Prologue: How to Find the World's Most Wanted Man
When you go looking for Osama bin Laden, you don't find him: he finds you. It was March 1997 when the phone rang.
"Osama has agreed to meet with you in Afghanistan," said the voice at the other end of the line.
Bin Laden and his advisers had concluded that CNN, my then employer, was the best forum to broadcast his first television interview to the English-speaking world.
My interest in Afghanistan had been sparked in 1983, when I made a documentary about the millions of Afghan refugees pouring into Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of their country. A decade later, I traveled to Afghanistan to explore the links between the CIA-funded rebels who fought the Soviets and the 1993 bombing of New York's World Trade Center.
To me there was always an unresolved quality to the U.S. government's investigation of the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center, which was also the first time international terrorists had successfully carried out a bombing operation on American soil. The government had convicted the actual bombers, but who was the mastermind of the operation? Who had bankrolled two of the bombers to fly from Pakistan to New York to carry out the attack?
The more I read about bin Laden, the more plausible a candidate he seemed. By 1996 the U.S. State Department was calling him "the most significant financial sponsor of Islamic extremist activities in the world today" and accusing him of running terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan. In August of that year, bin Laden issued his first call to Muslims to attack U.S. military targets, a summons that was well publicized in the Middle East.
My quest to find the mysterious Saudi multimillionaire began in North London. The quiet suburb of Dollis Hill is favored by Arab immigrants, who have set up mosques and Islamic schools on its leafy avenues. On an unassuming street of 1930s Tudor-style houses lived Khaled al-Fawwaz, the spokesman for a Saudi opposition group founded by bin Laden, the Advice and Reformation Committee. I had called from the United States a few weeks earlier, but Khaled had cut the conversation short.
"There are matters I do not want to discuss on the telephone," he said. It was a sensible precaution, since anyone remotely connected to bin Laden is likely to have a tapped phone.
When I arrived at Khaled's house, all the curtains were drawn. He answered the door dressed in a floor-length white robe and a red-and-white-checked headdress, wearing his full, bushy beard in the same manner that the Prophet Muhammad had worn his nearly a millennium and a half ago. Entering the house, I took my shoes off, as if I were already in the Middle East. Khaled conducted me into the tidy sitting room that also served as his office. On one side of the room were computers, printers, and faxes, and on another wall, shelves filled with books in Arabic. Khaled was thirty-four, but he seemed older worn down, perhaps, by the cares of a man who was once an entrepreneur in Saudi Arabia but was now a full-time opposition figure. Although England's liberal tradition of hospitality to dissidents allowed Khaled to function, he found London a worrisome place to bring up his children, given the constant assault of its hypersexualized, commercialized culture.
With an elaborate courtesy I came to recognize as one of his defining traits, Khaled offered me some flavored coffee and a plate of dates from an oasis town in Arabia. Then we got down to business, of a sort. Khaled seemed more interested in discussing the Koran and Saudi politics than in addressing the logistics of how exactly we would secure the interview with bin Laden.
Khaled repeatedly referred to himself as a "reformer" of the Saudi regime, not a revolutionary. He was not referring to reform in the nineteenth-century liberal sense, but to a literal reformation that sought to take Islam in Arabia back to the way it was practiced at the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. I was struck by how this desire to reform Islam echoed the Protestant Reformation's attempt to correct the abuses of the medieval Catholic Church and to return Christianity to its founding principles. Islam had seen countless such attempts to restore the perfect society of Muhammad and his immediate successors, the four "Rightly Guided" caliphs.
During the first week of meetings, Khaled gave me a preliminary picture of his friend Osama, describing him, in an accent tinged with the recently acquired cadences of North London, as "humble, charming, intelligent, a really significant wealthy chap for Islamic causes who gave up everything to go and fight in Afghanistan." Bin Laden's role in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s had made him a hero throughout the Middle East.
Khaled said that bin Laden, now back in Afghanistan, was "violently opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia," troops who had arrived there in response to Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Bin Laden also believed the House of al-Saud, the family that has ruled Arabia for generations, were "apostates" from Islam. Apostasy is a grave charge to level against the Saudi royal family, who style themselves the protectors of the two holiest places in Islam, Mecca and Medina, and practice the most traditional form of Sunni Islam. Bin Laden's antipathy to the Saudi regime was peculiar because his family had grown extraordinarily rich as a result of their close relations with the royal family.
Khaled endorsed bin Laden's critique of the Saudi monarchy and the American presence on the holy land of the Arabian Peninsula. In his view, the Prophet Muhammad had banned the permanent presence of infidels in Arabia; hence bin Laden's opposition to the thousands of American troops based there. But Khaled added that while he would not condemn bin Laden's calls for violence against those soldiers, he could not condone them either.
When I pressed Khaled on the matter of the interview, he said that there were a number of potential problems. Bin Laden's personal safety was the paramount concern: several assassination attempts had been mounted against him by Saudi intelligence services.
"Are you sure none of your team are agents of the CIA?" he asked abruptly.
I assured him we were not but it is hard for some Middle Easterners to believe that journalists are not on the government payroll, as is sometimes the case in their own countries.
Nevertheless, Khaled said he would relay our interview request.
