Excerpted from The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader, by Peter L. Bergen, to be published this month by Free Press; © 2006 by the author.
At a 2002 press conference, President Bush remarked that Osama bin Laden was "a person who's now been marginalized." Some have even joked that bin Laden is, in fact, Bin Forgotten. Far from being marginalized, al-Qaeda's leader continues to exert considerable authority over the global jihadist movement, which he had a large role in creating. It's not simply that each day that bin Laden remains a free man is a morale booster for his followers around the world, but also that al-Qaeda's leader continues to supply the overall strategy for his organization's actions and for the broader ideological movement it has spawned.
Since the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden has released around 20 statements on video or audiotape, which have reached audiences of tens of millions via the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, and other television networks, and which have had a direct effect on world events. The attacks in London in July that killed 56—including the four suicide bombers—were a response to bin Laden's repeated calls to fight countries participating in the coalition in Iraq, as were the attacks in Madrid a year earlier that killed 191. An indicator of bin Laden's continued influence is that in 2004 the most feared insurgent commander in Iraq, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda's leader. For millions of Muslims around the world, bin Laden remains an inspirational figure. A worldwide opinion poll taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2004 found that he is viewed favorably by large percentages in Pakistan (65 percent), Jordan (55 percent), and Morocco (45 percent)—all key U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.
Despite his impact on history, bin Laden remains shrouded in a fog of myth, propaganda, and half-truths. For eight years I have been interviewing people close to him and gathering documents in order to fill out the picture of this mysterious man. Some questions I have attempted to answer: What is he really like? Was al-Qaeda a formally planned organization? Was bin Laden ever associated with or sympathetic to Saddam Hussein? Was he at Tora Bora in 2001? What is his significance today, and his possible legacy?
I. THE MAN Osama bin Laden grew up during the 1960s and 1970s in Jidda, a port on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, 30 miles from Mecca. He came of age as the Muslim world was experiencing an awakening known as the Sahwa. This peaked in 1979 with a series of seismic events that profoundly influenced bin Laden and other future members of al-Qaeda: the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by the cleric Ayatollah Khomeini; the armed takeover of Islam's holy of holies, the mosque in Mecca, by Saudi militants; Egypt's cease-fire agreement with Israel; and the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden to Jamal Ismail, a Palestinian correspondent for Al Jazeera television, 1998: As it is well known, my father, Sheikh Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden, was born in Hadramawt [in southern Yemen]. He went to work in Hejaz [in Saudi Arabia] at an early age. Then God blessed him and bestowed on him an honor that no other building contractor has known. He built the holy Mecca mosque and at the same time—because of God's blessings to him—he built the holy mosque in Medina. When he found out that the government of Jordan announced a tender for restoration work on the Dome of the Rock Mosque [in Jerusalem], he gathered engineers and asked them, "Calculate only the cost price of the project." He was awarded the project.
Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden's brother-in-law: [Osama] likes his father very much. He considered him as a model. He was not with his father much, because his father died when he was 10 years old. And, also, the father didn't meet his children much. He was very busy—a lot of children, a lot of houses—so he just met them officially. There are 54 children, and he had 20-plus wives. Osama's mother is Syrian; he's the only child from his mother and Muhammad bin Laden.
Brian Fyfield-Shayler, a British citizen who lived in Saudi Arabia and taught English to a number of the bin Laden boys: All the sons are very good-looking. I don't think that I have ever met any ugly bin Ladens. Osama's mother, I am told, was a great beauty. Since his father never had more than four wives at any one time, he was constantly divorcing the third and the fourth and taking in new ones. This was an anachronism even in the 1950s and 60s.
This was my fourth year teaching, when [Osama] came along [in 1968, when he was 11]. Osama was one of 30 students. He [used to sit] two-thirds of the way back on the window side that looked out onto sports fields and playing grounds. Why did I remember Osama? First of all, I would have noticed because of his name, because of the family, and, of course, when you walked into a class of anyone of his age, he was literally outstanding because he was taller than his contemporaries, and so he was very noticeable. His English was not amazing. He was not one of the great brains of that class.
It was big news, national news, when [Osama's father] was killed [in a plane crash in 1967]. And for the next year at least the future of the business [hung in the balance]. There were a lot of projects that were not completed, and it was the major construction company of Saudi Arabia, so it was of huge importance, and there was probably only Salem [Osama's oldest brother] and three or four brothers at that period who were of an age even to take on the mantle. Salem was educated at Millfield [a boarding school in England]. Salem was a fraction younger than me, but not much. I was introduced to him by mutual friends. He was very Westernized. His English was beautiful; it was very fluent, very characterful.
A relative of the bin Laden family: Salem was a unique individual by any standard. By Saudi standards he was off the charts. Very charismatic, amusing, no facial hair. He played guitar—60s hits like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" He acted as sort of a court jester to King Fahd and was part of Fahd's inner circle. Sometimes he overstepped with the king. One time he buzzed the king's camp in the desert with one of his planes, which went down badly, but he was always taken back into the fold. Salem took control of the business beginning in '73–'74. If King Fahd wanted a palace built, Salem would build it for him.
This raises the question of how much money Osama bin Laden inherited from his family. Certainly far less than the $200 million or more mentioned in the media after 9/11. In fact, according to someone designated by the family to speak to me, bin Laden benefited from the distribution of his father's estate according to Sharia law, which says that sons receive twice as much as daughters. However, with 54 children, even Muhammad bin Laden's vast fortune did not go too far. Until Osama's family cut him off, in 1994, he had probably received something like $20 million.
Christina Akerblad, former owner of the Hotel Astoria in the town of Falun, Sweden, recalling how in 1970 Salem bin Laden, in his mid-20s, and his younger brother Osama paid a visit: They came with a big Rolls-Royce, and it was forbidden to park the car outside the building in this street. But they did it, and [my husband and I] said to them, You have to pay [a fine] for every day and every hour you are staying outside this hotel, but they said, "Oh, it doesn't matter—it's so funny to go to the police station and to talk with the police. We will stay where we are." It was like a joke to them. They had so much money they didn't know how much money they had. I asked them how they had managed to come to Sweden with this enormous Rolls-Royce. They said, "We have our plane."
They stayed one week. They were dressed very exclusive. They had two double rooms. They slept in one bed and on the other bed they had their bags. On Sunday, I had no cleaner at the hotel, so I took care of the room myself, and I was shocked because in the big bag they had lots of white, expensive shirts from Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. When they had [worn] the shirt once, they dropped it. So the cleaner had taken these shirts to wash them, but they said, "No, we are just using them once, so you can [have] them if you want."
