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    Robert fisk Robert fisk Document Transcript

    • HomePart One of extracts from Robert Fisksbook: The Great War for Civilisation: theConquest of the Middle East. Taken fromhttp://www.robert-fisk.com/Finding OsamaKnew it would be like this. On 19 March1997, outside the Spinghar Hotel inJalalabad with its manicured lawns andpink roses, an Afghan holding aKalashnikov rifle invited me to travel in acar out of town. The highway to Kabul thatevening was no longer a road but a mass ofrocks and crevasses above the roaringwaters of a great river. A vast mountainchain towered above us. The Afghan smiledat me occasionally but did not talk. I knewwhat his smile was supposed to say. Trustme. But I didnt. I smiled back the rictus offalse friendship. Even inside the car, I couldhear the river as it sloshed through gulleysand across wide shoals of grey stones andpoured over the edge of cliffs. Trust Mesteered the car carefully around theboulders and I admired the way his bareleft foot eased the clutch up and down as aman might gently urge a horse to clamberover a rock.A benevolent white dust covered thewindscreen, and when the wipers cleared itthe desolation took on a hard, unforgiving,dun-coloured uniformity. The track musthave looked like this, I thought, whenMajor General William Elphinstone led hisBritish army to disaster more than 150years ago. The Afghans had annihilated oneof the greatest armies of the British Empireon this very stretch of road, and high aboveme were villages where old men stillremembered the stories of great-grandfathers who had seen the English diein their thousands. The stones of
    • Gandamak, they claim, were made black bythe blood of the English dead. The year1842 marked one of the greatest defeats ofBritish arms. No wonder we preferred toforget the First Afghan War. But Afghansdont forget. "Farangiano," the drivershouted and pointed down into the gorgeand grinned at me. "Foreigners."It had grown dark and we were climbing,overtaking trucks and rows of camels, thebeasts turning their heads towards ourlights in the gloom. Two hours later, westopped on a stony hillside and, after a fewminutes, a pick-up truck came bouncingdown the rough shale of the mountain.An Arab in Afghan clothes came towardsthe car. I recognised him at once from ourlast meeting in a ruined village. "I am sorryMr Robert, but I must give you the firstsearch," he said, prowling through mycamera bag and newspapers. And so we setoff up the track that Osama bin Laden builtduring his jihad against the Russian armyin the early 1980s, a terrifying, slithering,two-hour odyssey along fearful ravines inrain and sleet, the windscreen misting aswe climbed the cold mountain. "When youbelieve in jihad, it is easy," he said, fightingwith the steering wheel as stones scutteredfrom the tyres, tumbling down the precipiceinto the clouds below. From time to time,lights winked at us from far away in thedarkness. "Our brothers are letting us knowthey see us," he said.After an hour, two armed Arabs - one withhis face covered in a kuffiah scarf, eyespeering at us through spectacles, holding ananti-tank rocket-launcher over his rightshoulder - came screaming from behindtwo rocks."Stop! Stop!" As the brakes were jammedon, I almost hit my head on the windscreen."Sorry, sorry," the bespectacled man said,
    • putting down his rocket-launcher. Hepulled a metal detector from the pocket ofhis combat jacket, the red light flicking overmy body in another search. The road grewworse as we continued, the 4x4 skiddingbackwards towards sheer cliffs, theheadlights playing across the chasms oneither side. "Toyota is good for jihad," mydriver said. I could only agree, noting thatthis was one advertising slogan the Toyotacompany would probably forgo.There was moonlight now and I could seeclouds both below us in the ravines andabove us, curling round mountaintops, ourheadlights shining on frozen waterfalls andice-covered pools. Osama bin Laden knewhow to build his wartime roads; many anammunition truck and tank had ground itsway up here during the titanic struggleagainst the Russian army. Now the manwho led those guerrillas - the first Arabfighter in the battle against Moscow - wasback again in the mountains he knew.There were more Arab checkpoints, moreshrieked orders to halt. Then Bin Ladenhimself appeared, in combat uniform f andwearing shades. He carefully patted myshoulders, body, legs and looked into myface. "Salaam aleikum," I said. Peace beupon you. Every Arab I had ever metreplied "Aleikum salaam" to this greeting.But not this one. There was something coldabout this man. Osama bin Laden hadinvited me to meet him in Afghanistan, butthis was a warrior without the minimumcourtesy. He was a machine, checking outanother machine.IT HAD not always been this way. Indeed,the first time I met Osama bin Laden, theway could not have been easier. Back inDecember 1993, I had been covering anIslamic summit in the Sudanese capital ofKhartoum when a Saudi journalist friend ofmine, Jamal Kashoggi, walked up to me inthe lobby of my hotel. Kashoggi led me by
    • the shoulder outside. "There is someone Ithink you should meet," he said. Kashoggiis a sincere believer and I guessed at onceto whom he was referring. Kashoggi hadvisited Bin Laden in Afghanistan during hiswar against the Russian army. "He hasnever met a Western reporter before," heannounced. "This will be interesting."Kashoggi was indulging in a little appliedpsychology. He wanted to know how BinLaden would respond to an infidel. So did I.Bin Ladens story was as instructive as itwas epic. When the Soviet army invadedAfghanistan in 1979, the Saudi royal family- encouraged by the CIA - sought to providethe Afghans with an Arab legion, preferablyled by a Saudi prince, who would lead aguerrilla force against the Russians. Notonly would he disprove the popularly heldand all too accurate belief that the Saudileadership was effete and corrupt, he couldre-establish the honourable tradition of theGulf Arab warrior, heedless of his own lifein defending the umma, the community ofIslam. True to form, the Saudi princesdeclined this noble mission. Bin Laden,infuriated at both their cowardice and thehumiliation of the Afghan Muslims at thehands of the Soviets, took their place and,with money and machinery from hisconstruction company, set off on hispersonal jihad.A billionaire businessman and himself aSaudi, albeit of humbler Yemeni descent, inthe coming years he would be idolised byboth Saudis and millions of other Arabs,the stuff of Arab schoolboy legend from theGulf to the Mediterranean. Not since theBritish glorified Lawrence of Arabia had anadventurer been portrayed in so heroic, soinfluential a role. Egyptians, Saudis,Yemenis, Kuwaitis, Algerians, Syrians andPalestinians made their way to thePakistani border city of Peshawar to fightalongside him. But when the Afghan
    • mujahedin guerrillas and Bin Ladens Arablegion had driven the Soviets fromAfghanistan, the Afghans turned upon eachother with wolflike and tribal venom.Sickened by this perversion of Islam -original dissension within the umma led tothe division of Sunni and Shia Muslims -Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia.But his journey of spiritual bitterness wasnot over. When Saddam Hussein invadedKuwait in 1990, Bin Laden once moreoffered his services to the Saudi royalfamily. They did not need to invite theUnited States to protect the place of the twoholiest shrines of Islam, he argued. Meccaand Medina, the cities in which the ProphetMohamed received and recited Godsmessage, should only be defended byMuslims. Bin Laden would lead his"Afghans", his Arab mujahedin, against theIraqi army inside Kuwait and drive themfrom the emirate. King Fahd of SaudiArabia preferred to put his trust in theAmericans. So as the US 82nd AirborneDivision arrived in the north-eastern Saudicity of Dhahran and deployed in the desertscarcely 400 miles from the city of Medina -the place of the Prophets refuge and of thefirst Islamic society - Bin Laden abandonedthe corruption of the House of Saud tobestow his generosity on another "IslamicRepublic": Sudan.Our journey north from Khartoum laythough a landscape of white desert andancient, unexplored pyramids, dark, squatPharaonic tombs smaller than those ofCheops, Chephren and Mycerinus at Giza."The people like Bin Laden here," Kashoggisaid, in much the way that one mightcomment approvingly of a dinner host."Hes got his business here and hisconstruction company and the governmentlikes him. He helps the poor." I couldunderstand all this. He had just completedbuilding a new road from the Khartoum-
    • Port Sudan highway to the tiny desertvillage of Almatig in northern Sudan, usingthe same bulldozers he had employed toconstruct the guerrilla trails of Afghanistan;many of his labourers were the samefighters who had been his comrades in thebattle against the Soviet Union. The USState Department took a predictably lesscharitable view of Bin Ladens beneficence.It accused Sudan of being a "sponsor ofinternational terrorism" and Bin Ladenhimself of operating "terrorist trainingcamps" in the Sudanese desert.But when Kashoggi and I arrived inAlmatig, there was Osama bin Laden in hisgold-fringed robe, sitting beneath thecanopy of a tent before a crowd of admiringvillagers and guarded by the loyal Arabmujahedin who fought alongside him inAfghanistan. Bearded, silent figures, theywatched unsmiling as the Sudanesevillagers lined up to thank the Saudibusinessman who was about to completethe road linking their slums to Khartoumfor the first time in history.My first impression was of a shy man. Withhis high cheekbones, narrow eyes and longbrown robe, he would avert his eyes whenthe village leaders addressed him. Heseemed ill at ease with gratitude, incapableof responding with a full smile whenchildren in miniature chadors danced infront of him and preachers admired hiswisdom.Kashoggi put his arms around Bin Laden,and Bin Laden kissed him on both cheeks.Jamal Kashoggi must have brought theforeigner for a reason. That is what BinLaden was thinking. For as Kashoggi spoke,Bin Laden looked over his shoulder at me,occasionally nodding. "Robert, I want tointroduce you to Sheikh Osama," Kashoggihalf-shouted through childrens songs. BinLaden was a tall man and he realised that
    • this was an advantage when he shookhands with the English reporter. "Salaamaleikum". His hands were firm, not strong,but, yes, he looked like a mountain man.The eyes searched your face. He was leanand had long fingers and a smile which -while it could never be described as kind -did not suggest villainy. He said we mighttalk, at the back of the tent where we couldavoid the shouting of the children.Looking back now, knowing what we know,understanding the monstrous beast-figurehe would become in the collectiveimagination of the world, I search for someclue, the tiniest piece of evidence, that thisman could inspire an act that would changethe world for ever - or, more to the point,allow an American president to persuadehis people that the world was changed forever. Certainly his formal denial of"terrorism" gave no hint. The Egyptianpress was claiming that Bin Laden hadbrought hundreds of his Arab fighters withhim to Sudan, while the Western embassycircuit in Khartoum was suggesting thatsome of the Arab "Afghans" whom thisSaudi entrepreneur had flown to Sudanwere now busy training for further jihadwars in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. BinLaden was well aware of this."The rubbish of the media and embassies,"he called it. "I am a construction engineerand an agriculturalist. If I had trainingcamps here in Sudan, I couldnt possibly dothis job." The "job" was certainly ambitious:not just the Almatig connection but abrand-new highway stretching all the wayfrom Khartoum to Port Sudan, a distance of1,200km on the old road, now shortened to800km by the new Bin Laden route thatwould turn the distance from the capitalinto a mere days journey. In a country thatwas despised by Saudi Arabia for itssupport of Saddam Hussein after his 1990invasion of Kuwait almost as much as it was
    • by the United States, Bin Laden had turnedthe equipment of war to the construction ofa pariah state.I did wonder why he could not have donethe same to the blighted landscape ofAfghanistan, but he refused at first to talkabout his war, sitting at the back of the tentand cleaning his teeth with a piece ofmishwak wood. But talk he eventually didabout a war that he helped to win for theAfghans whom the Americans and theSaudis - and the f Pakistanis - all supportedagainst the Russians. He wanted to talk. Hethought he was going to be interrogatedabout "terrorism" and realised that he wasbeing asked about Afghanistan and hewished to explain how his experience therehad shaped his life."What I lived through in two years there,"he said, "I could not have lived in ahundred years elsewhere. When theinvasion of Afghanistan started, I wasenraged and went there at once and I wenton going back for nine years. I felt outragedthat an injustice had been committedagainst the people of Afghanistan. It mademe realise that people who take power inthe world use it under different names tosubvert others and to force their opinionson them."With his Iraqi engineer Mohamed Saad,who was now building the highway to PortSudan, Bin Laden blasted massive tunnelsinto the Zazai mountains of Paktia provincefor guerrilla hospitals and arms dumps,then cut a mujahedin dirt trail acrossAfghanistan to within 25km of Kabul, aremarkable feat of engineering that theRussians could never destroy. But whatlessons had Bin Laden drawn from the waragainst the Russians? He was wounded fivetimes and 500 of his Arab fighters werekilled in combat with the Soviets - theirgraves lie just inside the Afghan border at
