Gangly centre-back Bin Laden, Arsenal and the plot to shoot Shearer

Last weekend, US special forces killed Osama Bin Laden. In the February 2008 issue of FourFourTwo, Paul Simpson explored the connections between Bin Laden, terrorism, Arsenal – and a bizarre plot targeting England's France 98 squad…

--------------------------------------------------“He’s hiding near Kabul, he loves the Arsenal, Osama, oh oh oh…”Arsenal fans' chant, to the tune of Volare.--------------------------------------------------

The Ides of March, 1994, Highbury. Among the 35,000 fans watching Arsenal beat Torino 1-0 in a European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final is, to quote Adam Robinson, author of Bin Laden: Behind The Mask Of The Terrorist, a “thick-bearded Islamic fundamentalist” called Osama Bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, attending “his first competitive football match”.

Robinson tells us: “The thick-bearded Islamic fundamentalist must have been a strange sight on the terraces, nevertheless, if he felt out of place, he did not worry about it.” This was the dull fag end of George Graham’s reign and Bin Laden was, Robinson insists, more impressed by the fans’ passion than the action.

The future most wanted man in the world returned, Robinson says, to watch Arsenal beat PSG. A ticket for this match was allegedly found in a cave in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, vacated by Bin Laden when US forces seized control in December 2001. The Al-Qaeda leader is rumoured to have watched four Arsenal games from the Clock End and bought a replica shirt for his 15-year-old son Abdullah.

Robinson’s revelations, published three weeks after 9/11, horrified Arsenal officials. One football writer – and Arsenal fan – who knows the club very well told FourFourTwo: “I’ve even heard that Highbury workers trawled through hours of CCTV footage to try and discover the full truth but to no avail.” (The club, invited to comment on these rumours, replied that they do not comment on speculation.)

Yet some fans welcomed the stories with a grim, ironic pride. For a while, if the action on the pitch dragged, you might hear an increasingly dirge-like, chorus of “Osama’s a Gooner”. ArseWeb put a positive gloss on the stories, saying “this makes north London ever so slightly less likely to become a target” while @FC, the electronic Arsenal fanzine, chortled: “A mate of mine reckons he remembers him. ‘Tall bloke, beard like old wire wool. Kept singing ‘No one likes me, I don’t care’ and ‘Stand up if you hate Zionist imperialism’.”

The idea that the CIA could have located their nemesis simply by scanning the Arsenal mailing list has a certain darkly comic appeal. But if he was there, why didn’t more people spot him? Or recall this “thick bearded fundamentalist” later?

While researching this piece, FourFourTwo contacted many Arsenal fans, most of them long-term season-ticket holders, and were invariably told something like: “I’ve never met anyone who can confirm the sightings.” The closest I got was from an Arsenal-supporting journalist who said: “I’ve only seen him on a T-shirt.”

Bin Laden’s many biographers are a disputatious bunch. And one of the many things they can’t agree on is whether he was in London in the spring of 1994 at all. They do, however, agree on one thing: Bin Laden really does love football.

--------------------------------------------------“I saw in a dream, we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots.”Bin Laden reminiscing about an Al-Qaeda member’s dream, on a tape released by the US government in 2001, in which Al-Qaeda’s pilots beat the Americans in a football match.--------------------------------------------------

Osama Bin Laden has three lives: the one he’s actually living (assuming he’s still alive); an idealised, mythologised version of that life, created by Al-Qaeda and its supporters, which presents him as an Islamic Robin Hood; and a distorted, caricatured recreation of that life disseminated by Western intelligence agencies that portrays him as a hypocritical, physically ailing, former playboy turned ruthless fanatic who lurks in a bat cave somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan where, with the deranged zeal of a James Bond villain, he whiles away the hours plotting mass destruction.

Some facts are undisputed. He was born in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, on March 10 1957. His father Muhammad Bin Laden was one of the Saudi royal family’s favourite construction tycoons. One of his dozen wives was Osama’s mother, a Syrian woman called Alia Ghanem. Osama was the only child of their marriage. His divorced mum later remarried and Osama went to live with her and his step-siblings.

He was the 43rd of 51 siblings and the 21st of 29 brothers. His dad died in a plane crash in 1967. A year later, when Osama was 11, he enrolled at Al Thagher Model School, the most prestigious school in the Saudi city of Jeddah. Teachers there seemed mystified by his subsequent notoriety. In conversation with The New Yorker’s Steve Coll, they called him a “quiet lad”, “nice fellow”, “rather shy and reserved” and “unusually tall”.

