.. In the camp, generators were
rumbling. The smell of gasoline was thick in the air. Rick Bennett
was agitated because bin Laden's people had taken his camera days
before, and it didn't look as though he was going to get it back.
Now they wanted to give him another camera. A Panasonic home-video
camera. Bennett had not come halfway around the world to shoot a
home video. He wanted his $65,000 television camera back, and he
wanted it back now! Just then, the gunfire erupted. Bin Laden's
convoy arrived. Now the show that was being staged for us was in
full tilt, and we had no camera with which to record it. Bin Laden's
cameraman handed Bennett the Panasonic. Bennett started taping.
That's when the kid started shooting in my ear. Then he ran
alongside Bennett and was firing within an inch of his ear, too, as
he walked backward with this crappy camera, taping bin Laden's
Into the din of gunfire, he
walked quickly, surrounded by seven bodyguards. Each had an AK-47.
Their eyes darted in every direction for any attacker. This was
either merely theatrical or entirely pointless, because with
hundreds of rounds being fired into the air, it would have been
impossible to pinpoint an assassin. Take your pick. At bin Laden's
side was his military commander, Muhammad Atef. Behind him, Ayman
al-Zawahiri, the leader of Islamic Jihad, an Egyptian group that has
merged with bin Laden's growing army. Bin Laden, with his simple
white turban and long black beard, stood six three and was the
tallest man in the group. Despite the chaos of the scene, his eyes
were calm, fixed, and steady. He walked by me and ducked his head to
step into a rectangular hut that had been set up for our meeting.
One of his aides waved off the gunfire the way an emcee might quell
a standing ovation. Everyone kept shooting. Somewhere, all these
bullets were falling back down to the earth.
Osama bin Laden had made his
After his security detail
crowded in behind him, I followed into the hut. Aside from his
height, the first thing that struck me about bin Laden was his
voice: It was soft and slightly high, with a raspy quality that gave
it the texture and sound of an old uncle giving good advice. Bin
Laden settled onto a bench covered with red cushions at the head of
the long, rectangular room with clay walls painted white. Sitting
down, he propped his own gun against the wall behind him. Twenty of
his gunmen lined the benches on either side of the long room,
leaning in, straining to hear whatever he might say. Bin Laden's
clothes told the story of his entangled themes. He wore a green army
field jacket with no insignia. Draped over the jacket was a gold
shawl, and under the army jacket was the traditional Muslim clothing
that made him look like me.
Osama bin Laden has a firm
handshake. We exchanged pleasantries in the polite but stilted
manner one uses when speaking through a translator. His aides had
insisted the day before that I give them a list of my questions in
writing. As bin Laden was getting settled, one of them said to me,
"I have very good news. Mr. bin Laden will answer each of your
questions." Then he added that bin Laden's answers would not be
translated on the spot. "You can take the tape to New York and
have them translate it there."
"If the answers are not
translated now, how can I ask follow-up questions?" I asked bin
"Oh, that will not be a
problem," he told me. "There will be no follow-up
At this point, Rick, using
stronger terms than one might want to with alleged terrorists,
demanded his camera back. Suddenly, all his equipment reappeared.
Looking to break the ice, I
said to the translator, "Tell Mr. bin Laden that for a guy who
comes from a family known for building roads, he could sure use a
better driveway up this mountain." Okay, so admittedly it
wasn't much of a joke, but bin Laden's interpreter appeared
stricken. "No, no, no," I said, "don't translate,
never mind," waving off the remark. "It's okay," I
said, trying to prevent an international incident. Not funny. Sorry.
There was another problem. As
I continued my lame attempts at small talk, flies kept landing on
bin Laden's face and white turban. Sensing that this was
undercutting their leader's dignity, his aides asked bin Laden and
the gunmen in the room to step outside so that they might spray.
A few minutes later, in a
cloud of insecticide, we began.
Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad
bin Laden was born forty-one years ago in Saudi Arabia, one of
twenty sons of wealthy construction magnate Muhammad bin Laden. The
kingdom's Bin Laden Group is a $ 5 billion concern. The family's
close ties to the Saudi royal family made it easy to get huge
government contracts to build roads through the cities and deserts.