    • Torkham - and even Bin Laden was notimmortal, was he?"I was never afraid of death," he replied."As Muslims, we believe that when we die,we go to heaven." He was no longerirritating his teeth with the piece ofmishwak wood but talking slowly andcontinuously, leaning forward, his elbowson his knees. "Before a battle, God sends usseqina - tranquillity. Once I was only 30metres from the Russians and they weretrying to capture me. I was underbombardment but I was so peaceful in myheart that I fell asleep. We beat the SovietUnion. The Russians fled ... My time inAfghanistan was the most importantexperience of my life."But what of the Arab mujahedin whom hetook to Afghanistan - members of aguerrilla army who were also encouragedand armed by the United States to fight theRussians, and who were forgotten by theirmentors when the war was over? Bin Ladenseemed ready for the question. "Neither Inor my brothers saw evidence of Americanhelp," he said. "When my mujahedin werevictorious and the Russians were drivenout, differences started so I returned toroad construction in Taif and Abha [inSaudi Arabia]. I brought back theequipment I had used to build tunnels androads for the mujahedin in Afghanistan.Yes, I helped some of my comrades comehere after the war." How many? Bin Ladenshook his head. "I dont want to say. Butthey are here with me now, they areworking right here, building this road toPort Sudan."What did he think about the war in Algeria?I asked. But a man in a green suit callinghimself Mohamed Moussa - he claimed tobe Nigerian although he was a Sudanesegovernment security agent - tapped me onthe arm. "You have asked more than
    • enough questions," he announced. So howabout a picture? Bin Laden hesitated -something he rarely did - and I sensed thatprudence was fighting with vanity. In theend, he stood on the new road in his gold-fringed robe and smiled wanly at mycamera for two pictures, then raised his lefthand like a president telling the press whentheir time was up. At which point Osamabin Laden went off to inspect his highway.Two months after I met Bin Laden, gunmenburst into his Khartoum home and tried toassassinate him. The Sudanese governmentsuspected the potential killers were paid bythe CIA. Saudi Arabia stripped him of hiscitizenship later that year. In early 1996, hewas permitted to leave for the country ofhis choice - and that was bound to be theone refuge in which he had discovered somuch about his own faith.And so it was that one hot evening in lateJune 1996, the telephone on my desk inBeirut rang with one of the moreextraordinary messages I was to receive asa foreign correspondent. "Mr Robert, afriend you met in Sudan wants to see you,"said a voice in English but with an Arabicaccent. I thought at first he meantKashoggi, though I had first met Jamal in1990, long before going to Khartoum. "No,no, Mr Robert, I mean the man youinterviewed. Do you understand?" Yes, Iunderstood. And where could I meet thisman? "The place where he is now," camethe reply. I knew that Bin Laden wasrumoured to have returned to Afghanistanbut there was no confirmation of this. Sohow do I reach him? I asked. "Go toJalalabad - you will be contacted."5 JULY 1996. "CLACK-CLACK-CLACK." Itwas as if someone was attacking my headwith an ice-pick. "CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK." I sat up.Someone was banging a set of car keys
    • against the window of my room in theSpinghar Hotel. "Misssster Robert," a voicewhispered urgently. "Misssster Robert." Hehissed the word "Mister." Yes, yes, Im here."Please come downstairs, there is someoneto see you." It registered only slowly thatthe man must have climbed the ancient fireescape to reach the window of my room. Idressed, grabbed a coat - I had a feeling wemight travel in the night - and almost forgotmy old Nikon. I walked as calmly as I couldpast the reception desk and out into theearly afternoon heat.The man wore a grubby, grey Afghan robeand a small round cotton hat but he was anArab and he greeted me formally, holdingmy right hand in both of his. He smiled. Hesaid his name was Mohamed, he was myguide. "To see the Sheikh?" I asked. Hesmiled but said nothing.I followed Mohamed all the way throughthe dust of Jalalabads main street until wearrived next to a group of gunmen in a pick-up truck in the ruins of an old Soviet armybase, a place of broken armoured vehicleswith a rusting red star on a shatteredgateway. There were three men in Afghanhats in the back of the pick-up. One held aKalashnikov rifle, another clutched agrenade-launcher along with six rocketstied together with Scotch tape. The thirdnursed a machine gun on his lap, completewith tripod and a belt of ammunition. "MrRobert, these are our guards," the driversaid quietly, as if it was the most normalthing in the world to set off across the wildsof Afghanistans Nangarhar province undera white-hot afternoon sun with threebearded guerrillas. A two-way radio hissedand crackled on the shoulder of the driverscompanion as another truckload of Afghangunmen drove up behind us.We were about to set off when Mohamedclimbed back down from the pick-up along
    • with the driver, walked to a shaded patch ofgrass and began to pray. For five minutes,the two men lay half-prostrate, facing thedistant Kabul Gorge and, beyond that, a farmore distant Mecca. We drove off along abroken highway and then turned on to adirt track by an irrigation canal, the guns inthe back of the truck bouncing on the floor,the guards eyes peering from behind theirchequered scarves. We travelled like thatfor hours, past half-demolished mudvillages and valleys and towering blackrocks, a journey across the face of themoon.By dusk, we had reached a series ofcramped earthen villages, old men burningcharcoal fires by the track, the shadow ofwomen cowled in the Afghan burqastanding in the alleyways. There were moreguerrillas, all bearded, grinning atMohamed and the driver. It was nightbefore we stopped, in an orchard wherewooden sofas had been covered in armyblankets piled with belts and webbing andwhere armed men emerged out of thedarkness, all in Afghan clothes and softwoollen flat hats, some holding rifles,others machine guns. They were the Arabmujahedin, the Arab "Afghans" denouncedby the presidents and kings of half the Arabworld and by the United States of America.Very soon, the world would know them asal-Qaida.They came from Egypt, Algeria, SaudiArabia, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait. Two of themwore spectacles, one said he was a doctor. Afew of them shook hands in a rather solemnway and greeted me in Arabic. I knew thatthese men would give their lives for BinLaden, that they thought themselvesspiritually pure in a corrupt world, thatthey were inspired and influenced bydreams which they persuaded themselvescame from heaven. Mohamed beckoned meto follow him and we skirted a small river
    • and jumped across a stream until, in theinsect-filled darkness ahead, we could see af sputtering paraffin lamp. Beside it sat atall, bearded man in Saudi robes. Osamabin Laden stood up, his two teenage sons,Omar and Saad, beside him. "Welcome toAfghanistan," he said.He was now 40 but looked much older thanat our last meeting in the Sudanese desertlate in 1993. Walking towards me, hetowered over his companions, tall, slim,with new wrinkles around those narroweyes. Leaner, his beard longer but slightlyflecked with grey, he had a black waistcoatover his white robe and a red-chequeredkuffiah on his head, and he seemed tired.When he asked after my health, I told him Ihad come a long way for this meeting. "Sohave I," he muttered. There was also anisolation about him, a detachment I had notnoticed before, as if he had been inspectinghis anger, examining the nature of hisresentment; when he smiled, his gazewould move towards his 16-year-old sonOmar - round eyes with dark brows and hisown kuffiah - and then off into the hotdarkness where his armed men werepatrolling the fields. Others were gatheringto listen to our conversation.Just 10 days before, a truck bomb had torndown part of the US Air Force housingcomplex at al-Khobar in Dhahran, SaudiArabia, and we were speaking in theshadow of the deaths of the 19 Americansoldiers killed there. US Secretary of StateWarren Christopher had visited the ruinsand promised that America would not be"swayed by violence", that the perpetratorswould be hunted down. King Fahd of SaudiArabia, who had since lapsed into a state ofdementia, had foreseen the possibility ofviolence when American military forcesarrived to "defend" his kingdom in 1990. Itwas for this very reason that he had, on 6August that year, extracted a promise from
    • then President George Bush that all UStroops would leave his country when theIraqi threat ended. But the Americans hadstayed, claiming that the continuedexistence of Saddams regime - which Bushhad chosen not to destroy - still constituteda danger to the Gulf.Osama bin Laden knew what he wanted tosay. "Not long ago, I gave advice to theAmericans to withdraw their troops fromSaudi Arabia. Now let us give some adviceto the governments of Britain and France totake their troops out - because whathappened in Riyadh and al-Khobar showedthat the people who did this have a deepunderstanding in choosing their targets.They hit their main enemy, which is theAmericans. They killed no secondaryenemies, nor their brothers in the army orthe police in Saudi Arabia ... I give thisadvice to the government of Britain." TheAmericans must leave Saudi Arabia, mustleave the Gulf. The "evils" of the MiddleEast arose from Americas attempt to takeover the region and from its support forIsrael. Saudi Arabia had been turned into"an American colony". Bin Laden wasspeaking slowly and with precision, anEgyptian taking notes in a large exercisebook by the lamplight like a Middle Agesscribe. "This doesnt mean declaring waragainst the West and Western people - butagainst the American regime which isagainst every American." I interrupted BinLaden. Unlike Arab regimes, I said, thepeople of the United States elected theirgovernment. They would say that theirgovernment represents them. Hedisregarded my comment. I hope he did.For in the years to come, his war wouldembrace the deaths of thousands ofAmerican civilians. "The explosion in al-Khobar did not come as a direct reaction tothe American occupation," he said, "but asa result of American behaviour againstMuslims, its support of Jews in Palestine
    • and of the massacres of Muslims inPalestine and Lebanon - of Sabra andChatila and Qana - and of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference."But what Bin Laden really wanted to talkabout was Saudi Arabia. Since our lastmeeting in Sudan, he said, the situation inthe kingdom had grown worse. The ulema,the religious leaders, had declared in themosques that the presence of Americantroops was not acceptable and thegovernment took action against theseulema "on the advice of the Americans."For Bin Laden, the betrayal of the Saudipeople began 24 years before his birth,when Abdul Aziz al-Saud proclaimed hiskingdom in 1932. "The regime startedunder the flag of applying Islamic law andunder this banner all the people of SaudiArabia came to help the Saudi family takepower. But Abdul Aziz did not apply Islamiclaw; the country was set up for his family.Then after the discovery of petroleum, theSaudi regime found another support - themoney to make people rich and to givethem the services and life they wanted andto make them satisfied." Bin Laden waspicking away at his teeth with that familiartwig of mishwak wood, but history - or hisversion of it - was the basis of almost all hisremarks. The Saudi royal family hadpromised sharia laws while at the sametime allowing the United States "toWesternise Saudi Arabia and drain theeconomy." He blamed the Saudi regime forspending $25bn (£14bn) in support ofSaddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and afurther US$60bn in support of the Westernarmies in the 1991 war against Iraq, "buyingmilitary equipment which is not needed oruseful for the country, buying aircraft bycredit" while at the same time creatingunemployment, high taxes and a bankrupteconomy. But for Bin Laden, the pivotaldate was 1990, the year Saddam invadedKuwait. "When the American troops
    • entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the twoHoly places, there was a strong protestfrom the ulema and from students of sharialaw all over the country against theinterference of American troops. This bigmistake by the Saudi regime of inviting theAmerican troops revealed their deception.They were giving their support to nationswhich were fighting against Muslims."Bin Laden paused to see if I had listened tohis careful if frighteningly exclusive historylesson. "The Saudi people haveremembered now what the ulema told themand they realise America is the main reasonfor their problems ... the ordinary manknows that his country is the largest oil-producer in the world yet at the same timehe is suffering from taxes and bad services.Now the people understand the speeches ofthe ulemas in the mosques - that ourcountry has become an American colony.What happened in Riyadh and al-Khobar isclear evidence of the huge anger of Saudipeople against America. The Saudis nowknow their real enemy is America." Theoverthrow of the Saudi regime and theeviction of US forces from the kingdomwere one and the same for Bin Laden. Hewas claiming that the real religiousleadership of Saudi Arabia - among whomhe clearly saw himself - was an inspirationto Saudis, that Saudis themselves woulddrive out the Americans, that Saudis -hitherto regarded as a rich and complacentpeople - might strike at the United States.Could this be true?Bin Laden sometimes stopped speaking forall of 60 seconds - he was the first Arabfigure I noticed doing this - in order toreflect on his words. Most Arabs, faced witha reporters question, would say the firstthing that came into their heads for fearthat they would appear ignorant if they didnot. Bin Laden was different. He wasalarming because he was possessed of that
    • quality which leads men to war: total self-conviction.Bin Laden had asked me - a routine of everyPalestinian under occupation - ifEuropeans did not resist occupation duringthe Second World War. I told him noEuropeans would accept this argument overSaudi Arabia - because the Nazis killedmillions of Europeans yet the Americanshad never murdered a single Saudi. Such aparallel was historically and morally wrong.Bin Laden did not agree. "We as Muslimshave a strong feeling that binds us together... We feel for our brothers in Palestine andLebanon ... When 60 Jews are killed insidePalestine" - he was talking aboutPalestinian suicide bombings in Israel - "allthe world gathers within seven days tocriticise this action, while the deaths of600,000 Iraqi children did not receive thesame reaction." It was Bin Ladens firstreference to Iraq and to the United Nationssanctions that were to result, according toUN officials themselves, in the death ofmore than half a million children. "Killingthose Iraqi children is a crusade againstIslam," Bin Laden said. "We, as Muslims,do not like the Iraqi regime but we thinkthat the Iraqi people and their children areour brothers and we care about theirfuture." It was the first time I heard himuse the word "crusade".But it was neither the first - nor the last -time that Bin Laden would distance himselffrom Saddam Husseins dictatorship. Muchgood would it do him. Five years later, theUnited States would launch an invasion ofIraq that would be partly justified by theregimes "support" for a man who sodetested it. But these were not the onlywords which Bin Laden uttered that nightto which I should have paid greaterattention. For at one point, he placed hisright hand on his chest: "I believe thatsooner or later the Americans will leave
    • Saudi Arabia and that the war declared byAmerica against the Saudi people meanswar against all Muslims everywhere," hesaid. "Resistance against America willspread in many, many places in Muslimcountries. Our trusted leaders, the ulema,have given us a fatwa that we must driveout the Americans."For some time, there had been a steadilygrowing thunderstorm to the east of BinLadens camp and we could see the brightorange flash of lightning over themountains on the Pakistan border. But BinLaden thought this might be artillery fire,the continuation of the inter-mujahedinbattles that had damaged his spirit after theanti-Soviet war. He was growing uneasy.He broke off his conversation to pray. Then,on the straw mat, several young and armedmen served dinner - plates of yoghurt andcheese and Afghan naan bread and moretea. Bin Laden sat between his sons, silent,eyes on his food.I said to Bin Laden that Afghanistan wasthe only country left to him after his exile inSudan. He agreed. "The safest place in theworld for me is Afghanistan." It was theonly place, I repeated, in which he couldcampaign against the Saudi government.Bin Laden and several of his Arab fightersburst into laughter. "There are otherplaces," he replied. Did he mean Tajikistan?I asked. Or Uzbekistan? Kazakhstan?"There are several places where we havefriends and close brothers - we can findrefuge and safety in them." I told Bin Ladenhe was already a hunted man. "Danger is apart of our life," he snapped back.He began talking to his men about amniya,security, and repeatedly looked towardsthose flashes in the sky. Now the thunderdid sound like gunfire. I tried to ask onemore question. What kind of Islamic statewould Bin Laden wish to see? Would
    • thieves and murderers still have theirhands or heads cut off in his Islamic shariastate, just as they do in Saudi Arabia today?There came an unsatisfactory reply. "Islamis a complete religion for every detail of life.If a man is a real Muslim and commits acrime, he can only be happy if he is justlypunished. This is not cruelty. The origin ofthese punishments comes from Godthrough the Prophet Mohamed, peace beupon him." Dissident Osama bin Ladenmay be, but moderate never. I askedpermission to take his photograph, andwhile he debated this with his companions Iscribbled into my notebook the words Iwould use in the last paragraph of myreport on our meeting: "Osama bin Ladenbelieves he now represents the mostformidable enemy of the Saudi regime andof the American presence in the Gulf. Bothare probably right to regard him as such." Iwas underestimating the man.Yes, he said, I could take his picture. Iopened my camera and allowed his armedguards to watch me as I threaded a filminto the spool. I told them I refused to use aflash because it flattened the image of ahuman face and asked them to bring theparaffin lamp closer. The Egyptian scribeheld it a foot from Bin Ladens face. I toldhim to bring it closer still, to within threeinches, and I physically had to guide hisarm until the light brightened andshadowed Bin Ladens features. Thenwithout warning, Bin Laden moved hishead back and the faintest smile movedover his face, along with that self-convictionand that ghost of vanity which I found sodisturbing. He called his sons Omar andSaad and they sat beside him as I took morepictures and Bin Laden turned into theproud father, the family man, the Arab athome.Then his anxiety returned. The thunder wascontinuous now and it was mixed with the
    • patter of rifle fire. I should go, he urged,and I realised that what he meant was thathe must go, that it was time for him toreturn to the fastness of Afghanistan. Whenwe shook hands, he was already looking forthe guards who would take him away.Mohamed and my driver and just two of thearmed men who had brought me to thesedamp, insect-hungry fields turned up todrive me back to the Spinghar Hotel, ajourney that proved to be full of menace.Driving across river bridges and roadintersections, we were repeatedly stoppedby armed men from the Afghan factionsthat were fighting for control of Kabul. Onewould crouch on the roadway in front ofour vehicle, screaming at us, pointing hisrifle at the windscreen, his companionsidling out of the darkness to check ourdrivers identity and wave us through."Afghanistan very difficult place,"Mohamed remarked.WITHIN NINE months, by March 1997, Iwould be back in a transformed, still moresinister Afghanistan, its people governedwith a harsh and ignorant piety that evenBin Laden could not have imagined. TheTaliban had finally vanquished 12 of the 15venal Afghan mujahedin militias in all butthe far north-eastern corner of the countryand imposed their own stark legitimacy onits people. It was a purist, Sunni Wahhabifaith whose interpretation of sharia lawrecalled the most draconian of earlyChristian prelates. Head-chopping, hand-chopping and a totally misogynistperspective were easy to associate with theTalibans hostility towards all forms ofenjoyment. The Spinghar Hotel used toboast an old television set that had nowbeen hidden in a garden shed for fear ofdestruction. Television sets, like videotapesand thieves, tended to end up hanging fromtrees. "What do you expect?" the gardenerasked me near the ruins of the old royalwinter palace in Jalalabad. "The Taliban
    • came from the refugee camps. They aregiving us only what they had." And itdawned on me then that the new laws ofAfghanistan - so anachronistic and brutal tous, and to educated Afghans - were less anattempt at religious revival than acontinuation of life in the vast dirt camps inwhich so many millions of Afghans hadgathered on the borders of their countrywhen the Soviets invaded 16 years before.The Taliban gunmen had grown up asrefugees in these diseased camps inPakistan. Their first 16 years of life werepassed in blind poverty, deprived of alleducation and entertainment, imposingtheir own deadly punishments, theirmothers and sisters kept in subservience asthe men decided how to fight their foreignoppressors on the other side of the border,their only diversion a detailed andobsessive reading of the Koran - the oneand true path in a world in which no othercould be contemplated. The Taliban hadarrived not to rebuild a country they did notremember, but to rebuild their refugeecamps on a larger scale. Hence there was tobe no education. No television. Womenmust stay home, just as they stayed in theirtents in Peshawar.Did we care? At that very moment, officialsof the Union Oil Co of California Asian OilPipeline Project - Unocal - were negotiatingwith the Taliban to secure rights for apipeline to carry gas from Turkmenistan toPakistan through Afghanistan; inSeptember 1996, the US State Departmentannounced that it would open diplomaticrelations with the Taliban, only to retractthe statement later. Among Unocalsemployees were Zalmay Khalilzad - fiveyears later, he would be appointedPresident George f W Bushs special envoyto "liberated" Afghanistan - and a Pushtunleader called Hamid Karzai. No wonderAfghans adopted an attitude of suspicion
    • towards the United States. Americas alliesoriginally supported Bin Laden against theRussians. Then the United States turnedBin Laden into their Public Enemy NumberOne - a post that was admittedly difficult toretain in the Pentagon wheel of fortune,since new monsters were constantly beingdiscovered by Washington, often in inverseproportion to its ability to capture the oldones. Now the Taliban were being courted.But for how long? Could Bin Laden, anArab whose political goals were infinitelymore ambitious than the Talibans,maintain the integrity of his exile alongsidemen who wished only to repress their ownpeople? Would the Taliban protect BinLaden any more courageously than thefailed Islamic Republic of Sudan?19 MARCH 1997. On the mountainside, themachine continued his search of themachine. We were at 5,000 feet. Lightsflashed until we turned a corner past amassive boulder and there before us in themoonlight lay a small valley. There wasgrass and trees and a stream of water thatcurled through it and a clutch of tentsunder a cliff. Two men approached. Therewere more formal Arab greetings, my righthand in both of theirs. Trust us. That wasalways the intention of these greetings. AnAlgerian and an Egyptian, they invited meto tour this little valley.We washed our hands in the stream andwalked over the stiff grass towards a darkgash in the cliff face above us. As my eyesbecame accustomed to the light, I couldmake out a vast rectangle in the side of themountain, a 6m-high air-raid shelter cutinto the rock by Bin Ladens men during theRussian war. I walked into this man-madecave, the Algerian holding a torch, until Icould hear my own crunching footstepsechoing softly from the depths of thetunnel. When we emerged, the moon wasalmost dazzling, the valley bathed in its
    • white light, another little paradise of treesand water and mountain peaks.The tent I was taken to was military issue, akhaki tarpaulin roped to iron stakes, a flapas an entrance, a set of stained mattresseson the floor. There was tea in a large steelpot and I sat with the Egyptian andAlgerian and with three other men who hadentered the tent with Kalashnikovs. Wewaited for perhaps half an hour.There was a sudden scratching of voicesoutside the tent, thin and urgent like thesoundtrack of an old movie. Then the flapsnapped up and Bin Laden walked in,dressed in a turban and green robes. I stoodup, half bent under the canvas, and weshook hands, both of us forced by thetarpaulin that touched our heads to greeteach other like Ottoman pashas, bowed andlooking up into the others face. Again, helooked tired, and I had noticed a slight limpwhen he walked into the tent. His beardwas greyer, his face thinner than Iremembered it. Yet he was all smiles,almost jovial, placing the rifle which he hadcarried into the tent on the mattress to hisleft, insisting on more tea for his guest. Forseveral seconds he looked at the ground.Then he looked at me with an even biggersmile, beneficent and, I thought at once,very disturbing."Mr Robert," he began, and he lookedaround at the other men in combat jacketsand soft brown hats who had crowded intothe tent. "Mr Robert, one of our brothershad a dream. He dreamed that you came tous one day on a horse, that you had a beardand that you were a spiritual person. Youwore a robe like us. This means you are atrue Muslim." This was terrifying. It wasone of the most fearful moments of my life.I understood Bin Ladens meaning a splitsecond in front of each of his words.Dream. Horse. Beard. Spiritual. Robe.
