Seventeen years after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, officials in Saudi Arabia have granted western journalists access to the Bin Laden family in an effort to separate the Saudi kingdom from its most infamous son, Osama Bin Laden. According to a new groundbreaking interview, Bin Laden may have orchestrated the 9/11 attacks to bring about the end of the world.
In Islam, the Hadith, or traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, are second in importance only to the Quran itself. One of the earliest and most authoritative hadith — Sahih Muslim — predicted that the apocalypse would come after the destruction of the Kaaba, the building housing the black stone at the center of Mecca, the most holy site in Islam (Book 41 Hadith 6951).
Besides its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia’s clout comes from the fact it contains the Hejaz, the region of most importance to Islam, containing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Bin Laden grew up in Saudi Arabia, and radicalized while fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. All the same, he went out of his way to involve Saudis in the 9/11 attacks.
“There is no doubt that he deliberately chose Saudi citizens for the 9/11 plot,” a British intelligence officer told the Guardian‘s Martin Chulov. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. “He was convinced that was going to turn the west against his … home country. He did indeed succeed in inciting a war, but not the one he expected.”
Chulov interviewed Bin Laden’s family members in a groundbreaking story. The terrorist’s mother, Alia Ghanem, insisted that her son’s radicalization began in college, and that he became a strong, driven, pious figure while studying at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.
“The people at university changed him. He became a different man,” Ghanem said. While at the university, Bin Laden met Abdullah Azzam, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was later exiled from Saudi Arabia and became Bin Laden’s spiritual adviser.
“He was a very good child until he met some people who pretty much brainwashed him in his early 20s. You can call it a cult,” the mother recalled. “They got money for their cause. I would always tell him to stay away from them, and he would never admit to me what he was doing, because he loved me so much.”
In the early 1980s, Bin Laden traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Russian occupation. “At the start, we were very proud of him,” Hassan Al-Attas, Bin Laden’s half-brother, recalled. “Even the Saudi government would treat him in a very noble, respectful way. And then came Osama the mujahid.”
“Mujahid” denotes someone fighting in a jihad, and it is better known in its plural form, mujahideen.
Interestingly, a cataclysmic event took place in Saudi Arabia shortly before Osama’s journey to fight in Afghanistan: the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the site of the Kaaba.
On November 20, 1979, Juhayman al-Otaybi launched an armed coup, smuggling weapons — cunningly hidden in coffins — into the Grand Mosque, declaring his brother-in-law Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani to be the Mahdi, or redeemer, who is prophesied to arrive on earth before Judgement Day. Al-Otaybi called for the overthrow of the ruling House of Saud. Saudi forces fought for nearly two weeks, assisted by Pakistani and French commandos, to retake the mosque.
The militant seizure of the Kaaba shocked the Islamic world, and the Saudis beheaded al-Otaybi and 67 other rebels publicly. The government also enforced stricter sharia (Islamic law) following the incident.
The seizure was not an al-Qaeda mission, but it likely inspired both al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. The timing adds up: Bin Laden was born in 1957, making him 22 in 1979. He would go off to Afghanistan shortly afterward. According to his mother, the seeds of Bin Laden’s radicalization were planted during his school years, and this event likely loomed large in his mind.
More significantly, however, Islamic terrorism has often been connected to efforts to bring about the apocalypse. While many members of al-Qaeda mocked the Islamic State (ISIS) for its focus on the End Times, Muslims across history have taken up arms supporting a Mahdi, often heralding the apocalypse. Most of these efforts came from Shia Muslims, while al-Qaeda is — and Bin Laden was — militantly Sunni.
Nevertheless, Sahih Muslim is the second-trusted Hadith in Islam, and it is quite plausible that Bin Laden’s efforts to incite a war between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. had more significance in his mind than a desire to pit his home country against the United States.
Bin Laden’s recovered journals included “apocalyptic” passages, describing “dreams and visions, including a scenario in which Muslim countries unite after the revolutions and peace is established with the west — a prelude to the end times in some branches of Islamic theology.”
Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French scholar of Muslim views of the apocalypse, has argued that most modern Sunni Muslims viewed apocalyptic thinking with suspicion before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many associated such End Times speculation with the Shia or the fringe, but then again, Osama Bin Laden’s own mother described his radicalism as a “cult.” Perhaps the 9/11 architect was secretly obsessed with the End Times.
The Saudi government allowed Chulov to interview Bin Laden’s family as part of an effort to “demonstrate that an outcast — not an agent — was responsible for 9/11.” Critics of Saudi Arabia have alleged that Bin Laden had state support.
While Bin Laden may have wanted 9/11 to unleash the apocalypse, Saudi Arabia’s ties with the United States made such a direct war extremely unlikely. Shia Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia’s geographic and ideological foe, admitted to orchestrating the 9/11 hijackers’ travel. Iran has long positioned itself against Israel and the U.S. The region’s explosive politics have entrenched the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, an alliance unlikely to be dissolved any time soon.
All the same, experts have argued that Bin Laden intended to start a U.S.-Saudi war, and he may have aimed for such a war thinking it would spark a battle for Mecca, the destruction of the Kaaba, and the end of the world. Thanks in part to the U.S.-Saudi Arabia alliance, the apocalypse was averted.