Khaled Batarfi, three years younger than bin Laden, met him when Osama was in his teens and they lived next door to each other in Jidda: I was the soccer captain even though Osama was older than me. Because he was tall, he used to play forward to use his head and put in the goals. I was a tough guy then and Osama was the peaceful one. He was very shy, very observant. He liked Western movies. One of the TV series he liked was Fury. [It ran on NBC from 1955 to 1960.] He used to watch that, and he liked karate movies. Bruce Lee. He liked to go climbing mountains in the area between Syria and Turkey. He loved horse riding.
He would fast every Monday and Thursday. [Such] fasting is an extra thing, because it's what the Prophet used to do, but you don't have to do it. [Osama's mother] is a moderate Muslim. She watches TV. She [has] never been very conservative, and her [current] husband's like that; their kids are like that. So Osama was different, but then, he was different in a quiet way. He would bother his brothers sometimes for looking at the maid or things like that. Of course, he woke them for prayers in the morning, and that was good—nobody complained. But sometimes he was kind of upset if something is not done in an Islamic way. "Don't wear short sleeves, don't do this, don't do that." At 17 he married his cousin in Latakia [in Syria]—a beautiful resort, I hear—the daughter of his uncle, the brother of his mother. And then he went to the university and I saw less of him.
Jamal Khalifa, recalling his years with bin Laden at Jidda's King Abdul Aziz University: In '76, I met Osama. He was in a different college, in economics. I was in science, but our activities were the same. I was almost 20, and he was 19. At that time we were religious and very much conservative. Of course, no girls—don't even talk about it—and no photographs. That's why I don't have any pictures with Osama. I was photographed in high school, but when I became religious I threw everything away.
We [discussed] polygamy, and we recalled our fathers, how they practiced polygamy. We found that they were practicing it in a wrong way, where they married and divorced, married and divorced—a lot of wives. Some of those practicing polygamy will, if they marry the second one, neglect the first one—not the Islamic way at all. And we look at polygamy as solving a social problem, especially when it's confirmed that there are more women than men in the society. It's not fun, it's not a matter of just having women with you to sleep with—it's a solution for a problem. So that's how [Osama and I] looked at it, and we decided to practice [polygamy] and to be a model.
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who knew bin Laden in Jidda: Osama was just like many of us who become part of the [Muslim] Brotherhood movement in Saudi Arabia. The only difference which set him apart from me and others, he was more religious, more literal, more fundamentalist. For example, he would not listen to music. He would not shake hands with a woman. He would not smoke. He would not watch television, unless it is news. He wouldn't play cards. He would not put a picture on his wall. Even though he comes from a rich family, he lives in a very simple house.
Khaled Batarfi: Did you know he went to America? He took his [first] son, Abdallah, because Abdallah has problems with his head—it was deformed—so he took him for a medical trip.
Even after his marriage, for a year or so he was still living in his mother's house. Later on, after he got his first child, it seems like it was too tight a place for him, especially since he was planning to marry another woman. So they moved to a building in the Al-Aziziyah district [in Jidda]. He gave each wife an apartment. I visited him once and I saw that they were bare apartments. I mean, I wouldn't live there myself. Very humble.
Carmen bin Ladin (a frequent alternative spelling), former wife of Yeslam bin Ladin, Osama's older half-brother, in her 2004 book, Inside the Kingdom: One day, Yeslam's younger brother Osama came to visit. Back then he was a young student attending King Abdul Aziz University in [Jidda], respected in the family for his stern religious beliefs, and recently married to a Syrian niece of his mother's.
Catching sight of Osama and his [adult] nephew Mafouz, I smiled and asked them in. "Yeslam is here," I assured them, but Osama snapped his head away when he saw me and glared back towards the gate. "No, really," I insisted. "Come in."
In Saudi culture, any man who might one day become your husband is not supposed to see you unveiled. Osama was among those men who followed the rule strictly.
Wisal al Turabi, wife of Hassan Turabi, who became the de facto leader of Sudan after a coup in 1989. In the early 1990s the Turabi and bin Laden families socialized together in Khartoum: I met [one of bin Laden's wives], Umm Ali [i.e., the mother of Ali], in her house. I didn't see her children, but she said the children were in another room trying to learn the Koran. She was a university lecturer. She was very knowledgeable, because she studied in Saudi Arabia. She used to go to Saudi Arabia and come during her holidays to stay in Khartoum. She was teaching Islam to some families in Riyadh [an upscale neighborhood in Khartoum].
Three of his wives are university lecturers; the first one is not. He has four wives. And he married the other three because they were spinsters. They were going to go without marrying in this world. So he married them for the Word of God. In Islam we do this. If you have a spinster, if you marry her, you will be rewarded for this in the afterworld, because you will bring up your offspring as Muslims.
Noman Benotman, a Libyan former jihadist, remembers that bin Laden lived a life far removed from that of the average billionaire's son: He's living a normal life, the life of poor people. I saw him many times. You see his kids—you will never, ever in your life think those kids are bin Laden's kids; [rather] they are people from the poorest family in the world. I saw them. You wouldn't believe it—they're kids running around in old clothes. He always tells his followers, "You should learn to sacrifice everything from modern life, like electricity, air-conditioning, refrigerators, gasoline. If you are living the luxury life, it's very hard to evacuate and go to the mountains to fight."
Abu Jandal, bin Laden's former chief bodyguard, in an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, 2004: His wife Umm Ali asked Sheikh Osama for a divorce when they still lived in Sudan. She said that she could not continue to live in an austere way and in hardship. He respected her wish and divorced her in accordance with the Koranic verse "Husband and wife should either live together equitably or separate in kindness." The other wives stayed with him, however, although they come from distinguished families and are highly educated.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a profoundly shocking event for bin Laden, as it was for thousands of other devout young Muslims, who were drawn to the Afghan jihad during the 1980s. It was the first time since World War II that a non-Muslim power had invaded and occupied a Muslim nation. Indeed, for bin Laden it was the most transformative event of his life. A key to this transformation was his encounter with the charismatic Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam. Azzam was the critical force both ideologically and organizationally for the recruitment of Muslims from around the world to engage in the Afghan struggle against the Soviets. Azzam became bin Laden's mentor, and in 1984 they founded the Services Office, an organization dedicated to placing Arab volunteers either with relief organizations serving the Afghan refugees who had flooded into Pakistan, or with the Afghan factions fighting the Soviets.
Osama bin Laden in 1997: The news was broadcast by radio stations that the Soviet Union invaded a Muslim country; this was a sufficient motivation for me to start to aid our brothers in Afghanistan. In spite of the Soviet power, God conferred favors on us so that we transported heavy equipment from the country of the Two Holy Places [Saudi Arabia] estimated at hundreds of tons altogether that included bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks, and equipment for digging trenches. When we saw the brutality of the Russians bombing the mujahideen positions, by the grace of God, we dug a good number of huge tunnels and built in them some storage places.
Hutaifa Azzam, the son of Abdullah Azzam: Anyone who wanted to know anything about Afghanistan connects with my father. [He and Osama] met in the summer of 1984 in Jidda. Their relationship was very strong. I was very close to Osama. I still remember him driving a Land Cruiser, desert color; he took us to his farm, 40 kilometers from Jidda. We used to go there hunting.
A vital project of Azzam and bin Laden's Services Office was Jihad magazine, which the organization started up in the fall of 1984. A bimonthly, it was effectively the house organ of the Services Office, which would morph, in part, into al-Qaeda.
Abdullah Anas, one of the founders of the Services Office: The main aim of Azzam to build or to create the Jihad magazine is to inform the Arab world what is happening in Afghanistan; informing them, help funding, recruit people. [Eventually we printed] 70,000 copies an issue. And most of them go to the United States, because we had 52 centers in the United States. The main office was in Brooklyn, also Phoenix, Boston, Chicago, Tucson, Washington, D.C., Minnesota, and Washington State. Every year Azzam used to go to United States. The wealthy of United States can help much more than Muslims who are living in poor countries or under dictatorship.
In 1991, Basil Muhammad, a Syrian journalist, published The Arab Volunteers in Afghanistan, in which he wrote that bin Laden had first ventured into Afghanistan in 1984. Bin Laden told Muhammad: I feel so guilty for listening to my friends and those that I love to not come here [to Afghanistan] and stay home for reasons of safety, and I feel that this delay of four years requires [my own] martyrdom in the name of God.
Jamal Ismail, who was an editor of Jihad magazine: Coming to Peshawar on a visit in 1984, I met Mr. Osama bin Laden, one of the main financiers of the Services Office. I knew from the beginning that he was not willing to drink any soft drinks from American companies—Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sprite, 7-Up. He is trying to boycott all American products because he believes that without the Americans Israel cannot exist.
Jamal Khalifa, who joined his university friend bin Laden in Afghanistan: When we decided to work in Afghanistan, early '85, he told me, "What if you marry my sister Shaikha?" I told him, "Osama, we are going to war. We are going to die, and you're asking me about marriage?" So he insisted and I told him, "O.K., look. If I came back and did not die, I will do it."
[Despite the fact that he was married to bin Laden's sister, Jamal Khalifa was angry about what he regarded as his friend's foolhardy plan to set up his own military operation in Afghanistan. In 1986, bin Laden established a base next to a Soviet military post at Jaji, in eastern Afghanistan. Khalifa knew that bin Laden had no military experience, and he was concerned that young Arabs under bin Laden's command were being sent on kamikaze missions against the Soviets.]
I decided to go myself [to Jaji] to see what's going on there. I stayed three days. I started to ask the people how it's going. They said every day, We have plenty of shaheeds [martyrs]—people dying. I said, "Why? They are not trained and they are very young. They don't have experience and they are facing the Soviets. It's not a joke."
So I sat down with Osama in his tent underground. I told him, "Everybody is against this idea. Why are you here? Don't you know that this is very dangerous?" He said, "We came to be in the front." I said, "No, we did not come to be in the front. We came to [act as supporters of the] Afghans." I told him, "Every drop of blood bleeds here in this place. God will ask you about it in the Hereafter. Everybody saying this is wrong, so Osama, please leave the place right now." Everybody was hearing our argument; our voices become hard. I was really very angry; this is our first time to be like this. I told him, "Look, you will leave the place or I will never see you again." He told me, "Do whatever you want." So I left.
Bin Laden's military ambitions and personality evolved in tandem. He became more assertive, to the point that he ignored the advice of many old friends about the folly of setting up his own military force. That decision also precipitated an irrevocable (but carefully concealed) split with his onetime mentor, Abdullah Azzam.
Hutaifa Azzam: You could say that bin Laden separated from my father in 1987. Bin Laden said that he wanted to make special camps for the Arabs only, where we can start our own jihad and we give the orders. We will gather all the Arabs in Afghanistan in one area in Jalalabad [in eastern Afghanistan]. My father was against that. He was shocked. So in 1987, Osama decided to separate and create special camps for the Arabs.
Bin Laden, demonstrating the zeal of a fanatic, told the Syrian journalist Basil Muhammad that he hoped his new base would draw heavy Soviet fire: God willing, we want the Lion's Den [in Jaji] to be the first thing that the enemy faces. Its place as the first camp visible to the enemy means that they will focus their bombardments on us in an extreme manner.
From his base in Jaji, bin Laden fought a key military engagement with the Soviets during the spring of 1987. This was a critical turning point in his life, when he left behind his role as a donor and fund-raiser for the mujahideen and launched his career as a holy warrior.
Essam Deraz, an Egyptian writer and filmmaker, covered the battle of Jaji: They picked the site at Jaji because it was on the front lines. In '87, it was a very important battle. The Arab group fought against Russian commandos. Not more than 50 or 60 young Arabs, 21, 22 [years old]. Most of them students at the universities. [Bin Laden] fought in this battle like a private. The Russian bombing went on for one week. It was clear now he'd be the leader. I was near him in the battle—many months—and he was really brave. That's why he got respect from Afghans and Arabs.
Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistani air-force officer who fought alongside bin Laden: I participated in the Jaji battle. I was introduced to [bin Laden]. First of all he's not a genius. He was 30 when I met him. He prayed a lot, always smiling. As a personality I never thought he would make a place in history—he is not charismatic. He is not very intelligent, but he is the most dedicated and self-sacrificing person, to a degree that is unparalleled.
Khaled Batarfi, who remained in touch with bin Laden's mother during the Soviet-Afghan war, noted her growing concerns about her son, especially after Osama supposedly suffered the effects of a Soviet gas attack: The situation became worse when [Osama] went to jihad. In the beginning it wasn't for jihad, it was going there just to support, so that was starting to worry his mother, and then he decided to become a fighter, and his mother—oh, God, it went from bad to worse. And then she heard about the chemical gas Russians used against mujahideen, and her son was affected. Since then, she was [watching] TV, waiting for bad news.