    • Muslim. The other men in the tent were allnodding and looking at me, some smiling,others silently staring at the Englishmanwho had appeared in the dream of the"brother." I was appalled. It was both a trapand an invitation, and the most dangerousmoment to be among the most dangerousmen in the world. I could not reject the"dream" lest I suggest Bin Laden was lying.Yet I could not accept its meaning withoutmyself lying, without suggesting that whatwas clearly intended of me - that I shouldaccept this "dream" as a prophecy and adivine instruction - might be fulfilled. Forthis man to trust me, a foreigner, to come tothem without prejudice, that was one thing.But to imagine that I would join them intheir struggle, that I would become onewith them, was beyond any possibility. Thecoven was waiting for a reply.Was I imagining this? Could this not be justan elaborate, rhetorical way of expressingtraditional respect towards a visitor? Wasthis not merely the attempt of a Muslim togain an adherent to the faith? Was BinLaden really trying - let us be frank - torecruit me? I feared he was. And Iimmediately understood what this mightmean. A Westerner, a white man fromEngland, a journalist on a respectablenewspaper - not a British convert to Islamof Arab or Asian origin - would be a catchindeed. He would go unsuspected, he couldbecome a government official, join an army,even - as I would contemplate just over fouryears later - learn to fly an airliner. I had toget out of this, quickly, and I was trying tofind an intellectual escape tunnel, workingso hard in digging it that my brain was onfire."Sheikh Osama," I began, even before I haddecided on my next words. "Sheikh Osama,I am not a Muslim." There was silence inthe tent. "I am a journalist." No one coulddispute that. "And the job of a journalist is
    • to tell the truth." No one would want todispute that. "And that is what I intend todo in my life - to tell the truth." Bin Ladenwas watching me like a hawk. And heunderstood. I was declining the offer. Infront of his men, it was now Bin Ladensturn to withdraw, to cover his retreatgracefully. "If you tell the truth, that meansyou are a good Muslim," he said. The menin the tent in their combat jackets andbeards all nodded at this sagacity. BinLaden smiled. I was saved. As the old clichégoes, I "breathed again". No deal.Perhaps it was out of the need to curtail thisepisode, to cover his embarrassment at thislittle failure, that Bin Laden suddenly andmelodramatically noticed the school satchellying beside my camera and the Lebanesenewspapers partially visible inside. Heseized upon them. He must read them atonce. And in front of us all, he clamberedacross the tent with the papers in his handto where the paraffin lamp was hissing inthe corner. And there, for half an hour,ignoring almost all of us, he read his waythrough the Arabic press, sometimessummoning the Egyptian to read an article,at others showing a paper to one of theother gunmen in the tent. Was this really, Ibegan to wonder, the centre of "worldterror"? Listening to the spokesman at theUS State Department, reading the editorialsin The New York Times or The WashingtonPost, I might have been forgiven forbelieving that Bin Laden ran his "terrornetwork" from a state-of-the-art bunker ofcomputers and digitalised battle plans,flicking a switch to instruct his followers toassault another Western target. But thisman seemed divorced from the outsideworld. Did he not have a radio? Atelevision?When he returned to his place in the cornerof the tent, Bin Laden was businesslike. Hewarned the Americans of a renewed
    • onslaught against their forces in SaudiArabia. "We are still at the beginning ofmilitary action against them," he said. "Butwe have removed the psychological obstacleagainst fighting the Americans ... This is thefirst time in 14 centuries that the two holyshrines are occupied by non-Islamic forces..." He insisted that the Americans were inthe Gulf for oil and embarked on a modernhistory of the region to prove this."Brezhnev wanted to reach the HormuzStrait across Afghanistan for this reason,but by the grace of Allah and the jihad hewas not only defeated in Afghanistan butwas finished here. We carried our weaponson our shoulders here for 10 years, and weand the sons of the Islamic world areprepared to carry weapons for the rest ofour lives. But despite this, oil is not thedirect impetus for the Americans occupyingthe region - they obtained oil at attractiveprices before their invasion. There are otherreasons, primarily the American-Zionistalliance, which is filled with fear at thepower of Islam and of the land of Meccaand Medina. It fears that an Islamic frenaissance will drown Israel. We areconvinced that we shall kill the Jews inPalestine. We are convinced that withAllahs help, we shall triumph against theAmerican forces. Its only a matter ofnumbers and time. For them to claim thatthey are protecting Arabia from Iraq isuntrue - the whole issue of Saddam is atrick."There was something new getting loosehere. Condemning Israel was standard farefor any Arab nationalist, let alone a manwho believed he was participating in anIslamic jihad. But Bin Laden was nowcombining America and Israel as a singlecountry - "For us," he said later, "there is nodifference between the American andIsraeli governments or between theAmerican and Israeli soldiers" - and was
    • talking of Jews, rather than Israeli soldiers,as his targets. How soon before allWesterners, all those from "Crusadernations", were added to the list? He took nocredit for the bombings in Riyadh and al-Khobar but praised the four men who hadbeen accused of setting off the explosions,two of whom he admitted he had met. "Iview those who did these bombings withgreat respect," he said. "I consider it a greatact and a major honour in which I missedthe opportunity of participating." But BinLaden was also anxious to show the supportfor his cause which he claimed was nowgrowing in Pakistan. He producednewspaper clippings recording the sermonsof Pakistani clerics who had condemnedAmericas presence in Saudi Arabia andthen thrust into my hands two largecoloured photographs of graffiti spray-painted on walls in Karachi.In red paint, one said: "American Forces,get out of the Gulf - The United MilitantUlemas." Another, painted in brown,announced that "America is the biggestenemy of the Muslim world." A large posterthat Bin Laden handed to me appeared tobe from the same hand with similar anti-American sentiment uttered by mawlawi -religious scholars - in the Pakistani city ofLahore. As for the Taliban and their new,oppressive regime, Bin Laden had littleoption but to be pragmatic. "All Islamiccountries are my country," he said. "Webelieve that the Taliban are sincere in theirattempts to enforce Islamic sharia law. Wesaw the situation before they came andafterwards and have noticed a greatdifference and an obvious improvement."But when he returned to his mostimportant struggle - against the UnitedStates - Bin Laden seemed possessed.When he spoke of this, his followers in thetent hung upon his every word as if he wasa messiah. He had, he said, sent faxes toKing Fahd and all main departments of the
    • Saudi government, informing them of hisdetermination to pursue a holy struggleagainst the United States. He even claimedthat some members of the Saudi royalfamily supported him, along with officers inthe security services - a claim I laterdiscovered to be true. But declaring war byfax was a new innovation and there was aneccentricity about Bin Ladens perspectiveon American politics.But this was a mere distraction from a farmore serious threat. "We think that ourstruggle against America will be muchsimpler than that against the Soviet Union,"Bin Laden said. "I will tell you somethingfor the first time. Some of our mujahedinwho fought in Afghanistan participated inoperations against the Americans inSomalia and they were surprised at thecollapse in American military morale. Weregard America as a paper tiger." This was astrategic error of some scale. The Americanretreat from its state-building mission inSomalia under President Clinton was notgoing to be repeated if a Republicanpresident came to power, especially if theUnited States was under attack. True, overthe years, the same loss of will might creepback into American military policy - Iraqwould see to that - but Washington,whatever Bin Laden might think, was goingto be a far more serious adversary thanMoscow. Yet he persisted. And I shallalways remember Osama bin Ladens lastwords to me that night on the baremountain: "Mr Robert," he said, "from thismountain upon which you are sitting, webroke the Russian army and we destroyedthe Soviet Union. And I pray to God that hewill permit us to turn the United States intoa shadow of itself." I sat in silence, thinkingabout these words as Bin Laden discussedmy journey back to Jalalabad with hisguards. He was concerned that the Taliban- despite their "sincerity" - might object tohis dispatching a foreigner through their
    • checkpoints after dark, and so I was invitedto pass the night in Bin Ladens mountaincamp. I was permitted to take just threephotographs of him, this time by the lightof the Toyota which was driven to the tentwith its headlights shining through thecanvas to illuminate Bin Ladens face. Hesat in front of me, expressionless, a stonefigure, and in the pictures I developed inBeirut three days later he was a purple andyellow ghost. He said goodbye withoutmuch ceremony, a brief handshake and anod, and vanished from the tent and I laydown on the mattress with my coat over meto keep warm. The men with their gunssitting around slept there too, while othersarmed with rifles and rocket-launcherspatrolled the low ridges around the camp.In the years to come, I would wonder whothey were. Was the Egyptian Mohamed Attaamong those young men in the tent? Or anyother of the 19 men whose names we wouldall come to know just over four years later?I cannot remember their faces now, cowledas they were, many of them, in theirscarves.Exhaustion and cold kept me awake. "Ashadow of itself" was the expression thatkept repeating itself to me. What did BinLaden and these dedicated, ruthless menhave in store for us? I recall the next fewhours like a freeze-frame film; waking socold there was ice in my hair, slitheringback down the mountain trail in the Toyotawith one of the Algerian gunmen in theback telling me that if we were in Algeria hewould cut my throat but that he was underBin Ladens orders to protect me and thuswould give his life for me. The three men inthe back and my driver stopped the 4x4 onthe broken-up Kabul-Jalalabad highway tosay their dawn fajr prayers. Beside thebroad estuary of the Kabul river, theyspread their mats and knelt as the sun roseover the mountains. Far to the north-east, I
    • could see the heights of the Hindu Kushglimmering white under a pale blue sky,touching the border of China that nuzzledinto the wreckage of a land that was toendure yet more suffering in the comingyears.Most of all I remember the first minutesafter our departure from Bin Ladens camp.It was still dark when I caught sight of agreat light in the mountains to the north.For a while I thought it was the headlightsof another vehicle, another security signalfrom the camp guards to our departingToyota. But it hung there for many minutesand I began to realise that it was burningabove the mountains and carried a faintlyincandescent trail. The men in the vehiclewere watching it too. "It is Halleys comet,"one of them said. He was wrong. It was anewly discovered comet, noticed for thefirst time only two years earlier byAmericans Alan Hale and Tom Bopp, but Icould see how Hale-Bopp had becomeHalley to these Arab men in the mountainsof Afghanistan. It was soaring above usnow, trailing a golden tail, a sublime powermoving at 70,000km an hour through theheavens.So we stopped the Toyota and climbed outto watch the fireball as it blazed through thedarkness above us, the al-Qaida men andthe Englishman, all filled with awe at thisspectacular, wondrous apparition of cosmicenergy, unseen for more than 4,000 years."Mr Robert, do you know what they saywhen a comet like this is seen?" It was theAlgerian, standing next to me now, both ofus craning our necks up towards the sky. "Itmeans that there is going to be a great war."And so we watched the fire blaze throughthe pageant of stars and illuminate thefirmament above us.Extracted from The Great War forCivilisation: the Conquest of the Middle