It is likely that Osama bin Laden would have gone to school, settled
in London, and focused on living comfortably--if history hadn't
On December 25, 1979, the
Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Bin Laden, then twenty-two, left
for the fighting immediately. When he arrived, he wasted no time.
Spending his money, he financed the recruitment, transportation, and
arming of thousands of Palestinians, Tunisians, Somalians,
Egyptians, Saudis, and Pakistanis to fight the Russians.
Bin Laden brought in his own
bulldozers and dump trucks. Grizzled mujahideen fighters still tell
of the young man who rode the bulldozers himself, digging trenches
on the front lines. The men who follow bin Laden have all heard the
stories, and they pass them on to the younger men. By his own
account, he was in the thick of the action. He says he got the rifle
he carries now in hand-to-hand combat.
"We went through vicious
battles with the Russians," bin Laden told me. "The
Russians are known for their brutality. They used poison gases
against us. I was subjected to this. We lost many fighters. But we
were able to deter many commando attacks, unlike anything
I asked him why a man of
wealth, from a powerful family, had gone to Afghanistan to live in
trenches and fight the Russian invaders on the front lines.
"It is hard for one to
understand if the person does not understand Islam," he said,
patiently explaining his interpretation of Islam for a citizen of
his sworn enemy. "During the days of jihad, thousands of young
men who were well-off financially left the Arabian Peninsula and
other areas and joined the fighting. Hundreds of them were killed in
Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya."
Of course, by the time of our
meeting, the enemy had shifted. The Soviet Union no longer existed.
The enemy was us. And when I asked bin Laden if he was worried about
being captured in an American raid, he quickly dismissed the
possibility, turning instead to the reasons he hates the United
"The American imposes
himself on everyone. Americans accuse our children in Palestine of
being terrorists--those children, who have no weapons and have not
even reached maturity. At the same time, Americans defend a country,
the state of the Jews, that has a policy to destroy the future of
"We are sure of our
victory against the Americans and the Jews as promised by the
Prophet: Judgment day shall not come until the Muslim fights the
Jew, where the Jew will hide behind trees and stones, and the tree
and the stone will speak and say, 'Muslim, behind me is a Jew. Come
and kill him.'"
Bin Laden never raises his
voice, and to listen to his untranslated answers, one could imagine
that he was talking about something that did not much concern him.
Nonchalant. He does not smile. He continued, looking down at his
hands as if he were reading invisible notes. "Your situation
with Muslims in Palestine is shameful--if there is any shame left in
America. Houses were demolished over the heads of children. Also, by
the testimony of relief workers in Iraq, the American-led sanctions
resulted in the death of more than one million Iraqi children. All
of this is done in the name of American interests. We believe that
the biggest thieves in the world and the terrorists are the
Americans. The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use
similar means. We do not worry about American opinion or the fact
that they place prices on our heads. We as Muslims believe our fate
His interview technique was
formidable. Aside from the advantage of not allowing for
simultaneous translation, bin Laden's approach to questions could
have been taught by an American public-relations adviser: First, get
out your message. Then, if you like, answer the question.
Bin Laden believes that the
United States, which was so heavily involved in supporting the
Afghan rebels, misses the profound point of that exercise: Through
sheer will, even superpowers can be defeated.
"There is a lesson to
learn from this for he who wishes to learn," he said. "The
Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in the last week of 1979, and with
Allah's help their flag was folded a few years later and thrown in
the trash, and there was nothing left to call the Soviet
The war changed bin Laden.
"It cleared from Muslim minds the myth of superpowers," he
said. He was blooded, a hero among militant Muslims, with perhaps
three thousand men waiting to follow him. But follow him where, into
what battle? Many of these men had not been home for years. By then,
fighting was all some of them knew. And there were huge stockpiles
of weapons and grenades and rocket launchers, many of them bought
for the mujahideen rebels by the CIA.