It was not an accident that bin Laden's split from Abdullah Azzam began around the time of his first meeting with the Egyptian jihadist Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 1986. For bin Laden, the slightly older, cerebral Zawahiri (a surgeon by training) must have presented an intriguing figure. Zawahiri had first joined a jihadist group at 15 and had recently served three years in Egypt's notorious prisons for his jihadist activities. For Zawahiri, bin Laden was on his way to becoming a genuine war hero, and his deep pockets were well known. In 1987, Zawahiri set up his own jihad group, which was soon supported by bin Laden.
On May 29, 1988, Salem, Osama's brother, crashed a plane in San Antonio, Texas, and died on impact. Although Salem did not see much of Osama, because Salem was running the family business and was far more fun-loving and Westernized than his austere younger half-brother, his death was a blow to Osama.
Alia Ghanem, Osama bin Laden's mother: His older brother Salem was like a father to him after the death of their father, Muhammad. Salem's death saddened Osama a great deal.
A bin Laden relative: If Salem had still been around, no one would be writing books about Osama bin Laden. Salem had a volcanic temper and had no problem about rocking the boat. He would have personally flown to Sudan [where Osama lived in the mid-90s]. Salem would have grabbed Osama by the lapels and taken him back to Saudi Arabia.
II. AL-QAEDA Three months after the death of Salem, bin Laden took what would turn out to be a momentous step: secretly founding his own jihadist group, al-Qaeda, in clear opposition to his mentor Abdullah Azzam. Azzam advocated a traditional, fundamentalist interpretation of the nature of jihad: the reclamation of once Muslim lands from non-Muslim rule in places such as Palestine, what was then the Soviet Union, and even southern Spain, which had been under Muslim rule five centuries earlier.
The predominantly Egyptian militants who surrounded bin Laden at the end of the 80s advocated something more radical: the violent overthrow of governments across the Muslim world they deemed "apostate," a concept of jihad that Azzam and many of his followers rejected, as they wanted no part in conflicts between Muslims. The split between Azzam and bin Laden may have even cost Azzam his life; he was assassinated by unknown assailants in November 1989, a year after the founding of al-Qaeda.
In some circles it has become fashionable to suggest that bin Laden has not been especially significant to the global jihadist movement, or that al-Qaeda has always been only a loose-knit collection of like-minded Islamist militant groups, or even that al-Qaeda was a fabrication of U.S. law enforcement. The fullest exposition of this point of view was made in 2004 in the BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares, written and produced by Adam Curtis, which argued that "beyond his small group bin Laden had no formal organization, until the Americans invented one for him."
Curtis asserts that al-Qaeda was "invented" during the Manhattan trial of four men accused in the bombings of two U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998. The star witness was former bin Laden aide Jamal al-Fadl. Curtis says, "The picture al-Fadl drew for the Americans of bin Laden was of an all-powerful figure at the head of a large terrorist network that had an organized network of control. He also said that bin Laden had given this network a name, al-Qaeda.… But there was no organization. These were militants who mostly planned their own operations and looked to bin Laden for funding and assistance. He was not their commander. There is also no evidence that bin Laden used the term 'al-Qaeda' to refer to the name of a group until after 11th September, when he realized that this was the term the Americans had given it."
All of these assertions are nonsense. There is overwhelming evidence that al-Qaeda was founded in 1988 by bin Laden and a group of a dozen or so other militants, and that the group would eventually become the global organization that implemented the 9/11 attacks. Below is a document discovered by Bosnian authorities in a 2002 raid on the offices of an Islamic charity. Extraordinarily, these are the founding minutes of al-Qaeda, from a meeting that took place over the course of one weekend in August 1988.
Document labeled "Tareekh Osama [Osama's History]/54/127–127a": The brothers mentioned attended the Sheikh [bin Laden's] house. Most of the discussion was about choosing an Advisory Council. The meeting was held for two days in a row and the Advisory Council [met] on Friday, with the following brothers. [A list of nine names follows, headed by those of Osama bin Laden and Abu Ubaidah Al Banjshiri, al-Qaeda's military commander.]
The Sheikh decided to engage the Council in making a change. The meeting stayed from sunset until two at night. And on Saturday morning, 8/20/1988, the aforementioned brothers came and started the meeting, and the military work was suggested to be divided in two parts, according to duration:
—Limited duration: They will go to Sada Camp [on the Afghan-Pakistani border], then get trained and distributed on Afghan fronts, under supervision of the military council.
—Open[-ended] duration: They enter a testing camp and the best brothers of them are chosen to enter Al-Qaeda Al Askariya (the Military Base).
Al-Qaeda is basically an organized Islamic faction; its goal will be to lift the word of God, to make His religion victorious.
Requirements to enter Al-Qaeda:
—Members of open duration [meaning open-ended commitment].
—Listening and obedient.
—Referred from a trusted side.
—Obeying statutes and instructions of Al-Qaeda.
The pledge [to join al-Qaeda]:
The pledge of God and his covenant is upon me, to listen and obey the superiors, who are doing this work, in energy, early-rising, difficulty, and easiness, and for his superiority upon us, so that the word of God will be the highest, and His religion victorious.
Work of Al-Qaeda commenced on September 10 1988, with a group of 15 brothers.
Just over 13 years after its founding, al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks.
III. BIN LADEN AND SADDAM HUSSEIN Following the 9/11 attacks, the American public became convinced that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were in league. By February 2003, on the eve of hostilities in Iraq, more than two-thirds of Americans believed that Saddam was implicated in 9/11, and a majority continue to believe that Saddam either contributed "substantial" support to al-Qaeda or was behind 9/11, despite the fact that there is no evidence for those views.
It is hardly surprising that the American public believes that there was an al-Qaeda–Saddam alliance, since Bush-administration officials constantly touted that supposed alliance as a pressing reason to go to war against Iraq. In September 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said there was "bulletproof" evidence of an Iraq–al-Qaeda connection. In his January 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush said, "Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda." However, the historical record demonstrates that bin Laden has, in fact, been a passionate opponent of Saddam Hussein for more than a decade and a half—especially ever since Saddam invaded Kuwait, in 1990.
Osama bin Laden in 1999: A year before Hussein entered Kuwait, I said many times in my speeches at the mosques, warning that Saddam will enter the Gulf. No one believed me. I distributed many tapes in Saudi Arabia. It was after it happened that they started believing me and believed my analysis of the situation.
