Feb 03, 2006

Maclean’s magazine feature on the OBL I Know

Copyright 2006 Rodgers Publishing Ltd.  

January 30, 2006


LENGTH: 1788 words


Five years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden remains at large -- beyond the reach of justice, and indeed, moral comprehension. Last week, he released his first audiotaped communication in over a year, confirming that he is alive and remains an active leader of al-Qaeda. Peter Bergen is CNN's terrorism analyst, and the author of the new book The Osama bin Laden I Know. Bergen interviewed bin Laden in 1997 and has followed his actions closely ever since.

What is the most significant thing about the new tape from your point of view?

Well, the most obvious message is that Osama bin Laden is alive and well, which is something I personally believed anyway because there was no evidence that he was dead. There was a lot of ill-informed speculation that he was dead because we hadn't heard from him in a year. But of course there was a precedent for that. He came out at the time of his choosing.

The tape was made earlier this month. Why the choice to release it now?

It's one of two reasons. One is that al-Qaeda took a serious hit [Jan. 13] with this attack on the Pakistani village. Whoever was killed, there were "top B-level" al-Qaeda people. So maybe this tape was rushed out to show Osama was still in charge. Another explanation could be that the tape itself -- the making of it -- led to the intelligence about [bin Laden's second-incommand] Ayman al-Zawahiri's whereabouts. And that in turn led to the attack.

So you're saying it was the tape that caused the attack rather than that the tape was released in response to the attack?

That would be another interpretation. But the most likely interpretation is that al-Qaeda's propaganda arm rushed out the tape because they want to say that things are still fine. Obviously, I don't think they are.

In your book you say that, judging by the way bin Laden looks in the 2004 pre-U.S. election videotape -- he's clean, well-fed, up-to-date on current events -- he has probably not been living inside a cave all this time.

His 2004 videotape was a Halloween parody of an Oval Office address. He's behind a desk. He's well-lit. He's well-dressed. His clothes have been to the dry cleaner's -- it doesn't look like he's cowering in a cave. And the same thing is true of Ayman al-Zawahiri's last tape. CBS did an analysis of his clothing: he's got a new watch, his robes have been recently pressed. So neither of them is sitting in some hole in the ground.

However, the latest communication is a very crude audiotape. Does that suggest something has changed?

Maybe the video production arm got incinerated in the attack. Maybe they were reluctant to signal anything about their situation. A videotape does have more clues. Even if you put a neutral backdrop up -- one could decipher from the 2004 videotape that bin Laden was living in some fairly pleasant situation.

So you don't think that they are "on the run"? They're not living like prisoners? They are at home? In bed? Watching -- as we learn from your book they like to do -- Larry King Live?

I don't think they are living in some five-star hotel in Islamabad. But if you analyze the content of bin Laden's statements -- and also al-Zawahiri's -- these guys are news junkies. That indicates some leisure.

Many of us pray that bin Laden will soon be vaporized -- but you don't believe such an outcome would be in the West's best interests, do you?

Absolutely not. The best thing we could do is capture him and do the whole Saddam Hussein treatment on him. Check him for head lice and publicly humiliate him. Puncture his mythic persona. On the other hand, the likelihood of that happening is pretty low. For two reasons. First of all, he genuinely does want to die in this struggle. Plus, I think if the Americans did have information about his whereabouts, particularly if he was in Pakistan, which seems likely, I don't think they would go in and arrest him. I think they would send a whole series of predator missiles in his direction.

So they don't support your view that it is very important that he not become a martyr? Or is it just too hard to capture him?

I think it's the latter. I think that smart people in the U.S. government get that martyring bin Laden would not be in the interest of the United States, or indeed in Canada's and the rest of the civilized world's interest. The best outcome would be if bin Laden just faded into obscurity. At the moment, he continues to have ideological influence on the jihadist movement. I think the best evidence of this is the fact that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the main insurgent commander in Iraq, renamed his group "al-Qaeda in Iraq" and in 2004 pledged allegiance to bin Laden.

In the tape, bin Laden addresses the American people directly, but he's rather deluded about how his threats go over with them. Why doesn't he understand yet that Americans don't respond well to threats?

Clearly his appeal to the American people -- he also did this before the American presidential election -- is a rather naive approach. But I think bin Laden is a naive person. He certainly has made some misjudgments about the United States in the past -- that America is a paper tiger, and if you threaten them, they'll cower and fold their cards. Certainly he takes great pleasure in the tape saying that most Americans want a withdrawal from Iraq.

But this tape could change that. Bin Laden's endorsement of withdrawal is probably the best reason the American public will recommit to the fight.

I agree completely. The last thing you want is bin Laden as a spokesman for any particular point of view.

One disheartening thing we learn from your book is that he's actually in great health. There's no kidney disease, for example.

No, that's all nonsense. He's got no life-threatening conditions.

However, a number of people in your book comment on how much water and tea he drinks.

Yes. One theory I've heard is that he may have Marfan syndrome, which apparently afflicted President Lincoln. It is a degenerative disease that will eventually kill you. Bin Laden and Lincoln share a similar body type. Very tall and skinny. Bin Laden is six-foot-four and almost emaciated. So that may be true. What he certainly has is low blood pressure. And he was wounded in the foot during the Soviet war. When I met with him in 1997, he walked with a cane. And he was wounded in the battle of Tora Bora. One of the things I hope the reader takes away from the book is this nonsense that bin Laden was not at that battle. This idea was floated by the Bush administration -- and by Gen. Tommy Franks -- who was running the battle of Tora Bora from Florida. We had bin Laden surrounded at Tora Bora. Well, we should have had him surrounded -- but we didn't. There were more American journalists at Tora Bora than American soldiers, so that was truly a lost opportunity.

What does bin Laden do all day?

I think he's paying attention to current events. He prays seven times a day. I don't think he has his immediate family with him because that would be a security problem. He's probably surrounded by seven or eight bodyguards who treat him as a religious figure and who are all motivated by cash rewards. He used to fast every Monday and Thursday as a teenager -- I'm sure he's sustaining that.

One person in the book describes sharing a foul dinner with him. Rancid Egyptian cheese, bread coated in sand . . .

What's interesting about all of that is that bin Laden had been preparing for life on the run for a very long time. Years ago when he was living in Sudan [1992-1996], and when he had millions of dollars in the bank, he didn't have air conditioning, he slept on the floor, he ate humble meals, and he wouldn't even drink cold water because it was a luxury. So in a sense, his life hasn't changed a huge amount in terms of his ascetic lifestyle.

One interesting detail from your book is that the often-quoted estimation of his wealth at $ 200 million is probably wrong.

It is wrong. Let's do the math. Osama's father had a lot of money but not billions and billions in the bank. And when you have 54 kids, even a large amount of money doesn't go a long way. The sons would have got twice as much as the daughters -- but you're still talking about 29 sons. When Mohammed bin Laden died, all the kids were young, too young to run a multinational construction company, so the whole thing was put into a trust. There was distribution from the estate every year -- Osama was getting maybe $ 1 million a year over a 20-year period. So you're looking at someone worth more like $ 20 million and not $ 200 million. Bin Laden, by the way, emerges in the book as a rather stingy guy. He nickel-and-dimed people over their salaries when he had his businesses in Sudan. When he bought a jet in the United States, he got it down to such a low price that when it arrived in Sudan it turned out it could barely fly.

If we want to get a sense of who bin Laden is in private, learning more about his delightful views on women helps a great deal.

Indeed. One of the people who talked to me about this was Jamal Khalifa, Osama's best friend in university and his brother-in-law. They lived together for years and even when they were married, they lived in the same compound. He and Osama had had a conversation about polygamy and how they were not going to be like their fathers. Their fathers had married and divorced 20 times. In Islam, in Saudi Arabia, you are allowed four wives, provided you treat them equally. But instead, Osama's father was constantly divorcing the third and the fourth wives and getting younger models. And Osama and Jamal had this conversation where they decided they would do "monogamous polygamy" as it were -- they would only do the four wives. It turns out that Osama did marry five times because one of his wives left him when he gave her the opportunity in Sudan. He told his wives that "life is going to be tough and if you want to leave now, that's fine." So this wife left on amicable terms. The surprising thing is that the wives have generally been highly educated.

After spending all this time talking about him and researching your book, what are your own feelings about him? He's obviously a religious fanatic -- but would you say he's psychotic?

I'm puzzled still. It's hard to explain why bin Laden is doing what he is doing. But the best explanation I heard came from Jamal Khalifa. He said that bin Laden believes that if he doesn't do the things he is doing, he will be punished by God. And I thought that was an explanation that made sense. He's clearly not psychotic by any standard definition.

What are the odds of the U.S. military ever finding him?

Well, he is a human being and human beings make mistakes. And by the law of averages he'll make a mistake one day and then we'll find him. He's only 48 right now -- potentially he has a long life to live. I think it's unlikely he'll die of natural causes. He could be found tomorrow -- it could be 14 years from now. We just don't know.


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