Osama bin Laden: The godfather of terror?
by Robert Fisk
15 September 2001
George Bush: The new statesman?
The first time I met Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan it was a
hot, humid night in the summer of 1996. Huge insects flew through
the night air, settling like burrs on his Saudi robes and on the
clothes of his armed followers. They would land on my notebook until
I swatted them, their blood smearing the pages. Bin Laden was always
studiously polite: each time we met, he would offer the usual Arab
courtesy of food for a stranger: a tray of cheese, olives, bread and
jam. I had already met him in Sudan and would spend a night, almost
a year later, in one of his mountain guerrilla camps, so cold that I
awoke in the morning with ice in my hair.
I had been given a rough blanket and my shoes were left outside the
tent. Whenever we met, he would interrupt our interviews to say his
prayers, his armed followers - from Algeria, Egypt, the Gulf Arab
states, Syria - kneeling beside him, hanging on his every word as he
spoke to me as if he was a messiah.
On 20 March, 1997, I would meet him again. Although only 41 at the
time, his ruggedly groomed beard had white hairs, and he had bags
under his eyes; I sensed some infirmity, a stiffness of one leg that
gave him the slightest of limps. I still have my notes, scribbled in
the frozen semi-darkness as an oil lamp sputtered between us. "I am
not against the American people," he said. "Only their government."
I had heard this so often in the Middle East. I told him I thought
the American people regarded their government as their
representatives. Bin Laden listened to this in silence. "We are
still at the beginning of our military action against the American
forces," he said.
I remembered those words this week as I watched those airliners
scything into the World Trade Centre towers. And I remembered, too,
how in that last meeting he had seized on the Arabic-language
newspapers I was carrying in my satchel (a schoolbag I use in rough
countries) and scurried to a corner of the tent to read them for 20
minutes, ignoring both his fighters and myself. Although a Saudi, he
did not even know that the Iranian foreign minister had just visited
the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Didn't he even have a radio, I asked
myself? Was this really the "godfather of world terror?" The US
administration and Time magazine had both blessed him with this
sobriquet. I rather thought he would have liked that. And the $5
million reward that the American administration offered for him. As
a multi-millionaire himself, bin Laden would have been insulted at
such a low price on the "wanted" poster.
The bin Ladens are a construction family, respected in their native
Saudi Arabia although their roots lie on the Yemeni border, a family
who honoured the young man who, after the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan in 1979, took his followers and his road construction
machinery to a volcanic landscape of tribal leaders to fight "the
West". For the Russians - to a Saudi - were Westerners and their
incursion into Islamic Afghanistan was a heretical, corrupting act.
He paid from his own packet to fly thousands of young Arab Muslims
to fight alongside him.
They came - from Algeria, from Egypt and the Arabian Gulf and from
Syria - and many of them died as martyrs in the ferocious battles,
torn to pieces by mines, shredded by the machine-gun fire of the
Soviet Hind helicopter gunships that raided the villages of Panchir.
The first time we met, in Sudan, I persuaded bin Laden - much
against his will - to talk about those days. And he recalled how,
during an attack on a Russian firebase not far from Jalalabad, a
mortar shell had fallen at his feet. He had waited for it to
explode. And in those milliseconds of rationality, he had - so he
said - felt a great sense of tranquillity, a sense of calm
acceptance which he ascribed to God. The shell - and many an
American may now wish the opposite had happened - failed to explode.
Even the Russians came to know of the esteem in which bin Laden was
held among the Afghan resistance. In Moscow in 1993, I met a Soviet
adviser who was supposed to arrange his liquidation. "A dangerous
man,'' the Russian said of bin Laden. At the time, of course, the
Americans loved him, provided him with weapons, never dreaming that
within two decades they, too, would be dreaming of his murder. Bin
Laden told me once that he never met an American agent during the
anti-Russian war, never accepted a single bullet from the West.
But his bulldozers and earth-removers carved highways through the
mountains for the Mujahedin to carry their British-made Blowpipe
anti-aircraft missiles high enough to strike the Soviet Migs; years
later, one of his armed followers would take me up the "bin Laden
trail", a terrifying two-hour odyssey along fearful ravines in rain
and sleet, the windscreen misting as we climbed the cold mountain.
"When you believe in jihad [holy war], it is easy,'' the gunman
informed me, fighting with the steering wheel as stones scuttered
from the tyres, bouncing down the valleys into the clouds below.
From time to time - this was in 1997 - lights winked at us from far
away in the darkness. "Our brothers are letting us know they see
us,'' the gunman said. It was two hours more before we reached bin
Laden's old wartime camp, the jeep skidding backwards towards sheer
cliffs, the headlights illuminating frozen waterfalls above. "Toyota
is good for Jihad,'' bin Laden's man smiled. I could only agree. I
never heard bin Laden make a joke.
