A close encounter with the man who shook the world
By Robert Fisk, Tuesday, 3 May 2011
One hot evening in late June 1996, the telephone on my desk in Beirut rang with one of the more extraordinary messages I was to receive as a foreign correspondent. “Mr Robert, a friend you met in Sudan wants to see you,” said a voice in English but with an Arabic accent. At first I thought he meant another man, whose name I suggested. “No, no, Mr Robert, I mean the man you interviewed. Do you understand?” Yes, I understood. And where could I meet this man? “The place where he is now,” came the reply. I knew that Bin Laden was rumoured to have returned to Afghanistan but there was no confirmation of this. So how do I reach him? I asked. “Go to Jalalabad – you will be contacted.”
A month later. “CLACK-CLACK-CLACK.” It was as if someone was attacking my head with an ice-pick. “CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK.” I sat up. Someone was banging a set of car keys against the window of my room in the Spinghar Hotel. “Misssster Robert,” a voice whispered urgently. “Misssster Robert.” He hissed the word “Mister.” Yes, yes, I’m here. “Please come downstairs, there is someone to see you.” It registered only slowly that the man must have climbed the ancient fire escape to reach the window of my room. I dressed, grabbed a coat – I had a feeling we might travel in the night – and almost forgot my old Nikon. I walked as calmly as I could past the reception desk and out into the early afternoon heat.
The man wore a grubby, grey Afghan robe and a small round cotton hat but he was an Arab and he greeted me formally, holding my right hand in both of his. He smiled. He said his name was Mohamed, he was my guide. “To see the Sheikh?” I asked. He smiled but said nothing.
I followed Mohamed all the way through the dust of Jalalabad’s main street until we arrived next to a group of gunmen in a pick-up truck in the ruins of an old Soviet army base, a place of broken armoured vehicles with a rusting red star on a shattered gateway. There were three men in Afghan hats in the back of the pick-up. One held a Kalashnikov rifle, another clutched a grenade-launcher along with six rockets tied together with Scotch tape. The third nursed a machine gun on his lap, complete with tripod and a belt of ammunition. “Mr Robert, these are our guards,” the driver said quietly, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to set off across the wilds of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province under a white-hot afternoon sun with three bearded guerrillas. A two-way radio hissed and crackled on the shoulder of the driver’s companion as another truckload of Afghan gunmen drove up behind us.
We were about to set off when Mohamed climbed back down from the pick-up along with the driver, walked to a shaded patch of grass and began to pray. For five minutes, the two men lay half-prostrate, facing the distant Kabul Gorge and, beyond that, a far more distant Mecca. We drove off along a broken highway and then turned on to a dirt track by an irrigation canal, the guns in the back of the truck bouncing on the floor, the guards’ eyes peering from behind their chequered scarves. We travelled like that for hours, past half-demolished mud villages and valleys and towering black rocks, a journey across the face of the moon.
By dusk, we had reached a series of cramped earthen villages, old men burning charcoal fires by the track, the shadow of women cowled in the Afghan burka standing in the alleyways. There were more guerrillas, all bearded, grinning at Mohamed and the driver. It was night before we stopped, in an orchard where wooden sofas had been covered in army blankets piled with belts and webbing and where armed men emerged out of the darkness, some holding rifles, others machine guns. They were the Arab mujahedin, the Arab “Afghans” denounced by the presidents and kings of half the Arab world and by the United States of America. Very soon, the world would know them as al-Qa’ida.
Mohamed beckoned me to follow him and we skirted a small river and jumped across a stream until, in the insect-filled darkness ahead, we could see a sputtering paraffin lamp. Beside it sat a tall, bearded man in Saudi robes. Osama bin Laden stood up, his two teenage sons, Omar and Saad, beside him. “Welcome to Afghanistan,” he said.
