To a radical few, Osama bin Laden was a hero – but mainstream Muslims will remember him as a rebel who lost his way
British Muslims seduced by extremist forms of Islam have celebrated Osama bin Laden as a spiritual and military warrior.
In his suicide video address, Mohammad Siddique Khan, the leader of the bombers who attacked London on 7 July 2005, said he prayed God would raise him up to join “today’s heroes, like our beloved Sheikh Osama bin Laden”.
In public, Abu Hamza, the hook-handed preacher who once held sway over dozens of committed jihadists, including the shoe bomber Richard Reed, praised Bin Laden and his actions.
Like other Islamist leaders in the UK, Hamza used Bin Laden’s life story – the millionaire who gave up everything to fight jihad – as a recruiting tool to inspire young British men who may have seen themselves as living in a privileged society without spiritual purpose.
But in private, the picture wasn’t always so positive. According to one former London radical, Hamza had private doubts about the Saudi jihadist’s actions.
The debate among Islamist radicals in the years after 9/11 centred on whether Bin Laden was right to use Afghanistan as a launchpad to attack the west, or whether it would have been better to leave the country to grow into a fully fledged Islamic state under the Taliban.
A few years after 9/11, Hamza believed Bin Laden was tactically wrong to have attacked America, and that he should have given himself up to the international community to stop the Taliban from being overthrown.
In the days after September 11, Omar Bakri, the former leader of the now banned al-Muhajiroun group, based in Britain, is said to have prevaricated “like a feather in the wind” on whether the 9/11 attacks were halal or haram – permitted or prohibited – under Islamic law.
But Anjem Choudary, the former number two in al-Muhajrioun, said Bin Laden was “a modern-day hero”. “I believe he is loved by all Muslims,” he said. “He stood for the struggle, a symbol of resistance.”
Choudary said al-Muhajiroun often used Bin Laden “as an advertising ploy” to attract those who had heard about 9/11 and might want to know more.
“Sheikh Osama was the emir [leader] for people who want to franchise themselves to al-Qaida,” he said.
Among mainstream Muslims, says Inayat Bunglawala, chair of Muslims4UK, the picture is also complicated. Bunglawala used to be a supporter of Bin Laden’s but says that, after Afghanistan won its freedom from the USSR, Bin Laden turned to the “dark side”.
“Bin Laden used to be admired because he was from the wealthy family [but] turned his back on luxury to fight the Soviets,” said Bunglawala. “But after 1991, he developed the idea of a war with the US. He went over to the dark side, from someone who was opposing Soviet aggression to someone who thought killing innocent civilians was an appropriate response to US misdeeds.”
“Today, in those circles where al-Qaida are viewed as heroes, he will be viewed as a martyr,” added Bunglawala. “But to mainstream Muslims, he’ll be seen as someone who started off with good intentions but dramatically lost his way.”