    • East by Robert Fisk, to be published by 4thEstate on Monday, £25. To buy the book atthe special price of £22.50, including p&p,call Independent Books Direct on 08700798897, or visitwww.independentbooksdirect.co.ukRead more exclusive extracts from TheGreat War for Civilisation tomorrow in TheIndependent on Sunday and all next weekin The IndependentKnew it would be like this. On 19 March1997, outside the Spinghar Hotel inJalalabad with its manicured lawns andpink roses, an Afghan holding aKalashnikov rifle invited me to travel in acar out of town. The highway to Kabul thatevening was no longer a road but a mass ofrocks and crevasses above the roaringwaters of a great river. A vast mountainchain towered above us. The Afghan smiledat me occasionally but did not talk. I knewwhat his smile was supposed to say. Trustme. But I didnt. I smiled back the rictus offalse friendship. Even inside the car, I couldhear the river as it sloshed through gulleysand across wide shoals of grey stones andpoured over the edge of cliffs. Trust Mesteered the car carefully around theboulders and I admired the way his bareleft foot eased the clutch up and down as aman might gently urge a horse to clamberover a rock.A benevolent white dust covered thewindscreen, and when the wipers cleared itthe desolation took on a hard, unforgiving,dun-coloured uniformity. The track musthave looked like this, I thought, whenMajor General William Elphinstone led hisBritish army to disaster more than 150years ago. The Afghans had annihilated oneof the greatest armies of the British Empireon this very stretch of road, and high aboveme were villages where old men stillremembered the stories of great-
    • grandfathers who had seen the English diein their thousands. The stones ofGandamak, they claim, were made black bythe blood of the English dead. The year1842 marked one of the greatest defeats ofBritish arms. No wonder we preferred toforget the First Afghan War. But Afghansdont forget. "Farangiano," the drivershouted and pointed down into the gorgeand grinned at me. "Foreigners."It had grown dark and we were climbing,overtaking trucks and rows of camels, thebeasts turning their heads towards ourlights in the gloom. Two hours later, westopped on a stony hillside and, after a fewminutes, a pick-up truck came bouncingdown the rough shale of the mountain.An Arab in Afghan clothes came towardsthe car. I recognised him at once from ourlast meeting in a ruined village. "I am sorryMr Robert, but I must give you the firstsearch," he said, prowling through mycamera bag and newspapers. And so we setoff up the track that Osama bin Laden builtduring his jihad against the Russian armyin the early 1980s, a terrifying, slithering,two-hour odyssey along fearful ravines inrain and sleet, the windscreen misting aswe climbed the cold mountain. "When youbelieve in jihad, it is easy," he said, fightingwith the steering wheel as stones scutteredfrom the tyres, tumbling down the precipiceinto the clouds below. From time to time,lights winked at us from far away in thedarkness. "Our brothers are letting us knowthey see us," he said.After an hour, two armed Arabs - one withhis face covered in a kuffiah scarf, eyespeering at us through spectacles, holding ananti-tank rocket-launcher over his rightshoulder - came screaming from behindtwo rocks."Stop! Stop!" As the brakes were jammed
    • on, I almost hit my head on the windscreen."Sorry, sorry," the bespectacled man said,putting down his rocket-launcher. Hepulled a metal detector from the pocket ofhis combat jacket, the red light flicking overmy body in another search. The road grewworse as we continued, the 4x4 skiddingbackwards towards sheer cliffs, theheadlights playing across the chasms oneither side. "Toyota is good for jihad," mydriver said. I could only agree, noting thatthis was one advertising slogan the Toyotacompany would probably forgo.There was moonlight now and I could seeclouds both below us in the ravines andabove us, curling round mountaintops, ourheadlights shining on frozen waterfalls andice-covered pools. Osama bin Laden knewhow to build his wartime roads; many anammunition truck and tank had ground itsway up here during the titanic struggleagainst the Russian army. Now the manwho led those guerrillas - the first Arabfighter in the battle against Moscow - wasback again in the mountains he knew.There were more Arab checkpoints, moreshrieked orders to halt. Then Bin Ladenhimself appeared, in combat uniform f andwearing shades. He carefully patted myshoulders, body, legs and looked into myface. "Salaam aleikum," I said. Peace beupon you. Every Arab I had ever metreplied "Aleikum salaam" to this greeting.But not this one. There was something coldabout this man. Osama bin Laden hadinvited me to meet him in Afghanistan, butthis was a warrior without the minimumcourtesy. He was a machine, checking outanother machine.IT HAD not always been this way. Indeed,the first time I met Osama bin Laden, theway could not have been easier. Back inDecember 1993, I had been covering anIslamic summit in the Sudanese capital ofKhartoum when a Saudi journalist friend of
    • mine, Jamal Kashoggi, walked up to me inthe lobby of my hotel. Kashoggi led me bythe shoulder outside. "There is someone Ithink you should meet," he said. Kashoggiis a sincere believer and I guessed at onceto whom he was referring. Kashoggi hadvisited Bin Laden in Afghanistan during hiswar against the Russian army. "He hasnever met a Western reporter before," heannounced. "This will be interesting."Kashoggi was indulging in a little appliedpsychology. He wanted to know how BinLaden would respond to an infidel. So did I.Bin Ladens story was as instructive as itwas epic. When the Soviet army invadedAfghanistan in 1979, the Saudi royal family- encouraged by the CIA - sought to providethe Afghans with an Arab legion, preferablyled by a Saudi prince, who would lead aguerrilla force against the Russians. Notonly would he disprove the popularly heldand all too accurate belief that the Saudileadership was effete and corrupt, he couldre-establish the honourable tradition of theGulf Arab warrior, heedless of his own lifein defending the umma, the community ofIslam. True to form, the Saudi princesdeclined this noble mission. Bin Laden,infuriated at both their cowardice and thehumiliation of the Afghan Muslims at thehands of the Soviets, took their place and,with money and machinery from hisconstruction company, set off on hispersonal jihad.A billionaire businessman and himself aSaudi, albeit of humbler Yemeni descent, inthe coming years he would be idolised byboth Saudis and millions of other Arabs,the stuff of Arab schoolboy legend from theGulf to the Mediterranean. Not since theBritish glorified Lawrence of Arabia had anadventurer been portrayed in so heroic, soinfluential a role. Egyptians, Saudis,Yemenis, Kuwaitis, Algerians, Syrians andPalestinians made their way to the
    • Pakistani border city of Peshawar to fightalongside him. But when the Afghanmujahedin guerrillas and Bin Ladens Arablegion had driven the Soviets fromAfghanistan, the Afghans turned upon eachother with wolflike and tribal venom.Sickened by this perversion of Islam -original dissension within the umma led tothe division of Sunni and Shia Muslims -Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia.But his journey of spiritual bitterness wasnot over. When Saddam Hussein invadedKuwait in 1990, Bin Laden once moreoffered his services to the Saudi royalfamily. They did not need to invite theUnited States to protect the place of the twoholiest shrines of Islam, he argued. Meccaand Medina, the cities in which the ProphetMohamed received and recited Godsmessage, should only be defended byMuslims. Bin Laden would lead his"Afghans", his Arab mujahedin, against theIraqi army inside Kuwait and drive themfrom the emirate. King Fahd of SaudiArabia preferred to put his trust in theAmericans. So as the US 82nd AirborneDivision arrived in the north-eastern Saudicity of Dhahran and deployed in the desertscarcely 400 miles from the city of Medina -the place of the Prophets refuge and of thefirst Islamic society - Bin Laden abandonedthe corruption of the House of Saud tobestow his generosity on another "IslamicRepublic": Sudan.Our journey north from Khartoum laythough a landscape of white desert andancient, unexplored pyramids, dark, squatPharaonic tombs smaller than those ofCheops, Chephren and Mycerinus at Giza."The people like Bin Laden here," Kashoggisaid, in much the way that one mightcomment approvingly of a dinner host."Hes got his business here and hisconstruction company and the governmentlikes him. He helps the poor." I could
    • understand all this. He had just completedbuilding a new road from the Khartoum-Port Sudan highway to the tiny desertvillage of Almatig in northern Sudan, usingthe same bulldozers he had employed toconstruct the guerrilla trails of Afghanistan;many of his labourers were the samefighters who had been his comrades in thebattle against the Soviet Union. The USState Department took a predictably lesscharitable view of Bin Ladens beneficence.It accused Sudan of being a "sponsor ofinternational terrorism" and Bin Ladenhimself of operating "terrorist trainingcamps" in the Sudanese desert.But when Kashoggi and I arrived inAlmatig, there was Osama bin Laden in hisgold-fringed robe, sitting beneath thecanopy of a tent before a crowd of admiringvillagers and guarded by the loyal Arabmujahedin who fought alongside him inAfghanistan. Bearded, silent figures, theywatched unsmiling as the Sudanesevillagers lined up to thank the Saudibusinessman who was about to completethe road linking their slums to Khartoumfor the first time in history.My first impression was of a shy man. Withhis high cheekbones, narrow eyes and longbrown robe, he would avert his eyes whenthe village leaders addressed him. Heseemed ill at ease with gratitude, incapableof responding with a full smile whenchildren in miniature chadors danced infront of him and preachers admired hiswisdom.Kashoggi put his arms around Bin Laden,and Bin Laden kissed him on both cheeks.Jamal Kashoggi must have brought theforeigner for a reason. That is what BinLaden was thinking. For as Kashoggi spoke,Bin Laden looked over his shoulder at me,occasionally nodding. "Robert, I want tointroduce you to Sheikh Osama," Kashoggi
    • half-shouted through childrens songs. BinLaden was a tall man and he realised thatthis was an advantage when he shookhands with the English reporter. "Salaamaleikum". His hands were firm, not strong,but, yes, he looked like a mountain man.The eyes searched your face. He was leanand had long fingers and a smile which -while it could never be described as kind -did not suggest villainy. He said we mighttalk, at the back of the tent where we couldavoid the shouting of the children.Looking back now, knowing what we know,understanding the monstrous beast-figurehe would become in the collectiveimagination of the world, I search for someclue, the tiniest piece of evidence, that thisman could inspire an act that would changethe world for ever - or, more to the point,allow an American president to persuadehis people that the world was changed forever. Certainly his formal denial of"terrorism" gave no hint. The Egyptianpress was claiming that Bin Laden hadbrought hundreds of his Arab fighters withhim to Sudan, while the Western embassycircuit in Khartoum was suggesting thatsome of the Arab "Afghans" whom thisSaudi entrepreneur had flown to Sudanwere now busy training for further jihadwars in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. BinLaden was well aware of this."The rubbish of the media and embassies,"he called it. "I am a construction engineerand an agriculturalist. If I had trainingcamps here in Sudan, I couldnt possibly dothis job." The "job" was certainly ambitious:not just the Almatig connection but abrand-new highway stretching all the wayfrom Khartoum to Port Sudan, a distance of1,200km on the old road, now shortened to800km by the new Bin Laden route thatwould turn the distance from the capitalinto a mere days journey. In a country thatwas despised by Saudi Arabia for its
    • support of Saddam Hussein after his 1990invasion of Kuwait almost as much as it wasby the United States, Bin Laden had turnedthe equipment of war to the construction ofa pariah state.I did wonder why he could not have donethe same to the blighted landscape ofAfghanistan, but he refused at first to talkabout his war, sitting at the back of the tentand cleaning his teeth with a piece ofmishwak wood. But talk he eventually didabout a war that he helped to win for theAfghans whom the Americans and theSaudis - and the f Pakistanis - all supportedagainst the Russians. He wanted to talk. Hethought he was going to be interrogatedabout "terrorism" and realised that he wasbeing asked about Afghanistan and hewished to explain how his experience therehad shaped his life."What I lived through in two years there,"he said, "I could not have lived in ahundred years elsewhere. When theinvasion of Afghanistan started, I wasenraged and went there at once and I wenton going back for nine years. I felt outragedthat an injustice had been committedagainst the people of Afghanistan. It mademe realise that people who take power inthe world use it under different names tosubvert others and to force their opinionson them."With his Iraqi engineer Mohamed Saad,who was now building the highway to PortSudan, Bin Laden blasted massive tunnelsinto the Zazai mountains of Paktia provincefor guerrilla hospitals and arms dumps,then cut a mujahedin dirt trail acrossAfghanistan to within 25km of Kabul, aremarkable feat of engineering that theRussians could never destroy. But whatlessons had Bin Laden drawn from the waragainst the Russians? He was wounded fivetimes and 500 of his Arab fighters were