The telephone infrastructure in Afghanistan had been destroyed by years of war, so the only means of communication was by satellite phone. Bin Laden himself communicated only by radio, Khaled said, because he was well aware that intelligence agencies could easily monitor satellite phone calls. He told me that bin Laden hadn't wanted to do a television interview until recently. Of course, we were not the only ones interested in talking to the exiled Saudi; Khaled showed me a stack of interview requests from news organizations around the world. Still, Khaled said we had a chance. In the interim he suggested I go and speak to Dr. Saad al-Fagih, another Saudi dissident, for more background on bin Laden.
Dr. al-Fagih's office was not far from Khaled's house. A wiry, intense intellectual whose thin face is framed by heavy glasses, Dr. al-Fagih was a professor of surgery at the prestigious King Saud University and had studied at the Royal College of Surgeons in Scotland. Al-Fagih told me that he had performed surgery on the day he left Saudi Arabia for exile in England in 1994. In short, he was an unlikely revolutionary.
Al-Fagih's critique of the Saudi regime is as much political as religious, a fact reflected in his dress, which is invariably a suit. Certainly al-Fagih favors a conservative Islamic state, but his criticisms of the regime also focus on its corruption and mishandling of the economy. Al-Fagih calls his opposition group the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA). His approach to undermining the regime is determinedly modern. When I visited his office there were usually several earnest, bearded young men hunched over computer screens updating the group's web site, www.miraserve.com, in Arabic and English. The site analyzes news and trends in Saudi Arabia in a reasonably accurate and fair-minded manner. Dr. al-Fagih also proudly showed me his newly built radio studio, from which he planned to broadcast his message via satellite directly to the Saudi Kingdom.
During the eighties, Dr. al-Fagih had traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan to lend his services as a surgeon during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. "I estimate that between twelve and fifteen thousand men served with bin Laden in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets," al-Fagih told me. "Of those there are four thousand now committed to bin Laden's cause around the world." He said that some of these men were linked to bin Laden by a chain of command, but that the majority operated as part of a loose network "whose common link is respect for bin Laden as a great leader."
In London I was also introduced to an Arab I will call Ali, who had served with bin Laden's guerrillas as a medic for three years during the Afghan war. He would be the person guiding us to bin Laden if we got the green light to meet him. Our conversations were somewhat stilted since he spoke no English and I no Arabic, forcing us to communicate in rudimentary French.
Ali had spent more than a decade in Europe and had written extensively on Islamist struggles in the Middle East and Asia. A compact, muscular man not given to smiling from behind his bushy red beard, Ali projected an intense seriousness of purpose. One had the sense that he would be very calm under fire.
Despite the years he had spent in Europe, Ali could be somewhat reductive in his views. During one of our chats he said, "You realize that the U.S. foreign policy is run by three Jews? Albright, Berger, and Cohen." I resisted the impulse to tell Ali that it was the two most powerful men in Washington Bill Clinton and Al Gore who drove Washington's undoubtedly pro-Israel policy. And they were both Southern Baptists.
Our philosophical differences and his somewhat gruff manner notwithstanding, Ali seemed to warm to me. He explained the logistics of securing the interview, saying the trip to meet bin Laden could take as little as ten days, but might take more than two weeks. Like all estimates about time in Afghanistan, the more pessimistic one proved accurate. As one wag puts it: "When you are in Afghanistan, the clock slows down and your bowels speed up."
Ali's parting comment, delivered matter-of-factly, was that we should speak in code on the phone. On no account were we to use bin Laden's name, and our trip to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, where he was living, should be referred to as a trip to "meet the man in Kuwait."
Then Khaled summoned me back to see him, saying he had received a call from bin Laden's media adviser. The adviser was favorably disposed to either the BBC, CBS' 60 Minutes, or CNN doing bin Laden's first television interview. Khaled said he supported either CBS or CNN. I pointed out that CNN's programs were shown in over a hundred countries, while CBS was broadcast only in the United States. He seemed to take that point on board. I returned to the United States to wait for Khaled's call.
It came a month later. We were on.
The correspondent would be Peter Arnett, who had won a Pulitzer Prize during his ten years of reporting in Vietnam and whose courageous decision to remain in Baghdad during the Gulf War had helped put CNN on the map. The cameraman was a former British army of-ficer, Peter Jouvenal, who has probably spent more time inside Afghanistan than any journalist in the world. (He even rented a house in Afghanistan's war-torn capital, Kabul, where he would go on vacation.) Four years before our trip to meet bin Laden, I had traveled to Afghanistan with Arnett and Jouvenal at a time when the prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was staking out his claim to be perhaps the only prime minister in history to shell his own capital on a daily basis.
We began our journey in Britain flying from London to Pakistan. The stewardesses on our Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight were dressed in headscarves and saris, serving curries that were a foretaste of our destination. Just before takeoff, a recorded prayer was offered up to Allah for a safe journey. Given the age of PIA's fleet, this seemed a sensible precaution.
We landed in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, early in the morning. Leaving the plane, I breathed in the first intoxicating smell of the sweet, pungent, rotting vegetation that characterizes the Indian subcontinent. Once our van was loaded, we drove through the quiet streets of the city, which is nestled in the verdant hills of northern Pakistan. While most Pakistani cities are hymns to chaos, overpopulation, and manic energy, Islamabad is divided into orderly zones with names like G6 and F1. We passed the pleasant white-walled villas of government bureaucrats and foreign diplomats. The scent of wild marijuana drifted through my window. The weed grows in profusion in Islamabad, even outside the headquarters of Pakistan's drug police.
