'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The Cave/Luxury Compound Dichotomy

I wonder if it's of any consequence, but when I think of bin Laden, it's in a cave or in a mountainous region. 

Bin Laden in Af-Pak border. Beside him the presence of an AK-47/AKM indicates the violent nature of Jihad and his credentials as a soldier of God.

Bin Laden's appeal stemmed in part from his rejection of the luxurious Saudi lifestyle which his family, as a construction empire embedded with the House of Saud, had come to know. Many who had met him during the later part of the Afghan civil war spoke of his humility and his austere living. How many times have we been told that he is in a cave complex? First in Spin Boldak during the end of 2001 and later in the FATA that sit between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Singaporean diplomat who asked, 'how can one man in a cave outcommunicate the world's greatest communication society?' was not alone in assuming that bin Laden had gone to ground. 

The Qu'ran is a leftist document, it appeals to the disenfrancised. It distinguishes between justice and injustice. It empowers the poor and resents the rich. Bin Laden was a living embodiment of this literature. He had rejected luxury for his faith. This was part of the myth. So what does it mean that when killed, he was living in a $1million dollar gated villa in a beautiful town in Pakistan? Does it mean that his fighting had merited his luxurious retirement or do his followers, adherents, admirers and sympathisers expect the great sacrifice of the man to endure to his end? The smouldering gated compound is an odd final image for the man who became thought of as the old man of the mountain. He had the comfort of and support of many members of his family who were with him in the complex.

The general history of his habitation is delineated by Jason Burke today in a Guardian piece:
"In the late 1990s, for propaganda purposes, Bin Laden invited select journalists to meet him in caves near Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. However he lived in a much more comfortable compound a short drive away, near the former Soviet collective farm of Hadda owned by a local warlord. By 1999 he had moved to a complex of houses near Kandahar. When he was killed, he was living in a relatively comfortable detached house in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In between, there is no evidence that he spent any time living in caves. The rest of al-Qaida's senior militants appear to have lived in the semi-fortified houses that are common in the tribal zones."

Both the Western and al-Qaeda narratives propagated the 'idea of the cave'. November 29, 2001, the London Times apparently carried an amazing (in hindsight) image (I haven't verified this graphic but see also SKY) of what the US-led forces would encounter in Spin Boldak, in keeping with this James Bond evil villain intent on world domination theme that had developed in the aftermath of 9.11 in the media:
The New York Times and no less a polarizing figure than Donald Rumsfeld both asserted that these cave complexes existed, the latter suggesting there were many of them. Jason Burke (2003, I.B.Taurus/London, p.73) argued as much, drawing on evidence from interviewees (showing the difficulty of differentiating fact and fiction in these accounts).

The Cave Caveat

The residence of a public figure has been important in some recent Islamic narratives. When Ahmadinejad was running for President of Iran, it was widely held that his decision to let media film his austere, basic living quarters generated a spike in approval. Ahmadinejad also achieved notoriety by driving around in a three-decade old Peugeot 504. Jihadists often commentate on the disconnect between the wealthy American politicians and the fighters that prosecute their wars. 

Finally, it's not a powerful, resonant final act that bin Laden constructed. Rather he was a passive unwilling participant in it. No opposite forces were harmed. There was no great stand-off or siege but instead he went quietly into the night. No enduring images or myth to be embraced by jihadists across the globe. He now becomes consigned to his writings and pronouncements and thought of in that luxury villa, sixty miles from Islamabad.

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