Osama bin Laden: king of the petro-tyrannies

By John Bacher | 2000-01-01 12:00:00

A decade ago when the Berlin Wall came crashing down, few would have dreamt that the intelligence agencies of Russia and the United States would have a common enemy in the leading figure of the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Today, Osama bin Laden is a wanted man by both the CIA and the Russian heirs to the KGB. The American government blames him for the deaths of hundreds arising out of bombings of U.S. embassies. According to Russian police, he is responsible for the death of 600 people in the recent spate of apartment building bombings in Moscow. How have events changed so much that former spies of the Cold War era now find they need to work together?

For those familiar with the tragic circumstances associated with the problems of petro-tyranny in the Middle East, the rise of Osama bin Laden as an arch villain in both Moscow and Washington should not come as a big surprise. Despite all the mayhem he creates, bin Laden has no magical powers. His strength lies in his position as heir to a Saudi Arabian family's fortune of $300 million.

Those unfamiliar with petro-tyranny may be surprised that the USSR, Iran, and the USA have failed in bringing peace to Afghanistan, despite numerous peace agreements between the parties to the conflicts. To understand why the country's famine and civil war persist despite the efforts of the world's two strongest military powers and the most theocratic Islamic state, it is necessary to understand how oil money fosters dictatorships and how the factions of Islam are involved.

Taliban Intolerance Toward Shiites

Afghanistan is polarized along religious lines. Like much of the Islamic world, Afghanistan is divided into Sunni and Shiite (the minority) faith communities. The major differences between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam go back to quarrels over leadership after the death of Mohammed. What has prolonged the civil war in Afghanistan after the fall of the former Soviet-imposed government in April, 1992, is the Sunni-based Taliban intolerance towards Shiites. The Taliban, a group which enforces rigorous social Islamic order, emerged at the end of 1994 following the Soviet invasion. Since then, bin Laden has supplied important military muscle to assist the Taliban in perpetuating their attempt for the total domination of Afghanistan. In 1998, his private army, the 055 Brigade, which includes hundreds of wanted terrorists from a variety of African nations, helped the Taliban capture the northern city of Mazare-e-Sharif from the control of the Shiite-dominated Northern Alliance.

The only part of Afghanistan that has not fallen under control of the Taliban is the northern part of the country, where Shiites are the majority. Conditions are even worse for those who are not of the Islamic faith. After being subjected to random attacks following the Taliban's triumph, almost all Hindus and Sikhs fled the country.Taliban extremism, financed by bin Laden and other rogue oil-rich families of the Persian Gulf, is now developing its own corrupt economy. Wheat imported from Pakistan is paid for by profits from the opium drug trade supported by the Taliban poppy farms.

Afghanistan's civil war is being fought with such brutality that a Taliban blockade of Shiite-controlled areas has left more than a million civilians in danger of starvation. Amnesty International reported that retreating Taliban soldiers massacred 70 Shiite civilians in the northern village of Qezelabad in September of last year.

Many of the fundamental positions of the Taliban conflict with minority Shiite practices in Iran and Afghanistan. Although Shiite Islam is practiced with great variation in many parts of the world, in Afghanistan one distinction is that it does not impose the extreme Islamic law which has been decreed by the Taliban government in Kabul. Taliban ban women from schools, forbid them to work outside the home, and enforce Islamic law through amputations and public executions.

Neighboring Countries

The recent military coup in Pakistan was an ominous sign of the growing influence of Osama bin Laden, a determined foe of democracy in Africa, the Middle East, and much of the former Soviet Union. The successful coup plotters had supported Osama bin Laden's armed infiltrators into the Indian-controlled sector of Kashmir. They had been pulled back by a brave decision of the country's now deposed president, Nawaz Sharif.

Sharif's ouster was celebrated in the street by the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), an organization drawn from the Sunni Muslims who support bin Laden and the Taliban. The SSP has called for the "termination" of Shiites. In 1997, the SSP fomented sectarian violence in Pakistan against the country's Shiite minority.The SSP supports intolerance against a wide variety of faiths. Pakistan's Sufis, largely from the Ahmadi order, are legally barred from calling themselves Muslims, and according to Amnesty International, 152 Sufis have spent long terms in prison. SSP violence has also fallen upon Christians. In 1998, Sunni extremists burned or looted 12 churches and 600 homes in the Punjab.

Shiites are also a minority in the predominantly Islamic states of Central Asia. This has put Iran, China, and all the successor governments to the former Soviet Union into opposition with bin Laden and the Taliban's efforts to extend their rule in this region. Bin Laden's missionary efforts put him into conflict with the Sufi sect of Islam, a liberal faith once dominant in the USSR. Its underground brotherhoods were able to survive the persecution of Stalinist terror.