Recovered from jet lag, I visited the U.S. embassy to get an update on the security situation in Afghanistan. Like many embassies in countries where the United States is admired and hated in equal measure, the building looked like a medium-security jail. A long brick wall surmounted by razor wire surrounded the compound. On the way in to the embassy I passed through two bulletproof checkpoints. The embassy seemed to be under siege, which in some ways it was. In 1979 a mob had burned down the old embassy. And in 1988 the U.S. ambassador had been killed in a mysterious plane crash while on a trip with the country's military dictator.
A couple of days later we loaded up our van to make our way to Peshawar, the jumping-off point for Afghanistan. That would mean a drive along the Grand Trunk Road, where you are more likely to be killed than you are in the middle of the civil war inside neighboring Afghanistan. The Grand Trunk Road is one of the world's most formidable automotive experiences, its drivers all engaged in a protracted and high-speed game of chicken. Testaments to this distinctive style of driving can be seen in the numerous burned-out vehicles that lie by the side of the road. The mangled hulks of buses predominate a consequence, perhaps, of the copious quantities of hashish the drivers ingest while making the trip.
About halfway into the journey we crossed the Indus River, which rises in a torrent in Tibet but by this point has slowed to a meandering, muddy flow irrigating the plains around it. Nearing Peshawar, we passed perhaps the largest religious school in Pakistan, the Darul Uloom Haqqania, which has provided hundreds of recruits to bin Laden's cause and is sometimes described as the Harvard of the Taliban movement, the de facto government of Afghanistan.
And suddenly we were in Peshawar, a dusty, Wild West kind of town. Peshawar is the capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, the gateway to the Khyber Pass, which runs through the Hindu Kush mountains into Afghanistan. During the Afghan war, Peshawar became an Asian Casablanca, awash in spies, journalists, aid workers, and refugees. Among the visitors was a rich young Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden.
Our first stop was the Pearl Continental Hotel. Displayed prominently in the lobby was a sign stating: "Hotel Guests are asked that their bodyguards kindly deposit all firearms at the Front Desk." In my bedroom a green arrow on a table pointed toward Mecca, the direction for prayer.
I soon repaired to the hotel bar, one of a handful of public places in Pakistan where you can drink legally, provided you are a non-Muslim. Hidden away on the top floor of the hotel, the Gul Bar is a large room devoid of both customers and decoration, except for a set of white cabinets displaying a selection of locally brewed spirits. The bartender, a sad, cadaverous-looking chap, passed me a sheaf of typewritten pages, starting with the somewhat off-putting form PR-IV, (See Rule-13-(I); APPLICATION FOR GRANT OF PERMIT FOR THE POSSESSION AND CONSUMPTION OF FOREIGN LIQUOR BY NON-MUSLIM FOREIGNERS. The permit included this splendidly mystifying sentence: "This permit is hereby granted to the above named, authorizing him to possess, Purchase, transport For consume liquor is detailed above under the provision of prohibition (Enforcement Hadd)." After filling the form out in triplicate, I really did need a drink.
We whiled away a few days in Peshawar while Ali and a friend, now dressed in their shalwar qameez, the loose-fitting shirt and pants that are Pakistan's national dress, went off to make "contact."
Seeking some relief from the noise and pollution, I paid a visit to the leafy graveyard where dozens of British officers and soldiers were buried. Peshawar had been critical to the "Great Game" played by Britain and Russia as they wrestled for control of Central Asia during the nineteenth century. The graveyard was testament to the difficulties of life on the frontier. One headstone read, "Lt. Colonel Edward Henry LeMarch, shot to death by a fanatic, 25th March 1898, aged 40." Another read, "George Mitchell Richmond Levit, 20th Punjab Infantry, died aged 23, on the 27th October, 1863 of a wound received the previous day in the defense of the Eagle's Nest Picket, Umbeyla Pass. A good soldier and a true Christian." Another inscription recalled the way of life the British imported wholesale to remind them of their green and pleasant land: "Lt. Colonel Walter Irvine, who lost his life in the Nagoroman River when leading the Peshawar Vale Hunt, of which he was the Master."
The week before our trip the Taliban had decreed it was against Islam to film or photograph any living being, which would pose a bit of a problem for our project. This was the latest in a long list of what might be called "Tali-bans." Soccer, kite-flying, music, television, and the presence of females in schools and offices were all banned. Some of the decrees had a Monty Python-esque quality, like the rule banning the use of paper bags on the remote chance the paper might include recycled pages of the Koran. Behavior the Taliban deemed deviant was met with inventive punishments. Taliban religious scholars labored over the vital question of how to deal with homosexuals: "Some say we should take these sinners to a high roof and throw them down, while others say we should dig a big hole beside a wall, bury them, then push the wall on top of them."
To straighten out such matters as videotaping and visas, I decided to pay a visit to the Taliban consulate in Peshawar. There I was greeted by a group of ragged teenagers who seemed to have stepped out of a Hogarth print. I felt sorry for them. Afghanistan had been at war continuously since 1978. War was all they knew. When I said that I was looking for the consul, they mimed that he was out. One of them grabbed my shirt as the others started pressing around me, leering and grimacing. I wasn't quite sure what was happening, but I wasn't going to stay to find out. We'd take our chances in Afghanistan.
A couple of days later Ali returned, saying we had the okay to proceed.