If the United States regarded him as the foremost "terrorist'' in
the world - as I told him they did - then "if liberating my land is
called terrorism, this is a great honour for me.'' There was no
difference, he said, between the American and Israeli governments,
between the American and Israeli armies. But Europe - especially
France - was beginning to distance itself from the Americans. He did
condemn French policy towards north Africa; although he did not
mention Algeria, the name hovered over us for several minutes like a ghost.
Bin Laden gave me a Pakistani wall poster in Urdu which proclaimed
the support of Pakistani scholars for his "holy war'' against the
Americans; he even handed to me colour photographs of graffiti on
the walls of Karachi that demanded the ousting of US troops from
"the place of the two Holy shrines [Mecca and Medina]''. He had, he claimed, received some months ago an emissary from the Saudi royal
family who said that his Saudi citizenship -- taken away after
pressure from Washington - would be restored along with a new Saudi
passport and 2 billion Saudi riyals (£339 million) for his family if
he abandoned his jihad and went back to Saudi Arabia. He and his
family, he said, had rejected the offer.
At the time, bin Laden had three wives, the elder of them the mother
of his bright, 16-year-old Bon Omar, the youngest herself a
teenager. Another son, Saad, was brought to meet me; they spoke some
English and were clearly excited - in an innocent way - to be
surrounded by so many armed men. All lived with him - along with
other Mujahedin wives and children -- and stayed in a compound
outside Jalalabad. Bin Laden even invited me to visit these hot,
dank, miserable homes in the company of one of his Egyptian
fighters. Of course, his wives - the youngest was later to return to
her family in the Gulf - were not there. "These are ladies who are
used to living in comfort,'' the Egyptian said. The encampment was protected by sheets of canvas and a few strands of barbed wire; a
drainage ditch and three separate latrines had been dug in the
earth, in one of which floated a dead frog. The Egyptian's teenage
son, sitting beside us with a rifle in his lap, insisted that
Egyptian Intelligence men had viewed the camp. "There are people in
the towns who work for the Americans,'' he said. "We see these
people and we have to be careful.''
Another of the Arabs in that camp was more forthcoming. There was,
he said, "no other country left for Mr bin Laden'' outside of
Afghanistan. "When he was in Sudan, the Saudis wanted to capture him
with the help of the Yemenis. We know that the French government
tried to persuade the Sudanese to hand him over to them because the
Sudanese had given them a south American. The Americans were
pressing the French to get hold of bin Laden in Sudan. An Arab group
paid by the Saudis tried to kill him, but bin Laden's guards fired
back and two were wounded.''
In all, bin Laden lost 500 of his men in the war against the
Russians. Their graves lie near the Pakistani border at Torkum.
After the Russian withdrawal, bin Laden left for Sudan, disgusted by the Afghans' internecine fighting. His closest followers went with
him to build highways and invest in Sudanese industry.
Bin Laden is a tall, slim man and towers over his companions.
He has narrow, dark eyes which stared hard at me when he spoke of
his hatred of Saudi corruption. Indeed, in my long conversation with
bin Laden in 1996 - on that hot night of mosquitoes - the Saudi
kingdom and its apparatchiks probably consumed more time than his views of America. He picked his teeth with a piece of miswak wood, a habit that accompanied all his conversations with me. History - or his version of it - was the basis of almost all his remarks. And the
pivotal date was 1990, the year Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. "When
the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two Holy
places, there was as strong protest from the ulema [religious
authorities] and from students of the Sharia law all over the
country against the interference of American troops.
"This big mistake by the Saudi regime of inviting the American
troops revealed their deception. They had given their support to
nations that were fighting against Muslims. They helped the Yemen
communists against the southern Yemeni Muslims and are helping
[Yasser] Arafat's regime fight Hamas. After it insulted and jailed
the ulema ... the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy.''
Bin Laden paused to see if I had listened to his careful if
frighteningly exclusive history lesson. "We as Muslims have a strong
feeling that binds us together... We feel for our brothers in
Palestine and Lebanon. The explosion at Khobar did not come as a direct result of American occupation but as a result of American
behaviour against Muslims...
"When 60 Jews are killed inside Palestine [in suicide bombings in
1996], all the world gathers within seven days to criticise this
action, while the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children [under UN
sanctions] did not receive the same reaction. Killing those Iraqi
children is a crusade against Islam. We, as Muslims, do not like the
Iraqi regime but we think that the Iraqi people and their children
are our brothers and we care about their future."