    • killed in combat with the Soviets - theirgraves lie just inside the Afghan border atTorkham - and even Bin Laden was notimmortal, was he?"I was never afraid of death," he replied."As Muslims, we believe that when we die,we go to heaven." He was no longerirritating his teeth with the piece ofmishwak wood but talking slowly andcontinuously, leaning forward, his elbowson his knees. "Before a battle, God sends usseqina - tranquillity. Once I was only 30metres from the Russians and they weretrying to capture me. I was underbombardment but I was so peaceful in myheart that I fell asleep. We beat the SovietUnion. The Russians fled ... My time inAfghanistan was the most importantexperience of my life."But what of the Arab mujahedin whom hetook to Afghanistan - members of aguerrilla army who were also encouragedand armed by the United States to fight theRussians, and who were forgotten by theirmentors when the war was over? Bin Ladenseemed ready for the question. "Neither Inor my brothers saw evidence of Americanhelp," he said. "When my mujahedin werevictorious and the Russians were drivenout, differences started so I returned toroad construction in Taif and Abha [inSaudi Arabia]. I brought back theequipment I had used to build tunnels androads for the mujahedin in Afghanistan.Yes, I helped some of my comrades comehere after the war." How many? Bin Ladenshook his head. "I dont want to say. Butthey are here with me now, they areworking right here, building this road toPort Sudan."What did he think about the war in Algeria?I asked. But a man in a green suit callinghimself Mohamed Moussa - he claimed tobe Nigerian although he was a Sudanese
    • government security agent - tapped me onthe arm. "You have asked more thanenough questions," he announced. So howabout a picture? Bin Laden hesitated -something he rarely did - and I sensed thatprudence was fighting with vanity. In theend, he stood on the new road in his gold-fringed robe and smiled wanly at mycamera for two pictures, then raised his lefthand like a president telling the press whentheir time was up. At which point Osamabin Laden went off to inspect his highway.Two months after I met Bin Laden, gunmenburst into his Khartoum home and tried toassassinate him. The Sudanese governmentsuspected the potential killers were paid bythe CIA. Saudi Arabia stripped him of hiscitizenship later that year. In early 1996, hewas permitted to leave for the country ofhis choice - and that was bound to be theone refuge in which he had discovered somuch about his own faith.And so it was that one hot evening in lateJune 1996, the telephone on my desk inBeirut rang with one of the moreextraordinary messages I was to receive asa foreign correspondent. "Mr Robert, afriend you met in Sudan wants to see you,"said a voice in English but with an Arabicaccent. I thought at first he meantKashoggi, though I had first met Jamal in1990, long before going to Khartoum. "No,no, Mr Robert, I mean the man youinterviewed. Do you understand?" Yes, Iunderstood. And where could I meet thisman? "The place where he is now," camethe reply. I knew that Bin Laden wasrumoured to have returned to Afghanistanbut there was no confirmation of this. Sohow do I reach him? I asked. "Go toJalalabad - you will be contacted."5 JULY 1996. "CLACK-CLACK-CLACK." Itwas as if someone was attacking my headwith an ice-pick. "CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-
    • CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK." I sat up.Someone was banging a set of car keysagainst the window of my room in theSpinghar Hotel. "Misssster Robert," a voicewhispered urgently. "Misssster Robert." Hehissed the word "Mister." Yes, yes, Im here."Please come downstairs, there is someoneto see you." It registered only slowly thatthe man must have climbed the ancient fireescape to reach the window of my room. Idressed, grabbed a coat - I had a feeling wemight travel in the night - and almost forgotmy old Nikon. I walked as calmly as I couldpast the reception desk and out into theearly afternoon heat.The man wore a grubby, grey Afghan robeand a small round cotton hat but he was anArab and he greeted me formally, holdingmy right hand in both of his. He smiled. Hesaid his name was Mohamed, he was myguide. "To see the Sheikh?" I asked. Hesmiled but said nothing.I followed Mohamed all the way throughthe dust of Jalalabads main street until wearrived next to a group of gunmen in a pick-up truck in the ruins of an old Soviet armybase, a place of broken armoured vehicleswith a rusting red star on a shatteredgateway. There were three men in Afghanhats in the back of the pick-up. One held aKalashnikov rifle, another clutched agrenade-launcher along with six rocketstied together with Scotch tape. The thirdnursed a machine gun on his lap, completewith tripod and a belt of ammunition. "MrRobert, these are our guards," the driversaid quietly, as if it was the most normalthing in the world to set off across the wildsof Afghanistans Nangarhar province undera white-hot afternoon sun with threebearded guerrillas. A two-way radio hissedand crackled on the shoulder of the driverscompanion as another truckload of Afghangunmen drove up behind us.
    • We were about to set off when Mohamedclimbed back down from the pick-up alongwith the driver, walked to a shaded patch ofgrass and began to pray. For five minutes,the two men lay half-prostrate, facing thedistant Kabul Gorge and, beyond that, a farmore distant Mecca. We drove off along abroken highway and then turned on to adirt track by an irrigation canal, the guns inthe back of the truck bouncing on the floor,the guards eyes peering from behind theirchequered scarves. We travelled like thatfor hours, past half-demolished mudvillages and valleys and towering blackrocks, a journey across the face of themoon.By dusk, we had reached a series ofcramped earthen villages, old men burningcharcoal fires by the track, the shadow ofwomen cowled in the Afghan burqastanding in the alleyways. There were moreguerrillas, all bearded, grinning atMohamed and the driver. It was nightbefore we stopped, in an orchard wherewooden sofas had been covered in armyblankets piled with belts and webbing andwhere armed men emerged out of thedarkness, all in Afghan clothes and softwoollen flat hats, some holding rifles,others machine guns. They were the Arabmujahedin, the Arab "Afghans" denouncedby the presidents and kings of half the Arabworld and by the United States of America.Very soon, the world would know them asal-Qaida.They came from Egypt, Algeria, SaudiArabia, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait. Two of themwore spectacles, one said he was a doctor. Afew of them shook hands in a rather solemnway and greeted me in Arabic. I knew thatthese men would give their lives for BinLaden, that they thought themselvesspiritually pure in a corrupt world, thatthey were inspired and influenced bydreams which they persuaded themselves
    • came from heaven. Mohamed beckoned meto follow him and we skirted a small riverand jumped across a stream until, in theinsect-filled darkness ahead, we could see af sputtering paraffin lamp. Beside it sat atall, bearded man in Saudi robes. Osamabin Laden stood up, his two teenage sons,Omar and Saad, beside him. "Welcome toAfghanistan," he said.He was now 40 but looked much older thanat our last meeting in the Sudanese desertlate in 1993. Walking towards me, hetowered over his companions, tall, slim,with new wrinkles around those narroweyes. Leaner, his beard longer but slightlyflecked with grey, he had a black waistcoatover his white robe and a red-chequeredkuffiah on his head, and he seemed tired.When he asked after my health, I told him Ihad come a long way for this meeting. "Sohave I," he muttered. There was also anisolation about him, a detachment I had notnoticed before, as if he had been inspectinghis anger, examining the nature of hisresentment; when he smiled, his gazewould move towards his 16-year-old sonOmar - round eyes with dark brows and hisown kuffiah - and then off into the hotdarkness where his armed men werepatrolling the fields. Others were gatheringto listen to our conversation.Just 10 days before, a truck bomb had torndown part of the US Air Force housingcomplex at al-Khobar in Dhahran, SaudiArabia, and we were speaking in theshadow of the deaths of the 19 Americansoldiers killed there. US Secretary of StateWarren Christopher had visited the ruinsand promised that America would not be"swayed by violence", that the perpetratorswould be hunted down. King Fahd of SaudiArabia, who had since lapsed into a state ofdementia, had foreseen the possibility ofviolence when American military forcesarrived to "defend" his kingdom in 1990. It
    • was for this very reason that he had, on 6August that year, extracted a promise fromthen President George Bush that all UStroops would leave his country when theIraqi threat ended. But the Americans hadstayed, claiming that the continuedexistence of Saddams regime - which Bushhad chosen not to destroy - still constituteda danger to the Gulf.Osama bin Laden knew what he wanted tosay. "Not long ago, I gave advice to theAmericans to withdraw their troops fromSaudi Arabia. Now let us give some adviceto the governments of Britain and France totake their troops out - because whathappened in Riyadh and al-Khobar showedthat the people who did this have a deepunderstanding in choosing their targets.They hit their main enemy, which is theAmericans. They killed no secondaryenemies, nor their brothers in the army orthe police in Saudi Arabia ... I give thisadvice to the government of Britain." TheAmericans must leave Saudi Arabia, mustleave the Gulf. The "evils" of the MiddleEast arose from Americas attempt to takeover the region and from its support forIsrael. Saudi Arabia had been turned into"an American colony". Bin Laden wasspeaking slowly and with precision, anEgyptian taking notes in a large exercisebook by the lamplight like a Middle Agesscribe. "This doesnt mean declaring waragainst the West and Western people - butagainst the American regime which isagainst every American." I interrupted BinLaden. Unlike Arab regimes, I said, thepeople of the United States elected theirgovernment. They would say that theirgovernment represents them. Hedisregarded my comment. I hope he did.For in the years to come, his war wouldembrace the deaths of thousands ofAmerican civilians. "The explosion in al-Khobar did not come as a direct reaction tothe American occupation," he said, "but as
    • a result of American behaviour againstMuslims, its support of Jews in Palestineand of the massacres of Muslims inPalestine and Lebanon - of Sabra andChatila and Qana - and of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference."But what Bin Laden really wanted to talkabout was Saudi Arabia. Since our lastmeeting in Sudan, he said, the situation inthe kingdom had grown worse. The ulema,the religious leaders, had declared in themosques that the presence of Americantroops was not acceptable and thegovernment took action against theseulema "on the advice of the Americans."For Bin Laden, the betrayal of the Saudipeople began 24 years before his birth,when Abdul Aziz al-Saud proclaimed hiskingdom in 1932. "The regime startedunder the flag of applying Islamic law andunder this banner all the people of SaudiArabia came to help the Saudi family takepower. But Abdul Aziz did not apply Islamiclaw; the country was set up for his family.Then after the discovery of petroleum, theSaudi regime found another support - themoney to make people rich and to givethem the services and life they wanted andto make them satisfied." Bin Laden waspicking away at his teeth with that familiartwig of mishwak wood, but history - or hisversion of it - was the basis of almost all hisremarks. The Saudi royal family hadpromised sharia laws while at the sametime allowing the United States "toWesternise Saudi Arabia and drain theeconomy." He blamed the Saudi regime forspending $25bn (£14bn) in support ofSaddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and afurther US$60bn in support of the Westernarmies in the 1991 war against Iraq, "buyingmilitary equipment which is not needed oruseful for the country, buying aircraft bycredit" while at the same time creatingunemployment, high taxes and a bankrupteconomy. But for Bin Laden, the pivotal
    • date was 1990, the year Saddam invadedKuwait. "When the American troopsentered Saudi Arabia, the land of the twoHoly places, there was a strong protestfrom the ulema and from students of sharialaw all over the country against theinterference of American troops. This bigmistake by the Saudi regime of inviting theAmerican troops revealed their deception.They were giving their support to nationswhich were fighting against Muslims." BinLaden paused to see if I had listened to hiscareful if frighteningly exclusive historylesson. "The Saudi people haveremembered now what the ulema told themand they realise America is the main reasonfor their problems ... the ordinary manknows that his country is the largest oil-producer in the world yet at the same timehe is suffering from taxes and bad services.Now the people understand the speeches ofthe ulemas in the mosques - that ourcountry has become an American colony.What happened in Riyadh and al-Khobar isclear evidence of the huge anger of Saudipeople against America. The Saudis nowknow their real enemy is America." Theoverthrow of the Saudi regime and theeviction of US forces from the kingdomwere one and the same for Bin Laden. Hewas claiming that the real religiousleadership of Saudi Arabia - among whomhe clearly saw himself - was an inspirationto Saudis, that Saudis themselves woulddrive out the Americans, that Saudis -hitherto regarded as a rich and complacentpeople - might strike at the United States.Could this be true?Bin Laden sometimes stopped speaking forall of 60 seconds - he was the first Arabfigure I noticed doing this - in order toreflect on his words. Most Arabs, faced witha reporters question, would say the firstthing that came into their heads for fearthat they would appear ignorant if they didnot. Bin Laden was different. He was