The next morning our van set off from the hotel at the crack of dawn, as we had to reach the base of the Khyber Rifles regiment no later than nine A.M. The regiment would provide us with an armed escort through the no-man's-land surrounding the Khyber Pass between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This buffer zone, known as the Khyber Agency, is a holdover from the days when Britain ruled the North-West Frontier. The British had difficulty subduing the unruly tribesmen on the frontier, so a deal was struck: the tribes could manage their own affairs, but British law would apply to the road that runs through the Khyber Pass. A similar arrangement applies in Pakistan today. Once you step off the road that runs through the pass you are in tribal territory, where tribal, not Pakistani, law prevails. As the tribes surrounding the Khyber pass enjoy a rich tradition of kidnapping, internecine feuds, and heroin smuggling, the prospect of escort by the Pakistani government was a welcome one. We were less comforted, however, when we met the man who was to be our protector, an elderly soldier with a slight stoop, whose Lee Enfield rifle had probably last seen action in World War I.
We arrived at the offices of the Khyber Agency, a courtyard of low-slung, whitewashed nineteenth-century offices presided over by well-fed Pakistani civil servants surrounded by piles of rarely disturbed papers tied up with ribbons. Tribesmen milled about seeking redress for their various grievances. In the middle of the courtyard sat a little jail where prisoners were kept in conditions that would probably not have pleased Amnesty International.
After an epic display of paper shuffling and stamping, we obtained our pass. The ancient rifleman jumped into the front of our van, where he promptly fell asleep. Then we drove through the outskirts of Peshawar, arriving at a checkpoint where a sign announced: ATTENTION: ENTRY OF FOREIGNERS IS PROHIBITED BEYOND THIS POINT. We roused our escort from his slumbers and he showed the soldiers manning the barrier that we had the requisite authorization to continue. We were allowed to pass on. Now we were in tribal territory. Along the road were rows of shops selling guns, and later shops with sheep tails in the window to signify hashish for sale.
Twenty-five miles to the south was the town of Darra, which might be the world's largest outlet store for weaponry. There you can buy guns that are disguised as pens and shoot only one bullet a bargain at seven bucks. Or, for the more sportive customer, there are flamethrowers, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Prefer to start with a test drive? For fifty dollars they'll let you fire a bazooka. The gunsmiths in Darra do a brisk business. No self-respecting male in tribal territory would leave home without his firearm.
We continued east into the Khyber Pass, where the Indian subcontinent meets Central Asia. Alexander the Great's soldiers came this way during his campaign to conquer India. On one wall of the pass were reminders of another empire the insignia of the British regiments that served on this blood-soaked frontier of the Raj during the nineteenth century. (The Khyber had, less gloriously, also given the English language the Cockney rhyming slang "Khyber Pass" for "arse.")
The hills soon grew into mountains. Scattered on the peaks were the houses of tribal families, miniature fortresses whose gun ports were not merely decorative. Close to the road was the massive fortified compound of Haji Ayub Afridi, allegedly one of Pakistan's most important drug lords. His reputation did not prevent him from serving for a period as a legislator in the National Assembly. I had once met with a Pakistani who worked as a valued informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Like most informants, he looked as though he hadn't had a good night's sleep in years. He told me that Afridi's house had taken four years to build. "There are hidden tunnels within the walls," he added. "It has its own power station. There are orchards in the grounds. It's defended by cannons and anti-aircraft guns. It could hold off a brigade-strength attack."
About midway through the pass we reached the small town of Landi Khotal, a seemingly innocuous place that has long been one of the world's largest heroin-smuggling posts. Armed men, some wearing little purple caps, others in turbans, sauntered up and down the street, their rifles casually slung across their backs. We did not pause for refreshments. The pass climbed higher and higher until we reached a fortress of Pakistan's army.
And then, suddenly, stretched out before us was Afghanistan.
The very word is an incantation. I never get over the thrill of seeing the country. In my imagination it has always seemed like something out of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It promises mystery, a movement back into a time of medieval chivalry and medieval cruelty, an absence of the modern world that is both thrilling and disturbing, a place of extraordinary natural beauty that opens the mind to contemplation. The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was once asked to describe what Mexico looked like. He answered by taking a piece of parchment and crumpling it up to illustrate the endless mountain ranges of the country. Cortés could have been describing much of Afghanistan.
And then there is the light: pure and crystalline, foreshortening distances and bathing everything in a pristine glow. One simply cannot take a bad picture in Afghanistan. Although a country at war, it is a place where one can find a species of personal tranquillity rarely experienced in the West.
The scene at the border itself was bedlam. Our hope was that the Taliban guards would assume we were workers for an aid agency and would wave us through without demanding to see our visas, which is exactly what they did. As we made our way over the border crossing I noticed that it was festooned with long black strings of audiotape the remains of music cassettes that the guards had confiscated from heedless travelers. Thank God, I thought, that they hadn't searched our van and done the same with all our videotapes.
Shortly after we cleared the border post we passed a graveyard dotted with fluttering green flags marking the graves of Arabs who had died fighting the Soviets. "Here is where I took part in fighting the Russians," Ali said, as the mountainous terrain gave way to a lunar landscape. These men must have been extraordinarily committed to take on the Soviets here. Other than an occasional rocky outcrop, there was no cover on these plains. The bravery of the Arabs who had fought under bin Laden's command was lunatic, but impressive.
According to the Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Arabs would pitch white tents out in the open in the hopes of attracting Soviet fire, hoping for martyrdom. "I saw one person who was crying because he survived an air attack," Yusufzai said. A Muslim killed in the course of jihad is shaheed, a martyr who is guaranteed entry to Paradise. According to some traditions, the martyrs are attended by seventy virgins who will cater to their every desire.
