“Successful wickedness hath obtained the name virtue… when it is for the getting of the kingdom.”
Fishing your keys out of a hospital’s public toilet after you’ve found out they won’t flush down is a bitch. Keys that had fit into the ignition of a Toyota pick-up truck. Had fit, but would no longer since a half-hour earlier it’d disappeared in a massive fireball and taken 213 lives along with it. And matters aren’t made any better when it’s right around the noon lunch-rush to the porcelain. When anyone from the grumpy chain-smoking caffeine-slugging nurses to the patients who’ve had their bowels loosened and ripened by disease, hospital food, and hopelessness have just taken their regular load off before returning to their day.
The task is made even more surreal when you’re holding three unfired bullets to go along with your keys. When you can feel that your jeans, white-patterned shirt, socks, and black shoes are all stiffening and jelling with the pungent, coagulating blood of your victims. And the blood of a close friend. The blood of a man who you’d sworn to fight to the death with, who’d cared for you when you nearly died from contracting tuberculosis in a third-world country.
Mohammed Rashid Daoud al-Owhali could still smell the tang of dynamite in the dry African air. He stood, bleeding from cuts on his back, right hand, and forehead, and tried to figure out just how things had gone so wrong. He had left his home in Saudi Arabia, crossed paths and earned the respect of the legendary muhajideen, proved his loyalty to Osama bin Laden, fought and trained in Afghanistan to die the brave death of a martyr.
How could it be that after so much, he’d ended up only a bloodied coward?
Almost seven-hundred years earlier, Jacques de Molay had also stood contemplating his fate with strong smells swirling in the afternoon air. Except he was in front of the crowd that’d gathered at the Notre Dame, standing because he was chained to a stake.
And the smell overwhelming the chill October air was the burning of his own flesh.
In 1307, the Knights Templar ceased to exist as a cohesive organization, and their next palpable contribution to history would be as a plot twist in a Dan Brown novel. De Molay had spent two years imprisoned in Paris because he’d been the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, a once-venerable military order founded to secure safe passage for the innumerable European pilgrims and soldiers making their way to the Holy Land. More precisely to the sacred Temple Mount in Jerusalem, from which the Templars drew their moniker. Refusing to denounce his brethren, De Molay was put to the torch. This occurred largely because with the end of the Crusades had come the shriveling of the Templar’s raison d’etre – however their still-plump fortune was greedily eyed by European monarchs. Most keenly, by King Phillip IV of France.
In the aftermath of the First Crusade, the order was organized when “a small band of knights took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to dedicate their entire lives to the protection of pilgrims to the Holy Land.”1 They began simply protecting the roads to Palestine, but soon grew to be the largest standing army in all of Christendom.
Over the course of almost two-hundred years, more than twenty-thousand men would become sworn military monks fighting and killing in the Middle East under the banner of the Knights Templar.
But then in holy cahoots with Pope Clement V, King Phillip had a papal bull issued that charged the Templars with heresy, an important charge because it was the one crime that would allow Phillip to confiscate their extensive wealth and properties. This treasure had amassed “in such abundance that the employment of its surplus funds had made the Knights Templar the major bankers of the Christian world.”2 And the underpinnings of how the Templars became so rich are locked in step with the financial impetus that marched the First Crusades to the Middle East so many hundreds of years ago, leaving a legacy that is still bitterly remembered today.
As Pope Urban II consolidated his rule at the end of the eleventh century, he saw that “the main forces in motion in Western Europe were: exceptional demographic growth coupled with harsh economic conditions, which together fueled widespread social unrest.” Amplifying the waves of social unrest beginning to ripple across Europe were both the Papacy’s sinking power, which demanded new ways to bring the commoner back to the Church, and the “pressing demands for new commercial outlets posed by the new social classes of merchants, bankers, and traders.”3
The status quo, it seemed, would not be able to hold much longer unless something was done.
So in late November of 1095, after traveling across France the previous summer to feel out the nobles and clerics whose support would be at the crux of his plan, Urban II held court at Cathedral of Clermont. In attendance were some three-hundred churchmen who were answering the letters Urban had sent out and a throng of locals so vast that they soon overfilled the Cathedral, forcing Urban to move the session to a nearby field.