    • alarming because he was possessed of thatquality which leads men to war: total self-conviction.Bin Laden had asked me - a routine of everyPalestinian under occupation - ifEuropeans did not resist occupation duringthe Second World War. I told him noEuropeans would accept this argument overSaudi Arabia - because the Nazis killedmillions of Europeans yet the Americanshad never murdered a single Saudi. Such aparallel was historically and morally wrong.Bin Laden did not agree. "We as Muslimshave a strong feeling that binds us together... We feel for our brothers in Palestine andLebanon ... When 60 Jews are killed insidePalestine" - he was talking aboutPalestinian suicide bombings in Israel - "allthe world gathers within seven days tocriticise this action, while the deaths of600,000 Iraqi children did not receive thesame reaction." It was Bin Ladens firstreference to Iraq and to the United Nationssanctions that were to result, according toUN officials themselves, in the death ofmore than half a million children. "Killingthose Iraqi children is a crusade againstIslam," Bin Laden said. "We, as Muslims,do not like the Iraqi regime but we thinkthat the Iraqi people and their children areour brothers and we care about theirfuture." It was the first time I heard himuse the word "crusade".But it was neither the first - nor the last -time that Bin Laden would distance himselffrom Saddam Husseins dictatorship. Muchgood would it do him. Five years later, theUnited States would launch an invasion ofIraq that would be partly justified by theregimes "support" for a man who sodetested it. But these were not the onlywords which Bin Laden uttered that nightto which I should have paid greaterattention. For at one point, he placed hisright hand on his chest: "I believe that
    • sooner or later the Americans will leaveSaudi Arabia and that the war declared byAmerica against the Saudi people meanswar against all Muslims everywhere," hesaid. "Resistance against America willspread in many, many places in Muslimcountries. Our trusted leaders, the ulema,have given us a fatwa that we must driveout the Americans."For some time, there had been a steadilygrowing thunderstorm to the east of BinLadens camp and we could see the brightorange flash of lightning over themountains on the Pakistan border. But BinLaden thought this might be artillery fire,the continuation of the inter-mujahedinbattles that had damaged his spirit after theanti-Soviet war. He was growing uneasy.He broke off his conversation to pray. Then,on the straw mat, several young and armedmen served dinner - plates of yoghurt andcheese and Afghan naan bread and moretea. Bin Laden sat between his sons, silent,eyes on his food.I said to Bin Laden that Afghanistan wasthe only country left to him after his exile inSudan. He agreed. "The safest place in theworld for me is Afghanistan." It was theonly place, I repeated, in which he couldcampaign against the Saudi government.Bin Laden and several of his Arab fightersburst into laughter. "There are otherplaces," he replied. Did he mean Tajikistan?I asked. Or Uzbekistan? Kazakhstan?"There are several places where we havefriends and close brothers - we can findrefuge and safety in them." I told Bin Ladenhe was already a hunted man. "Danger is apart of our life," he snapped back.He began talking to his men about amniya,security, and repeatedly looked towardsthose flashes in the sky. Now the thunderdid sound like gunfire. I tried to ask onemore question. What kind of Islamic state
    • would Bin Laden wish to see? Wouldthieves and murderers still have theirhands or heads cut off in his Islamic shariastate, just as they do in Saudi Arabia today?There came an unsatisfactory reply. "Islamis a complete religion for every detail of life.If a man is a real Muslim and commits acrime, he can only be happy if he is justlypunished. This is not cruelty. The origin ofthese punishments comes from Godthrough the Prophet Mohamed, peace beupon him." Dissident Osama bin Ladenmay be, but moderate never. I askedpermission to take his photograph, andwhile he debated this with his companions Iscribbled into my notebook the words Iwould use in the last paragraph of myreport on our meeting: "Osama bin Ladenbelieves he now represents the mostformidable enemy of the Saudi regime andof the American presence in the Gulf. Bothare probably right to regard him as such." Iwas underestimating the man.Yes, he said, I could take his picture. Iopened my camera and allowed his armedguards to watch me as I threaded a filminto the spool. I told them I refused to use aflash because it flattened the image of ahuman face and asked them to bring theparaffin lamp closer. The Egyptian scribeheld it a foot from Bin Ladens face. I toldhim to bring it closer still, to within threeinches, and I physically had to guide hisarm until the light brightened andshadowed Bin Ladens features. Thenwithout warning, Bin Laden moved hishead back and the faintest smile movedover his face, along with that self-convictionand that ghost of vanity which I found sodisturbing. He called his sons Omar andSaad and they sat beside him as I took morepictures and Bin Laden turned into theproud father, the family man, the Arab athome.Then his anxiety returned. The thunder was
    • continuous now and it was mixed with thepatter of rifle fire. I should go, he urged,and I realised that what he meant was thathe must go, that it was time for him toreturn to the fastness of Afghanistan. Whenwe shook hands, he was already looking forthe guards who would take him away.Mohamed and my driver and just two of thearmed men who had brought me to thesedamp, insect-hungry fields turned up todrive me back to the Spinghar Hotel, ajourney that proved to be full of menace.Driving across river bridges and roadintersections, we were repeatedly stoppedby armed men from the Afghan factionsthat were fighting for control of Kabul. Onewould crouch on the roadway in front ofour vehicle, screaming at us, pointing hisrifle at the windscreen, his companionsidling out of the darkness to check ourdrivers identity and wave us through."Afghanistan very difficult place,"Mohamed remarked.WITHIN NINE months, by March 1997, Iwould be back in a transformed, still moresinister Afghanistan, its people governedwith a harsh and ignorant piety that evenBin Laden could not have imagined. TheTaliban had finally vanquished 12 of the 15venal Afghan mujahedin militias in all butthe far north-eastern corner of the countryand imposed their own stark legitimacy onits people. It was a purist, Sunni Wahhabifaith whose interpretation of sharia lawrecalled the most draconian of earlyChristian prelates. Head-chopping, hand-chopping and a totally misogynistperspective were easy to associate with theTalibans hostility towards all forms ofenjoyment. The Spinghar Hotel used toboast an old television set that had nowbeen hidden in a garden shed for fear ofdestruction. Television sets, like videotapesand thieves, tended to end up hanging fromtrees. "What do you expect?" the gardenerasked me near the ruins of the old royal
    • winter palace in Jalalabad. "The Talibancame from the refugee camps. They aregiving us only what they had." And itdawned on me then that the new laws ofAfghanistan - so anachronistic and brutal tous, and to educated Afghans - were less anattempt at religious revival than acontinuation of life in the vast dirt camps inwhich so many millions of Afghans hadgathered on the borders of their countrywhen the Soviets invaded 16 years before.The Taliban gunmen had grown up asrefugees in these diseased camps inPakistan. Their first 16 years of life werepassed in blind poverty, deprived of alleducation and entertainment, imposingtheir own deadly punishments, theirmothers and sisters kept in subservience asthe men decided how to fight their foreignoppressors on the other side of the border,their only diversion a detailed andobsessive reading of the Koran - the oneand true path in a world in which no othercould be contemplated. The Taliban hadarrived not to rebuild a country they did notremember, but to rebuild their refugeecamps on a larger scale. Hence there was tobe no education. No television. Womenmust stay home, just as they stayed in theirtents in Peshawar.Did we care? At that very moment, officialsof the Union Oil Co of California Asian OilPipeline Project - Unocal - were negotiatingwith the Taliban to secure rights for apipeline to carry gas from Turkmenistan toPakistan through Afghanistan; inSeptember 1996, the US State Departmentannounced that it would open diplomaticrelations with the Taliban, only to retractthe statement later. Among Unocalsemployees were Zalmay Khalilzad - fiveyears later, he would be appointedPresident George f W Bushs special envoyto "liberated" Afghanistan - and a Pushtunleader called Hamid Karzai. No wonder
    • Afghans adopted an attitude of suspiciontowards the United States. Americas alliesoriginally supported Bin Laden against theRussians. Then the United States turnedBin Laden into their Public Enemy NumberOne - a post that was admittedly difficult toretain in the Pentagon wheel of fortune,since new monsters were constantly beingdiscovered by Washington, often in inverseproportion to its ability to capture the oldones. Now the Taliban were being courted.But for how long? Could Bin Laden, anArab whose political goals were infinitelymore ambitious than the Talibans,maintain the integrity of his exile alongsidemen who wished only to repress their ownpeople? Would the Taliban protect BinLaden any more courageously than thefailed Islamic Republic of Sudan?19 MARCH 1997. On the mountainside, themachine continued his search of themachine. We were at 5,000 feet. Lightsflashed until we turned a corner past amassive boulder and there before us in themoonlight lay a small valley. There wasgrass and trees and a stream of water thatcurled through it and a clutch of tentsunder a cliff. Two men approached. Therewere more formal Arab greetings, my righthand in both of theirs. Trust us. That wasalways the intention of these greetings. AnAlgerian and an Egyptian, they invited meto tour this little valley.We washed our hands in the stream andwalked over the stiff grass towards a darkgash in the cliff face above us. As my eyesbecame accustomed to the light, I couldmake out a vast rectangle in the side of themountain, a 6m-high air-raid shelter cutinto the rock by Bin Ladens men during theRussian war. I walked into this man-madecave, the Algerian holding a torch, until Icould hear my own crunching footstepsechoing softly from the depths of thetunnel. When we emerged, the moon was
    • almost dazzling, the valley bathed in itswhite light, another little paradise of treesand water and mountain peaks.The tent I was taken to was military issue, akhaki tarpaulin roped to iron stakes, a flapas an entrance, a set of stained mattresseson the floor. There was tea in a large steelpot and I sat with the Egyptian andAlgerian and with three other men who hadentered the tent with Kalashnikovs. Wewaited for perhaps half an hour.There was a sudden scratching of voicesoutside the tent, thin and urgent like thesoundtrack of an old movie. Then the flapsnapped up and Bin Laden walked in,dressed in a turban and green robes. I stoodup, half bent under the canvas, and weshook hands, both of us forced by thetarpaulin that touched our heads to greeteach other like Ottoman pashas, bowed andlooking up into the others face. Again, helooked tired, and I had noticed a slight limpwhen he walked into the tent. His beardwas greyer, his face thinner than Iremembered it. Yet he was all smiles,almost jovial, placing the rifle which he hadcarried into the tent on the mattress to hisleft, insisting on more tea for his guest. Forseveral seconds he looked at the ground.Then he looked at me with an even biggersmile, beneficent and, I thought at once,very disturbing."Mr Robert," he began, and he lookedaround at the other men in combat jacketsand soft brown hats who had crowded intothe tent. "Mr Robert, one of our brothershad a dream. He dreamed that you came tous one day on a horse, that you had a beardand that you were a spiritual person. Youwore a robe like us. This means you are atrue Muslim." This was terrifying. It wasone of the most fearful moments of my life.I understood Bin Ladens meaning a splitsecond in front of each of his words.