We drove past what had once been a large village but now looked like an archeological dig of a Sumerian city. The only evidence that this had once been a bustling town were the jagged fragments of walls. The Soviets had destroyed thousands of such villages, creating five million refugees and killing at least a million Afghans, out of a prewar population of fifteen million or so.
The plains soon turned into cultivated fields and orchards. Before long, we arrived in Jalalabad, the compact town where we would be staying while we waited to see bin Laden. Ali told us that bin Laden's wives and children lived in a little tented complex on the city outskirts, in a place called Hadda.
As we drove into Jalalabad's bazaar area I was puzzled by the many carpets in the middle of the streets. Someone explained to me that this was a trick of local merchants, who laid out the carpets so that passing cars and trucks would roll over them and give them the authentic "aged" look prized by gullible Western buyers.
Our lodgings would be the Spinghar Hotel, named after the snow-capped mountains that dominated the view to the south. I had stayed at the Spinghar four years earlier. Then it had been one of the grimmest hotels imaginable, having once served as housing for Soviet officers. But since my last visit a remarkable transformation had taken place. An Afghan entrepreneur who had moved to California during the war had returned to take over the place, sprucing it up with amenities like hot water, fresh paint, and landscaped gardens. Unfortunately, his business acumen did not extend to an understanding of how the Taliban operated. Just before we arrived, Taliban officials had convened a clerical kangaroo court in the Spinghar's dining room and ruled that the hotel should be commandeered. Occasionally the owner could be seen walking through the hotel, a dazed expression on his face.
Our location gave us an interesting window on the Taliban. The word is the plural of talib, meaning "religious student," and refers to a group of students from religious schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan who took control of much of the country during the mid-1990s. The Taliban protected bin Laden because they admired him for the role he had played in helping to dislodge the Soviets. The admiration was mutual. When I asked Khaled al-Fawwaz, bin Laden's London contact, what present regime in the world most resembled his vision of how an Islamic state should be run, he said the Taliban were "getting there."
In Jalalabad the Taliban roared through town in Japanese pickup trucks with white flags fluttering from their antennae. The pickups were filled with fierce fighters recognizable by their black or white turbans bringing back the Middle Ages on a fleet of Toyotas. The women in town, following Taliban edicts, were covered from head to foot in the burqa, an all-enveloping garment out of which one can barely see.
Once, driving through town, we encountered the first traffic jam I'd seen in tiny Jalalabad. After a couple of minutes I realized the source: the Taliban had stopped all traffic during prayer time. Out of the window of our car I could see a Talib fighter beating one hapless man with a stick because he hadn't stopped riding his bicycle.
Despite the ferocious reputation of the Taliban, we were able to stay in Jalalabad for several days without any official asking us why we were there. Either the Taliban were incompetent, I thought, or they knew of our mission and had sanctioned the interview at the highest level. Like so many things in Afghanistan, this was never really clear.
The Taliban were pariahs on the world stage. Because of their antediluvian treatment of women in particular and their dismal human rights record generally, only three countries recognized their government. But even the Taliban's harshest critics could not deny their one remarkable achievement: they had restored order to much of the country.
During the early 1990s, Afghanistan had become a patchwork of fiefdoms held by competing warlords. On a visit in 1993 I witnessed the anarchy in the country at first hand. Kabul, the capital, a once lovely city nestling in a vast valley, was then being destroyed by religious and ethnic militias. At a post manned by a Shia militia unit, the soldiers laughingly urged me to get in the seat of an anti-aircraft gun and let off some shots. They did not seem to appreciate, or perhaps care, that the rounds would eventually have to land somewhere in the crowded city.
A good number of the foot soldiers in these militias were boys. I have a photograph I took of a group of three child soldiers. One boy holds a grenade; another self-consciously holds up a rocket launcher. The third boy holds his rifle nonchalantly to his side as he looks unblinkingly into the camera, ready to meet his obligations. He appears to be ten.
The fighting had left whole neighborhoods in ruins. Ancient palaces were pockmarked by shells. The Kabul Museum, which once housed masterpieces of Buddhist art, was now open to the sky, its ceiling blown off by mortar shells. A 1930s Rolls-Royce that had once belonged to the king of Afghanistan lay in a heap of twisted metal on the grounds of the museum. The runway at Kabul airport was littered with burnt-out aircraft.
It was as if the Afghans were applying the demented logic of their national passion, buzkashi, a distant and violent cousin of polo, to their capital. Buzkashi is played by horsemen who compete to grab hold of the headless carcass of a calf. That's pretty much it for the rules. As a book on the sport observes: "The calf is trampled, dragged, tugged, lifted and lost again as one competitor after another tries to gain sole control." Now the carcass was Kabul.
It was out of the sort of anarchy I witnessed in 1993 that the Taliban emerged in the southeastern Afghan city of Kandahar. Local residents had been angered for years by the payoffs demanded by the various militias at checkpoints on the roads around town. The final straw was a perhaps apocryphal story -the kind journalists say is "too good to check": in 1994 two local warlords, competing for the favors of a young boy, had waged a full-scale tank battle in Kandahar's bazaar. To much local applause, a small group of religious students under the leadership of a shadowy, one-eyed cleric named Mullah Mohammed Omar took over the city. Within two years Mullah Omar and his men had taken control of most of the country, partly by paying off local commanders and partly because of their dynamic tactics, based on fast-moving fleets of pickup trucks, each carrying eight or so heavily armed fighters.
