Feb 02, 2006

Feature on the OBL I Know in The Australian

Copyright 2006 Nationwide News Pty Limited
All Rights Reserved
January 21, 2006 Saturday
All-round Country Edition

SECTION: FEATURES; Inquirer; Pg. 20

LENGTH: 1803 words

HEADLINE: Up close and personal


BYLINE: Richard Kerbaj


Osama Bin Laden is back on the air after a long absence. Richard Kerbaj reports on a new biography of the feared terrorist that discusses his biggest dilemma

MORE than 30 audio and videotapes have been released by Osama bin Laden and his deputy chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, since the September 11 attacks on the US. Now bin Laden has issued another dire threat against Americans that is being taken seriously. His new biographer, US journalist Peter Bergen, argues bin Laden's move is also dangerous for him.

''The one thing he's done that's risky [since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001] is keep releasing his tapes,'' Bergen tells Inquirer. ''But he's in a classic case of catch 22, which is if he doesn't release his tapes, he fades and becomes a historical figure rather than somebody who's actually influencing events. And if he does release the tapes, he remains in the game, but then he opens himself to being found.''

The CIA yesterday confirmed that the voice on a new audio tape aired by the Arab television network al-Jazeera -- in which he said his al-Qa'ida organisation was preparing to attack the US again but also offering a truce -- is that of bin Laden. It was the first audio tape from him since December 2004.

Bergen's new book, The Osama bin Laden I Know, offers an insight into the world's most wanted man through the eyes of people who know him personally, such as his half-brother, closest childhood friend and secondary school teacher. It will be released here later this month.

Bergen, CNN's terrorism analyst, who met and interviewed bin Laden in 1997, traces his subject's life from Saudi Arabia, where the world's most wanted man grew up wealthy and privileged, to the anti-Soviet fighting in Afghanistan, the birth of al-Qa'ida, the September 11 attacks and the latest war in Iraq. Bergen argues that a surefire, way to pinpoint the location of the elusive al-Qa'ida leader is to trace the chain of custody of such tapes as that broadcast yesterday. But there are difficulties.

''The US wouldn't be doing its job if it didn't have somebody in al-Jazeera giving [it] the heads up, because most of the tapes have gone to al-Jazeera,'' he says. A bin Laden tape would pass through the hands of at least a dozen people before it was delivered to the network, notes Bergen, which would seem to be an opportunity. But getting one of them to inform against him would probably require a motive other than money. ''We've had a reward on bin Laden since 1999, it's getting up to a decade now,'' he says. ''There's been no takers, so the people immediately around him are not motivated by money.''

Bin Laden is no longer the boy who enjoyed watching Bruce Lee movies and wearing Christian Dior shirts; nor is he the shy, pious young man who remained quiet during class to avoid attracting attention. Today he is a brand name for global Islamic jihad. A leader of the world's deadliest terror network, al-Qa'ida. A preacher of violence and hate. A mystery without a trace other than the tapes.

Bin Laden was always a devout follower of Islam. Even as a teenager he was praying seven times a day and fasting twice a week, according to those who knew him then. His transformation came during the Afghanistan war, which began in December 1979. It was the first time since World War II that a Muslim nation had been invaded and occupied by a non-Muslim power.

At the time, a charismatic Palestinian cleric, Abdullah Azzam, was urging Muslims from around the world to join Afghani mujahidin in their fight against the Soviets. Bin Laden answered the call. It was a move that led him towards an ascetic lifestyle that, in retrospect, became a solid preparation for a life on the run, says Bergen.

Theories on the whereabouts of bin Laden are as common as speculation about his alleged health complications. Some analysts say he's based in a cave in Pakistan, wired up to a dialysis machine. Others claim he's dead. ''Bin Laden has some minor health problems, but they're chronic, not life-threatening,'' Bergen tells Inquirer from Washington. ''He has low blood pressure. He was wounded in the foot by the Soviets. He was wounded in the shoulder at Tora Bora [his base in Afghanistan] by an American bomb ... but he's certainly not somebody who's going to die of natural causes any time soon.''

Yet how much does his survival really matter to al-Qa'ida's objectives and aspirations? Will his voice and ideology eventually fade if he makes no more cameo appearances on al-Jazeera to promote jihad -- holy war?

Bergen tells Inquirer there's an unequivocal admiration for bin Laden among his followers. They regard him as a heroic figure who confronted the Soviet Union during its invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s, and who is now standing up to the West. Yet there's also deep-seated understanding among most Muslims that he is a ''religious nutcase''.