He was now 40 but looked much older than at our last meeting in the Sudanese desert late in 1993. Walking towards me, he towered over his companions, tall, slim, with new wrinkles around those narrow eyes. Leaner, his beard longer but slightly flecked with grey, he had a black waistcoat over his white robe and a red-chequered kuffiah on his head, and he seemed tired. When he asked after my health, I told him I had come a long way for this meeting. “So have I,” he muttered. There was also an isolation about him, a detachment I had not noticed before, as if he had been inspecting his anger, examining the nature of his resentment; when he smiled, his gaze would move towards his 16-year-old son Omar – round eyes with dark brows and his own kuffiah – and then off into the hot darkness where his armed men were patrolling the fields.
Just 10 days before, a truck bomb had torn down part of the US Air Force housing complex at al-Khobar in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and we were speaking in the shadow of the deaths of the 19 US soldiers killed there. And Bin Laden knew what he wanted to say. “Not long ago, I gave advice to the Americans to withdraw their troops from Saudi Arabia. Now let us give some advice to the governments of Britain and France to take their troops out – because what happened in Riyadh and al-Khobar showed that the people who did this have a deep understanding in choosing their targets. They hit their main enemy, which is the Americans. They killed no secondary enemies, nor their brothers in the army or the police in Saudi Arabia… I give this advice to the government of Britain.” He said the Americans must leave Saudi Arabia, must leave the Gulf. The “evils” of the Middle East arose from America’s attempt to take over the region and from its support for Israel. Saudi Arabia had been turned into “an American colony”.
Bin Laden was speaking slowly and with precision, an Egyptian taking notes in a large exercise book by the lamplight like a Middle Ages scribe. “This doesn’t mean declaring war against the West and Western people – but against the American regime which is against every American.” I interrupted Bin Laden. Unlike Arab regimes, I said, the people of the United States elected their government. They would say that their government represents them. He disregarded my comment. I hope he did. For in the years to come, his war would embrace the deaths of thousands of American civilians. “The explosion in al-Khobar did not come as a direct reaction to the American occupation,” he said, “but as a result of American behaviour against Muslims, its support of Jews in Palestine and of the massacres of Muslims in Palestine and Lebanon – of Sabra and Chatila and Qana – and of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference.”
But what Bin Laden really wanted to talk about was Saudi Arabia. Since our last meeting in Sudan, he said, the situation in the kingdom had grown worse. The ulema, the religious leaders, had declared in the mosques that the presence of American troops was not acceptable and the government took action against these ulema “on the advice of the Americans”. For Bin Laden, the betrayal of the Saudi people began 24 years before his birth, when Abdul Aziz al-Saud proclaimed his kingdom in 1932. “The regime started under the flag of applying Islamic law and under this banner all the people of Saudi Arabia came to help the Saud family take power. But Abdul Aziz did not apply Islamic law; the country was set up for his family. Then after the discovery of petroleum, the Saudi regime found another support – the money to make people rich and to give them the services and life they wanted and to make them satisfied.” Bin Laden was picking away at his teeth with that familiar twig of mishwak wood, but history – or his version of it – was the basis of almost all his remarks. The Saudi royal family had promised sharia laws while at the same time allowing the United States “to Westernise Saudi Arabia and drain the economy”. He blamed the Saudi regime for spending $25bn in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and a further $60bn in support of the Western armies in the 1991 war against Iraq, “buying military equipment which is not needed or useful for the country, buying aircraft by credit” while at the same time creating unemployment, high taxes and a bankrupt economy. But for Bin Laden, the pivotal date was 1990, the year Saddam invaded Kuwait. “When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two Holy places, there was a strong protest from the ulema and from students of 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 were giving their support to nations which were fighting against Muslims.”
Bin Laden paused to see if I had listened to his careful, if frighteningly exclusive history lesson. “The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems… the ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil producer in the world yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now the people understand the speeches of the ulemas in the mosques – that our country has become an American colony. What happened in Riyadh and al-Khobar is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America.” The overthrow of the Saudi regime and the eviction of US forces from the kingdom were one and the same for Bin Laden. He was claiming that the real religious leadership of Saudi Arabia – among whom he clearly saw himself – was an inspiration to Saudis, that Saudis themselves would drive out the Americans, that Saudis – hitherto regarded as a rich and complacent people – might strike at the United States. Could this be true?