Khaled Batarfi recalls talking to bin Laden on the subject: Last time I saw [Osama] was 1990, six months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It was in Mecca, in a friend's house, where a group of intellectuals meet every Friday. And he came and talked about jihad in Afghanistan and told us then that he'd speak to us about Saddam. He said, "We should train our people, our young, and increase our army and prepare for the day when eventually we are attacked. This guy [Saddam] can never be trusted." He doesn't believe [Saddam is] a Muslim. So he never liked him or trusted him.
Abu Jandal, from an interview with Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, 2004: [Bin Laden] called on the Saudi government to allow for the recruitment of youths in order to defeat the Iraqi invasion. His intentions were geared toward ending the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and rescuing the Iraqi people from the domination of the Ba'th Party [Saddam Hussein's nationalist-socialist organization]. Sheikh Osama bin Laden was dreaming of this. He said he was ready to prepare more than 100,000 fighters in three months. He used to say: "I have more than 40,000 mujahideen in Saudi Arabia alone." These were trained in Afghanistan.
According to bin Laden, he proposed this to a senior official in the Saudi government. He told him, "We are ready to get the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait." But the state policy had already been decided and U.S. forces had to be called in to get the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
Prince Turki, former head of Saudi intelligence and current ambassador to the United States, told the Arab News in 2001: [Bin Laden] believed that he was capable of preparing an army to challenge Saddam's forces. He opposed the Kingdom's decision to call friendly forces [500,000 U.S. military personnel]. By doing so, he disobeyed the ruler and violated the fatwa of senior Islamic scholars, who had endorsed the plan as an essential move to fight [Saddam's] aggression.
I saw radical changes in his personality as he changed from a calm, peaceful, and gentle man interested in helping Muslims into a person who believed that he would be able to amass and command an army to liberate Kuwait. It revealed his arrogance.
Abdel Bari Atwan, the Palestinian editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, interviewed bin Laden in 1996: The Palestine Liberation Organization used to be considered an atheist organization by Osama bin Laden because they sided with the Soviet Union. He considers [the late P.L.O. leader Yasser] Arafat a traitor. And a secularist. He hated his guts. He also didn't like Saddam Hussein. And he still considered Saddam Hussein as a man who is a secular, but he didn't actually insult Saddam Hussein the way he insulted Yasser Arafat. He didn't like him, and he told me he wanted to kick him out of Iraq, as he considered the Ba'th regime to be an atheist regime. He considered Saddam Hussein an atheist, and he hates an atheist.
Hamid Mir, bin Laden's Pakistani biographer, spoke to him in 1997: He condemned Saddam Hussein in my interview. He gave such kind of abuses that it was very difficult for me to write, [calling Hussein a] socialist motherfucker. [He said], "The land of the Arab world, the land is like a mother, and Saddam Hussein is fucking his mother." He also explained that Saddam Hussein is against us, and he discourages Iraqi boys to come to Afghanistan.
In February 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, bin Laden released an audiotape in which he said, "Needless to say, this crusade war is primarily targeted against the people of Islam. Regardless of the removal or the survival of the socialist [Ba'th] party or Saddam, Muslims in general and the Iraqis in particular must brace themselves for jihad." Bin Laden went on to observe that "socialists are infidels," implying that Saddam was an apostate from Islam, the gravest charge bin Laden could make against a fellow Muslim.
IV. JIHAD In the years after bin Laden left Afghanistan, after having helped to drive out the Russians, an armed fundamentalist movement, the Taliban, meaning "religious students," gradually took over the country. The Taliban emerged in Kandahar in 1994 under the leadership of an enigmatic, reclusive leader, the one-eyed Mullah Omar. The Taliban enjoyed quite a high degree of popularity and legitimacy in their earlier years as they brought order and a measure of peace to a country that had suffered through a decade and a half of civil war. The Taliban were, at least initially, also seen as incorruptible and little interested in assuming power for themselves.
During the early 1990s, bin Laden was based in Sudan. Coming under increasing pressure from the U.S. and Saudi governments, the Sudanese finally expelled him in 1996. Bin Laden chose to return to Afghanistan, the scene of his earlier battlefield exploits. The fact that the Taliban were consolidating their hold on Afghanistan just as bin Laden re-based himself there was a fortunate coincidence, which he would exploit masterfully. He entered into a powerful symbiotic relationship with Mullah Omar: al-Qaeda provided the Taliban with some much-needed cash and zealous Arab fighters, while the Taliban provided bin Laden with a sure refuge and carte blanche to build up al-Qaeda's training camps.
Abdel Bari Atwan met bin Laden in November 1996, six months after bin Laden had settled in Afghanistan: I was taken with different people to Tora Bora, the mountain overlooking Jalalabad. There was snow at that time. It was very cold—freezing. And then to the favorite cave of Osama bin Laden. And actually it was a very simple cave, and he was waiting. Then we had dinner. Dinner was really awful. There were about 12 people in that cave. The dinner was rotten cheese, this Egyptian cheese. It's salty cheese—really very bad. And then there were potatoes soaked in cottonseed oil. And also there were about five or six fried eggs, and bread, which was really caked with sand. So I think this is their typical food. They eat very little. It's bin Laden who actually loves to live such a harsh life with his followers.
We didn't talk about his personal life. We never talked about his wives or something like that, because it is a taboo. He took me on a tourist tour in Tora Bora. We walked for about two hours together. We left the cave about eight o'clock in the morning. It was freezing. And so we went around, and the sun started and it was really beautiful, and he showed me the houses of some of his people, their mud-brick houses there above the snow. They were trying to have their own community, grow their foods, and they are marrying each other. It's like an oasis in Afghanistan. He was in perfect health. He never complained about how high it was in the mountains and it was freezing. He had dry mouth most of the time. I noted that he drinks a lot of water and tea.
He told me how he hated Americans, and he wanted to defeat them even in his agriculture project. So he was actually the happiest man on earth when he managed to produce a sunflower which is a record in its size, much bigger than the American sunflower. He said, "Even I defeated them in agriculture."
Abu Jandal: Sheikh Osama gave me a pistol and made me his personal bodyguard. The pistol had only two bullets, for me to kill Sheikh Osama with in case we were surrounded or he was about to fall into the enemy's hands, so that he would not be caught alive. I was the only member of his bodyguard who was given this authority, and I was to use this pistol. I took care to keep the two bullets in good condition and cleaned them every night, while telling myself, "These are Sheikh Osama's bullets. I pray to God not to let me use them."
