28 December 2001
The first time I met Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan, it was a hot, humid night in the summer of 1996. Huge insects flew through the night air, settling like burrs on his Saudi robes and on the clothes of his armed followers. They would land on my notebook until I swatted them, their blood smearing the pages. Bin Laden was always studiously polite: each time we met, he would offer the usual Arab courtesy of food for a stranger: a tray of cheese, olives, bread and jam. I had already met him in Sudan and would spend a night, almost a year later, in one of his mountain guerrilla camps, so cold that I awoke in the morning with ice in my hair.
I had been given a rough blanket and my shoes were left outside the tent. Whenever we met, he would interrupt our interviews to say his prayers, his armed followers -- from Algeria, Egypt, the Gulf Arab states, Syria -- kneeling beside him, hanging on his every word as if he were a messiah.
On 20 March, 1997, I would meet him again. Although only 41 at the time, his ruggedly groomed beard had white hairs, and he had bags under his eyes; I sensed some infirmity, a stiffness of one leg that gave him the slightest of limps. I still have my notes, scribbled in the frozen semi-darkness as an oil lamp sputtered between us. "I am not against the American people," he said. "Only their government." I told him I thought the American people regarded their government as their representatives. Bin Laden listened to this in silence. "We are still at the beginning of our military action against the American forces," he said.
I remembered those words as I watched those aeroplanes scything into the World Trade Centre towers. And I remembered, too, how in that last meeting he had seized on the Arabic-language newspapers I was carrying in my satchel (a schoolbag I use in rough countries) and scurried to a corner of the tent to read them for 20 minutes, ignoring both his fighters and myself.
The first time we met, in Sudan, I persuaded bin Laden -- much against his will -- to talk about those days. And he recalled how, during an attack on a Russian firebase not far from Jalalabad, a mortar shell had fallen at his feet. He had waited for it to explode. And in those milliseconds of rationality, he had -- so he said -- felt a great sense of tranquillity, a sense of calm acceptance, which he ascribed to God.
One of his armed followers in Afghanistan took me up the "bin Laden trail", a terrifying two-hour odyssey along fearful ravines in rain and sleet, the windscreen misting as we climbed the cold mountain. "When you believe in jihad [holy war], it is easy," the gunman informed me, fighting with the steering wheel as stones scuttered from the tyres, bouncing down the valleys into the clouds below. It was two hours more -- this was in 1997 -- before we reached bin Laden's old wartime camp, the jeep skidding backwards towards sheer cliffs, the headlights illuminating frozen waterfalls above.
Bin Laden is a tall, slim man and towers over his companions. He has narrow, dark eyes that stared hard at me when he spoke of his hatred of Saudi corruption. Indeed, in my long conversation with bin Laden in 1996 -- on that hot night of mosquitoes -- the Saudi kingdom and its apparatchiks probably consumed more time than his views of America.
History -- or his version of it -- was the basis of almost all his remarks. And the pivotal date was 1990, the year in which Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. "When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy places, there was a strong protest from the ulema [religious authorities] against the interference of American troops.
"This big mistake by the Saudi regime of inviting the American troops revealed their deception. They had given their support to nations that were fighting against Muslims. After it insulted and jailed the ulema... the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy."
Bin Laden paused to see whether I had listened to his careful, if frighteningly exclusive, history lesson. "I believe that sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia, and that the war declared by America against the Saudi people means war against Muslims everywhere..."
He also told me that "swift and light forces working in complete secrecy" would be needed to oust America from Saudi Arabia. In the following two years, bin Laden was to form his al-Qa'ida movement and declare war on the American people -- not just the government and army of the United States.