With his Papal throne sitting high atop a platform that’d been hastily constructed to loft Urban above the masses, he began to passionately lay out the plight of their Christian Brothers in Eastern Christendom. He claimed that their brothers living within the land of Palestine had appealed for their help, as there were “Turks advancing into the heart of the Christian land, maltreating the inhabitants and desecrating their shrines.”4 Among the worst of these alleged desecrations were that tender Christian boys were being circumcised with hackneyed carelessness, that Turkish soldiers were buggering imprisoned Christian men, that Christian women and girls were being abused as if they were barnyard animals.5
Given the still-popular beliefs about what backwards country peoples do to their livestock, we can only guess what traumatizing practices were allegedly being carried out by the Muslim Turks on young Christian girls.
Such sensational claims were necessary because at the time “there was no underlying anger against the Muslims, about whom almost nothing was known in Europe.” In fact, within the Holy Land there was no Muslim impediment against Christians visiting their holy places except versions of the same gate-toll that was paid whenever anyone passed through the gates of any major European city, say London or Paris.
There was so little understanding about the region that the name soon applied to all followers of Mohammad, Saracens, was a misinformed bastardization cum overgeneralization derived from the name of just a single Middle Eastern tribe that had been pestering the Greeks near the Syrian border for generations. But the name of this one tribe came to encompass Muslims in general within every papal bull and encyclical, likely since all Arabs about looked the same to the Europeans anyways.
The Muslim rulers of the Christian Holy Land allowed Christian pilgrims and permanent residents alike to pursue their interests in the lands of Palestine, and “had no problem with the presence of either Orthodox or Latin Christians in their territory.”6 To overwhelm this tolerant reality and incite Europe’s pangs for war, Pope Urban skillfully used propaganda that harnessed the same appeals that would almost one-thousand years later find Mohammed Rashid Daoud al-Owhali in Africa.
Stinking of encrusted blood and his own fear, cowering in a public restroom after just carrying out the murder of hundreds of civilians, al-Owhali was brought to Africa by an appeal that had hundreds of years earlier brought thousands of Christian Crusaders to the Holy Land.
In 1996, from the catacombed compounds of Tora Bora, Osama bin Laden issued his first communiqué to his Muslim brothers across the world. It would shortly be joined by other written and spoken statements that would coalesce in the years to come as the manifesto embodied as al-Qaeda. Bin Laden echoed the two main appeals made by Pope Urban at Clermont: protecting brothers of the faith who were being persecuted by a corrupt and vile enemy, and tracing a path to redemption leading out of the harsh economic reality that was everyday life for most members of the faith.
This shared path to redemption was martyrdom. Both men stressed its sanctity and presented the inevitable heavenly awards waiting for those who would undertake this duty as an inviting escape from the pervasive misery of life on earth. The cause of this misery, in both cases, can be traced to “the socio-economic and political systems that they respectively set out to destroy” and rooted in economic disparity, caused most obviously by trade imbalances.7
So the leadership of whichever side was on the losing end of the trade imbalance has been the one that’s embraced martyrdom as a way of rectifying the issue, back then the Christian and now the Muslim.
At the time of Urban’s speech, “the desolation of Western Europe’s countryside was in harsh contrast to the splendor of Arab civilization.” The great Arab cities, Baghdad and Cairo among them, glowed with riches and a vibrant culture made all the more so in contrast to the decline of the feudal flea-bitten European Empire. Islam’s blossoming trade along the Mediterranean left its evidence in the form of coins, which have been found everywhere from Britain to Russia to the Balkans.8
Arab pirates restricted European trade and soon turned the Mediterranean Sea into an “Arab lake” that was “inaccessible to Christian shipping, but open to trade from all countries under Arab sway, with staggering results in the field of Arab economy and industry.”9 Trade, which was wincingly seen as approaching usury by medieval Europeans, made the 11th century Arabs who embraced this Mohammedan tradition the dominant force in the region. The benefits of trade have since switched sides, and trade was seen by bin Laden as oppressing the Believers on his side.