With bin Laden's assistance, the Taliban are training 300 militants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China to spread war in their homelands. Arms and explosives used by the Uighur separatists in China come from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Alliance With Saddam Hussein

Osama bin Laden is forging an alliance with Iraq's dictatorship in Saddam Hussein, despite the secular pan-Arabic nature of its official Ba'athist ideology. It is one of the worst oppressors of his Shiite opponents, who comprise one-third of Iraq's population. Iraq had destroyed Shiite sacred literature and holy places. The Taliban is assisting Iraq in its efforts to help the Mujahideen-e-Kalq, the armed opposition to Iran's Shiite theocratic government. This could flank Iran on both sides with hostile enemies.

Role In Chechnya Crisis

Osama bin Laden has played an especially tragic role in the recent Chechnya crisis. He and other beneficiaries of Saudi petro-dollars have exported Saudi Arabia's especially authoritarian version of Islam, Wahhabinism, to Chechnya where it was absent until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Chechens, like most Muslims in the former USSR, are Sufi.

The peace agreement of 1996 was negotiated by Russia with Chechen representatives from the new country's dominant Sufi version of Islam. This was undermined by the heavy aid given to extremist armed factions such as those of Basaev, in conflict with the democratically elected Chechen government. Unlike the Sufi Chechens who did not try to spread their version of Islam beyond their borders, the Wahhabanists proselytized in neighboring Degestan. Here they established new communities where their strict interpretations of Shari'a law, featuring mutilations for minor crimes, were followed.

The Wahhabanists gradually armed themselves, achieving autonomy from the Dagestan government through military force. In 1997, this resulted in the outlawing of Wahhabinism in Dagestan, causing an exodus into Chechnya. This conflict laid the basis for return of war to Chechnya as the exiles tried to go home through armed struggle.


Osama bin Laden has also been a most determined foe of democracy in Africa. His wealth has aided its most authoritarian state, Sudan, playing an important role in its development as a major oil producer. Bin Laden challenges the emergence of democracy in Algeria, Somalia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Eritrea, Uganda, and Chad, which are all helped by the government of Sudan.

Like other wealthy Saudi businessmen, bin Laden sought to benefit from the brutality of Sudan's dictatorship, evicting peasant farmers to instead grow cotton with tractors for export. His foreign trading firm, the Wadi al-Aqiq Company, secured a near monopoly over Sudan's agricultural exports.

Bin Laden's agribusiness operations were assisted by the country's ruling dictatorship, the Sunni extremists National Islamic Front (NIF). The NIF's banks provided interest-free loans to assist tractor farming. This has produced some of the largest farms in the world, with widespread desertification resulting from draining the nation's swamps and cutting its trees. The execution of harsh Shari'a law, favored by the NIF, made amputees out of the peasants who engaged in petty theft after being evicted from their farms which were converted to commercial agriculture. In Sudan, bin Laden faces the country's democratic movement, based largely on the country's Sufi majority, which opposes the NIF's version of Shari'a law, especially its provisions regarding holy war against Sudan's Christian minority.

From 1985 until a coup in 1989, Sudan was ruled by a democratic government, headed by the elected prime minister, Sadiq el Madhi, a Sufi opponent of Shari'a law. The NIF opponents received only 17% of the vote in Sudan's last free elections in 1986.While the rest of the world was experiencing a freedom wave in 1989, Sudan reverted to dictatorship. It immediately banned the country's two leading Sufi-based political parties. Since its inception, Osama bin Laden has been a staunch ally and financial beneficiary of the NIF dictatorship. His construction company built a critical project, a 750 mile highway from Sudan's capital Khartoum to Port Sudan.

The strategic road from the Nile to the Red Sea also aided a Canadian oil company, Arkis Energy (now Talisman), to build a pipeline to export Sudan's oil. Canadian energy corporations have taken advantage of American laws which prohibit U.S. corporations from taking part in oil development in Sudan. When oil began to flow from Port Sudan in August of this year, a shipment of tanks arrived the same day from Russia.

From his base in Sudan, Osama bin Laden assisted the Aideed faction in Somalia when it clashed with U.N. forces. He sent guns, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades, and supplied well-trained troops from his Afghan Mujahideen forces. Bin Laden has claimed personal responsibility for shooting down U.S. helicopters, resulting in the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers and the injuries of dozens more. Following his victory, most of southern Somalia adopted Sudan's harsh Shari'a law.

