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Letter from Tora Bora

The Americans almost managed to break Al Qaeda in 2002, but then they invaded Iraq.


[extremism] Late in 2001 or early in 2002, the surviving remnants of Al Qaeda snuck away from their mountain caves in Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Parts of the organization's command structure were left in the gravel, several of the organization's key personnel were severely injured or killed. Shady leader Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri disappeared from the radar of the Americans. But the organization they had built had suffered a severe blow. Some of Al Qaeda's brother organizations were dissatisfied with the attack carried out against the United States in September 2001, they rightly believed that the attack on Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was just one of many groups that had sought refuge. Ribbed their allies, stripped of their hiding places and seriously decimated this could have been the end of bin Laden's organization. But that is not how it should go

Sober analysis

The American rhetoric, the threats to, and finally the invasion of Iraq met with disgust and secured new recruitment to political Islam in both the Arab as well as the entire Muslim world. President George W. Bush's Crusader Terminology and "Civilization Crash" talk also secured Al Qaeda's new recruitment. The backlash the organization had received in Tora Bora thus proved to be only temporary, the invasion of Iraq should give bin Laden and his surviving network a golden chance of reorganization.

This is the argument of Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the Arabic-language London newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. In the book The Secret History of Al-Qa'ida, which was first published in 2006, but is now out in a new paperback edition, he gives a sober analysis of the organization, without apologizing or condemning. Atwan's interest in Al Qaeda stems from a visit to Tora Bora in the late 1990s. Atwan is one of the few journalists based in the West who visited Bin Laden here, the other English journalist who went to Tora Bora at this time was The Independents Robert Fisk. Atwan stayed in bin Laden's caves for several days, he ate and slept in the same cave as bin Laden himself and watched the training of young mujahedins in the mountainsides. The newspaper Atwan's leader has later been notorious for reproducing several of Al Qaeda's communiqués, including the one where the organization assumes responsibility for the attacks in Madrid on March 11. 2004.

Echoes from the Soviet era

Besides a short bin Laden biography and a review of the political and ideological development of Al Qaeda, the book provides insights into the organization's use of the Internet and mass media. But the most interesting mention of Al Qaeda in the country with the two rivers, ie Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda's development at Euphrates and Tigris is also the story of Musab al-Zarqawi, son of the city of Zarqa outside Amman in Jordan. Al-Zarqawi was among the Afghan mujahedin leaders skeptical of Al Qaeda's attacks on civilians in the twin towers of New York. Al-Zarqawi feared for his own training camp in Afghanistan, which he ran independently of Al Qaeda. But as the invasion of Iraq was approaching, Al-Zarqawi resumed contact with his former mentor bin Laden. This contact was crucial to the build-up of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Atwan also shows how the invasion of Iraq fits into Al Qaeda's own strategy, in fact, they have a strategy document that extends to 2020, which predicts, among other things, US invasion of several Muslim countries, and a regional uprising against "crusader soldiers". Finally, Americans will fight against Muslims on so many fronts that war spending is undermining the US state budget and the elephant is falling apart.

The strategy is unmistakably an echo of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980 century, a war that brought the Soviet Union to the brink of bankruptcy and which led to the fall of the Soviet empire. But first and foremost, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 led the Americans to equip Al Qaeda with a new fertile ground, base and battlefield. Bin Laden is hardly even in Iraq, but more and more of his followers are there. And they are many and well organized, one should interpret the last weeks' matches in Al-Anbar and Diyala province around Baghdad. Atwan also points out that many of the new recruits are young Iraqis, who have grown up during the international boycott of the country in the 1990 century.

Thanks to the invasion of Iraq, the Americans' number one enemy of the people has a new spring. This actualizes a Norwegian translation of bin Laden's own letters and speeches, which was recently released by small LSP publishers. The collection has been given the Norwegian title Message to the World, and – like Atwan's book – emphasizes letters and speeches from the last four years, ie after the invasion of Iraq.

About half of the letters in the collection are from this period, the last being from July 2006 and particularly attacking the US-backed Iraqi governments that have come and gone in Baghdad in recent years. The message is signed to Osama bin Laden, Khurasan Afghanistan.

Bin Laden's speeches

Khurasan, "the land of the sunrise," had its heyday in the 1200 century, as it stretched from Iran to Tajikistan and included much of today's Afghanistan. Bin Laden's use of the name of the old empire is in line with his at times swell rhetoric, full of historical and religious references that characterize many of the letters and speeches in the book. When it comes to the letters about Iraq, particular stories of the Caliphate in Baghdad that are invoked time and time again, are more recent stories of British Empire's colonial policy in the region. This also links the events in modern Iraq to the occupation of the Palestinian territories further west, at the moment the two most inflamed conflicts in Arab eyes. The letters also show that bin Laden is well informed about what is happening today, both in occupied Iraq, Palestine and in the rest of the world.

Both Atwan's informative history and Osama bin Laden's own words are worth the read. The failed US "war on terror" has also made it imperative to try to better understand the phenomenon of Al Qaeda. The lesson of Tora Bora is that it is useless to bomb such an organization into gravel alone. The only thing that can stop bin Laden and his buddies is a new policy in the region. A policy that includes the region's own people and movements, including the more moderate Islamist groups, both in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. ?

Reviewed by Maren Sæbø

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