In December 1992, bin Laden
found the battle he'd been waiting for. The United States was
leading a UN-sanctioned rescue mission into Somalia. In the midst of
a famine, the country's government had completely broken down, and
warring tribes-largely Muslim--had cut off relief efforts by
humanitarian groups. Somalians were starving to death in cities and
villages, and the U. S., which had moved quickly to rescue oil-rich
Kuwait, had come under mounting criticism for doing nothing.
When the Marines landed in
the last days of 1992, bin Laden sent in his own soldiers, armed
with AK-47's and rocket launchers. Soon, using the techniques they
had perfected against the Russians, they were shooting down American
helicopters. The gruesome pictures of the body of a young army
ranger being dragged naked through the streets by cheering crowds
flashed around the world. The yearlong American rescue mission for
starving Somalians went from humanitarian effort to quagmire in just
three weeks. Another superpower humiliated. Another bin Laden
Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for
a long battle, thinking that the Americans were like the
Russians," bin Laden said. "The youth were surprised at
the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than
before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few
blows ran in defeat. And America forgot all the hoopla and media
propaganda ... about being the world leader and the leader of the
New World Order, and after a few blows they forgot about this title
and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat."
I asked bin Laden why he
would kill American soldiers whose work was to restore order and
allow for the distribution of food.
"Why should we believe
that was the true reason America was there?" he replied.
"Everywhere else they went where Muslims lived, all they did
was kill children and occupy Muslim land."
During the two days I had
waited at the camp for bin Laden, some of his fighters sat on the
floor of our hut and told war stories. One soldier, with a big grin,
told of slitting the throats of three American soldiers in Somalia.
When I asked bin Laden about
this, he said, "When this took place, I was in the Sudan, but
this great defeat pleased me very much, the way it pleases all
The Somalia operation, in
some ways, made bin Laden. During the Afghan war, the CIA had been
very aware of him (although the agency now insists it never
"controlled" him), but in Somalia, bin Laden had taken a
swing at the biggest kid in the school yard and given him a black
eye. The next fight, a few weeks later, would begin with a sucker
It was snowing in New York on
February 26, 1993, when a massive truck bomb exploded at the World
Trade Center, tearing through three levels of the building's
underground garage, basement, and foundation. At the time, I was a
reporter for NBC. As I walked through the scene, I saw a cop I knew
from an antiterrorist unit. Initial reports were that it had been a
gas explosion or a transformer that blew up. "They're not
saying this now," he warned, "but this was a bomb. Too big
to be a car, probably a truck on the lower level of the garage.
There just isn't anything down there that could blow up and make a
hole this big."
Six people were killed, and
more than a thousand were injured. It was the first major
international terrorist attack on U. S. soil. Within weeks, the FBI
had tracked down four of the bombers, a collection of militant
Muslims, most of whom had fought in Afghanistan and had become
followers of a blind sheik in Jersey City named Omar Abdel Rahman.
The organizer of the bombing plot, Ramzi Yousef, boarded a plane at
Kennedy airport a few hours after the explosion and escaped.
In New York, the FBI had been
given two mandates: Find the rest of the bombers, and find out whom
they are working for. The agents began the tedious job of tracing
bank accounts that Yousef had been using to buy the components of
the huge bomb. The money trail led from a Jersey City bank where
Yousef had used an ATM card to Detroit to London to Pakistan and
finally to Afghanistan. FBI agents and New York detectives on the
Joint Terrorist Task Force debated: Was it the Iranians? The Iraqis?
The Libyans? The consensus among the detectives was that Ramzi
Yousef was an intelligence operative working for some hostile
foreign power. But instead, investigators have since uncovered a
series of connections between Yousef and groups funded by an
individual, Osama bin Laden.
But bin Laden denied to me
that he was behind the bombing and claimed he didn't know Ramzi
Yousef. "Unfortunately," he said with a wave of his hand,
"I did not know him before the incident."
