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The Real Osama

A Washington journalist gives a first-hand account of bin Laden. The Brennan Center’s Aziz Huq talks to Peter Bergen, author of “The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader.”

  • Aziz Huq
Published: January 19, 2006

Cross posted from The American Prospect

In March 1997, Peter Bergen, author of Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden, traveled to Afghanistan for CNN in order to interview Osama bin Laden and became one of only a handful of Western journalists to have met and spoken to the leader of al-Qaeda. Here, he talks about his new book, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader.

Why write a biography of bin Laden?

I wrote the book because I have an old-fashioned view of history: People matter. It’s impossible to understand al-Qaeda without the personal stories of Osama bin Laden and [his deputy] Ayman al-Zawahiri. And it’s not as if either of them has now disappeared from history: Not only did bin Laden affect history with the 9–11 attacks, but he continues to influence it. Through his cassettes and videotapes, he is playing an active role in al-Qaeda. You have bin Laden on tape ordering the attack on Coalition partners of the United States, and then you see the Madrid bombing. Al-Zawahiri called for attacks on President Pervez Musharraf [of Pakistan], and some time after, they were carried out.

What were bin Laden’s early formative experiences?

The picture of the young Osama is someone who was hyperreligious, even by the standards of 1970s Saudi Arabia. But he was also very polite, mild-mannered, and shy. And by all accounts, a selfless individual. He was hard working too, although he didn’t graduate from university. So how did he come to become the leader of the world’s leading terrorist organization? The short answer is Afghanistan, where he went to fight jihad against the Soviet occupation. At first, people didn’t notice him. He had little charisma or leadership skills. But as he fought the Soviets through the 1980s, he became more confident, and his personal bravery was tested. He then decided to set up his own organization, even though his friends and relatives told him not to: It’s suicide, not jihad, they argued. But it’s critical that he ignored this advice and chose to set out on his own.

Was this the origin of al-Qaeda?

Yes. Al-Qaeda wasn’t an outgrowth of Adbullah Azaam’s “Office of Services,” as has been suggested elsewhere. Al-Qaeda grew in opposition to Azzam’s organization, not out of it. Azzam’s organization had been becoming something like an NGO, which provided education and the like. Bin Laden didn’t want to do that. He wanted to fight the Soviets by forming his own group. But this is also an early example of an interesting trait of bin Laden’s: He acts on impulse, and doesn’t follow good advice. Azzam didn’t think the Arab jihadists in Afghanistan were all that important to the anti-Soviet effort. So Azzam wanted to pepper them among different Afghan units, and use them as morale-boosters. Bin Laden didn’t listen. And at the end of the day Azzam was right: It was the blood of Afghans that won the war against the Soviets, along with lots of money from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

What’s the importance of Ayman al-Zawahiri to bin Laden and to al-Qaeda?

Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri first met in 1986 and they have developed a symbiotic relationship. Bin Laden got status and credibility from al-Zawahiri, who had been in prison in Egypt for three years, and was a serious political thinker in a way that bin Laden wasn’t. But al-Zawahiri needed bin Laden’s money. And, in any case, al-Zawahiri hasn’t ever had any real leadership skills. He’s just not attractive enough as a leader. People who know them both now say that al-Zawahiri isn’t the “brains” of the pair any more. In fact, it’s bin Laden who’s been the one that focused al-Qaeda on the “far enemy” in the United States. And you have to remember that bin Laden is now 48, and he is very much his own man. If bin Laden were to die or be captured, al-Zawahiri wouldn’t be able to achieve the same level of influence.

What influence does bin Laden have now personally?

Bin Laden’s tapes are the most widely distributed political tapes in history. So the notion that bin Laden doesn’t have any operational command over al-Qaeda is just nonsense. And his speeches persuade people: He now has a 65 percent approval rating in Pakistan. This charisma is due in part to a great back story. He’s a billionaire who could have been partying in St. Tropez, but instead he went off to fight the Soviets. That shouldn’t be misunderestimated, as the president might say. So bin Laden is still now giving broad, strategic guidance to jihadists. He’s pumping up the base. It’s still “al-Qaeda the organization,” and not just “al-Qaeda the ideology” that makes a difference. Take Mohammad Siddique Khan, one of the July 2005 London bombers, who left behind a videotaped message. He talks about bin Laden as being a leader. He also talks about the situation in Iraq. That tape was made in Pakistan, not in Leeds. It was made by al-Sabah, or “the Clouds,” which is the al-Qaeda production company. It has al-Zawahiri spliced in, talking about the al-Qaeda offer of a truce to European countries. So, although we don’t know all the facts yet, it seems that the London operation was an example of “al-Qaeda classic,” rather than just the al-Qaeda ideology at work, as happened in Madrid in 2003.

How has the war in Iraq changed bin Laden’s plans?

Whether or not you agree with the war, one thing’s clear: The Iraq war greatly aggravated terrorism, and it will go on for decades whatever the United States does. Even if it breaks up into lots of little civil wars, it’s going to be an effective training ground for militants. There’s an analogy with something Zbigniew Brzezinski [who was President Carter’s National Security adviser], once said. He was asked in 1998 about his support for the Afghan mujahideen, and famously replied: What’s more important, “some stirred-up Moslems” or the end of the Cold War? What’s happening now is that war in Iraq is a similar sort of gamble. We just don’t know now whether democracy will come to the Middle East, which is the final goal. And we don’t know whether it’ll be worth it in the end. And even if we win democracy, there can still be bad outcomes in the long-term. President Bush has said that it’s better to fight the terrorists in Baghdad than in Boston. But this is a very short-term view. And it wrongly assumes that there is a finite supply of terrorists. A lot of people have told me that 9–11 was a tactical success for bin Laden, but a strategic failure. It was clearly against Islam, and he lost the support of a lot of people, even his son Omar, so it was counterproductive for him in the end. But now Iraq has been what he hoped Afghanistan would be.

What has damaged al-Qaeda?

Well, all indicia for terrorism, like the number of attacks and the U.S.'s popularity ratings, are trending in the wrong directions. But there have been some interesting improvements in Indonesia, where I just got back from. What happened there was real public diplomacy—It was the aid after the tsunami. And this shows that anti-Americanism is not entrenched. What’s important is not what we say, but what we do. Also, terrorists are their own biggest enemy. Take the second bombing in Bali [in Indonesia]. It only killed Indonesians and struck just as the tourism industry was beginning to recover. Now you have all kinds of Indonesian clerics rushing to condemn al-Qaeda’s interpretation of jihad. The same is true in Jordan, with the hotel bombings [in November 2005], and in London, with the July 2005 bombings. Recall that one of the areas hit was Edgware Road, which is one of the most Arab areas in London. We really need to be emphasizing that the terrorists are killing many, many innocent Muslims. The biggest problem for al-Qaeda is that they know what they are against, but not what they are for. They have killed a lot of Muslim civilians but they haven’t offered an attractive vision of what they want. There’s a lot of vague talk of the return of the Khalifate, but that’s about as likely as the return of the Holy Roman Empire. It ain’t going to happen. And as for a Taliban-style theocracy from Morocco to Indonesia, well most Muslims, even those in Saudi Arabia, don’t want that.

 Aziz Huq: “The Real Osama” (PDF)