Osama bin Laden's efforts were critical in defeating the U.N.'s intervention in Somalia, which was meant to enforce an agreement previously supported by all of the country's political factions. One of his terrorist offshoots, the Islamic Group, claimed responsibility for Egypt's most lethal terrorist attack, which killed 58 foreign tourists in November 1997.

Osama bin Laden's success in Somalia was based on his activities in Sudan, transporting 480 Afghan war veterans, financing training camps for fighters against the governments of Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, and helping rejectionist Palestinians opposed to the PLO's pursuit of peace with Israel.

The Nonviolent Solution

The Russian assaults on Chechnya are as large a mistake as the United States' armed response to the embassy bombings last year. The U.S. assault on Sudan and bin Laden's base in Afghanistan did nothing to check his growing power. It did, however, weaken Sudan's democratic movement as it was discredited as an arm of the U.S. assault.The Russian assaults on Chechnya are even more disastrous. They push the moderate, democratic Sufi majority of Chechnya into an alliance with the extremist Wahhabanists, despite their lack of sympathy for the activities in Dagestan.

It appears the United States is learning lessons about the futility of guns against bin Laden, taking note of the oil wealth that finances his war against freedom in the Islamic world. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright condemned the Canadian government for permitting its oil companies to invest in Sudan. Her remarks came after meeting with opponents of Sudan's dictatorship, who complained of the intensification of the war, with widespread destruction of churches and villages, after Sudan's oil began to flow. Albright's criticism prompted the Canadian government to review its policies of "constructive engagement" with Sudan.

Bin Laden's power base ultimately depends on his control over a substantial personal fortune, boosted by allies within the authoritarian power structure of Saudi Arabia. The country has refused to cooperate with the U.S. government in investigations into American military base bombings in which bin Laden was a suspect, forbidding interviews with suspects in Saudi jails. Wealthy Saudi businessmen were recently exposed for sending millions into bin Laden's bank accounts for front charities in Europe, money which essentially buys protection for their own companies.

While routine police work is important to controlling bin Laden, accountants might be the best weapon against him. They must uncover what ex-CIA counter-terrorism director Vince Cannistrano estimates are 80 front companies in several countries.One such operation runs in the coastal town of Mombassa, a fish business that financed bombing the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, which resulted in 200 deaths. The cover business allowed them to conduct business with restaurants in Nairobi while clandestinely surveying the embassy's security.

Osama bin Laden's former bank accounts in Switzerland, France, and Monaco have been transferred to dictatorships of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Middle East to avoid possible interference by cyberspace, where the CIA might delete his accounts electronically. Undermining bin Laden financially, combined with a conscious strategy to promote democracy in the Islamic countries where his popularity provides power, might be more successful.

Throughout the Islamic world, persecuted Sufi democrats are as much allies of freedom as the Christian trade unionists and environmentalists that helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe in the last stage of the Cold War. Their efforts would also be greatly aided if bin Laden's allies were not empowered by oil money, and if a serious effort were made to conserve energy and develop renewable forms of power generation reducing the world's dependency on petrol.

The outrages of Osama bin Laden are simply one of the most visible forms of the costs of a world economy so dependent upon petroleum that directly profits dictatorships. This would not be tolerated in a world which had more concern for the fate of the earth and the welfare of future generations.

John Bacher is working on a book about petrotyrannies. He is a regular contributor.

Some Interpretations of Islam

The Islamic faith has a 1500-year history and an estimated one billion followers worldwide. It is the fastest growing religion in the world. Here are a few distinctions between sects of Islam, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Cultural Academy website, important to John Bacher's article.

Sufi- the mystical; "Inner Tradition" of Islam; esoteric; rigorous self discipline and devotion to God.

Sunni - orthodox theology; constitute 95% majority in Islamic countries, Algeria and Sudan have the highest population of Sunni; referred to as mainstream traditionalists; follow leadership of the caliphs; believe that salvation comes with God's mercy on judgment day; live according to His law; honor the principle of solidarity and community consensus; ideological opponents of the Shiite.

Shiite - salvation lies with the caliphs; believe the imam (political ruler) is a manifestation of God; believe in the freedom of individual human will; strong devotion to family; Iran is the largest Shiite country.

Wahhabi - Muslim puritan movement; founded in the 18th century; activities of political and rel gious domination led to creation of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932; deny polytheism; literal belief of Qu'ran and establishment of Muslim state based only on Islamic law; believe all other sects are heretical.

Taliban (also Taleban) - Persian for "students;" the present ruling military in Afghanistan; emerged in 1994 following the Soviet invasion to rid the country of lawlessness and corruption; enforce strict Islamic social order.

Peace Magazine Winter 2000

Peace Magazine Winter 2000, page 22. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by John Bacher here

Peace Magazine homepage