Modern Western traders – who came as colonizers and imperialists – either left or were forced out of the Middle East, but their legacy still crippled the prospects for prosperity in the region. They introduced Western economic principles like capitalism and accumulation but didn’t bother to implant socio-political and educational values necessary for them to function properly.10 Without representative democracy or liberal rights, an immensely wealthy oligarchy was created in the Arab societies that bin Laden grew up in. This upper class was able to monopolize the benefits of international trade because they acted as the sole bridge between the capitalists of the West and the resources and markets of the East.
Flowing across this bridge were natural resources, mostly petroleum products, headed from the Middle East towards the West, and back the other way flowed consumer goods. Because of this monopolistic bridge that kept wealth and power in the hands of a moneyed and largely hereditary elite, the development of Middle Eastern culture was hindered and entire nations were denuded of their wealth. At the time of bin Laden’s appeals to Muslims “the decline of the East was particularly shocking when compared to the economic and financial boom of the West.”11
And it was this gap that young Muslims began to consider as they began to question the status quo. It was a gap that many Muslims would feel compelled to throw themselves into in the name of martyrdom.
And it was martyrdom – both Pope Urban and bin Laden insisted – that was necessary to free their fellow Believers from the “aggression, iniquity and injustice,” imposed on them by Unbelievers.11 Martyrdom was made more appealing with the use of appeals to their respective holy scriptures and the lives of their respective Prophets, and in both cases was presented as the only way to free their brothers from Infidel persecution.
Joining Urban’s Crusades and being given the opportunity to die the death of a martyr and collect a very inviting rewards package appealed to the average European peasant: side-stepping death, and gaining land, profits, and ultimately your soul’s eternal salvation.
A similar package, put together because of similar broad economic realities, was also offered by bin Laden: a sense of purpose, financial support, and the joy of martyrdom. And many young Muslims, who see themselves without a future and with a past “overshadowed by Western exploitation,” greedily eye this package. Muslims from the same “economically-oriented social classes… of merchants, traders, and bankers” that fueled the Crusades are fueling today’s Islamic extremism.12 It isn’t the poorest Muslims becoming martyrs in the name of protecting their brothers and defending their faith, but those from the small emerging middle-class.
Both Pope Urban and bin Laden were attempting to begin social epidemics of massive proportions and limitless implications. The Pope succeeded, as the Crusades pulled thousands of Europeans into their fold and was far and away the most important social force of the time. No one knows when the Crusades hit their Tipping Point and gained the momentum they needed to continue to spread unchecked, but they serve well as an example of a pervasive social epidemic. Bin Laden too had been attempting to begin a social epidemic, and with each attack in the name of al-Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism stepped a bit closer to hitting his own Tipping Point.
One final appeal acted as the cornerstone for both Pope Urban II and Osama bin Laden. It was a call to liberate Jerusalem, a city in the Holy Land that was not only a crossroads of trade, but the page upon which both the Prophet Mohammad and the Crusade-born Knights Templar would leave their most controversial marks.
Muslims believe that on Islam’s holiest night, Mohammad met Jesus, Moses, and Abraham face-to-face in the Kaba’a, then mounted the winged progeny of a jackass and a donkey. It took off from Mecca and would land on the roof of the Temple of Solomon, from which the Knights Templar would derive their name. On a piece of real estate that lies on the same rocks as the original site of the Temple of Solomon, Muslims have built the al-Aqsa, simply “the Farthest,” Mosque to commemorate their Prophet’s blessed nocturnal journey.
The al-Aqsa Mosque is next door to the “Dome of the Rock” both sacred because they were built on the same rock that Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his first-born son on and because the mythical ladder Muhammad climbed as he left his life on earth and ascended into heaven was set there. The Templars used the temple built on this same rock – large enough, really, to be called a plateau – to headquarter their efforts defending the pilgrims and soldiers of the Crusades. It’s arguably the most important and contested rock in the world, as many hundreds of years later it would again serve as a focal point of religious violence.
In February of 1998 bin Laden issues a statement calling for, among other things, the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Six months later al-Owhali would answer this call and take part in an attack that exploded in one of the most indicative and most misunderstood terrorist acts of the modern era. And in the end he found himself alone with only the stench of death as company, much like Archbishop Jacques de Molay, who was burned alive at the stake.