Next, Ramzi Yousef was seen
in Manila with another of bin Laden's associates, Afghan war hero
Wali Khan Amin Shah. They were busy planning to blow up a dozen
American jetliners over the Pacific. Once again, Yousef had no job
but seemed to have plenty of money to finance his plans. The FBI
finally caught up to him on February 7, 1995, in Pakistan. He was
living in a very pleasant guesthouse called the Su Casa house in
Islamabad. It was one of the many guesthouses that bin Laden had set
up to quarter his fighters.
Government sources say that
Khan is now cooperating with the FBI. The sources tell me that Khan
had been very busy moving around the world, setting various bin
Laden plans into motion. He told the agents he went to mail drops
and fax machines to receive coded instructions from bin Laden's
bases in the Sudan and Afghanistan and that he was in Manila to set
up training camps for terrorists when he was ordered to survey the
routes that President Clinton would be using during an official
state visit to the Philippines.
Last winter, Khan, wearing a
bright-orange jumpsuit, sat in a closed room in the Metropolitan
Correctional Center in lower Manhattan, patiently explaining to the
feds that the mercury found in his apartment in Manila was not for
bomb making but was rather to be placed inside the bullets that
would be used to shoot President Clinton. "That way," Khan
said, "if the shot didn't kill him, he would die by
Sitting in the hut on bin
Laden's mountain in Afghanistan, I asked bin Laden if he had tried
to kill Clinton. "As I said, every action elicits a similar
reaction," he explained. "What does Clinton expect from
those that he killed, assaulting their children and mothers?"
But he was quick to sidestep the question of his culpability, very
careful not to implicate himself. He wasn't in Somalia, but he liked
what he saw. He didn't blow up American bases in Saudi Arabia, but
those who did are martyrs. He didn't pay for the World Trade Center
bombing or the plot to kill Clinton, but they were good ideas.
For the future, bin Laden
told me his first priority is to get the American military out of
Saudi Arabia, the holiest of lands in Islam. "Every day the
Americans delay their departure, they will receive a new
Already, U. S. forces have
been dealt devastating blows there. Nineteen servicemen were killed
in the 1996 bombing of the airforce barracks in Dhahran, and five U.
S. military personnel were killed in a similar bombing in Riyadh in
1995. Investigators believe bin Laden is tied at some level to both
attacks. Bin Laden said that the American military would leave Saudi
Arabia, regardless of the fact that the Saudi royal family welcomes
the American presence. "It does not make a difference if the
government wants you to stay or leave. You will leave when the youth
send you in wooden boxes and coffins. And you will carry in them the
bodies of American troops and civilians. This is when you will
"We do not differentiate
between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are
all targets in this fatwa." Bin Laden argued that American
outrage at attacks on American civilians constitutes a great double
"American history does
not distinguish between civilians and military, not even women and
children. They are the ones who used bombs against Nagasaki. Can
these bombs distinguish between infants and military? America does
not have a religion that will prevent it from destroying all
Bin Laden believes that what
we consider to be terrorism is just the amount of violence required
to get the attention of the American people. His aim is to get
Americans to consider whether continued support of Israel is worth
the bloodshed he promises.
"So we tell the
Americans as people," bin Laden said softly, "and we tell
the mothers of soldiers and American mothers in general that if they
value their lives and the lives of their children, to find a
nationalistic government that will look after their interests and
not the interests of the Jews. The continuation of tyranny will
bring the fight to America, as Ramzi Yousef and others did. This is
my message to the American people: to look for a serious government
that looks out for their interests and does not attack others, their
lands, or their honor. And my word to American journalists is not to
ask why we did that but ask what their government has done that
forced us to defend ourselves."
His last words to the camera
were, "It is our duty to lead people to the light."
Ali had been told to sit in
the back of the room during the interview. When it was over, I went
looking for him. "So, do we have a story?" I whispered
when I found him. "Please tell me it wasn't just an hour of
'Praise Allah' bullshit."
"No," Ali said.
"We have a very good story." I asked Ali what bin Laden
had said that would make this news. "He was looking right into
your face," Ali said, "and he was saying that you--you
people, the Americans--would be going home from the Middle East in
coffins and in boxes."
