The long shadow of Osama bin Laden haunts us

The long shadow of Osama bin Laden haunts us
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“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in,” shouts Al Pacino in his role as The Godfather in the third part of the series by the same name. It felt like this when Osama Bin Laden’s mother spoke in an interview published in early August. Not only is she still proud of her son but it turns out that bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden, is on the warpath, seeking revenge for the death of his father in a 2011 U.S. raid in Pakistan.

“When we thought everyone was over this, the next thing I knew was Hamza saying I am going to avenge my father,” Hassan al-Attas, the half brother of Osama, told The Guardian. Hamza is the son of Khairah Sabar, one of bin Laden’s wives who was living with the arch terrorist when he was killed. Hamza is still connected to the al Qaeda leadership and may have crossed from Iran into Afghanistan. So, 17 years after 9/11 another bin Laden may be in Afghanistan among the chaos of forces there, including Islamic State and Taliban fighters, seeking to lay claim to the terror brand.

The story of the bin Ladens today reads more like the “The Godfather” than it does like the story of more modern offshoots of jihadist terrorism, such as Islamic State’s genocidal predations in Iraq and Syria, or the mass kidnapping of young women and bombing of mosques by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Reading back over the events leading up to 9/11, and afterward, conjures up a different, more innocent world. In the recent interview, Alia Ghanem, bin Laden’s mother, says she wasn’t reared as a traditional Muslim. She was born in Latakia, the heartland of the Alawite sect that is loosely related to Shi’ite Islam. (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is from an Alawite family.)


Alawites have been victims of Islamist attacks. Ghanem moved to Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and gave birth to Osama in 1957. In a family photo from the 1970s in Sweden, family members look like The Beatles more than the stereotype of Saudi Arabia’s conservatism. Osama married a cousin, Najwa Ghanem, also from Latakia, Syria. That means the women in his early life were influenced by the secularism of Syria, not conservative Sunni Islamic views.

Our understanding of the fountainhead of bin Laden’s extremism, and by extension al Qaeda and its offspring, often is slanted by a desire to see them as purists expressing a fundamentalist version of Islamist extremism. The reality — revealed in the new interview and other records — is more complex. Osama bin Laden was an engineering student; engineering provided the background for many of those who turned to jihadist views in the 1970s and 1980s. His turning point, Ghanem says, came at the university where a member of the Muslim Brotherhood began to influence him.

The rest is history. He joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan; fought the Soviets; conspired against the United States; was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991; set up camp there and in Sudan; and fled to Pakistan, where he was killed.

Why does this matter today? Because terror groups don’t operate in a vacuum. Just as bin Laden was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which waged terror campaigns in Egypt, Syria and other places in the 1970s to 1990s, today’s jihadist terror groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram emerged from the chaotic aftermath of 9/11, influenced by bin Laden. They didn’t arise solely because of poverty or religious devotion; they emerged, more so, from the wealth and privilege,  and even secularized background, of people such as bin Laden. A new documentary on al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s, “Path of Blood,” shows spoiled teenagers thinking that terror is “cool,” not people who are suppressed and resort to terror.

Bin Laden’s al Qaeda still exists. It has been 20 years since the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya by al Qaeda in 1998. Its successors, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) now have influenced a network of groups across the Sahel in Africa, the band of desert and bush that forms the border between North Africa and Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. The United States is fighting a shadow war there, helping local governments train to fight terror. Recently, Washington sent armed drones to help fight the extremists.

In Yemen, where bin Laden-era al Qaeda carried out the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is fighting alongside government forces against Houthi rebels. A recent report claimed they were even working with a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and that the United States had refrained from using drone strikes against them. In Syria, the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is an offshoot of al Qaeda and runs most of Idlib province, where it is fighting the Assad regime. As in the murky conflict in Yemen, where friends and enemies coexist, Turkey (ostensibly a NATO ally) has been accused of ignoring the role of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and even allowing its convoys to be escorted by the extremists.

The continued existence of these networks shows that almost two decades of war on terror hasn’t defeated the group. It may be even bigger today than in 2001, and its ability to move between terrorism and working with Western allies has allowed it to maintain itself. The question is whether its offshoots in Syria and Yemen are finished with terrorism and have matured, like players in “The Godfather.”

Seth J. Frantzman spent three years in Iraq and other countries in the region researching the war on terror and Islamic State. He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is writing a book on the state of the region after ISIS. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.