The temporal significance of the day the Knights Templar were brutally disbanded and their last Grand Master immolated has haunted Western societies up to this day. It was on a Friday that de Molay’s flesh was crisped away from bone as he cried out a curse that would in weeks take the lives of King Phillip IV of France and Pope Clement V.
And it was the thirteenth day of the month.
It wasn’t the first time al-Owhali had risked his life for – as he saw it – Islam. Just before his twentieth birthday he’d traveled to Afghanistan from his home in Saudi Arabia to join the Muslims battling the infidel there. He was drawn to Afghanistan, to the epicenter of radical Islam, by militant literature and the stories of a friend who’d returned from fighting alongside Muslim militants in Bosnia. Once in Afghanistan al-Owhali began training in what he described as “a basic military training camp” where he received training in “light weapons, some demolition, some artillery, some communication.”13
These camps weren’t under the de facto control of Osama bin Laden, and required the cooperation and coordination of dozens of other men all vying for control and prestige in the embattled region. Yet bin Laden was one of the more prominent leaders, and understanding just how this came to pass requires a story of its own.
Although some recruits complained of a lack of ammunition for live-firing exercises, al-Owhali excelled and was soon plucked from the hundreds of others there for six months of training in what he later described as “security and intelligence, how to gather information, how to protect information from being divulged, how to conduct hijackings on buses or planes, how to do kidnappings and how to seize and hold buildings.”14
In the summer of 1997, this training would be put to the test. During a firefight in the Afghani hinterlands that would later be called the “C-Formation Battle,” al-Owhali, was joined by Azzam. The man who’d nursed him to health from tuberculosis, been the driver the day of the Nairobi bombing, and whose blood had covered al-Owhali as he fished his keys out of the toilet. Azzam, al-Owhali, and four other non-Afghani fighters posted on the muhajideen frontlines held off a much larger force of men. For their valor al-Owhali and Azzam were given the chance for even more extensive terrorist training. They both leaped at it.
This next stage of training was at the hands of an Egyptian in the employ of al-Qaeda, likely a former US Special Forces Sergeant named Ali Mohammad who in the late 1980s had purloined classified documents which were adapted as the cannon of terrorist cell-formation and operations.
The importance of the fact that al-Qaeda modeled itself on the stolen framework of US Special Forces cannot be emphasized enough. Not only does it again highlight the tension and relation between commando and terrorist, but it provides a striking point of comparison between the actions of both groups. It is from this literary link that so many of the similarities between modern Islamic terrorists and Special Forces operations spring, and it is a tie that binds them inexorably together.
Al-Owhali’s Special Forces-inspired training also intersects with the 1993 van-bombing of the World Trade Center. He was briefed for his mission in Africa by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – uncle to Ramzi Yousef and a man who had his fingers in his nephew’s attack, 9/11, these Embassy bombings, and the chief merchant of the Islamist terrorism that was beginning to monopolize violence in Southeast Asia. Due to these reasons and more, Khalid Sheik Mohammed serves as one of modern Islamic fundamentalism’s most accomplished Mavens.
The term Maven comes from the Yiddish for “to accumulate knowledge,” and owes about all of its fame to the studies of market economists who have shown that a very small number of people, Market Mavens, follow prices closely and report those fluctuations to the rest of society. It’s not that Mavens passively collect knowledge, they not only want to get a great deal for themselves – they want to tell you about it too.15
Mavens differ from experts in that while an expert may know a lot about a subject, one doesn’t qualify as a Maven unless he wants to help you understand it and get what you want from it.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is the most notorious terrorist Maven, as from his studies and experiences – which drew from his time spent schooling in America as well as extensive international travel – he presented his ideas to any and everyone who would listen. He gave Yousef operational advice before his 1993 attack, played a role in the chain of attacks which lashed across Southeast Asia at the turn of the twenty-first century, and gave bin Laden the idea to fly airplanes into important American buildings.