And certainly the Taliban had made the country safer. The road between Kandahar and Quetta, Pakistan, had once been a gauntlet of militia checkpoints whose occupants would "tax" and rob you at will. But when I traveled it in January 2000, the only untoward obstacle was a pair of camels copulating in the middle of the road. It was an operation that seemed to give little satisfaction to either party. Indeed, all types of crime and socially unacceptable behavior had fallen precipitously under the Taliban. This could be partially explained by the brutal punishments meted out by the religious warriors: convicted robbers have their hands amputated, adulterers are stoned to death, and murderers can be personally executed by male members of the victim's family. The amputations and executions are the only public entertainment in a country starved of diversions. So when knife-wielding surgeons and executioners perform their grisly duties in Kabul's soccer stadium on Fridays, thousands have filled the stands to cheer on the proceedings. However, when I visited the stadium on a random Friday afternoon in December 1999 a soccer game was in progress. According to locals, the number of executions had declined over the years.
Despite the improvements in public security, many Afghans found the Taliban's social policies anathema. In my hotel in Jalalabad I met two men who wanted to talk. They worked for Afghanistan's national airline, ARIANA, as pilots. They were working on growing their Taliban-mandated beards, but the beards looked suspiciously well-trimmed to be truly Taliban-certified. Smoking furtively (cigarettes being another vice discouraged by the Taliban), they explained in hushed voices that the religious warriors' policies might suit the almost medieval villages of the countryside, but that for more urbanized Afghans they were utterly foreign.
When I pointed out that the Taliban had brought safety to most of the country, one replied, "Yes, but you can be secure in a prison."
One morning I was walking toward the center of Jalalabad with Arnett when we were approached by a woman completely covered in a black burqa. As she drew nearer I saw a pair of bright red shoes poking out below the hem of her garments. As she reached us she nodded and, in a clear, amused voice said in English, "Hello. How are you? Good morning." We took it to be her way of saying: "The Taliban may make me wear this getup, but they can't control my thoughts."
After several days of waiting in the Jalalabad hotel, we were visited by a bin Laden emissary. The man, who introduced himself as bin Laden's "media adviser," was young and wore shoulder-length hair, a headdress, and sunglasses that concealed much of his face. He was not unfriendly, but businesslike, asking if he could take a look at our camera and sound equipment. Following a perfunctory survey of our gear he announced: "You can't bring any of this for the interview." To have gotten so far, and to have spent this much time and money, only to learn that the interview would be sabotaged this was rather bad news.
Things looked up again when the media adviser said that we could shoot the interview on his hand-held digital camera. I knew that our professional gear would do a better job, but there was clearly little point in arguing. Bin Laden feared that strangers with electronic equipment might be concealing some type of tracking device that would give away his location. (Ali had mentioned the example of Terry Waite, an Anglican church envoy negotiating for the release of Western hostages in Beirut in the 1980s, who was himself taken captive because he was suspected of carrying such a device.)
Bin Laden's men left nothing to chance: we were not even to bring our watches. The media adviser's parting words were: "Bring only the clothes you are wearing." He told us we would be picked up the next day.
The following afternoon a beaten-up blue Volkswagen van drew up at our hotel. Ali motioned hurriedly for us to get in and then drew curtains over the windows of the van. As the sun dipped, we drove west on the road to Kabul. Inside the van were three well-armed men.
The trip passed mostly in a heavy silence.
After driving through a long tunnel, Ali finally broke the silence, saying almost apologetically: "This is the point in the journey when guests are told if they are hiding a tracking device, tell us now and it will not be a problem." We took it that any potential "problem" would likely result in a swift execution. I glanced nervously at my two colleagues. Could I be absolutely sure neither of them had such a device? I assured him we were clean.
It was now nightfall and under an almost full moon we turned onto a little track heading into mountainous terrain. After a few minutes we arrived at a small plateau and were told to get out. Each of us was given a pair of glasses with little cardboard inserts stuffed in the lenses, making it impossible to see. We were then transferred into another vehicle, in which we were later allowed to take off our glasses. We found ourselves inside a jeep with heavily tinted windows. The path wound upward, becoming steeper. In places, the road seemed to be just the rock bed of a mountain stream; elsewhere, improvements had been made to the track. My colleagues and I exchanged almost no words during this surreal trip. None of us had any idea how it would end.
Suddenly a man leaped out of the darkness, pointing an RPG, or rocket propelled grenade, at our vehicle. He shouted at us to halt and then exchanged some quick words with the driver before letting us pass on. This happened again a few minutes later. Finally, a group of about half a dozen men appeared and signaled us to get out of the vehicle. They were armed with Russian PK submachine guns and RPGs.
"Don't be afraid," said their leader, a burly Saudi, who politely asked us to get out of the car. "We are going to search you now," he said in barely accented English. They patted us down in a professional manner and ran a beeping instrument with a red flashing light over us. I assumed it was a scan for any tracking device we might have secreted.
We drove into a small rock-strewn valley at about five thousand feet. March in the Afghan mountains is cold and I was glad I had brought a down jacket for the trip. We were led to a rough mud hut lined with blankets; here we were to meet bin Laden. Nearby were other huts, grouped around a stream. The settlement was probably used from time to time by Kuchis, nomads who roam Afghanistan's mountains and deserts with their flocks. We could hear the low rumble of a generator that bin Laden's men had set up for us so that we could run the lights and camera.