Bin Laden in Sweden in 1971

In 1971 or 1972, Bin Laden was invited to join an Islamic study group run by a Syrian PE teacher who, Coll suggests, may have belonged to an organisation known as the Muslim Brotherhood which believed, among other things, that the faithful should start a violent jihad against Christian occupiers and secular leaders in the Middle East. Osama may have agreed to join the group to earn extra course credits.

One of Bin Laden’s schoolmates told Coll: “The teacher promised that if we stayed we could play soccer. I very much wanted to play soccer, so we began to stay after school from two to five. He explained that we would spend a little bit of time indoors at first, memorising a few verses from the  Koran, and then we’d play football.

"He had the key to the goodies – the lockers where the balls and the equipment were kept. He’d send us out to the field but the athletic part was just disorganised. There was no organised soccer. I ended up playing a lot of one-on-one soccer, which is not very much fun.”

After the teacher recounted the stirring tale of a son who shot his father because dad was preventing him from pleasing God, this friend decided to give the classes a swerve. But Bin Laden was inspired by the sessions, let his beard grow, declined to iron his shirt (to emulate the Prophet) and started talking about the need to restore pure Islamic law.

But Bin Laden was still mad about football. Khaled Batarfi, now a senior Saudi journalist, lived a few doors down from him and played in the same team. With a touch of perverse pride, Batarfi always points out that he was captain and Bin Laden answered to him. He soon decided that his “unusually tall” friend had the stature and physique to get on the end of a few crosses. Sometimes, if the team were under pressure, he’d tell Osama to play in central defence.

Bin Laden may have been gangly – he is estimated to be 6ft 3in tall – but he held his own on the pitch. Batarfi told CNN: “A player told me someone was roughing up Bin Laden. I went running to the guy and pushed him away from Osama. But Osama came up to me and said: ‘You know, if you’d waited a few minutes I would have solved that problem peacefully’.”

Bin Laden went to the mosque several times a day and often retreated to desert camps to toughen himself up, but he still liked Westerns, Bruce Lee movies and American cars. But when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the 22-year-old Bin Laden found his cause, joining the mujhedin resistance.

Protesters make their point against the invasion

Within weeks of 9/11, stories were released of Bin Laden living it up in Beirut nightclubs, quaffing Dom Perignon and chasing waitresses. These reports amazed his sister-in-law Carmen Bin Laden and Coll says there is no credible evidence he ever lived there. It may be a simple case of mistaken identity – Carmen recalled: “Another brother-in-law chased many a skirt in Lebanon” – but the stories could have discredited Osama, casting him as, at best, a playboy who had seen the error of his ways and, at worst, a hypocrite.

These stories matter because they are detailed in Robinson’s book Bin Laden: Behind The Mask Of The Terrorist, the same tome which has beguiled us with the image of a conspicuously bearded Osama watching Cup Winners’ Cup games at Highbury. The Beirut stories – and a claim that Bin Laden bought a house in Wembley in 1994 – appeared, almost simultaneously, in a book by Yossef Bodansky, who gloried in the title of Director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism. Among other revelations Robinson and Bodansky have in common is the daring plot to massacre English and American footballers at the 1998 World Cup which we will come to later.

Jason Burke, the Observer reporter whose books about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are mercifully bereft of the usual sensationalism, wrote: “Selling a story to a news editor is a lot easier if you can involve Bin Laden. Oddly, a convention seems to have developed whereby something from a ‘security source’ acquires a degree of veracity and appears exempt from normal journalistic practices.” And it’s not as if you can check these stories with Al-Qaeda’s press office or be sued for libel by the most notorious man in the world.

For Burke, such rumours are par for the course. In his book, he notes: “Bin Laden was in fact a pious, studious, polite and somewhat shy teenager who was married at 17. Neither is there any evidence that bin Laden is an Arsenal fan who personally ordered the assassination of David Beckham. For the record, nor does Bin Laden have a small or deformed penis, nor is he homosexual.”

--------------------------------------------------“Do not play in two halves. Rather play in one half or three halves in order to completely differentiate yourselves from the heretics, the corrupted and the disobedient.” Fatwa issued on football, by Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdallah al-Nadji.--------------------------------------------------

Football is the one aspect of Western culture that has been embraced by many Muslims in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, even Bin Laden’s hardline allies, the Taliban, never completely banned the game though the regime did introduce horrific pre-match entertainment. Abdulsaboor Walizada, an Afghan footballer, told the Sunday Mirror that teams became accustomed to warming up while people were executed on the pitch: “Men and women would be led out to the penalty spot and shot just before the game began. There were amputations for petty criminals.”