It may seem that bin Laden has become ''Bin Forgotten'' to a lot of people, writes Bergen, but the aspiring martyr is certainly not dead. ''If bin Laden died, this is not something that you could keep under wraps,'' he explains. ''There would be lots of people who would want to announce this. The US Government would, because it would be a very important psychological victory for them. And the jihadists themselves would be trumpeting this from every rooftop, 'At last bin Laden has finally gotten his wish, he's been martyred. He's a great leader.'

''You've got to think about it in the way they think about it, not in the way we think about it. This would be something that they would be very happy about.''

A Pakistani journalist, Rahimullah Yusufzai, who interviewed bin Laden twice in the late '90s, is quoted in Bergen's book as saying that the Saudi will ''fight until the end. I believe he will be a much more popular man for many Muslims once he becomes a martyr because bin Laden as a dead man would be even more potent than when he is alive''.

Al-Qa'ida (which means ''the base'') was founded by bin Laden and a small group of like-minded militants in 1988, long before it could radicalise other Muslims, such as those who turned planes into human missiles and flew them into the New York's World Trade Centre.

''[The September 11 attacks] may have been a tactical victory for al-Qa'ida, but it was a strategic disaster,'' writes Bergen. It led to the destruction of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and cut short the lives of thousand of innocent civilians. Even bin Laden's son, Omar, who's in his mid-20s, fled to Saudi Arabia in ''disgust'' following the event, he says.

Al-Qa'ida, which counts among its achievements the bombings of US embassies in Africa, an attack on USS Cole in Yemen, as well as September 11, has inflicted more physical and human damage on the US than the Soviet Union did during almost five decades of the Cold War. That has all been achieved without the use of nuclear and chemical weapons, which bin Laden once said must be acquired as a ''religious duty''.

Al-Qa'ida tried to get its hands on nuclear weapons in the early '90s while the group was based in Sudan, writes Bergen. The US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 ended al-Qa'ida's fledgling program for weapons of mass destruction.

However, the possibility for the terrorist network of staging a nuclear attack cannot be ruled out. ''It is certainly possible that al-Qa'ida, or its affiliates, could launch a radiological attack some time in the future,'' writes Bergen. ''In fact, it is somewhat surprising such an attack has not happened already, as the technical know-how to build a radiological weapon is not much more than a graduate-level physics degree.''

The challenges faced by the terrorist group do not come from the West alone. They come from the majority of Muslims, who are diametrically opposed to bin Laden's vision of imposing a Taliban-style theocracy on the Islamic world.

''Al-Qa'ida presents no clear vision of the world it wants to create other than vague references to restoring the Caliphate (the rulership of Islam),'' writes Bergen. ''Al-Qa'ida is against a lot of things: US foreign policy in the Middle East, Israel, India's role in Kashmir and Russia's war in Chechnya ... [but a] Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is the type of utopian society that al-Qa'ida seems to want to impose on the rest of the Islamic world. This is not a winning vision of the future for the vast majority of Muslims.''

Bergen says bin Laden's vision has failed thus far, given that US forces now occupy Afghanistan and Iraq and the alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia, shaken by the discovery that 15 of the 19 September 11 plane hijackers were Saudi, is now as ''robust as ever''.

''Most governments around the Muslim world are falling over themselves to co-operate with the US in the war on terrorism,'' writes Bergen.

Which is why capturing bin Laden will deliver a psychological victory to the West and other nations that are against him. Did the US miss its opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden in December 2001, during the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan?

This issue, raised by John Kerry in the the 2004 presidential election campaign, was dismissed by President George W.Bush. But according to sources close to bin Laden and quoted in Bergen's book, the al-Qa'ida chief was indeed in Tora Bora during the battle. ''Scores of US special forces soldiers calling on air strikes, in combination with thousands of Afghans on the ground, destroyed the Taliban army in a few weeks of fighting, a textbook approach of unconventional warfare,'' writes Bergen.

''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 Qa'ida's leaders. The Tora Bora battle was a missed opportunity to bring bin Laden to justice.''

Bergen says he has heard ''people in the US Government who say, 'If he just didn't say anything and he just faded into history, that wouldn't be so horrible'.''But (a) I don't think that's going to happen, and (b) I'm a fan of capturing him and subjecting him to the sort of Saddam Hussein public humiliation treatment, because you're dealing with a mythical persona and the way you puncture mythical personas is to turn them back into human beings. And if we briefly paraded bin Laden for the cameras and checked him for head lice and checked his teeth and stuff, that would be the public diplomacy I'm looking for.''

Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistani air force officer who fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1987, says in the book that the terrorist leader will never be captured alive. ''He's not Saddam Hussein. He's Osama. Osama loves death. Bin Laden played his role. Osama has woken up the sleeping bin Ladens,'' he says.

The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al-Qa'ida's Leader, by Peter L Bergen, $49.95, Simon & Schuster.