Skip to content

D6 – 8: NYTimes Week in Review Piece

May 9, 2011
May 7, 2011

A Reporter’s Quest for Osama bin Laden, the Unholy Grail


As reporting opportunities go, few can have been more spectacularly flubbed than the one that came my way on a long-ago spring day in the former Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. The year was 1989; the location a cramped room at a ramshackle indoctrination camp for Arab militants in the hinterland outside Peshawar, the frontier town that was a staging area for the mujahedeen who forced Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan earlier that year.

At the back, in a corner, sat a tall, straggly-bearded man in his early 30s, silent, taut-faced, and plainly, by his body language, deeply upset by a reporter’s intrusion. His name, I learned later from an officer of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, was Osama bin Laden. I never spoke to him that day, on what proved to be the only firsthand sighting I would have of the man whose terrorist murderousness — and success for so long in eluding history’s biggest manhunt — was to recast the story of our time.

For me, as for many foreign correspondents of my generation, Bin Laden was to become an obsessive figure, a sort of unholy grail, just as he was for the American commandos who finally tracked him down. A handful of reporters succeeded in interviewing him in the decade after my own encounter, always under cloak-and-dagger conditions, always at one of his hideaways in Afghanistan. But none were to meet him after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he became a figure to be seen only in the smuggled videotapes that became his sermons — and now his epitaph — for the world.

Still, even unseen, the man and his cause were revealed in all manner of ways to those who pursued him. My own journey included a eureka moment in the old bazaar in the Yemeni capital, Sana, in August 2001, when a visit to a video shop specializing in jihadi best-sellers produced, from beneath the counter, a set of fresh-from-the-courier tapes that included hours of Bin Laden addressing Qaeda loyalists in Afghanistan. From the excitement in the eyes of the wizened old man who sold me the tapes, I judged that they might contain something unusual.

After spending days poring over the tapes with an Arab-speaking scholar in a London garret, I came across a scene from early 2001 in which the Qaeda leader, apparently somewhere near Kandahar, framed against an azure sky in the flowing white robes of an ancient prophet, spoke to a gathering that seemed to include would-be suicide bombers, hailing a reckoning that lay ahead for America, and for them. I included that anecdote in an article I wrote in the days before 9/11, when its imminent significance was not apparent. The article was on the pending list at The Times’s foreign desk when the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and it did not appear in the paper.

The following year, my haphazard pursuit took me on a trek into the mountains at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where American military might came closer to killing Bin Laden in December 2001 than at any time until the raid last week in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Frustrated by conflicting accounts as to whether Bin Laden had died in the American bombing at Tora Bora or had fled into the tribal areas of Pakistan along the frontier with Afghanistan, Times editors assigned me that spring to sort truth from fiction.

Starting at Bin Laden’s devastated hideout in the foothills, littered with paper fragments in Arabic and the detritus from a clinic that appeared to have been used for the kidney dialysis he was rumored to need, I set out along the path he would have taken up the mountain to the 14,000-foot saddle leading on to Pakistan.

All along the way, I met villagers who swore they knew the “sheik,” meaning Bin Laden, and several who said they had seen him, on horseback, riding up the rocky pathway with several other horsemen, and on into the Pakistan tribal area of Waziristan. The villagers appeared to have liked him, worshiped him even, a portent of how fraught the attempt to track him down over the following years would prove to be.

A few weeks earlier, I had another virtual encounter with the evanescent sheik, in a rented house on the prosperous outskirts of Faisalabad, a city that lies, like Abbottabad, a few hours’ drive from Pakistan’s tribal frontier. Forty-eight hours earlier, the house had been the target of a raid led by the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. that captured Abu Zubaydah, the fourth-highest-ranking Qaeda leader — after Bin Laden, his Egyptian deputy Ayman al-Zawahri and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of 9/11.

Abu Zubaydah, who was shot in the raid, was later one of three men, including Mr. Mohammed, to be waterboarded by the C.I.A. without volunteering anything about the whereabouts of Bin Laden. But I have often wondered — as I did again, after seeing the photographs of the scruffy, boarding-house-looking interior of the house the Seal team raided in Abbottabad — about the roster of Arab names that had been chalked up in the Faisalabad kitchen assigning mealtime duties. Among them, intriguingly, was the single word, “Osama.”

Reviewing all this over recent days, my thoughts have gone back, as much as anywhere, to that one-and-only direct encounter in 1989. In light of what transpired at Abbottabad, several things stand out:

First, the fact that access to the camp lay through a C.I.A. contact involved in America’s financing and arming of the mujahedeen; Bin Laden and his cohorts were then, at least notionally, America’s men. Second, Bin Laden’s hostility toward the United States, manifested by his sullen demeanor in the presence of an American reporter. Third, the close liaison, then and later, between the jihadis and the ISI, Pakistan’s spy agency, which acted as a conduit for American and Saudi backing of the mujahedeen.

For the moment, attention is focused on nagging questions about the raid: whether, without a weapon in his hands, Bin Laden might have been taken alive; and whether, with the man now dead, he will prove a lasting icon for Al Qaeda and its affiliates, or, with his leadership extinguished, the movement will become a growing irrelevance, at least in the politics of the Arab world, amid the democratic currents now inspiring the Arab Spring.

