All the post-royal wedding specials that had been planned by western TV, reviewing past events, parading nuptial dresses, and ogling honeymoons, were destroyed by the death of Osama Bin Laden.

Last week I had seen a short clip on the BBC where a Belfast Catholic had summed up his interest in the wedding through his perspective on the British monarchy.

“Catholics need not apply,” the Falls Road man had said.

On Sunday evening, another job went vacant for which Catholics need not apply. Nor Shia, for that matter, this is a Sunni-only vacancy. Hierarchically, the top job goes to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon who is Al Qaeda’s number two. But the man has no charisma.

From a historical perspective, it helps to analyze the succession of Al Qaeda in the context of the career and background of Bin Laden himself. What predicates a man to rise to such a position of power and generate the following he had? Charisma is undoubtedly one of the factors.

Intransigence and fundamentalism are also important. But perhaps the most important is money. The pictures of the Yemeni billionaire builder’s son, leaning on a pink caddillac in Sweden, a smiling teenager surrounded by siblings, tell a story of affluence and power.

A veiled threat. Sweden in the early 70's, Lower Manhattan in 2002.

Father Bin Laden, contrary to what has been sporadically seen in the press, did not have roots in Saudi nobility. His links to the house of Saud were through his immense construction empire. Part of his work included rebuilding the Islamic holy places. He did such a good job on the Grand Mosque in Mecca that the followers of Juhayman who barricaded themselves inside in 1979 resisted Saudi special forces for a fortnight.

Mohammed Bin Laden shared two traits with the founder of the house of Saud, Abdul Aziz. Each had only one eye, and both fathered upward of fifty children. Son 17 was Osama. When the tycoon died in a plane crash in 1967, his kids became millionaires. Business diversified, and at one time the Bin Ladens owned Porsche dealerships in Saudi Arabia.

Affluence, and family influence, were major factors in Osama’s rise to power. The road led to Pakistan and Afghanistan, then back to Saudi Arabia, later Sudan, and then back to Afghanistan, already at the time of the Taliban. A taleeb is a student, and the Taliban considered themselves students of the Koran. Incongruously, they also had a proclivity for painting their toenails bright red, and were also rather fond of young boys.

“Girls are for babies, boys are for pleasure,” was a common Afghan saying. It appeared, therefore, that the students were as sadistic as Joseph Mengele, as vain as Marlene Dietrich, and as gay as a treeful of parrots.

It was in this peculiar environment that Osama made his home, an Arab in the midst of Pashtuns. And it was in this setting that Ahmed Shah Massoud, the lion of Panjshir, was killed by a fake news crew in preparation for nine-eleven. 

Bin Laden used his own money, together with the patronage he could draw on, to pump funds into the Afghan resistance to the Soviets, the first modern day example of Jihad. The West didn’t call it that at the time, and certainly didn’t appreciate that the resistance was based on religious values rather than political opposition. The CIA supported and armed the resistance movements, training them in covert warfare, communications, and control.

Al Qaeda attracted legions of disenfranchised Muslims, and paved the way for a network of agents, often sleepers, ready to be launched against the enemy, kamikaze style. And Osama, soft-spoken and gentle, with the same puckered lips as Arafat, was just the man to call the countdown. I can imagine his melifluous voice, rationalizing the irrational to a rapt audience of true believers, and sending them on their way. These days, there are only so many virgins to go around.

The Arab tradition, like many others, is centered on the man. Emblematic, embellished, enshrined. From Marco Polo’s Old Man of the Mountain, the supposed leader of the Hashishin, through Saladin, nemesis of Richard the Lionheart, down to Abdul Aziz himself, it’s always the man.

And now that man is gone. Dead. Shot in the left eye. It will make all the difference. As witnessed in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi, Morocco, Islam is dynastic. The Egyptian physician just doesn’t cut it.

As for the story itself, just like the royal wedding, it is ephemeral. Did Pakistan know of the man’s whereabouts?

There are many Pakistans. The Taliban sympathisers within the ISI, the secular factions, the moderate face of Islam. Just as there are many Americas. The Tea Party crowd, the illegal Mexican fruit pickers, the inner city gangs, and the vast majority of mainstream America.

 Of course some of that Pakistan knew. But now suddenly all the world knew. With twenty-twenty hindsight, nothing could be more obvious. Had been for years. I can recall the thunderous silence of protest when Tora Bora was carpet-bombed. Most of those people wouldn’t know the difference between a bad abbot and Abbottabad.

It doesn’t matter. Al Qaeda is history.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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