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.
When I first met bin Laden, in the desert north of Khartoum in 1993 where he was building roads for isolated villages–and, so the Egyptians were claiming, training Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s Islamist enemies in the same Sudanese desert–I persuaded him to talk about the effect of the Russian war.
"Once I was only thirty meters away from the Russians and they were trying to capture me," he said. "I was under bombardment, but I was so peaceful in my heart that I fell asleep. This experience has been written about in our earliest books. I saw a 120-millimeter mortar shell land in front of me, but it did not blow up. Four more bombs were dropped from a Russian plane on our headquarters, but they did not explode. We beat the Soviet Union. The Russians fled. No, I was never afraid of death. As Muslims, we believe that when we die, we go to heaven. Before a battle, God sends us sequina–tranquillity." Here was a man, then, who felt God protected him. "My fellow Muslims did much more than I. Many of them died but I am still alive."
I was myself in Afghanistan in 1980, when bin Laden arrived there. I still have my reporting notes from those days. They record Afghan mujahedeen fighters burning down schools and cutting the throats of Afghan Communist schoolteachers because the government had ordered boys and girls to sit together in mixed classes. In those days, The London Times was calling them "freedom fighters." Later, when Afghan mujahedeen shot down an Afghan civilian airliner carrying forty-nine passengers and five crew members (with a British-made Blowpipe missile), the same paper called them "rebels." Oddly enough, the word "terrorists" was never used–except by the Russians.
In 1996 Sudan expelled bin Laden, partly because of American pressure–for which the United States has now rewarded Khartoum with a missile attack–and, stripped of his passport, he returned to the land where he fought the Russians. Already, Arabs dressed in Afghan clothes were fighting the government of Algeria after Islamists were prevented from winning a general election. bin Laden regards the Saudi regime as traitors who sold their birthright when Abdul Aziz Al Saud failed to apply full Islamic law. "The country was set up for his family. Then, after the discovery of petroleum, the Saudi regime found another support–the money to make people rich and give them the services and life they wanted and to make them satisfied." But this was nothing compared with what happened in 1990.
"When the American troops entered Saudia Arabia [after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait], the land of the two holy places [Mecca and Medina], there was strong protest from the ulema [religious authorities] and from students of the Shariah law all over the country against the interference of American troops," bin Laden said to me in a meeting in Afghanistan in 1996. "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. They [the Saudis] helped Yemen Communists against the southern Yemeni Muslims and helped Arafat’s regime fight against Hamas. After it had insulted and jailed the ulema…the Saudi regime lost its legitimacy."
His own country still keeps contact directly with bin Laden, via the Saudi Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, because he has supporters among important figures in the kingdom–a fact the United States prefers to ignore. He told me that an emissary from the Saudi royal family had offered his family 2 billion Saudi riyals (about $535 million) if he abandoned his "holy war." He rejected the offer.
Somewhere in the Sudanese desert, bin Laden decided that if he could drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, he could drive the Americans out of the Middle East. He denied to me any involvement in the 1996 bombing of US service personnel at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in which nineteen Americans died, although he said he knew two of the three young men later beheaded by the Saudis for the explosion. "The explosion at Khobar did not come as a direct result of American occupation but as a result of American behavior against Muslims," he said. "When sixty Jews are killed inside Palestine, all the world gathers…to criticize the action, while the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children [because of the US sanctions] did not receive the same reaction. Killing those Iraqi schoolchildren is a crusade against Islam…. Resistance against America will spread in many, many places in Muslim countries. Our trusted leaders, our ulema, have given us a fatwa that we must drive out the Americans." Because of America’s refusal to acknowledge any reason for the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania–hatred of America, per se, is the usual explanation–few chose to point out that they occurred on the eighth anniversary, to the very day, of the arrival of the first US troops in Saudi Arabia in 1990.
When I last saw bin Laden, he was still obsessed with the Israeli massacre of 107 Lebanese refugees sheltering at the UN camp at Qana in April 1996. Israel claimed it was a "mistake," the UN conceded otherwise and President Clinton called it only a "tragedy"–as if it was a natural disaster. It was, said bin Laden, an act of "international terrorism." There must be justice, he said, and trials for the Israeli perpetrators.
Clinton used almost exactly the same words about bin Laden and his supporters in August. But the deaf, as usual, were talking to the deaf.