    • Dream. Horse. Beard. Spiritual. Robe.Muslim. The other men in the tent were allnodding and looking at me, some smiling,others silently staring at the Englishmanwho had appeared in the dream of the"brother." I was appalled. It was both a trapand an invitation, and the most dangerousmoment to be among the most dangerousmen in the world. I could not reject the"dream" lest I suggest Bin Laden was lying.Yet I could not accept its meaning withoutmyself lying, without suggesting that whatwas clearly intended of me - that I shouldaccept this "dream" as a prophecy and adivine instruction - might be fulfilled. Forthis man to trust me, a foreigner, to come tothem without prejudice, that was one thing.But to imagine that I would join them intheir struggle, that I would become onewith them, was beyond any possibility. Thecoven was waiting for a reply.Was I imagining this? Could this not be justan elaborate, rhetorical way of expressingtraditional respect towards a visitor? Wasthis not merely the attempt of a Muslim togain an adherent to the faith? Was BinLaden really trying - let us be frank - torecruit me? I feared he was. And Iimmediately understood what this mightmean. A Westerner, a white man fromEngland, a journalist on a respectablenewspaper - not a British convert to Islamof Arab or Asian origin - would be a catchindeed. He would go unsuspected, he couldbecome a government official, join an army,even - as I would contemplate just over fouryears later - learn to fly an airliner. I had toget out of this, quickly, and I was trying tofind an intellectual escape tunnel, workingso hard in digging it that my brain was onfire."Sheikh Osama," I began, even before I haddecided on my next words. "Sheikh Osama,I am not a Muslim." There was silence inthe tent. "I am a journalist." No one could
    • dispute that. "And the job of a journalist isto tell the truth." No one would want todispute that. "And that is what I intend todo in my life - to tell the truth." Bin Ladenwas watching me like a hawk. And heunderstood. I was declining the offer. Infront of his men, it was now Bin Ladensturn to withdraw, to cover his retreatgracefully. "If you tell the truth, that meansyou are a good Muslim," he said. The menin the tent in their combat jackets andbeards all nodded at this sagacity. BinLaden smiled. I was saved. As the old clichégoes, I "breathed again". No deal.Perhaps it was out of the need to curtail thisepisode, to cover his embarrassment at thislittle failure, that Bin Laden suddenly andmelodramatically noticed the school satchellying beside my camera and the Lebanesenewspapers partially visible inside. Heseized upon them. He must read them atonce. And in front of us all, he clamberedacross the tent with the papers in his handto where the paraffin lamp was hissing inthe corner. And there, for half an hour,ignoring almost all of us, he read his waythrough the Arabic press, sometimessummoning the Egyptian to read an article,at others showing a paper to one of theother gunmen in the tent. Was this really, Ibegan to wonder, the centre of "worldterror"? Listening to the spokesman at theUS State Department, reading the editorialsin The New York Times or The WashingtonPost, I might have been forgiven forbelieving that Bin Laden ran his "terrornetwork" from a state-of-the-art bunker ofcomputers and digitalised battle plans,flicking a switch to instruct his followers toassault another Western target. But thisman seemed divorced from the outsideworld. Did he not have a radio? Atelevision?When he returned to his place in the cornerof the tent, Bin Laden was businesslike. He
    • warned the Americans of a renewedonslaught against their forces in SaudiArabia. "We are still at the beginning ofmilitary action against them," he said. "Butwe have removed the psychological obstacleagainst fighting the Americans ... This is thefirst time in 14 centuries that the two holyshrines are occupied by non-Islamic forces..." He insisted that the Americans were inthe Gulf for oil and embarked on a modernhistory of the region to prove this."Brezhnev wanted to reach the HormuzStrait across Afghanistan for this reason,but by the grace of Allah and the jihad hewas not only defeated in Afghanistan butwas finished here. We carried our weaponson our shoulders here for 10 years, and weand the sons of the Islamic world areprepared to carry weapons for the rest ofour lives. But despite this, oil is not thedirect impetus for the Americans occupyingthe region - they obtained oil at attractiveprices before their invasion. There are otherreasons, primarily the American-Zionistalliance, which is filled with fear at thepower of Islam and of the land of Meccaand Medina. It fears that an Islamic frenaissance will drown Israel. We areconvinced that we shall kill the Jews inPalestine. We are convinced that withAllahs help, we shall triumph against theAmerican forces. Its only a matter ofnumbers and time. For them to claim thatthey are protecting Arabia from Iraq isuntrue - the whole issue of Saddam is atrick."There was something new getting loosehere. Condemning Israel was standard farefor any Arab nationalist, let alone a manwho believed he was participating in anIslamic jihad. But Bin Laden was nowcombining America and Israel as a singlecountry - "For us," he said later, "there is nodifference between the American andIsraeli governments or between the
    • American and Israeli soldiers" - and wastalking of Jews, rather than Israeli soldiers,as his targets. How soon before allWesterners, all those from "Crusadernations", were added to the list? He took nocredit for the bombings in Riyadh and al-Khobar but praised the four men who hadbeen accused of setting off the explosions,two of whom he admitted he had met. "Iview those who did these bombings withgreat respect," he said. "I consider it a greatact and a major honour in which I missedthe opportunity of participating." But BinLaden was also anxious to show the supportfor his cause which he claimed was nowgrowing in Pakistan. He producednewspaper clippings recording the sermonsof Pakistani clerics who had condemnedAmericas presence in Saudi Arabia andthen thrust into my hands two largecoloured photographs of graffiti spray-painted on walls in Karachi.In red paint, one said: "American Forces,get out of the Gulf - The United MilitantUlemas." Another, painted in brown,announced that "America is the biggestenemy of the Muslim world." A large posterthat Bin Laden handed to me appeared tobe from the same hand with similar anti-American sentiment uttered by mawlawi -religious scholars - in the Pakistani city ofLahore. As for the Taliban and their new,oppressive regime, Bin Laden had littleoption but to be pragmatic. "All Islamiccountries are my country," he said. "Webelieve that the Taliban are sincere in theirattempts to enforce Islamic sharia law. Wesaw the situation before they came andafterwards and have noticed a greatdifference and an obvious improvement."But when he returned to his mostimportant struggle - against the UnitedStates - Bin Laden seemed possessed.When he spoke of this, his followers in thetent hung upon his every word as if he wasa messiah. He had, he said, sent faxes to
    • King Fahd and all main departments of theSaudi government, informing them of hisdetermination to pursue a holy struggleagainst the United States. He even claimedthat some members of the Saudi royalfamily supported him, along with officers inthe security services - a claim I laterdiscovered to be true. But declaring war byfax was a new innovation and there was aneccentricity about Bin Ladens perspectiveon American politics.But this was a mere distraction from a farmore serious threat. "We think that ourstruggle against America will be muchsimpler than that against the Soviet Union,"Bin Laden said. "I will tell you somethingfor the first time. Some of our mujahedinwho fought in Afghanistan participated inoperations against the Americans inSomalia and they were surprised at thecollapse in American military morale. Weregard America as a paper tiger." This was astrategic error of some scale. The Americanretreat from its state-building mission inSomalia under President Clinton was notgoing to be repeated if a Republicanpresident came to power, especially if theUnited States was under attack. True, overthe years, the same loss of will might creepback into American military policy - Iraqwould see to that - but Washington,whatever Bin Laden might think, was goingto be a far more serious adversary thanMoscow. Yet he persisted. And I shallalways remember Osama bin Ladens lastwords to me that night on the baremountain: "Mr Robert," he said, "from thismountain upon which you are sitting, webroke the Russian army and we destroyedthe Soviet Union. And I pray to God that hewill permit us to turn the United States intoa shadow of itself." I sat in silence, thinkingabout these words as Bin Laden discussedmy journey back to Jalalabad with hisguards. He was concerned that the Taliban- despite their "sincerity" - might object to
    • his dispatching a foreigner through theircheckpoints after dark, and so I was invitedto pass the night in Bin Ladens mountaincamp. I was permitted to take just threephotographs of him, this time by the lightof the Toyota which was driven to the tentwith its headlights shining through thecanvas to illuminate Bin Ladens face. Hesat in front of me, expressionless, a stonefigure, and in the pictures I developed inBeirut three days later he was a purple andyellow ghost. He said goodbye withoutmuch ceremony, a brief handshake and anod, and vanished from the tent and I laydown on the mattress with my coat over meto keep warm. The men with their gunssitting around slept there too, while othersarmed with rifles and rocket-launcherspatrolled the low ridges around the camp.In the years to come, I would wonder whothey were. Was the Egyptian Mohamed Attaamong those young men in the tent? Or anyother of the 19 men whose names we wouldall come to know just over four years later?I cannot remember their faces now, cowledas they were, many of them, in theirscarves.Exhaustion and cold kept me awake. "Ashadow of itself" was the expression thatkept repeating itself to me. What did BinLaden and these dedicated, ruthless menhave in store for us? I recall the next fewhours like a freeze-frame film; waking socold there was ice in my hair, slitheringback down the mountain trail in the Toyotawith one of the Algerian gunmen in theback telling me that if we were in Algeria hewould cut my throat but that he was underBin Ladens orders to protect me and thuswould give his life for me. The three men inthe back and my driver stopped the 4x4 onthe broken-up Kabul-Jalalabad highway tosay their dawn fajr prayers. Beside thebroad estuary of the Kabul river, theyspread their mats and knelt as the sun rose
    • over the mountains. Far to the north-east, Icould see the heights of the Hindu Kushglimmering white under a pale blue sky,touching the border of China that nuzzledinto the wreckage of a land that was toendure yet more suffering in the comingyears.Most of all I remember the first minutesafter our departure from Bin Ladens camp.It was still dark when I caught sight of agreat light in the mountains to the north.For a while I thought it was the headlightsof another vehicle, another security signalfrom the camp guards to our departingToyota. But it hung there for many minutesand I began to realise that it was burningabove the mountains and carried a faintlyincandescent trail. The men in the vehiclewere watching it too. "It is Halleys comet,"one of them said. He was wrong. It was anewly discovered comet, noticed for thefirst time only two years earlier byAmericans Alan Hale and Tom Bopp, but Icould see how Hale-Bopp had becomeHalley to these Arab men in the mountainsof Afghanistan. It was soaring above usnow, trailing a golden tail, a sublime powermoving at 70,000km an hour through theheavens.So we stopped the Toyota and climbed outto watch the fireball as it blazed through thedarkness above us, the al-Qaida men andthe Englishman, all filled with awe at thisspectacular, wondrous apparition of cosmicenergy, unseen for more than 4,000 years."Mr Robert, do you know what they saywhen a comet like this is seen?" It was theAlgerian, standing next to me now, both ofus craning our necks up towards the sky. "Itmeans that there is going to be a great war."And so we watched the fire blaze throughthe pageant of stars and illuminate thefirmament above us.
    • ==========================Extracted from The Great War forCivilisation: the Conquest of the MiddleEast by Robert Fisk, to be published by 4thEstate on Monday, £25. To buy the book atthe special price of £22.50, including p&p,call Independent Books Direct on 08700798897, or visitwww.independentbooksdirect.co.uk - Readmore exclusive extracts from The GreatWar for Civilisation tomorrow in TheIndependent on Sunday and all next weekin The Independent