Just for a few moments, try to imagine the years since 9/11 from the point of view of Osama bin Laden. Before September 11, 2001, bin Laden was already a popular figure among Islamist extremists who admired him as a rich man who played an important role in expelling Soviet troops from Afghanistan and then supported veterans of the anti-Soviet war. Tapes of his lectures were bestsellers in many countries, but he had dreams of greater glory: he wanted to be viewed as the leader of all the Arab people. Although bin Laden does not appear to have been that involved in the actual conception and organization of the 9/11 attacks, George Bush and his administration portrayed him as such and, in terms of publicity, that was fine with bin Laden. Of course there was a downside to the aftermath of the attacks. Bin Laden had to give up his terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and flee and hide and evade.
After a while, though, George Bush seemed to lose interest in catching bin Laden. Instead he invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein. At one point, in September 2003, a Washington Post poll found that 69% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks, which, of course, he wasn’t. Imagine how Osama bin Laden felt about that. Here he had gone to all that trouble to kill thousands of Americans, and Saddam Hussein was getting all the credit. This was particularly galling because bin Laden despised Saddam Hussein, who was a rival because he too wanted to be viewed as the leader of all Arabs.
Four days before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, bin Laden released a videotaped speech for the first time in almost three years, thus ending speculation that he was dead. In the U.S., there was much gabbing in the media as to whether bin Laden did this in order to help the Democrats or to help the Republicans. My guess is that he wasn’t trying to help either side. It is more likely that he was tired of being ignored, he saw that the world was focused on the American election and he released his video at that time in order to capture the most possible attention.
However obsessed Osama bin Laden is with personal power, he still believes in advancing his ideology through terrorist acts, which made the loss of his training camps difficult to take. He had first operated training camps in Afghanistan in the 1980s, before transferring his operations to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan. From the time U.S.-led forces attacked Afghanistan in October 2001 until March 2003, al-Qaeda did not have an effective training camp. Fortunately for them, George Bush came to the rescue. Imagine how Osama bin Laden feels now. Bush overthrew and arrested bin Laden’s old rival, Saddam Hussein, and he transformed Iraq into a cauldron of chaos and violence. It is not possible to build formal terrorist training camps in Iraq, the kind where militants can gain instruction outdoors in the fresh air, but, from the point of view of Osama bin Laden and his admirers, George Bush turned Iraq into something even better: a place to actually practice killing Americans and others. Instead of becoming students, aspiring terrorists can now serve as on-the-job apprentices.
Although most of the insurgents in Iraq really are Iraqis, wannabe terrorists from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan and other countries have been streaming into Iraq. There they have their choice of dozens of cells who will teach them how to build and plant bombs, and they can even watch as suicide bombers kill innocent people. After trying out a deadly attack or two, these newly trained terrorists can return to their own countries or even travel to new countries, spread what they have learned in Iraq and kill people in the nations of their choosing. For Osama bin Laden, it is no doubt frustrating that he has to remain in the background while Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other terrorist leaders gain the headlines, but at least bin Laden has the satisfaction of knowing that, thanks to the bumbling response of George Bush, he will go down in history as the godfather of the attacks that led to the accelerated growth of worldwide Islamist terrorism.