills that afflicted the Arab world, and the rise of violent jihadi extremism could be directly traced to political backwardness and economic underperformance. By addressing that, the US could at once defeat a threat to its national security, improve the well-being of Middle Eastern people and fuel a democratic wave that would sweep the region. Baghdad would be the first stop.
But Bush’s War on Terror was fundamentally flawed. The struggle was more about intelligence work, law enforcement, public communication and international co-operation than about military operations. And the battlefields were European suburbs as much as Arab deserts. The elusive nature of terrorism made it frustrating to fight, and the fight hard to explain. The convoluted logic of deposing a dictator with no proven connection to al Qa’eda bred resentment and fed anti-Americanism. The US attempt at political and social engineering won it few allies, especially among those it courted. The War on Terror soon became viewed as a War on Islam.
Bin Laden took advantage of the situation: Iraq was the vindication of his claims that the US was an imperialistic, violent superpower bent on assaulting the heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds. He would take the fight to the occupiers and overcome his discredited reputation after September 11. This new rallying cry resonated in Europe and Arab countries, and foreign fighters started pouring into Iraq.
But he badly overplayed his hand. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the head of al Qa’eda in Iraq, pursued a fundamentalist and sectarian agenda that brought havoc. He mounted gruesome attacks against the Shia community, blowing up mosques and markets packed with civilians, and beheading western captives.
Al Qa’eda fought side by side with the Sunni insurgency, until its extreme ways and goals alienated Sunni politicians and religious leaders. In the meantime, it took the fight abroad: Madrid’s railway stations were hit in 2004, Amman and London in 2005, attacks all justified by the occupation of Iraq.
Once again, outrage at the civilian toll, the ability of al Qa’eda to justify the most gruesome acts and the sense that the group’s first victims were innocent Muslims, provoked a backlash in the Muslim world. Bin Laden was denounced on television by prominent preachers and disavowed by a former mentor, Salman al Oadah, who in 2007 issued a strident, personal condemnation. Iraqis turned against his foreign fighters. Al Qa’eda suffered severe setbacks as the US military and their new Sunni allies killed Zarqawi and dismantled his infrastructure.
Weakened in Iraq, al Qa’eda turned back to Afghanistan to assist a reinvigorated Taliban and its twin movement in Pakistan. But although bin Laden’s reputation had suffered from the Iraq venture, he remained a danger. Al Qa’eda is believed to be responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, and for a deadly wave of bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. It also stepped up operations in Yemen and Somalia.
By challenging the West, bin Laden exposed the intellectual and political confusion surrounding the question of terror. With this new global model, terrorism needed a new definition. What mattered most? Was it the identity of the perpetrator (an illegal non-state or individual groups working across borders)? The nature of the target (civilian or military)? The purpose (political instrument or tool against oppression)? Or was it whether governments could apply the laws and norms of war to terror?
There follows the inevitable question of why people resort to terrorism. In the months following September 11, Americans asked, “Why do they hate us” and settled on two answers: “because of what we are” and “because of what we do.” Was al Qa’eda attacking the American way of life or simply responding to aggression? Do US policies, as unjust and destructive as they may be, justify terrorism?
The causes of terror are complex and multilayered, but terror cannot be reduced to bin Laden and al Qa’eda, however dangerous the man and his organisation. Al Qa’eda is in many ways the exception to the broader phenomenon of terrorism. Most terrorist groups have a local and national identity, a domestic constituency, tangible grievances, measurable objectives and an obvious enemy. They do not engage in mass, blind terror, and also have to answer to constituencies and operate within political and social constraints. They may be more difficult to uproot but they are easier to contain.
Similarly, the reasons young men (and in a few cases, women) become terrorists vary considerably. European Muslims who join bin Laden’s jihad are looking for a sense of identity. Arab jihadists seek the establishment of an illusionary Caliphate, or to protest against moral and political corruption. Palestinian suicide bombers see terrorism as the weapon of the weak against a powerful Israeli occupier. It is simplistic to link terrorism with poverty and grievances against an imperialistic, resource-hungry West: the ranks of the Taliban may be filled with poor students from the much-vilified madrassas, but A-class terrorists often come from middle-class backgrounds.
Today, Osama bin Laden is hiding, probably in the lawless areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. He could be ill and exhausted, even harmless if he gave up the operational command of his organisation.
But the failure to capture him is humiliating for his enemies and painful for his victims. He has become the villain of our age. His victims number in the tens of thousands, but millions more, from airline passengers to government workers, have been affected as a result of his actions.
Yet even if he were captured, the ideology he helped spread worldwide and the jihadi enterprise would survive. Bin Laden is no irreplaceable terror master without whom followers would go home. His message is now relayed through affiliates, copycats and the internet. He shrewdly recognises the limits of his appeal and seeks to give his struggle a broader context.
The first 10 years of the 21st century were depressingly familiar: war, hunger, disease, poverty. Add to that the worst financial crisis in 30 years, and this decade has been one for the history books. This is not what many thought the new millennium would look like. Perhaps that was what made Barack Obama so appealing not only to the 70 million Americans who voted for him in 2008, but the entire world. His message of “change” resonated and inspired.
The man who, for many, embodied the state of global politics from 2000 to 2009 was George W Bush, and Obama was the anti-Bush. Where Bush was accused of parading American global dominance in the face of other nations, Obama promised to speak to them as equals. Where Bush threatened enemies, Obama promised to seek common ground. Where Bush castigated sometimes sceptical allies, Obama promised to co-operate. This young, well-spoken black man, who spent his formative years in a Muslim nation in Asia, seemed as diametrically opposite to George W Bush as was humanly possible. And that was precisely what America, this region and the world wanted.
Everything about Obama seems to evince his message of change. He is a difficult man not to like. His good looks, his relative youth, his race, his family; people just wanted to vote for him. As an African-American, his inauguration would close another chapter in America’s sordid history with slavery. His relative youth sets him among an elite group of US presidents: the most recent being John F Kennedy. And like JFK, Obama had an All-American family. His two precocious and gregarious daughters are a testament to his skills as a parent. His wife is an attractive, fashion-conscious career woman, a modern Jackie O.
By 2008, America was tired. Bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was looking for victory, or, at least, an honourable exit. The most powerful military in the world was mired in a stalemate with a small group of men wielding decades-old weaponry and makeshift explosives. “Shock and awe” gave way to an Iraqi exit strategy and nation-building was sidelined in favour of “Afghanisation”. Iraq became a mistake, and Afghanistan the new Vietnam.
America’s exhaustion with trying to put out the fires it started was made all the more intense by the sub-prime mortgage crisis and subsequent global financial implosion. As the contagion spread, the crisis, in the minds of many in the US, shook the foundations of American financial might.
America’s much-vaunted soft power, its moral fortitude, had been sullied by the abuse in Abu Ghraib and the injustices in Guantanamo Bay. The fear and patriotic fervour most Americans felt after the attacks on September 11 led to the support of policies that trampled on the human rights Americans cherish and are lauded for upholding. As the war dragged on, they began to ask themselves if the trade-off had been worth it.
Limitations to the power of the world’s strongest nation were brought into frightening focus. Americans were desperate for a reason to be proud to be Americans. Obama gave them a reason.
Obama, it seems, recognised all too well what made him so appealing. Americans believed their country was headed in the wrong direction, and he promised to set it right. On the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, he called the former a “war of choice” and the latter one of “necessity”. He was invoking a fundamental principle of American national security policy laid out by one of the country’s founding fathers, John Quincy Adams: “[America] does not go abroad in search of monsters to slay.” It was right to defend against an enemy that had struck first, not to overthrow a dictator who had not.
On the economy, he called the crisis the “final verdict on eight years of failed economic policy promoted by George Bush”. He promised jobs and a return to American economic primacy. People were losing homes and jobs, and Obama promised a solution.
On the war on terror and its ugly offspring, Guantanamo Bay, Obama had reassuring words. He claimed that through adherence to the precepts of fundamental human rights, the US could not only be strong and safe, but stronger and safer. “We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe.”
To those who voted for him in 2008, change did not simply mean a different way of doing business in Washington; it meant a return to a time when America was truly great. To them, Obama embodied those values that made greatness possible.
But as much as Obama meant to America, he meant nearly as much to the rest of the world. They embraced his message of change almost as enthusiastically as Obama’s countrymen. It is rare for a US presidential candidate to take his campaign abroad. But an international message was an essential characteristic of Obama’s appeal. He argued that he would make America the leader in global affairs, not the dictator of global affairs, a first among equals.