On May 26, 1998, bin Laden held a press conference to announce that he had "formed with many other Islamic groups and organizations in the Islamic world a front called the International Islamic Front to do jihad against the Crusaders and Jews." Also present were the sons of Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel Rahman, "the Blind Sheikh," who is jailed in the United States on terrorism charges. At the press conference, Sheikh Rahman's sons distributed small cards containing their father's "will," which was in the form of a fatwa to attack civilian targets in the United States. The fatwa exhorts Rahman's Egyptian followers, several of whom are al-Qaeda leaders, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, to "bring down [U.S.] airplanes, burn their corporations, sink their ships."
The significance of Sheikh Rahman's will to al-Qaeda has hitherto not received sufficient attention. This will/fatwa seems to be the first time that a Muslim cleric had given his religious sanction to attacks on U.S. aviation, shipping, and economic targets. It would turn out to be a ticking time bomb which exploded on October 12, 2000—when a suicide attack blew a hole the size of a small house in the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, killing 17 sailors—and again, with even greater ferocity, on 9/11.
Sulayman Abu Ghaith, al-Qaeda's spokesman, recalling 9/11: I was sitting with the sheikh [bin Laden] in a room. Then I left to go to another room, where there was a TV set. The TV broadcasted the big event. The scene was showing an Egyptian family sitting in their living room—they exploded with joy. There was a subtitle that read, "In revenge for the children of Al Aksa [the Palestinians], Osama bin Laden executes an operation against America." So I went back to the sheikh, who was sitting in a room with 50 or 60 people. I tried to tell him about what I saw, but he made a gesture with his hands, meaning, "I know, I know."
Bin Laden on a videotape that appeared as the U.S. bombing campaign against the Taliban began, on October 7, 2001. It was the first time he had been seen since 9/11: There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots. Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that. There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that. What America tastes now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our nation [the Islamic world] has tasted this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years.
Hamid Mir: [Bin Laden] watches TV—CNN, BBC. I have seen with my own eyes Osama bin Laden watching CNN. I'll tell you a very interesting thing. When I met him after 9/11, he said, "I was watching you on the Larry King show a few days ago, and you told Larry King that when Osama bin Laden talks on religion he is not convincing, but when he talks on politics he is very much convincing, so today I will convince you on some religious issues." So I said, "O.K., you watched the Larry King show?" He said, "Yes, I am fighting a big war, and I have to monitor the activities of my enemy through these TV channels."
I met three [of his] sons. Muhammad, Ali, Saad, [who] is in Iran [now]. [Saad was] 16. I had a picture with Saad sitting with his father, and a gun is lying in his lap, and I asked bin Laden, "He is a young boy. Why is he carrying a gun?" And he said that this is his own decision. So I asked a question to Saad: "Are you following the footsteps of your father?" And he answered very confidently, "No. I am following the footsteps of my Prophet."
[Bin Laden] told me that "I became father of a girl after 9/11, and I gave her the name of Safia." I said, "Why Safia?" And he said, "I gave her the name of Safia, who killed a Jew spy in the days of Holy Prophet Muhammad, so that's why." I said, "What is the age of your daughter?" He said, "Just one month. She will kill enemies of Islam like Safia of the Prophet's time." So you are visualizing a one-month-old girl as Safia, who should kill lots of Jews. This is the mind-set.
V. TORA BORA The question of whether the United States missed an opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden during the battle of Tora Bora, in eastern Afghanistan, in December 2001, became an issue in the razor-close 2004 U.S. presidential campaign. During the September 30, 2004, presidential debate, the Democratic contender, Senator John Kerry, said, "He escaped in the mountains of Tora Bora. We had him surrounded." Writing in The New York Times a little more than two weeks later, General Tommy Franks, a Bush supporter and the overall commander of the Tora Bora operation, wrote, "We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora." At a town-hall meeting in Ohio around the same time, Vice President Cheney said Kerry's critique of the Tora Bora campaign was "absolute garbage." President Bush himself weighed in on the question of bin Laden's Tora Bora presence, or lack thereof, at a campaign rally a week before the election, saying: "[It's part of Kerry's] pattern of saying anything it takes to get elected. Like when he charged that our military failed to get Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, even though our top military commander, General Tommy Franks, said, 'The senator's understanding of events does not square with reality,' and intelligence reports place bin Laden in any of several different countries at the time."
However, according to a widely reported background briefing by Pentagon officials in mid-December 2001, there was "reasonable certainty" that bin Laden was indeed at Tora Bora, a judgment based on intercepted radio transmissions. General Franks himself recounted in his autobiography, American Soldier, that in December 2001 he briefed President Bush, saying, "Unconfirmed reports have it that Osama has been seen in the White Mountains, Sir. The Tora Bora area." In June 2003, I met with several senior U.S. counterterrorism officials, who explained, "We are confident that [bin Laden] was at Tora Bora and disappeared with a small group." The following accounts further establish that bin Laden was at Tora Bora.
Abu Jaafar al-Kuwaiti, an eyewitness, in an account posted to al-Qaeda's main Web site in 2002: November 14, 2001. Mujahid Sheikh Osama bin Laden and his special group arrived to the area 9,000 feet above sea level in the Tora Bora mountains with its extreme terrain and cold weather. We were with him. This position had more than 15 trenches to protect the mujahideen from the insane American strikes that started five days before. The trenches were built by our hands and effort and by our brothers, the Afghan mujahideen. Then we witnessed the increase in flights of [U.S. Predator drones] that did not leave the area night or day.
[On December 9], at a late hour of the night, we were awakened to the sound of massive and terrorizing explosions very near to us. It was the place where the trench of Sheikh Osama bin Laden was. The night was very long and very worrisome [as we waited] for what the morning would bring [to] see what this barbaric raid had done.
[In the morning] we received the horrifying news! The trench of Sheikh Osama had been destroyed; the trench where Sheikh used to come out every day to check the mujahideen situation and follow the news of the battle. [But] God kept Osama bin Laden alive, because he left the bunker only two nights [before] to an area only 200 meters away.
Abdellah Tabarak, bin Laden's Moroccan bodyguard: Following the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, I left Kandahar in the company of bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and a number of guards. During the month of Ramadan in the same year, we entered Tora Bora, where we stayed for 20 days. From there Ayman al-Zawahiri fled, accompanied by Uthman, the son of Osama bin Laden. Afterwards, bin Laden fled with his son Muhammad, accompanied by Afghan guards, while I fled with a group made up mainly of Yemenis and Saudis in the direction of Pakistan. We were arrested by the Pakistani authorities at a border checkpoint, and they handed us over to the U.S. authorities, who deported us to the Guantánamo detention camp, in Cuba.