In Saudi Arabia, the extended royal House of Saud and other members of the elite have tried to exploit football’s immense popularity, ploughing their petrodollars into the game in a bid – so far not spectacularly successful – to buy political legitimacy. Women are banned from stadiums, and the poor cannot afford to get in, so the overeducated and underemployed middle class goes to matches. Saudi football has proved even less effective as an opium for the masses since European games became available on satellite TV.

The popularity of Western sporting culture upset some religious leaders. In December 2005, the Washington-based Middle East Research Institute published a fatwa it said had been issued in 2003 by Sheikh Abdallah al-Nadji which told Saudi footballers not to use terms like foul and penalty kick which were “favoured by nonbelievers and polytheists” and proposed that, in defiance of the usual custom, teams should not contain 11 players. But it also suggested that football was really only justified if it helped players improve “their physical fitness and prepare for jihad”.

The fatwa was soon disowned by other clerics and would have perplexed Bin Laden, wherever he was hiding. Football was still part of his life in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Sudan in the 1990s, where he sought refuge from a rumoured CIA assassination squad and Saudi surveillance. Observer journalist Burke gives a fascinating snapshot of Bin Laden the businessmen in Khartoum: “Most of the time was spent making money, rather than spreading global jihad. Life in Sudan was odd. There were football matches and bathing trips and long junior common room-type arguments over points of Islamic doctrine.”

Although Sudan had an Islamic government – and Bin Laden invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the country’s infrastructure –  the regime had, by 1994, begun to look for ways of expelling Osama. That very year, they helped the West track down Carlos the Jackal, Bin Laden’s predecessor as the world’s most famous terrorist.

In this context, it is possible that Bin Laden might have wanted to vanish from Sudan for a few months, although London would have been a risky destination, given that Western intelligence were already on his case. But it is at this point – in early 1994 – that Bin Laden could have become an Arsenal fan. The key word there is could.

It’s probably best to start with the Robinson/Bodansky account. In 1994, Robinson says, Bin Laden “purchased a house on or near Harrow Road in the Wembley area” with cash. (He was certainly rich enough.) He had, Robinson says, last visited Britain in 1974 but, even though he didn’t come back for 20 years, he had mysteriously “developed and retained a liking for the country”. On this trip, in early 1994, he tasted the “simple pleasures of an anonymous and free man”. One of those pleasures, Robinson says, was “to attend his first competitive football match at Arsenal’s Highbury Road [sic].”

Highbury in 1994: Haunt of Bin Laden?

Bin Laden liked the atmosphere so much he couldn’t keep away although, in Robinson’s account, he had plenty to occupy him. He had founded an office he called Al Qaeda – it means “the base” –  in Afghanistan in 1988 and met supporters in the south east, did business in the City, and visited Edinburgh Castle. But he left suddenly when he heard the Saudi government wanted him arrested.

Lawrence Wright, in his book The Looming Towers, says that in March 1994, the Saudi authorities revoked Bin Laden’s passport. The inescapable conclusion is that if Osama ever did visit Highbury, he hasn’t done so since 1994 and has never had the thrill of watching that style of play Gooners call “Wengerball” in the flesh.

Robinson’s story chimes with his contested portrayal of Bin Laden as a rich young playboy prince. But there is little supporting evidence for the idea that Bin Laden was especially fond of London. One of Bin Laden’s brothers has confirmed (to Abel Bari Atwan, author of The Secret History Of AlQa’ida) that Osama attended a language school in Oxford Street in the summer of 1970, when he was 13. Sheikh Muhammad Zaki Badawai, the former director
f the Regents Park Islamic Centre in London, told Atwan that Bin Laden visited the mosque in the early 1980s and delivered some sermons there. But in interviews, he seems to regard the UK as almost as much of a threat to a true Islamic order in the Middle East as the US.

The case for Bin Laden the Gooner remains unproven. Robinson’s account is largely untroubled by footnotes or sources and usually proceeds in a “And then he did this….” manner that suggests the narrator is omniscient. The best we can reliably conclude is that he was in Sudan before and after Arsenal’s Cup Winners’ Cup run. We have no definitive day-by-day account of his movements, no diary revealing his thoughts on George Graham’s mistreatment of Anders Limpar, and no tapes, released by the Pentagon, showing him discussing his team’s remarkable transformation under Wenger. So the idea that he did visit Highbury still hovers somewhere between urban myth and fact.

Arsenal fans reluctant to let go of their most notorious fan might find a crumb of comfort in a story by Michael Howard, the former Conservative home secretary, that in 1995 Bin Laden sounded out officials about his being granted asylum in Britain. “I knew very little about him,” Howard has recalled, “but we picked up information that he was very interested in coming to Britain. Apparently it was a serious request. He already had people operating here. Who knows how history could have been rewritten if he had ended up here?”

