Millions of words have been written about Bin Laden, but almost all of them by people who have never met him. One of the few who has is distinguished Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. Here he describes his extraordinary meetings with the world’s most wanted man – and tries to explain what makes him tick
The fax rolled off the machine into the offices of Al-Jazeera Television on Sunday, and a world preparing for war paused for a moment to read it. Signed Osama bin Laden, it looked like a call to arms from the FBI’s most wanted man, calling on “our beloved brothers” to “triumph over the infidel forces and the forces of tyranny, and to destroy the new Jewish-Christian crusader campaign on the soil of Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Bin Laden, it seemed, was preparing for war.
We may never know if the fax came from his pen. But from my meetings and phone calls in recent years with him, I believe I have glimpsed his state of mind. It is three years ago now that the first call came to my office at The News in Peshawar, summoning me to a camp in southern Afghanistan. The Pakistani border guards would not let us cross, so the Islamist militant group who had organised the meeting smuggled us in. We waited for three days until finally, on May 25 1998, we met Bin Laden – a softly spoken man who drank copious amounts of water, because of a kidney problem, as we later discovered.
He had brought me there to announce the launch of his International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the United States and Israel – but the Taliban had not approved the announcement, and were furious. Mullah Omar angrily insisted that there could only be one ruler of Afghanistan – Bin Laden or himself.
Bin Laden apologised, and for my next meeting with him, a one-to-one interview on December 23 the same year, he was sure to obtain the approval of his protectors. I had had one communication with him since our first meeting, on the day of America’s attack in August 1998 in retaliation for the African embassy bombings. The Egyptian Jihad leader Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri had telephoned me at my office. Bin Laden was sitting next to him, Al-Zawahiri said, and wanted to stress that he was not involved in the bombings, though he was pleased by them. An hour after the US attack, he called back: they had survived the attack on Bin Laden’s camp, Al-Zawahiri said, and were ready for war.
Mullah Omar, Pic from google.com
The second time I met him, he seemed the complete opposite of the man we have been led to imagine in recent weeks. He was polite, quiet, very civilised, and shy: after I had taken a few photographs, he begged me to stop. I particularly remember the softness of his hands. They spoke of a wealthy background, of never having done much physical work.
We talked for four hours, through the night, drinking tea. He carefully denied involvement in the US embassy bombings, but said he felt joy that they had happened, and I took that as an indirect admission. He said it was not his job to organise such attacks; it was his job to create awareness about the injustices done by the US to Muslims, to provoke and incite Muslims against America. And he was happy that his message seemed to be getting through. He would certainly say the same now about the attacks of September 11. But though he might want to contact the media, he cannot. That would infuriate the Taliban, and he needs them desperately.
At that second meeting, we spoke about what he was fighting for, and what he hated. At first, he told me, he had been opposed to the Americans because of their military presence in Saudi Arabia and because he felt they were too near to Mecca. That was a provocation to the entire Muslim world, he said.
But once those early encounters in his homeland had stoked his feelings, he came to concentrate more on America’s involvement in the Middle East. He declared a jihad against America and Israel jointly, he said, because he believed Israel was killing and punishing Palestinians with American money and American arms.
There was, however, one significant element missing from his list of grievances: he did not say anything about the idea of America – its rights, its freedoms, its prosperity. It was in American foreign policy that he saw the greatest threat to Islam. Indeed, he criticised the west for supporting dictators and authoritarian regimes in Islamic countries simply because it suited their interests.
Whatever their origins, Bin Laden’s views have caught part of the popular Muslim imagination. In the west, one view is heard – the elitist one which dismisses him as an extremist and a terrorist. But then there is the common view, held by people who do not read the English press, and they are fascinated by Bin Laden because he has challenged America.
The name Osama has always been rare in northern Pakistan. Now, though, it is growing fast in popularity among parents choosing names for their children. In Pakistani cities, firms are named after him, too: Osama Medical Stores; Osama Property Services.
But that support may meet its match in US military strength. The Taliban face losing their country because of their support for one person. And that will place pressure on the central political relationship in Afghanistan: that between Bin Laden and the Taliban’s religious leader, Mullah Omar.
I first met Mullah Omar in Kandahar in March 1995, the first journalist to do so. He admitted me to his office, where he was seated on the ground with his fellow Taliban, although later, when he was made spiritual leader, they built a platform to elevate him above his compatriots.
He was a very simple man, a village clergyman: heavily built, not very articulate, a shy person who seemed to know little about the world. His right eye had been damaged by shrapnel after a battle with Soviet troops. He told me he had been a great marksman in his time, attacking Russian forces with anti-tank missiles. He said he was 35, though he looked older.
Mullah Omar – originally a small-time military commander – met Bin Laden in 1996, by which time the Saudi was renowned for his financial gifts to wounded Afghan soldiers. After some initial mutual suspicion, the Taliban allowed Bin Laden to stay. But I do not believe that the two were ever close friends. There have been rumours that Mullah Omar has married Bin Laden’s daughter or sister, or vice versa. But though we have made endless enquiries, we have never obtained proof.
Mullah Omar might be relieved if Bin Laden left Afghanistan, but the Taliban have given their word, and they will be bound by it. The leader finds himself balancing the need to save his country with the need to uphold Afghan tradition regarding the hosting of such an honoured guest. And Bin Laden, of course, has nowhere to go.
What Mullah Omar and Bin Laden share, more than anything, is an absolute certainty that Allah will stay with them and support them no matter how great the superpower that attacks them. I have not spoken to Mullah Omar or to Osama Bin Laden since the events of September 11, but I have spoken several times with senior Taliban figures. I doubt their claims that 300,000 people have signed up to fight, and they will have difficulty convincing their exhausted people that they should fight another war. But an American attack would be an enormous provocation to the Afghan people, motivating many of those who would not normally support the leadership. Afghanistan is waiting for war.