Osama bin Laden on an audiotape that aired on Al Jazeera on February 11, 2003: Now, I am going to tell you a part of that great battle [of Tora Bora] so that I [will] prove to you how cowardly [the Americans] are. We were only 300 fighters. We had already dug 100 trenches, spread out in a space that didn't exceed one square mile. On the morning of the 17th of Ramadan [December 3, 2001], very heavy bombing started, especially after the American leadership made sure that some of the leadership of al-Qaeda were in Tora Bora, including myself and the mujahid brother Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. The bombing became around the clock. Not a second would pass without a fighter plane passing over our heads day and night. American forces were bombing us by smart bombs that weigh thousands of pounds and bombs that penetrate caves.
[That was] in addition to the forces [of the Northern Alliance], whom they pushed to attack us for a continuous month. We fought back against all their attacks. And we defeated them every time. In spite of all that, American forces did not dare to go into our posts. What sign is more than that for their cowardice? With all its forces that were fighting against a small group of 300 mujahideen in the trenches, inside one square mile, in minus 10 degrees of temperature. The result of the battle was that we lost 6 percent of our force [18 men].
Abdel Bari Atwan, who interviewed bin Laden at Tora Bora in 1996: I wasn't surprised [that Osama was in Tora Bora in 2001]. I expected him to be there. I was in the Gulf region, and I met somebody from al-Qaeda, and he told me that Osama bin Laden was injured during the Tora Bora bombing, and he was operated on his left shoulder. And then when I saw his first videotape, immediately after Tora Bora, I said something is wrong with his left shoulder. His left shoulder was very stiff, and he couldn't move his left hand. And many people from al-Qaeda actually were extremely furious I said that [publicly], because they don't want him to be reported as injured.
Why did the U.S. military not seal off the Tora Bora region, instead relying only on a handful of Special Forces on the ground? Part of the answer is that the U.S. military was a victim of its own success. Scores of Special Forces calling in air strikes, in combination with thousands of Afghans on the ground, destroyed the Taliban army in a few weeks of fighting. However, this approach was a failure at Tora Bora, where large numbers of Americans on the ground were needed to throw up an effective cordon around al-Qaeda's leaders. Apologists for the U.S. military failure at Tora Bora will no doubt provide some compelling reasons why this was the case, including a lack of airlift capabilities from the former U.S. air base known as K2, in neighboring Uzbekistan. However, such explanations are hard to square with the fact that scores of journalists managed to find their way to Tora Bora, a battle covered on live television by the world's leading news organizations. Sadly, there were more American journalists on the ground at the battle of Tora Bora than there were U.S. soldiers. The battle was a missed opportunity to bring bin Laden to justice.
And where is he today? The short answer is that no one really knows. Most analysts believe that he is somewhere in Pakistan, possibly in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Almost all of the key al-Qaeda leaders who have been captured since 9/11 have been found in Pakistan. However, judging from his most recent videotape appearance, it seems unlikely that al-Qaeda's leader has spent four years cowering in a cave. On the tape he appears healthy, rested, well informed, and well dressed. Wherever he may be, the hunt for bin Laden, for now, has hit a brick wall.
VI. THE IRAQ WAR As Michael Scheuer, who ran the C.I.A.'s bin Laden unit until 1999, has pointed out, if bin Laden believed in Christmas, the Iraq war would be his perfect present from Santa Claus. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan severely damaged bin Laden's organization. Al-Qaeda, which means "the base" in English, lost its base and training camps in Afghanistan, while its leaders were on the run, captured, or dead. One year after the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda was still on life support. Today it's on steroids.
That's because the Iraq war has proved to be a tremendous boost to bin Laden and Islamist militants around the world. Not only has the United States deposed Saddam Hussein, whom bin Laden has loathed for years, but the jihadists in Iraq are costing America in blood and money. What bin Laden had hoped to achieve in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 period, which was to drag the United States into a protracted guerrilla war like the one he had fought against the Soviets, never happened. Instead, that protracted guerrilla war is now playing out in Iraq, in the heart of the Middle East.
The Iraq war has greatly expanded the pool of terrorists around the world and increased attacks. The year 2003 saw the highest incidence of significant terrorist acts (ones in which people were killed) in two decades, and the number tripled in 2004.
Bin Laden reveled in American reverses in Iraq in a "Message to the Iraqi People," on a tape released by Al Jazeera on October 18, 2003: Thank you for your jihad, and may God help you. Be glad of the good news: America is mired in the swamps of the Tigris and Euphrates. Bush is easy prey. Here he is now in an embarrassing situation, and here is America today being ruined before the eyes of the whole world. O youth of Islam everywhere, especially in [Iraq's] neighboring countries, jihad is your duty and rightness is your path.
The centerpiece of the Bush administration's brief for going to war in Iraq was Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003. In it Powell tried to make the case for an emerging alliance between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda in the person of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: What I want to bring to your attention today is the potentially much more sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist network, a nexus that combines classic terrorist organizations and modern methods of murder. Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants.
Sayf Adel, al-Qaeda's military commander, describing how Zarqawi left Iran for Iraq in 2002 as the United States was gearing up for the invasion of Iraq: Abu Musab [Zarqawi] and his Jordanian and Palestinian comrades opted to go to Iraq. Their skin color and Jordanian dialect would enable them to integrate into the Iraqi society easily. Our expectations of the situation indicated that the Americans would inevitably make a mistake and invade Iraq sooner or later. Such an invasion would aim at overthrowing the regime. Therefore, we should play an important role in the Resistance.
Contrary to what the Americans frequently reiterated, al-Qaeda did not have any relationship with Saddam Hussein or his regime. We had to draw up a plan to enter Iraq through the North, which was not under the control of [Saddam's] regime. We would then spread south to the areas of our fraternal Sunni brothers. The fraternal brothers of the Ansar al-Islam [a Kurdish jihadist group based in northern Iraq] expressed their willingness to offer assistance to help us achieve this goal. The goal was to go to Sunni areas in central Iraq and begin to prepare for confrontations to face the U.S. invasion and defeat the Americans.
In early 2004, U.S. intelligence intercepted a letter from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to bin Laden in which Zarqawi proposes a strategy for carrying forward the jihad. He suggests unleashing a civil war between Sunnis and Shia, something bin Laden historically rejected because he hoped to restore a unified caliphate, and also because senior al-Qaeda leaders are living under some form of arrest in largely Shia Iran: You [Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri], gracious brothers, are the leaders, guides, and symbolic figures of jihad and battle. We do not see ourselves as fit to challenge you, and we have never striven to achieve glory for ourselves. All that we hope is that we will be the spearhead, the enabling vanguard, and the bridge on which the [Islamic] nation crosses over to the victory that is promised and the tomorrow to which we aspire. This is our vision. If you are convinced of the idea of fighting the sects of apostasy [the Shia], we will be your readied soldiers, working under your banner, complying with your orders, and indeed swearing fealty to you publicly and in the news media. If things appear otherwise to you, we are brothers, and the disagreement will not spoil [our] friendship. Awaiting your response, may God preserve you.
Hutaifa Azzam has known both bin Laden and Zarqawi for more than 15 years: [Zarqawi had] no relations with Osama until he left to Iraq. His relation with Osama started one year [ago, in 2004], through the Internet.
An unlikely supporter of this view is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who told a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on October 4, 2004: In the case of al-Qaeda, most—my impression is, most of the senior people have actually sworn an oath to Osama bin Laden, and even, to my knowledge, even as of this late date, I don't believe Zarqawi, the principal leader of the network in Iraq, has sworn an oath.
Thirteen days later, Zarqawi issued an online statement in the name of his Tawhid group, pledging allegiance to bin Laden. Zarqawi adopted a new name for his group: al-Qaeda in Iraq. And so, nearly two years after Bush officials had first argued that Zarqawi was part of al-Qaeda, the Jordanian terrorist finally got around to swearing allegiance to bin Laden: [Let it be known that] al-Tawhid pledges both its leaders and its soldiers to the mujahid commander, Sheikh Osama bin Laden (in word and in deed) and to jihad for the sake of God until there is no more discord [among the ranks of Islam] and all of the religion turns toward God.
By God, O sheikh of the mujahideen, if you bid us plunge into the ocean, we would follow you. If you ordered it so, we would obey. If you forbade us something, we would abide by your wishes. For what a fine commander you are to the armies of Islam, against the inveterate infidels and apostates!
Zarqawi's total commitment to al-Qaeda was proved this past November when suicide bombers dispatched by him attacked three hotels frequented by Americans in Amman, killing 57 people, most of them Jordanians. A fourth bomber, a woman, who failed to detonate the explosives strapped to her and who was later apprehended, turned out to be the sister of Zarqawi's senior aide Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, who had been killed in Iraq in 2004 by American forces.
VII. BIN LADEN'S LEGACYBin Laden has increasingly positioned himself as the elder statesman of jihad, the big-picture guy who directs overall political strategy. That new role was amply demonstrated by a bin Laden videotape that aired on Al Jazeera and other TV networks on October 29, 2004, four days before the U.S. presidential election. In a Halloween parody of an Oval Office address, bin Laden spoke directly to the American people from behind a desk, dressed formally in gold robes, without a gun at his side—a rare sight. For the first time he made an unequivocal public admission of his own involvement in the 9/11 plot, and he responded directly to the Bush administration's frequent claim that al-Qaeda is attacking the United States because of its freedoms rather than its foreign policies: You the American people, I talk to you today about the best way to avoid another catastrophe and about war, its reasons and its consequences. And in that regard, I say to you that security is an important pillar of human life, and that free people do not compromise their security. Contrary to what Bush says and claims, that we hate [your] freedom. [So] why did we not attack Sweden? I wonder about you. Although we are [now in] the fourth year after 9/11, Bush is still exercising confusion and misleading you and not telling you the true reason [why you are being attacked]. Therefore, the motivations are still there for what happened to be repeated.
We agreed with the leader of the [9/11 hijackers], Mohammed Atta, to perform all the attacks within 20 minutes, before Bush and his administration were aware of what was going on.
Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.
Abdel Bari Atwan, who interviewed bin Laden in 1996: There will be different evaluations of Osama bin Laden. Some people will consider him a heroic phenomenon, a mighty little David who challenged the might of Goliath. Other people will say he was disastrous. September 11 managed to actually drag the Americans into the region and occupy Iraq.
I believe Osama bin Laden is the one who actually opened the American eyes to their mistake to support rotten, corrupt dictatorships [in the Arab world]. Before, they were happy to deal with these rotten dictatorships. They were happy to keep the region as it is. But after September 11 the Americans awakened to the fact that they are siding with these regimes which create huge frustration and radicalism and are actually fueling Islamic fundamentalism against the West.
Noman Benotman, who fought alongside al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the early 90s: Bin Laden now is driven by his tactics, not strategy—the tactics have taken over the strategy. It's always about just kill, shoot, destroy, bomb, in Afghanistan, in Iraq; now it's in America, in Europe. You can't talk to these people. It's killing, shooting, sacrificing. My point of view is bin Laden himself and his group will achieve nothing. They will fail to achieve what they are asking for, and bin Laden, his credibility, it's decreasing, not increasing. What has been increasing is this kind of new tactic—the suicide attacks.
Jamal Ismail: If bin Laden is killed, there is no charismatic personality to be like him among jihadi leaders. Ayman al-Zawahiri is an intellectual, and he has many opponents, before and after he joined al-Qaeda. His leadership is challenged by other jihadis from Egypt, but no one can challenge bin Laden's leadership, even if he differs with him on some issues. I believe all the jihadi organizations respect bin Laden more than any other leader.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of Pakistan's leading journalists, interviewed bin Laden twice in the late 1990s: Bin Laden sees himself as a man who would sacrifice his life for his beliefs. He would like to go down fighting; he would like to become a martyr. He won't surrender. I believe that he will be a much more popular man for many Muslims once he becomes a martyr, because Mr. bin Laden as a dead man would be even more potent than when he is alive.
Abu Jandal, bin Laden's former bodyguard: In the case of his death, I think he will be a symbol for all those who follow him, especially in the case of his assassination. He will be an idol for all those who believe in his ideas. He will be a great inspiration for them to follow in his footsteps. His death will be a great force for stirring up everybody's emotions and enthusiasm to follow him on the path of martyrdom.
In case of his arrest, the situation might be a bit different. It might lead to a strong psychological defeat for the group's members and many Muslims.
Khalid Khawaja, who fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan: He will never be captured. He's not Saddam Hussein. He's Osama. Osama loves death. Bin Laden has played his role. Osama has woken up the sleeping bin Ladens.
This is Peter Bergen's second article for Vanity Fair. His book The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader (Free Press) will be available in January.
Illustrations by TIM SHEAFFER