--------------------------------------------------“The point man should make his way to Seaman and blow himself up next to him. The second brother should throw a grenade at the reserve players. The third brother should carry a gun and shoot Shearer.”Letter outlining an alleged plot by Al-Qaeda allies to kill England stars at France 98.--------------------------------------------------

By December 1997, Bin Laden’s ‘affection’ for Britain, London and English football had waned so much that, Robinson says, he “funded and helped organise” a plot by Algerian terrorist group GIA to kill the England team at France 98.

Once again, it’s best to suspend disbelief and let Robinson tell his story. Letters signed by members of AIG detailed a hit planned during England’s opening match against Tunisia on June 15 1998 in Marseille. On Bin Laden’s orders, Algerians working for GIA obtained jobs at the Stade Velodrome that gave them touchline access.

The letters suggest that a suicide bomber should blow himself up next to David Seaman, a colleague should chuck a grenade at the England bench (lobbing a spare at the England fans) while the third man was shooting Alan Shearer who – one letter helpfully noted – “will be at the opposite end of the field to Seaman”. Meanwhile in Paris, other terrorists would attack the USA team at their hotel.

England prepare to face Algeria – and terrorists

Luckily, the plot was leaked by a GIA informer. More than 100 people were arrested across Europe three weeks before the tournament started. Rene Georges, the police chief in charge of security for France 98, has said: “Certain individuals were arrested in France and other countries before the World Cup as a preventative measure.” But French police deny that the England team was specifically targeted.

The plot, as outlined, seems more like a sub-007 fantasy than the work of the same alliance of terrorists that so efficiently choreographed and orchestrated the 9/11 attacks to such appalling effect. In the world of secrecy, conspiracy and subterfuge in which Al-Qaeda operates, signing the letters seems rash.

As a general rule, the more likely you are to agree with the worldview of Genghis Khan, the more likely you are to find this plot to kill England stars credible. The idea that Al-Qaeda plotted to disrupt a World Cup does not seem, in hindsight, at all astonishing but the case for this particular plot, by Al-Qaeda, against this particular target, isn’t established beyond a reasonable doubt.

--------------------------------------------------“The TV broadcasted the big event [9/11]. The scene was showing an Egyptian family sitting in their living room, they exploded with joy. Do you know when there is a soccer game and your team wins, it was the same expression of joy. I went back to tell the Sheikh [Bin Laden]… but he made a gesture with his hands, meaning ‘I know, I know’.”Bin Laden’s spokesman Sulamain Abu Gaith, on tape of Bin-Laden released by the Pentagon in December 2001.--------------------------------------------------

After 9/11, Bin Laden – and Al-Qaeda – continue to pop up in strange football contexts. Diego Maradona, only a month after the Twin Towers attack, was spotted wearing a Bin Laden mask at his 40th birthday bash and challenged reporters: “How can we talk about violence in football when the Americans are bombing Afghanistan?” In February 2004, Mexican fans at the Guadalajara stadium chanted “Osama!” as their team knocked the USA out of qualifying for the Olympic football tournament.

Plots against football involving Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have proved a reliable filler on a slow news day. In December 2002, the then Israel coach Avram Grant said a Tunisian man had been detained by Italian police on suspicion of plotting to attack the Israeli team during an away match in Malta. But Reuters reported that Italian police knew nothing about the alleged plot.

Last summer, Wayne Rooney, Thierry Henry and David Beckham – along with Justin Timberlake – were all slammed as “evildoers” on a video, posted online, allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda while there have been other stories of an imminent attack on a Premiership club – the City of Manchester stadium has been mentioned, though last time such rumours surfaced Old Trafford was fingered.

More credible evidence of planned violence against football emerged in 2006 at the Old Bailey when five men who lived in Crawley were jailed for life for involvement in a bomb plot linked to Al-Qaeda. The plot was led by one Omar Khyam who, The Sun informed readers, “loved Man United and dreamed of playing for Pakistan… [but] chose terror”.

As the men discussed likely targets, one of them, Waheed Mahmood, suggested getting a job selling beer outside a football stadium. He was quoted as saying: “You just poison in a syringe, injecting it in a can…. [or] you could stand on street corners selling poisoned burgers and just leave the area.” Mahmood obviously knew enough about the quality of catering outside many grounds to suspect that fans wouldn’t be able to tell if their burgers and beer had been poisoned.

Bin Laden may have been a decent striker in his day – maybe, at 40, he still is – and he may watch, even revel in Saudia Arabia’s World Cup travails – but his love for the beautiful game isn't, apparently, so deep that he has ordered his acolytes and allies to leave football alone.