But it was America that captured bin Laden's final attention. "I
believe that sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia,
and that the war declared by America against the Saudi people means
war against Muslims everywhere. Resistance against America will
spread in many, many places in Muslim countries. Our trusted
leaders, the ulema, have given us a fatwa that we must drive out the Americans. The solution to this crisis is the withdrawal of American troops... their military presence is an insult to the Saudi
I've been thinking a lot about that last statement this week.
American forces are still in Saudi Arabia. And about his earlier
remark in July, 1996 - after a truck bomb had killed 19 Americans -
that this incident marked "the beginning of the war between Muslims
and the United States". Of the later bombing and the killing of 24
US servicemen, he was to tell me that it was "a great act in which I missed the honour of participating". He spoke then in a chilling,
lower voice of his hatred of the American "occupiers".
Intelligent - and eloquent in Arabic - bin Laden undoubtedly is. But his understanding of foreign affairs is decidedly eccentric. At one point, he even suggested to me that individual US states might secede from the Union because of Washington's support for Israel.
But the historical perspective was deeply disturbing. "We believe
that God used our holy war in Afghanistan to destroy the Russian
army and the Soviet Union,'' he said. "We did this from the top of
this very mountain on which you are sitting - and now we ask God to use us one more time to do the same to America, to make it a shadow of itself. We also believe that our battle against America is much simpler than the war against the Soviet Union because some of our Mujahedin who fought here in Afghanistan also participated in operations against the Americans in Somalia [during the doomed UN mission] - and they were surprised at the collapse of American morale. This convinced us that the Americans are a paper tiger.
He was also to tell me that "swift and light forces working in
complete secrecy" would be needed to oust America from Saudi Arabia.
In the following two years, bin Laden was to form his al-Qaeda
movement and declare war on the American people - not just the
government and army of the United States. There would follow the near-sinking of the USS Cole in Aden harbour - by suicide bombers - and the Cruise missile attacks on the old CIA base that bin Laden uses in southern Afghanistan. He walks now with a stick - a development of the foot problem I noticed four years ago - and speaks more slowly.
But could he really command an army of suicide bombers from the
desolation of the Afghan mountains? He did admit to me once that he
knew two of the three men executed - beheaded - in Saudi Arabia for
bombing the second American military base. He wanted a "real"
Islamic sharia law government in Arabia - there would, I suspected,
be even more head-chopping in a bin Laden regime - and he wanted an
end to those dictators installed by the Americans, those men who
supported US policies while repressing their own people.
And it occurred to me that this was, for many millions of Arabs in
the Middle East, a very powerful message. You didn't need
instructions from bin Laden to form your own small group of
followers, to decide on your own individual actions. Bin Laden
wouldn't have to plan bombings or the overthrow of regimes. You had only to listen to the thousands of cassette tapes of his voice
circulated clandestinely around the Middle East. Which is why I
wonder - always supposing bin Laden is connected to the crime
against humanity committed in the United States this week - if it
would even be necessary to command a para-military organisation for such acts to happen. Arabs are angry enough with the injustices that
they blame on America without needing orders from Afghanistan.
Inspiration might be just enough.
And I wondered, after those images from New York last week, whether bin Laden was not as astonished as myself to see them. Always supposing he watched television. Or listened to the radio. Or read a newspaper.
Born: Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden in 1955.
Family: seventh son of a Saudi businessman who made a fortune out of Saudi Arabia's oil-fuelled construction boom (died in a helicopter crash when Osama was 13); mother was a Syrian beauty and his father's official wife; 51 siblings.
Married: first to his Syrian cousin in 1972 (believed to have three wives); two sons.
Education: degree in civil-engineering at Abdul-Aziz University in
Military career: from 1979 fought and raised funds for Mujahedin in the Afghan conflict against the Russians with his Al Qaeda group (backed with American dollars and had the blessing of the
governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan); from 1984 channelled Arab
volunteers to the Afghan guerrillas in Pakistani border town.
Fortune: estimated to have about $300m in personal financial assets.
Charges: 1993 bombing of World Trade Centre which killed six people and injured more than 1,000; 1995 and 1996 bombings of Saudi cities of Riyadh and Khobar which killed 24; 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which killed 224 people and wounded 4,000; 2000 suicide bombing of USS Cole in Yemen which killed 17; 2001 destruction of the World Trade Centre and attack on Pentagon.
Aliases: The Prince, The Emir, Abu Abdallah, Mujahid Shaykh, Hajj,
He says: "It does not worry us what the Americans think. What
worries us is pleasing Allah."
They say: "If you were to kill Osama tomorrow, the Osama
organisation would disappear, but all the networks would still be there." David Long, former official in the State Department.