The last time I saw Osama bin Laden was in a tent on a mountaintop camp in Afghanistan last year. A few meters away was a twenty-five-foot-high air raid shelter cut into the rock, a relic of bin Laden’s days fighting the Soviet Army, but bombproof against even a cruise missile. bin Laden had entered the tent in his white Saudi robes, shaken hands with me and sat cross-legged on the rug, when he noticed that I had the latest Beirut daily newspapers in my bag. He seized upon them and pored over their pages for almost half an hour, one of his Arab mujahedeen in Afghan clothes holding a sputtering gas lamp over the papers. Carefully, bin Laden read the news from Iran, from his own country, from the Israel-occupied West Bank. Was it true, he asked me, that Iran was making a diplomatic démarche to Saudi Arabia?
As I sat there watching the man who had declared a "holy war" against the United States a year earlier–the man who was supposedly the "mastermind of world terrorism"–I reflected that he didn’t seem to know much about the world he was supposedly terrorizing. A Saudi who regards the leadership of his country with contempt, he had told me at a previous meeting in 1996, "If liberating my land is called terrorism, this is a great honor for me."
But not as great as the honor bestowed on him by President Clinton in the aftermath of the American missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan last month. "America’s Public Enemy Number One"–Clinton’s infantile description of bin Laden–must have appealed to a man whose simple view of the world is as politically naïve as it is dangerous. Last year, upon that remote mountaintop amid the snow–so cold that there was ice in my hair when I awoke in the tent before dawn–bin Laden had seemed an isolated, almost lonely figure, largely ignored by a United States that was still obsessed with the "evil" Saddam Hussein.
Clinton has changed all that. By endowing bin Laden with his new title, he has given the Saudi dissident what he sought: recognition as the greatest enemy of Western "corruption," the leader of all resistance against US policy in the Middle East.
It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic, the way America now treats its opponents as if they were Hollywood bandits. It was Oliver North who branded Palestinian killer Abu Nidal America’s Public Enemy Number One. Saddam was compared to Hitler, even though Saddam hero-worships the memory of Stalin. Before that, when Saddam was one of our guys, busy invading Iran, we had demonized the Ayatollah Khomeini. Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi was described by Ronald Regan as "that mad dog of the Middle East." Even Yasir Arafat was a super-terrorist until his support for Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait rendered him weak enough to make peace with Israel–at which point we turned him in to a super-statesman.
I doubt if Osama bin Laden understands the hierarchy of US hate figures–or whether he would care if he did. The Afghan conflict against the Soviets molded him, taught him the meaning of his religion, made him think. "What I lived in two years there," he told me, "I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere." When he brought his 9,000 Arab fighters to support the Afghans in their conflict against the Soviet occupation army, hacking out the mountain trails with his construction equipment, building hospitals and arms dumps, he became a war hero. Some of his current Afghan fellow fighters had been trained earlier by the CIA in the very camps that were the target of the recent US missiles–but whereas they had been called camps for "freedom fighters" when US agents set them up in the early eighties, now they had become camps for "terrorists." He and his comrades never saw "evidence of American help" in Afghanistan, he told me, but he must have been aware of the CIA’s presence.