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Where Osama bin Laden went wrong
By Vikram Sood

By the middle of 2001, the Taliban, along with their friends in al-Qaeda and the powerful Pakistani establishment, had begun to get weary of the unending resistance from the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. That wily commander and Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Masoud, just would not give up. He continued to do battle from his stronghold in the far north - in Panjshir - where he had taken on the might of the Soviet empire and pushed it back.

Masoud was the last obstacle to establishing Taliban rule in Afghanistan and making that country truly Islamic. He had to go. Months of planning and two assassins eventually succeeded in murdering Ahmed Shah Masoud on September 9, 2001 (see Masoud: From warrior to statesman, September 12, 2001). The country was up for grabs now, with the Taliban as the only real viable force in Afghanistan. They had the backing of Pakistan and the support of al-Qaeda. Strategic depth was a reality for the Pakistanis for a short period on September 9.

From Afghanistan, the Islamists could fan out into the resource rich Central Asian republics from Kazakhstan to Turkmenistan. Why stop there? There was Chechnya beckoning, and the green flag of Islam would fly from Morocco to Pakistan and throughout parts of Europe.

There had been Islamic websites in the United Kingdom and elsewhere that proudly displayed hopes the entire world would be under a green flag by the end of the 21st century. These were dismissed as harmless dreams permitted in liberal England, home to all such dissidents from the oppressive Third World.

This dream seemed a reality by the afternoon that Masoud died. Together with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), one of whose leaders (Tohir Abdouhalilovich Yuldashev) had taken shelter in Pakistan - and the shadowy Hizbut Tehrir, al-Qaeda and the Taliban could now dream of an Islamic caliphate in the region. Yuldeshev had also seen action in Chechnya, while his other compatriot from Namangan in Uzbekistan, Jumaboi Khajaev (later known as Juma Namangani) had similarly participated in the civil war in Tajikistan and moved around in Afghanistan.

In 1998, the IMU joined Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front. He had probably hoped that it would get him some nuclear material from Uzbekistan.

Initially, the IMU's aim was to establish an Islamic state in Uzbekistan, but by early 2001 it had become more ambitious. The party renamed itself as the Islamic Party of Turkestan (IPT) and wanted to establish a caliphate comprising China's Xinjiang region and all the Muslim Central Asian republics.

By mid-2001, the blueprint for such a caliphate was ready and was beyond the stage of dreams on websites. Once Afghanistan had come under firm Taliban and al-Qaeda control, all the Uzbek, Chechen, and Uighur jihadis who had been trained and sheltered in camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border and in Waziristan and Afghanistan would have added to the strength of others ready to take battle to Central Asia.

Gradually, the Islamists would have tightened their control over areas traditionally in the Russian domain of influence or territories. Like the IMU/IPT, the Hizbut Tehrir also believes in establishing a caliphate from Xinjiang to Turkmenistan, but has so far said that this should be done through political means.

Masoud's assassination also freed the Pakistani establishment on one front. The masters of the different jihadi organizations in Pakistan felt that they could now take their battle into India with renewed vigor and there was going to be no stopping them.

Other caliphates on the South Asian subcontinent and then in Southeast Asia were on their way. In this situation it is doubtful whether such incidents as the December 13, 2001, attack on the Indian parliament would have stirred the United States beyond the usual mild reprimand and the advisory to the Indians to solve the problem of Kashmir with the Pakistanis.

The US was too involved with itself to have taken any note of the creeping threat in Asia and Europe. In any case, as events subsequently showed, the Americans did not have the information anyway. They would have realized it too late, and the pity of it is that they would have reacted the same way as they had.

Then September 11 happened. The United States and the world reacted with the utmost fury. The gains from Masoud's assassination for the terrorists dissipated in almost a flash. The two acts, generally attributed to the same umbrella outfit, seemed to be contradictory in intent. The hatred for the US, barring a few angry Muslims in the Arab world, turned into a wave of sympathy for the Americans.

It is another matter that American genius has turned this fund of goodwill into distrust, fear and scorn.

Did bin Laden not expect this reaction? Did he assume that the US would do what it had done after Nairobi or Dar es Salaam or after USS Cole was attacked? Did he overestimate the ability of the US intelligence and security apparatus and presume that some of the groups would be apprehended?

Perhaps he did not expect all four hijackings to take place and was hoping that maybe one or two might get through. Nor did he expect three of them to get to their targets so accurately. In the end, was even bin Laden surprised at the sensational success and at the ease of the operation? Was the sheer enormity of the success also its failure?

The Americans gave vent to their anger in Afghanistan. But the culprits could not be found - dead or alive. The hunters could not bring home any trophy so the quarry changed - or maybe it did not really change and just became a target of opportunity.

Saddam Hussein became the new target, at considerable cost to humanity and civilization. Whatever the Americans gained in Afghanistan has been lost in Iraq. The world is about to see a vicious and long-drawn-out round of bloodletting.

Just as the Americans have introspected on the failures to prevent September 11, so it seems have the attackers. Not that they are sorry that so many innocents died but that it sent out alarm bells all over the globe; instead, if they had been patient, waited after September 9, 2001, and worked surreptitiously to consolidate their gains through the Taliban, then the likes of UNOCAL would have dealt with them. Armed with this and other similar symbolism, they would have received the breathing space needed to undermine Russia's poor but resource-rich and nuclear south.

The long spells of silence from bin Laden in recent weeks and criticism by the ultra-fundamentalist takfiris in Saudi Arabia about the attacks inside the kingdom would indicate that some such introspection is on.

There could be a change of tactics. Instead of the spectacular September 11 kind of attacks, the world could see more of the Madrid- or USS Cole-type attacks - nibbling away at Europe and targeting Americans away from the mainland without inviting any hyper-reaction. Bin Laden knows the answers to this. And no one knows where he is.

The Pakistani corps commander handling the Waziristan operation on the Pak-Afghan border has said quite categorically that bin Laden is not in Waziristan. President General Pervez Musharraf has said that bin Laden is alive. How does Musharraf know this? Maybe because al-Qaeda is no longer just a concept and Pakistan is now al-Qaeda, clandestine nuclear vending included.

Vikram Sood retired as chief of India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) last year. This article first appeared on, and has been republished with the writer's permission.

Dec 24, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

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(Dec 18, '04)

Al-Qaeda on the march (Dec 8, '04)

ATol's September 11 coverage



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