Along with these, and perhaps most pressing in its implications for America’s relations with Pakistan, the war in Afghanistan and the struggle with Al Qaeda, there is a further question: whether the ISI knew all along that Bin Laden was “hiding in plain sight” — for as long as five years, as his wounded Yemeni wife is said to have told Pakistani interrogators — in a town, Abbottabad, that is one of Pakistan’s principal army garrisons.

Making sense of the jumble of justifications from senior Pakistani officials is a fool’s errand. Some have said Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad took the country’s security establishment by surprise; others, including at least two former ISI chiefs, say it is inconceivable that the spy agency did not know. Still others have said that Bin Laden’s success in hiding in a city in Pakistan’s interior was the result of basic mistakes by Pakistan or, conversely, that it can be traced to America’s decision not to share with Pakistan the intelligence that led to pinpointing Abbottabad as ground zero of the manhunt.

Pakistan’s double-dealing is hard to contest. The country has absorbed more than $20 billion in American and other Western aid since 9/11, a crucial buttress to its fragile economy, yet it has been “looking both ways,” in the words of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, on the terrorism spawned on its soil and across the border in Afghanistan. A WikiLeaks release of military field reports last year offered new evidence of the ISI’s role as a patron of Pakistan-based Taliban groups, and Al Qaeda. While few would have imagined its complicity might extend to sheltering Bin Laden, Pakistan’s trustworthiness as an ally has long been questioned in Washington.

And yet: The view from Washington is not the only one useful for Americans seeking a way through this thicket. There is Pakistan’s viewpoint, too. Just as America once found it expedient to make allies of men like Bin Laden, training and arming them even while knowing that the jihadis’ embrace of violence in the name of fundamentalist Islam included an enmity for the West at least equal to their loathing of the Soviet Union, so powerful forces at the heart of Pakistan’s government have long found reasons to put expedience in the forefront of its relations with the Islamic militants.

In the West, the Pakistani approach is often judged as misguided and self-defeating. But it has more than a faint resonance with America’s erstwhile willingness to sup with the devil of jihadism during the cold war, when a Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, for Washington, was an existential and obsessive issue. And so, in many ways, it has been for Pakistan, as it has fashioned its own relationship with the jihadis.

Since Pakistan’s founding in 1947, strategic thinking there has been fixated on the country’s bitter rivalry with India. Defeats in three wars have combined with lopsided Indian advantages in population, economic strength and conventional military power to convince Pakistan’s leaders, or at least its generals, to seize every offsetting advantage they can. Central among these has been the “strategic depth” that has been seen to flow from enhancing Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan, its western neighbor.

Because Afghanistan’s most powerful ethnic group is the Pashtuns, whose own national myth includes an irredentist ambition to reunite with Pakistan’s Pashtuns, playing for advantage in the politics of Afghanistan is central to Pakistan’s strategy to guard against the fissiparous forces that threaten it from within.

So while America seeks the defeat of Islamic militancy, many of Pakistan’s leaders have convinced themselves that theirs must be a longer game. Remembering how America abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, these Pakistanis believe that their interest lies in hedging their bets as to who will ultimately rule in Kabul and Kandahar.

If that helps explain how Bin Laden came to be sojourning in his fortress at Abbottabad, something else I have encountered often since 1989 seems worth bearing in mind as America weighs the consequences of having finally caught and killed him. The comfortable belief among many Americans has been that Bin Laden and all his works are anathema to many in the Muslim world, as indeed they are. If there was no sign of rejoicing in Cairo or Istanbul or Jakarta at the news of his death, there was little mass protest, either. The murderous mindset that brought 9/11 has reaped thousands upon thousands of Muslim victims in their homelands, too, as President Obama pointed out.

Still, the anguish over the Qaeda-inspired killings coexisted paradoxically with a widely expressed personal admiration for Bin Laden while he lived, as the embodiment of attitudes that had a wide resonance in the Muslim world: a willingness to stand up against what many see as the bullying power of the West, and an ability to articulate, in a lyrical Arabic that drew heavily on the language of the Koran, the grievances many Muslims feel about American policies on oil and the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, and toward America’s longstanding support for corrupt and repressive Arab regimes. He was also celebrated for an element of personal bravery and self-denial in forswearing the comforts of his Saudi Arabian inheritance for the rigors, and now the obliteration, of life on the run.

There have been fewer Bin Laden posters for some time now in the car windows and storefronts of the Arab world, suggesting that these feelings are less intense now than they have been for much of the past 20 years, especially with the successes of the Arab Spring and the new path it is charting to Arab renewal. But if the West does not address the anger that Bin Laden articulated more forcefully and violently than almost any other Muslim leader of his time, his legend may well live on, and not just among the dispossessed.

One measure of this, for me, goes back to a dinner party shortly after 9/11 in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, where many of the Pakistani guests were active or retired generals. As the whiskey flowed, tongues loosened, and the views made for deeply uncomfortable hearing. The attacks in New York and Washington, one man said, had “taught the Americans a lesson.” Another officer’s wife drew murmurs of assent when she said, “America had it coming.”

With attitudes like these, I thought last week, was it so odd that Bin Laden chose for his final sanctuary the garrison town of Abbottabad, where he may have judged that powerful people might be prepared to look the other way?


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: