Feb 02, 2006

Toronto Star feature on the OBL I Know

Copyright 2006 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.
The Toronto Star

LENGTH: 1426 words

HEADLINE: How to know a man without the help of 'usual sources' A portrait of a leader whose followers are riven with petty jealousies



The Cold War spawned Kremlinology, with thousands of experts peering through the smallest cracks of the secretive Soviet stronghold to deduce what its leaders were thinking.

Now terrorology is the discipline du jour, and the keenest political analysts are training their eyes on more murky territory - the caves of Afghanistan's Tora Bora and the gritty reaches of Iraq's Sunni triangle - in an effort to crack the code of Osama bin Laden's brain.

They seek him here, they seek him there. He's never at home when they call.

Bin Laden, the most effective terrorist in modern history, is also one of its least known characters. Only his bearded, ascetically sculpted face is familiar, along with his internationally distributed messages of hatred and violence.

But unlike the Soviet strategists who steered Russia through the Cold War, bin Laden is so impenetrable that even his policies remain a mystery. And although numerous efforts have been made to dissect his personality and political goals, they raise as many questions as they answer.

One of them - increasingly mooted by terror experts - is whether Osama is worth all those man, woman and machine hours, now that al Qaeda has taken on a life of its own as the ultimate franchise operation.

Peter Bergen answers vigorously in the affirmative.

"I have an old-fashioned view of history," says the CNN terrorism expert, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. "I believe that people do change things, whether it's Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust, or Napoleon and the French. You can't explain al Qaeda without knowing bin Laden."

It is, Bergen admits, a self-serving view. He has just completed a virtual textbook of references on the elusive Saudi's life, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader, containing the memories of bin Laden's friends, colleagues, teachers, recruits, employees, and family members.

It's a form well suited to the task; the West has no "usual sources" in al Qaeda, no deep throats willing to dictate chapters to eager biographers.

The outlines of bin Laden's life are already well known: the rich son of a Yemen-born construction magnate whose marriages were of Olympian proportions; a dutiful schoolboy who was pious to a fault; an increasingly fanatical religious extremist who took his beliefs to war in Afghanistan and then against much of the world.

But was young Osama a fanatic born or made by the company he kept? Was he a natural military strategist or the centre of a convenient myth? Does he seek martyrdom or simply a place in history? And does he dictate the path of al Qaeda or merely watch it burgeon, like the father of an unruly family?

Bergen's sources add some flesh to the bones of the bin Laden story, without supplying definitive answers.

But, he said in Toronto last week, "the best explanation of why he does what he does (offered by his brother-in-law Jamal Khalifa) is that he really believes if he doesn't do things in a 'correct way,' God will punish him.

"He was an ultra-religious kid, he had a transformative experience fighting the Soviets, and he feels that God is telling him what to do."

In bin Laden's enormous family, Bergen discovered, only Osama and his sister Shaikha were exceptionally pious. "He seems to have come out of the womb like that." His jihadist views took shape as he encountered prominent militant Islamists.

As a military strategist, however, bin Laden was a disaster, his comrades-in-arms told Bergen. Fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan with a small band of Arab recruits, "he was almost suicidal. He set up a base within eyesight of the Soviets, to draw Soviet fire. How dumb was that?"

Nor were his political goals any better crafted. He applied the same maximalist strategy to attacks on the United States that he did to the Russians in the 1980s, but with more dire results.

"Within the jihadist movement, many people were deeply critical of bin Laden about the 9/11 attacks, and one of his sons even left him because of them. They thought he was believing his own propaganda. He really believed that the U.S. was a paper tiger, and that it would withdraw from the Middle East if it was attacked. But of course it was a terrible miscalculation that ended up with the Afghanistan attack, which badly hurt al Qaeda."

The history-making attacks that catapulted bin Laden to instant fame and infamy also put deep cracks in the al Qaeda movement that have worsened in the past two years - and could eventually prove fatal.

"Like all revolutionary movements, there are internal hatreds," says Bergen. "Some of the members hate each other even more than they hate George W. Bush. The outside world thinks that al Qaeda is united in its ideological and religious beliefs, but the truth is it's riven with petty jealousies and disagreements."

Bin Laden, however, has enormous sway over al Qaeda even now, when his whereabouts are hidden and he may be living on the run or immobilized by fear of discovery.

"He wouldn't pick up the phone like a Mafia don and order something done - but what he says gets serious attention. He's released up to 40 videotapes, and they have very specific instructions, calling for attacks on the U.S., Jews, Iraqi and Saudi oil fields, and other targets like Madrid. When he speaks, things still happen."

The public show of allegiance by Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian extremist leading al Qaeda attacks in Iraq, says Bergen, demonstrates bin Laden's influence.

Bin Laden's continuing influence on al Qaeda, which he founded in 1988, is not surprising. But Bergen's research turned up some lesser known details of his life.

Bin Laden's attitude to women and marriage, for instance.

"He and his university friend Jamal Khalifa decided they weren't going to do polygamy in the 'old way,' divorcing third and fourth wives and replacing them constantly. Instead, they would stick to only four wives and treat them equally."

The equality, Bergen found, extended to marrying women who were "well educated and dedicated to the cause, as he was." When bin Laden's always Spartan family life - basic food, ill-furnished homes and no modern conveniences - gave way to the life of a hunted man, he also offered his wives their freedom if they preferred not to stay the course. One accepted, and they parted "amicably."

The attitude was in stark contrast with that of the Taliban with whom he consorted, a group whose twisted interpretation of Islam denied women even the opportunity to read and write.

This was part of a thicket of contradictions Bergen encountered in his interviews with bin Laden's cohorts.

They painted a portrait of a millionaire who gave unstintingly to the poor but denied his family creature comforts. Who bargain-hunted substandard military equipment, while attracting huge financial support. Who glorified martyrdom but adroitly evaded death. Who is described as brilliant by some and blindly stupid by others. Who shows his family and friends deep affection but joked over the deaths of thousands of innocent people in terror attacks.

And, Bergen concluded, at the end of years of research, "the more you know, sometimes the less you know" about this complex subject.

Is there an end in sight to bin Laden and his war of terror?

"His two biggest Achilles heels are the killing of Muslims, as happened recently in Jordan, and his failure to connect with the masses," says Bergen. "Even his supporters have realized that attacking Muslims and beheading people are counter-productive, and they're calling for an end to it.

"Bin Laden also has not really connected with Muslims. They may admire him personally, and he is still very popular for his views on America's actions in the Middle East and its support of Israel and the authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes. But very few want to live in the kind of regime he would want, a Taliban-style theocracy."

Beneath this small silver lining is another dark cloud, Bergen warns: It's called Iraq.

"The war on terrorism has been a total disaster. The Iraqi war could result in a series of mini-wars that will go on for years to come. More people are joining it, especially in Europe. When you have a Belgian female suicide bomber from a gritty industrial town going off to blow herself up, you see how easily the results of this war can be transferred to future campaigns.

"The biggest worry is what the blowback from the Iraq war is going to look like. The future of al Qaeda isn't being incubated in some Pakistani madrassah. It's now in a European graduate school.

"That's where it will be happening, whether bin Laden is alive or dead."

GRAPHIC: Vince Talotta toronto star Peter Bergen in Toronto last week: Know the man, know the group. associated press al Jazeera Osama Bin Laden in a 2004 videotape: No military genius.associated press al Jazeera Osama Bin Laden in a 2004 videotape: No military genius.