To many Pashtuns, bin Laden is a Muslim brother

At a Peshawar bazaar, a book and T-shirt featuring the Islamic militant are bestsellers.

In the introduction to "Who is Osama bin Laden?" - one of the few books about the elusive Arab militant - author Ibn Abni Atta portrays the rise of of his subject as nothing short of apocalyptic.

The writer explains how Mr. bin Laden, with bravado fit for a fairy tale, gave up his "princely life" in Saudi Arabia to fight the infidels in the unforgiving mountains of Afghanistan.

And in remarks set down well before Sept. 11, he writes of "a great war at the turn of the century" between bin Laden and the United States.

Book vendors in Peshawar's teaming marketplace, which for centuries has been rife with tales of heroism and doom told by spice traders and soldiers, say sales of the book, written in the Pashtun language, have skyrocketed since the start of the US-led air strikes on Afghanistan.

The city's fastest selling T-shirts feature a T-shirt portrait of bin Laden and the words: "Jihad is Our Mission: As a Muslim this is my aim to spread Islam throughout the world by love or power [signed, Osama]."

Mohamad Sartaj, who says he sells 50 to 60 Osama T-shirts every day, isn't convinced of the US claim that bin Laden is an evil-doer responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

"Osama is a Muslim brother, just one of us," Mr. Sartaj says. "He isn't a hero, just a holy warrior who sees things our way."

The Saudi exile's reputation here remains unscathed among the large Pashtun community, Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, whose blood ties extend into neighboring Pakistan.

"Osama's popularity among the Pashtuns is not based on logical reduction," says Peter Bouckaert, a Peshawar-based senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. "Desperate people are often susceptible to extremist solutions and dogmas."

Referring to the USSR's offensive in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, Mr. Bouckaert says: "After 20 years of a very brutal civil war in Afghanistan, extremists like bin Laden have been able to carve out a following."

Pashtun intellectuals, most of whom despise the Saudi militant, have their own explanation of his growing popularity among their ethnic kin. They say that bin Laden has an advantage over his nemesis, the United States, because he is a name with a face. The US, on the other hand, represents an amorphous force whose last major role in the region, before its new "war on terror," was to use its spy network, the CIA, to run a secret war against Soviet aggression in the 1980s. Most view those actions as a selfish US effort to destroy the only other superpower.

"But it is misleading to believe that the Pashtuns consider bin Laden to be a hero," says Prof. Ghulam Bongash, chairman of the department of history at Islamia College, Peshawar University - himself a Pashtun and also an Afghan. However, he adds: "They do find him possessed of some practical bravery. After all, he fought alongside them against the Soviets. The Pashtuns are a people who think, 'If you do me an unselfish favor, I will remember that forever.' "

Professor Bongash believes that his ethnic kin have rallied around the Saudi national for cultural reasons that extend far beyond the beginnings of Islam in South Asia.

"Mr. bin Laden approached Pashtun leaders in the Taliban after he arrived in May 1996 as a refuge seeker," he says. "They considered his case on its merits and granted him their protection. Once this protection is given to a man, the family or tribe may perish but the protection cannot be violated. At the moment, I'm sure that if offered [a choice between] a nuclear attack and handing over bin Laden, the Pashtuns would, at this time, accept the nuclear attack."

Additionally, says Bongash, "The Pashtun people and their current rulers in Afghanistan believe that by not presenting evidence of bin Laden's guilt directly to their representatives, the Americans are basically saying that the Pashtun system of justice is a joke."

Most Pashtuns live in rural areas and do not have extensive access to information, says Bongash. Many locals acknowledge that they did not hear the recent speech, taped by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network, in which bin Laden spoke of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as America's just punishment for its "crimes" against true Muslims.

"If Osama did this, I won't support him," says Nour Salahen, 35, speaking in the remote village of Thal, along the border with Afghanistan where Taliban-backers have forbidden the watching of television. Until then, he says, "For me, he is a brave warrior and I will follow him."

Mr. Salahen adds that he has already signed up to fight inside Afghanistan against the Americans.

Since the start of the US-led air strikes on Afghanistan, Pashtuns on both sides of the border blame the deaths and suffering of kinsmen on Washington.

Meanwhile, the vast Al Rasheed charity network, now suspected by US officials of being a likely financier of bin Laden, regularly disseminates materials describing bin Laden's sympathy with the Afghan people.

A recent article in a local newspaper quotes the Saudi militant's views about Arab oil sales to the US: "The oil that is fraudulently, forcefully bought in an hour would suffice to keep the entire poor population of Afghanistan in bread [for one year]."

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