Inside the hut, a flickering kerosene lamp illuminated the faces of bin Laden's followers. Some were Arabs; others had darker, African complexions. They served us a dinner of heaping platters of rice, nan bread, and some unidentifiable meat. Was it goat? Chicken? Hard to tell in the dim light. I have generally made it a rule of the road never to eat anything I am not too sure of, ever since an eventful encounter with some curried brains in Peshawar. But by now I was ravenous, so I tucked in with gusto.
I calculated that it was sometime before midnight when bin Laden appeared with his entourage a translator and several bodyguards. He is a tall man, well over six feet, his face dominated by an aquiline nose. Dressed in a turban, white robes, and a green camouflage jacket, he walked with a cane and seemed tired, less like a swaggering revolutionary than a Muslim ascetic. Those around him treated him with the utmost deference, referring to him with the honorific "sheikh," an homage he seemed to take as his due. We were told we had about an hour with him before he would have to go. As he sat down, he propped up next to him the Kalashnikov rifle that is never far from his side. His followers said he had taken it from a Russian he had killed.
Jouvenal fiddled with the lights and camera and then said the welcome words "We have speed," which is cameramanese for "We're ready."
Peter Arnett and I had worked up a long list of questions, many more than could be answered in the hour allotted to us. We had been asked to submit them in advance, and bin Laden's people had excised any questions about his personal life, his family, or his finances. We were not going to find out, Barbara Walters-style, what kind of tree bin Laden thought he was. But he was going to answer our questions about his political views and why he advocated violence against Americans.
Without raising his voice, bin Laden began to rail in Arabic against the injustices visited upon Muslims by the United States and his native Saudi Arabia: "Our main problem is the U.S. government....By being loyal to the U.S. regime, the Saudi regime has committed an act against Islam," he said. Bin Laden made no secret of the fact that he was interested in fomenting a revolution in Saudi Arabia, and that his new regime would rule in accordance with the seventh-century precepts of the Prophet Muhammad. "We are confident...that Muslims will be victorious in the Arabian peninsula and that God's religion, praise and glory be to Him, will prevail in this peninsula. It is a great...hope that the revelation unto Muhammad will be used for ruling."
Bin Laden coughed softly throughout the interview and nursed a cup of tea. No doubt he was suffering from a cold brought on by the drafty Afghan mountains. He continued on in his soft-spoken but focused manner, an ambiguous, thin smile sometimes playing on his lips: "We declared jihad against the U.S. government because the U.S. government...has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation of [Palestine]. And we believe the U.S. is directly responsible for those who were killed in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. This U.S. government abandoned humanitarian feelings by these hideous crimes. It transgressed all bounds and behaved in a way not witnessed before by any power or any imperialist power in the world. Due to its subordination to the Jews, the arrogance and haughtiness of the U.S. regime has reached to the extent that they occupied [Arabia]. For this and other acts of aggression and injustice, we have declared jihad against the U.S., because in our religion it is our duty to make jihad so that God's word is the one exalted to the heights and so that we drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries."
Throughout bin Laden's diatribe perhaps a dozen of his followers listened in rapt attention as he went on to clarify that the call for jihad was directed against U.S. armed forces stationed in the Saudi Kingdom.
"We have focused our declaration on striking at the soldiers in the country of the Two Holy Places." This was Bin Laden's name for Saudi Arabia, a term he avoids using, as he loathes the Saudi royal family.
He continued: "The country of the Two Holy Places has in our religion a peculiarity of its own over the other Muslim countries. In our religion, it is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country. Therefore, even though American civilians are not targeted in our plan, they must leave. We do not guarantee their safety."
This was the first time that bin Laden had told members of the Western press that American civilians might be casualties in his holy war. A year later he would tell ABC News that he made no distinction between American military and civilian targets, despite the fact that the Koran itself is explicit about the protections offered to civilians.
Bin Laden went on to say that the end of the Cold War had made the United States overreach: "The collapse of the Soviet Union made the U.S. more haughty and arrogant and it has started to look at itself as a master of this world and established what it calls the New World Order."
It was ironic that bin Laden was critical of the post-Cold War environment. It was precisely the end of the Cold War, which brought more open borders, that allowed his organization to flourish. According to the U.S. indictment against him, his network had established cells in twenty countries during the 1990s. Some of those countries, such as Croatia, Bosnia, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan, owed their very existence to the end of the Cold War. And bin Laden represented a shift in the way terrorists operated, a shift made possible by the changing rules of the New World Order. While bin Laden transferred his millions from Saudi Arabia to Sudan to Afghanistan, his followers enthusiastically embraced the artifacts of globalization. They communicated by American satellite phones and kept their plans on Japanese-made computers. Bin Laden's fatwas were faxed to other countries, particularly England, where Arabic-language newspapers reprinted them and transmitted them throughout the Middle East. Thus was bin Laden able to create a truly global network.