The principal reason that he went abroad was to show that his relative youth did not mean he failed to grasp the intricacies of international relations. But his international appeal was also what made him so attractive as a president.
He could make America loved and respected once again. This was made particularly apparent in his now-famous Cairo speech. When he unequivocally condemned the construction of settlements and assault on Gaza, the Muslim world applauded. From Levant to the Gulf, the Maghreb to South-East Asia, these were the words they had waited to hear. The US had done much wrong in their eyes, but in the minds of many Americans, this was proof that their country could still inspire hope with the right message.
Much has been written recently about the impending decline of the last superpower, and the emergence of a multi-polar world. Certainly, America’s rather dismal record in this first decade has helped lend credence to this view. The pundits might be right, but the world today hardly resembles their projections for the future. The world still looks to the US to show leadership on issues as diverse as climate change and Middle East peace.
Emerging nations may have increasing clout in world affairs, but they still rely on the US to ensure global security and shape the global debate.
Few US presidents, and indeed few world leaders, have entered office with such high expectations for success. Obama had made sweeping promises of reform at nearly every level of the US government’s interactions at home and abroad. At home he promised financial recovery, universal healthcare and, on a more metaphysical level, he promised to return the US to its former glory.
Abroad, he promised a swift, but honourable exit from Iraq, a reconstitution of efforts in Afghanistan, a more productive path to Middle East peace and Palestinian statehood, a reconfiguration of relations with US allies and an openness to dialogue with its adversaries.
In short, conflict was out, co-operation was in. The world would no longer fight to resolve differences, it would talk. In Obama’s first year of office, however, change has proved difficult. Much of the goodwill he enjoyed at the time of his inauguration has dissipated, to be replaced by a deepening cynicism. The furore over the Nobel committee’s awarding him the peace prize is a prime example. Everyone seems to be asking: what has he actually done? The Middle East peace process has stalled. Change may have come to America, but Israel plays the same politics that it did before the age of Obama. The Obama administration gambled on a settlement freeze and lost. Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to halt all settlement construction further discredited a weak Palestinian president and contributed to the delay in elections in the Palestinian Territories. Meanwhile, the administration has been forced to accept a partial construction halt, which Netanyahu has portrayed as a major concession and is seeking to use as leverage in Washington.
He has been somewhat successful. Obama’s attempt to blindly pressurise the Israelis only gave them greater clout.
Obama’s vaunted offer to open lines of dialogue with Iran to break the stand-off over that nation’s nuclear programme has met with even less success. Granted, a sanctions regime has not led to the collapse of one of America’s greatest adversaries, but Obama’s alternative has not made any tangible gains. It may even have made matters worse.
A compromise agreement in Vienna collapsed after Iran abruptly pulled out of the deal. With Tehran unlikely to receive a more generous agreement than what was already offered, it looks as if few avenues are available to restart negotiations. Rising domestic unrest is challenging the credibility of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and his patron, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. A regime that defines itself by being anti-America cannot afford a warming of relations when its legitimacy is under fire at home. The US president’s delay in formulating a promised revision to the strategy in Afghanistan emboldened both his rivals and America’s enemies, but also exasperated his allies. It took almost a year for it to be developed. His final decision greatly resembled what he had been advised to do as soon as he was sworn in. This only adds to the frustration. He has had more luck in Iraq. The halting, but positive progress the country has made towards reconstruction has made his promised withdrawal possible.
Most reassuringly, political dialogue has supplanted violence as the preferred means of resolving disputes.
From global economic reform to climate change and from healthcare reform to an end to partisan politicking, Obama seemingly has sought to tackle all of America’s foreign and domestic problems at once. He is tireless in his efforts, but progress has been elusive.
A year is too short a time to judge the effectiveness of any of his efforts, but it is unsurprising that many are disillusioned that “change” increasingly resembles the status quo. It should be noted that Obama has not made any major mistakes. Generally speaking, his foreign policy decisions have earned him plaudits from both Democrats and Republicans. His domestic policies may be more controversial, but on the major issue, healthcare reform, the majority of America agrees that something must be done and that his plan is not without its merits. But he has struggled to accomplish his goals, because the world does not work as quickly as he does.