"He said that?" I
asked, excited. "And while he was saying this, what was I
Ali looked at me a bit oddly
and said, "You were nodding like you agreed with his
During the hour-long
interview, bin Laden, assuming correctly that I did not understand a
word he was saying, had taken to looking at his translator as he
gave his answers. Clearly, he did not understand the basic
conventions of the American television interview. Imagine that. So,
to keep his responses directed toward our camera, to make it seem
like we were rocking along together, I engaged him in knowing eye
contact and nodded thoughtfully.
"So, Ali, you're telling
me he's promising genocide, and I'm nodding like an asshole?"
"Yes," Ali said,
But we had our little story,
and a few weeks later, in a few minutes of footage, Osama bin Laden
would say hi to America. Not many people would pay attention. Just
another Arab terrorist.
Bin Laden was once again
surrounded by his men, leaving the way he came in. It was past two
in the morning as the gunfire started again. This time, Rick shot
the whole scene. But as we packed our gear, bin Laden's press aide
and his security chief came over to inspect our tape. Looking
carefully at each scene of bin Laden arriving and leaving, they
ordered any face not covered with a kaffiyeh to be erased. When I
objected, they said the deal was simple: If we did not delete the
faces, we would not leave with the tape. And so, into the night,
they played and rewound, played and rewound. Over each face, the two
would confer. "He travels," one would say to the other,
and we'd have to delete that second or two of footage.
According to the FBI, last
summer, a group of these men "traveled" for bin Laden to
Kenya and Tanzania. On August 7, two truck bombs destroyed the
American embassies in both countries. Two hundred thirteen dead in
Kenya. Twelve of them were Americans. In Tanzania, none of the
eleven killed were Americans. Most were Africans. Many of them were
Two weeks after the bombings,
President Clinton ordered a missile attack on the very site where we
had met bin Laden. All three of his camps were obliterated, and
there were casualties. In anticipation of this American retaliation,
bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Atef, and most of the leadership had gone
Akhtar, who had vanished at
the Afghan border on our trek in, was among those cheering, 9mm in
his shoulder holster, as bin Laden came and went. Akhtar travels,
too. He very obligingly escorted us out of Afghanistan and drove us
all the way back to Islamabad.
Meanwhile, bin Laden's reach
has now been documented among Albanians fighting the Serbs in Kosovo.
Wherever Muslims are in trouble, it seems, Osama bin Laden will be
there, slaying enemies, real or perceived. A modern nightmare,
really--a big-screen villain, a freelancer with the resources of a
state but without all the nasty obligations. Sort of a Ford
Foundation for terrorists--or freedom fighters, depending on whom
After the American
cruise-missile attacks, intelligence sources told me that bin Laden
had been intercepted talking on satellite phones, trying desperately
to get damage assessments and news of casualties. The same sources
said that bin Laden had shifted his operations from Khost to
Kandahar and that he was building new camps. To try to arrange
another meeting, Chris Isham and I asked Ali to return to London.
A few days later, the same
people we had been dealing with in London were arrested by Scotland
Yard's Anti-Terrorist Branch on "suspected connections to bin
Laden's terrorist group." One was being held for possible
extradition to the United States. We sent one more request to bin
Laden, this time through our man in Peshawar, along with a list of
questions. We haven't heard back.
Bin Laden's old house, a
walled mansion with a tower, has become a guesthouse for his men.
These men, new volunteers, seem to be showing up in greater numbers
since the bombing. Some will fight in Kashmir, others will fight on
the front lines against the Taliban's opposition, and some, of
course, will "travel" for bin Laden. After dark, around
Kandahar, motorcades of twenty cars with tinted windows speed
through the city. No one there has to wonder who it is. Osama bin
Laden races through the darkness, taillights vanishing in a cloud of
dust, a most wanted man.
The day after the American
counterstrike, an ABC News colleague in Pakistan got a call from
Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been at the camp with us that night. Al-Zawahiri
said bin Laden was alive and very well and that he had a message for
"The war has just
started. The Americans should wait for the answer."