Bin Laden sometimes stopped speaking for all of 60 seconds in order to reflect on his words. Most Arabs, faced with a reporter’s question, would say the first thing that came into their heads for fear that they would appear ignorant if they did not. Bin Laden was different. He was alarming because he was possessed of that quality which leads men to war: total self-conviction.
Bin Laden had asked me – a routine of every Palestinian under occupation – if Europeans did not resist occupation during the Second World War. I told him no Europeans would accept this argument over Saudi Arabia – because the Nazis killed millions of Europeans yet the Americans had never murdered a single Saudi. Such a parallel was historically and morally wrong. Bin Laden did not agree. “We as Muslims have a strong feeling that binds us together… We feel for our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon… When 60 Jews are killed inside Palestine” – he was talking about Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel – “all the world gathers within seven days to criticise this action, while the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children did not receive the same reaction.” It was Bin Laden’s first reference to Iraq and to the United Nations sanctions that were to result, according to UN officials themselves, in the death of more than half a million children. “Killing those Iraqi children is a crusade against Islam,” Bin Laden said. “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.” It was the first time I heard him use the word “crusade”.
For some time, there had been a steadily growing thunderstorm to the east of Bin Laden’s camp and we could see the bright orange flash of lightning over the mountains on the Pakistan border. But Bin Laden thought this might be artillery fire, the continuation of the inter-mujahedin battles that had damaged his spirit after the anti-Soviet war. He was growing uneasy. He broke off his conversation to pray. Then, on the straw mat, several young and armed men served dinner – plates of yoghurt and cheese and Afghan naan bread and more tea. Bin Laden sat between his sons, silent, eyes on his food.
I said to Bin Laden that Afghanistan was the only country left to him after his exile in Sudan. He agreed. “The safest place in the world for me is Afghanistan.” It was the only place, I repeated, in which he could campaign against the Saudi government. Bin Laden and several of his Arab fighters burst into laughter. “There are other places,” he replied. Did he mean Tajikistan? I asked. Or Uzbekistan? Kazakhstan? “There are several places where we have friends and close brothers – we can find refuge and safety in them.” I told Bin Laden he was already a hunted man. “Danger is a part of our life,” he snapped back.
He began talking to his men about amniya, security, and repeatedly looked towards those flashes in the sky. Now the thunder did sound like gunfire. I tried to ask one more question. What kind of Islamic state would Bin Laden wish to see? Would thieves and murderers still have their hands or heads cut off in his Islamic sharia state, just as they do in Saudi Arabia today? There came an unsatisfactory reply. “Islam is a complete religion for every detail of life. If a man is a real Muslim and commits a crime, he can only be happy if he is justly punished. This is not cruelty. The origin of these punishments comes from God through the Prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him.” Dissident Osama bin Laden may be, but moderate never. I asked permission to take his photograph, and while he debated this with his companions I scribbled into my notebook the words I would use in the last paragraph of my report on our meeting: “Osama bin Laden believes he now represents the most formidable enemy of the Saudi regime and of the American presence in the Gulf. Both are probably right to regard him as such.” I was underestimating the man.
Yes, he said, I could take his picture. I opened my camera and allowed his armed guards to watch me as I threaded a film into the spool. Without warning, Bin Laden moved his head back and the faintest smile moved over his face, along with that self-conviction and that ghost of vanity which I found so disturbing. He called his sons Omar and Saad and they sat beside him as I took more pictures and Bin Laden turned into the proud father, the family man, the Arab at home.
Then his anxiety returned. The thunder was continuous now and it was mixed with the patter of rifle fire. I should go, he urged, and I realised that what he meant was that he must go, that it was time for him to return to the fastness of Afghanistan. When we shook hands, he was already looking for the guards who would take him away.
This is an edited extract from ‘The Great War For Civilisation’, by Robert Fisk, published by Harper Perennial (£13.99)