When Khalid Sheikh was finally captured in the suburbs of Pakistan, his laptop yielded a deep treasure-trove of contacts and information that proved invaluable to authorities. But Khalid’s involvement was only in passing here, and so we return to al-Owhali’s story.
As al-Owhali got out of the shotgun-side of the Toyota pick-up truck driven by his friend and comrade, Azzam, he casually dusted himself off.
They’d been following a jeep driven by a man they both knew only as “Harun” through the drifting Kenyan roads that jostled up to the compound that the American Embassy was located in, grim despite the stark mid-morning African sun. False Iraqi passport in hand, al-Owhali had traveled from the Afghani training camps to Yemen, where he called his parents for the first time in two years. A few months later al-Owhali found himself, dust still clinging to his cloths despite his efforts, approaching the guards manning the gate that barred the entrance to the American Embassy and reaching into his jacket-pocket for the pistol he planned to use to force the guards to lift the bar, which would permit the truck-bomb to enter.
But there was a problem. It wasn’t that his pistol wasn’t where it was supposed to be. It was in his jacket. But he’d left his jacket on his seat. Back in the Toyota.
Al-Owhali hesitated, and instead of casually going back to the truck to retrieve his weapon he panicked, began yelling in broken English and threw the only other weapon he had – a flash-bang grenade – at the guards. Exchanging incredulous looks, they scattered and escaped unharmed. Flash-bang grenades are much different than concussive or incendiary grenades which have a kill-radius of over a dozen feet.
Flash-bangs are designed to be effective within enclosed spaces but not outdoors, and then only to stun the enemy. They temporarily blind and deafen him with the detonation of magnesium and ammonium perchlorate, giving you a few moments of initiative. About the only way one could possibly be lethal is if you manage to stuff it into someone’s mouth like an apple in a suckling pig. That al-Owhali was armed with flash-bang grenades instead of lethal concussive or incendiary ones ended up being just the first symptom of the entire attack’s absurdity.
Watching al-Owhali’s antics, Azzam knew the guards would soon be sounding the alarm and launching a counterattack. So while he still could, he rammed the Toyota against the wall protecting the Embassy compound. Why he rammed the Toyota into the wall instead of the security gate is anyone’s guess. Watching this happen al-Owhali, figuring he’d done all he could, began to sprint away from martyrdom as Azzam pressed the button on the Toyota’s dashboard, triggering a blast that knocked al-Owhali to the pavement and took over two-hundred lives.
It’d be hard to script an incident more ham-fisted than al-Owhali’s comical effort to bomb the American embassy in Nairobi, an antic of terrorism so botched that it’d be damn-near hilarious except that 213 innocent Africans died on the Kenyan avenues of Moi and Selassie because of it. And yet of those who were killed in the blast only 12 were Americans, and under an hour later in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam a similarly botched effort against the US Embassy there didn’t kill any Americans at all.
In another one of history’s finer ironies, Dar es Salaam is a transliteration of the Arabic for “The House of Peace.” As al-Owhali stood in the bathroom and contemplated what’d just happened, the MP Shah Hospital begun to fill up with the four-and-a-half thousand wounded victims of the explosion he was supposed to habeen martyred in. But wasn’t, because he fled while his friend died. He was arrested five days later. And yet, despite the blatant tactical failure of the attack, it still began the exact chain of events that Osama bin Laden had intended. Because the bombings were never meant to be Tactical Terror, their entire purpose was to accomplish the goals of Symbolic Terror.
Days after the bombings at the two US Embassies the Clinton administration reacted by launching Tomahawk missile strikes against suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, provoking a range of reactions.
At home the American public and press saw the strikes as a rather callow effort to wag the dog away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which threatened to permanently stain Clinton’s legacy. The administration argued that the strikes were meant to intimidate bin Laden, and to show to him and his ilk that America was still a power not to be crossed. However their effect on “the broader Islamic world was not a major consideration.”16 America felt threatened and so reacted with knee-jerk violence, a habit which would have telling consequences in the months and years to come.