Bin Laden envisaged his own counterpoint to the march of globalization the restoration of the Khalifa, or caliphate, which would begin from Afghanistan. Not since the final demise of the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War I had there been a Muslim entity that more or less united the umma, the community of Muslim believers, under the green flag of Islam. In this view, the treaties that followed World War I had carved up the Ottoman Empire, "the Sick Man of Europe," into ersatz entities like Iraq and Syria. Bin Laden aimed to create the conditions for the rebirth of the Khalifa, where the umma would live under the rule of the Prophet Muhammad in a continuous swath of green from Tunisia to Indonesia, much as the red of the British empire colored maps from Egypt to Burma before World War II. As a practical matter, the restoration of the Khalifa had about as much chance as the Holy Roman Empire suddenly reappearing in Europe, but as a rhetorical device the call for its return exercised a powerful grip on bin Laden and his followers.
During the interview bin Laden's translator, who spoke precise English, gave us rough translations of what bin Laden was saying. Occasionally, though, bin Laden would answer questions before they had been translated. So he clearly understood some English. "The U.S. today has set a double standard, calling whoever goes against its injustice a terrorist," he said at one point. "It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose on us agents to rule us...and wants us to agree to all these. If we refuse to do so, it will say, 'You are terrorists.' With a simple look at the U.S. behaviors, we find that it judges the behavior of the poor Palestinian children whose country was occupied: if they throw stones against the Israeli occupation, it says they are terrorists, whereas when the Israeli pilots bombed the United Nations building in Qana, Lebanon, while it was full of children and women, the U.S. stopped any plan to condemn Israel." (This was a reference to April 18, 1996, when Israeli forces seeking to attack Hezbollah guerrillas shelled a U.N. building in Qana, Lebanon, killing 102 Lebanese civilians. Israel characterized the attack on the U.N. building as an accident, a claim the U.N. later dismissed.)
Bin Laden angrily continued. "At the same time that they condemn any Muslim who calls for his rights, they receive the top official of the Irish Republican Army [Gerry Adams] at the White House as a political leader. Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world. The U.S. does not consider it a terrorist act to throw atomic bombs at nations thousands of miles away, when those bombs would hit more than just military targets. Those bombs rather were thrown at entire nations, including women, children, and elderly people, and up to this day the traces of those bombs remain in Japan."
Bin Laden then surprised us by claiming that Arabs affiliated with his group were involved in killing American troops in Somalia in 1993, a claim he had earlier made to an Arabic newspaper. We all remembered the grisly television images of the mutilated body of a U.S. serviceman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. What was not known at the time was the possible involvement of bin Laden's organization in training the Somalis who carried out the operation.
Bin Laden told us: "Resistance started against the American invasion, because Muslims did not believe the U.S. allegations that they came to save the Somalis. With Allah's grace, Muslims in Somalia cooperated with some Arab holy warriors who were in Afghanistan. Together they killed large numbers of American occupation troops." For bin Laden, Somalia was clearly an intoxicating victory. He exulted in the fact that the United States withdrew its troops from the country, pointing to the withdrawal as an example of the "weakness, frailty and cowardice of the U.S. troops."
Asked what message he would send President Clinton, bin Laden answered: "Mentioning the name of Clinton or that of the American government provokes disgust and revulsion. This is because the name of the American government and the name of Clinton and Bush directly reflect in our minds...the picture of the children who died in Iraq." He was referring to the fact that, by May 1996, an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq in 1990, for its continued violations of U.N. resolutions.
He continued: "The hearts of Muslims are filled with hatred towards the United States of America and the American president. The president has a heart that knows no words. A heart that kills hundreds of children definitely knows no words. Our people in the Arabian Peninsula will send him messages with no words because he does not know any words. If there is a message that I may send through you, then it is a message I address to the mothers of the American troops who came here with their military uniforms walking proudly up and down our land....I say that this represents a blatant provocation to over a billion Muslims. To these mothers I say if they are concerned for their sons, then let them object to the American government's policy."
The interview came to an end, but bin Laden lingered for a few minutes, courteously serving us cups of tea. The talk turned to Iraq and Saddam Hussein, whom Arnett had interviewed during the Gulf War. Bin Laden said that the Iraqi dictator wanted the oil of Kuwait for his own aggrandizement and was not a true Muslim leader.
After posing for a couple of photos, bin Laden left as quickly as he had arrived. He had spent a little over an hour with us. But the "media adviser" was reluctant to give up the interview tapes. First, he wanted to erase some shots of bin Laden he considered unflattering. With several of bin Laden's guards still present, there was no way to stop him. I watched as he proceeded to erase the offending images by taping over the interview tape inside the camera. Not content with this little display, he then started an argument with Ali about giving us the tapes at all. A tugging match ensued. Finally, Ali prevailed, giving me both interview tapes, which were hardly larger than a pair of matchbooks. I put them in the most secure place I could think of: inside my money belt, which I wore under my trousers.
"Will you use the bit of the interview where bin Laden attacks Clinton?" Ali asked. We were standing outside the mud hut underneath a vast sky. There is no light pollution or smog in Afghanistan, so the heavens can be seen in their natural state. It was a beautiful night, clear and cold and utterly, utterly silent. "Of course," I told him. Ali seemed surprised. He was used to firm government control of the media.
During the next weeks we wrote and edited the script for our profile, which was broadcast on May 12, 1997, in the United States and over a hundred other countries. In Saudi Arabia, authorities confiscated copies of newspapers that ran items about our story, while in the U.S. the Associated Press wire service ran a piece that was picked up by a number of American papers. Otherwise, the story had little impact.
But a line kept resonating in my mind, the final words in our broadcast. When asked about his future plans bin Laden had replied:
"You'll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing."
Copyright © 2001 by Peter L. Bergen