Immediately for bin Laden, the missile strikes confirmed the wisdom of aiming at American targets instead of going after the entrenched apostate rulers of most Arab nations. He’d argued that because both Israel and the major Arab powers depended on American aid and military equipment to maintain their hold on power, it was only by first weakening America that the road to change would be paved in the Middle East. The American strikes brought to bin Laden a “conversion to cult status [that] dramatically emphasized to local groups the symbolic and material advantages that alliance with him could bring.”17
It didn’t matter that only a dozen Americans had died and no real tactical military or financial damage had been done. Bin Laden’s bombings were from their conception meant to be acts of Symbolic Terror that would set the stage for a cosmic struggle between the forces of Islam and the West, not Tactical Terror. Within the subculture of Islamic militants the simple fact that bin Laden managed to incur the wrath of the Great Satan showed that he was much more than “a dilettante showboating rich kid who lived in safety in Afghanistan far from the tough struggle against the states’ security apparatus.”18
America’s retaliation for the attacks were protested by thousands of Muslims the world over, and added to bin Laden’s argument that the United States was engaged in war against Islam. Out of all the leaders vying for control of the terrorist training apparatus of Afghanistan, bin Laden now began to emerge as the emir, and his al-Qaeda ideology gained an authority for Islamic extremists the world over that has yet to be surpassed. Soon, anyone who aspired to join the struggle against the West saw bin Laden as the focus of their ambitions.
As is the goal of Symbolic Terror, the Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam began the process of drawing attention to al-Qaeda and their cause, and in doing so drawing in eager new recruits as well as many new donations from wealthy Muslims abroad. And these acts of Symbolic Terror were also meant to begin the cycle of Political Terrorism, by incurring retaliation that would in turn draw support and sympathy to the terrorists and enmity against their target.
Although at first the Islamic world met the bombings with “shock and disgust,” following the American retaliation these feelings became “tempered with a genuine respect for, admiration of and identification with an undoubtedly charismatic individual who appeared to be standing up against America.” In Pakistan, Egypt, and everywhere in-between, demonstrations of incensed young Muslims took to the streets to protest against a country they had a now-growing suspicion was at best overbearing and exploitative, and at worst directly responsible for Muslim suffering worldwide.19
Bin Laden’s repute grew with their rage. And yet his attacks weren’t anywhere close to as devastating as they were made out to be.
Even had the bombings gone off inside the Embassy compounds, little or no tactical damage would have been done. Neither Kenya nor Tanzania are considered important allies by America, and the diplomatic personnel stationed there were hardly valuable tactical assets. The bombings were never meant to be Tactical Terror, from the start they were meant to summon the cyclical zeitgeist of classic Political Terrorism.
By first sponsoring dramatic and visible acts of Symbolic Terror, bin Laden then hoped for the retaliation that would “bring in recruits, money and prestige and mobilize and radicalize the ‘Arab street,’”20 which is exactly what he got. This enhanced his capabilities and allowed him to sponsor more attacks aimed at drawing even more retaliation from America, and further increased the validity of his message that America was the gravest threat to Islam and must be crushed for Muslims the world over to live in peace.
Once this gyre, the first stirrings of Political Terrorism, began to swirl it would gain mass and grow in size, drawing in all American designs for the Middle East. Eventually, Muslim youth would begin crusades of their own and “cast off their illusions, embrace the true Islamic path and launch their own attacks against the tyrannical oppressors.”21
Luckily at the time, the African bombings and subsequent American retaliation were not enough. The gyre spun, and then stopped, petered out. But our luck would run out, as it would be drawn permanently back into motion by “a band of kamikaze air pirates”22 three years later.
But before this could happen bin Laden would need time to consolidate his strength. Al-Qaeda was slow to find seed.
The hatred-rich roots that fed the destruction which bloomed on the morning of September 11th were anchored in many places. In the bloody ash which settled around the American Embassies within Africa, in the tormented crags of the Hindu Kush, in the well-oiled pockets of sympathetic Muslim businessmen living everywhere from Islam’s birthplace to the heart of the West.
And in a region that is often overlooked in both the study of Islam and the study of terrorism: the islands that pierce the Pacific off the shores of Southeast Asia. Lands which, with all the irony of a disinterested History, had been some of the only lands to come to Islam through peaceful commerce instead of falling under its sword.