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The Osama bin Laden I knew

Last updated on: May 2, 2011 23:42 IST

Image: Osama bin Laden
Photographs: Reuters
Pakistani journalist and contributor Hamid Mir interviewed Osama bin Laden thrice.

Mir, who works for Pakistan's Geo TV network, was the only journalist to interview bin Laden after 9/11.

Hamid Mir, who is writing bin Laden's biography, reveals what the world's most wanted terrorist was really like.

"I was the son of a rich father, I could have spent my life luxuriously in Europe and America, like many other wealthy Saudis. Instead I took up arms and headed for the mountains of Afghanistan. Was it personal interest that drove me to spend each moment of my life in the shadow of death? No!"

"I was merely discharging a religious obligation by waging jihad against those who attacked Muslims. It does not matter if I die in the course of fulfilling this responsibility. My death and the death of others like me will one day awaken millions of Muslims from their apathy."

Osama bin Laden told me this one morning in March 1997 in the caves of the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan. I was the first Pakistani journalist to interview bin Laden.

In May 1998 I interviewed him a second time in a hideout near Kandahar airport, Afghanistan, for many hours. He mentioned his possible death again and again to me in that long conversation and said, "Yes I know my enemy is very powerful, but let me assure you, they can kill me, but they cannot arrest me alive."

I received his messenger a few hours after the 9/11 attacks and he praised all those who conducted those attacks, but he never accepted the responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. It confused me. I tried to meet him again. I took the risk of entering Afghanistan in November 2001 when American warplanes were targeting Al Qaeda and the Taliban from Jalalabad to Kabul.

I was lucky and met him a third time on the morning of November 8, 2001. I was the first and only journalist to interview him after 9/11. Intense bombing was going on inside and outside the city of Kabul. He welcomed me with a smile and said, "I told you the last time that the enemy can kill me, but they cannot capture me alive. I am still alive."

After the interview he again said, "Mark my words Hamid Mir, they can kill me anytime, but they cannot capture me alive. They can claim victory only if they get me alive but if they just capture my dead body, it will be a defeat."

"The war against the Americans will not be over even after my death. I will fight till the last bullet in my gun. Martyrdom is my biggest dream and my martyrdom will create more Osama bin Ladens."

He missed capture and death four times

Image: Osama's mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan
Photographs: Faisal Mahmood/Reuters
Osama bin Laden fulfilled his promise which he repeated to me many times. He never surrendered. US President Barack Obama finally announced his death on Sunday night.

His death is the biggest news of 2011 for the Americans, but his sympathisers were satisfied that bin Laden was not captured alive. The Americans would have humiliated him like they did Saddam Hussain.

For me it was a great surprise that the World's Most Wanted Man was hiding in the Pakistan city of Abbotabad where the Pakistan Military Academy is located. This is the same area where the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence, conducted a search operation to arrest Aby Faraj al Libbi in 2004, but bin Laden's son-in-law escaped to Mardan where he was captured by the ISI after a few weeks.

It is learnt that the Americans conducted the operation without informing their Pakistani counterparts. Two American Chinook helicopters entered Pakistani territory from eastern Afghanistan. Pakistani government sources claim, "We were unaware because the Americans jammed our radar system."

On the other hand, highly placed responsible sources in the Pakistan government confirmed that Pakistan shared very important information about bin Laden in May 2010 with America's Central Intelligence Agency.

The Pakistani security forces intercepted a phone call made by some Arabs from an area between Taxila and Abbotabad. The CIA was informed in August 2010 about the possible presence of an important Al Qaeda leader in the area between Taxila and Abbotabad.

According to my knowledge he escaped death at least four times after 9/11, but was hunted down a fifth time.

When a woman spied on bin Laden

Image: Osama bin Laden on the FBI's Most Wanted Web site
Photographs: Reuters
Sometimes he dodged the world's most sophisticated satellite systems and dangerous missiles by his own cleverness. At other times it was only luck which saved him from enemy strikes with minutes to spare.

US air strikes were lauched against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on October 7, 2001. Osama bin Laden was spotted along with Dr Ayman al-Zawahri (Al Qaeda's number two) on November 8, 2001 in Kabul. They had traveled to Kabul from Jalalabad to attend an Al Qaeda meeting, but also to pay tribute to their Uzbek comrade, Jummah Khan Namangani, who died in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, on November 6, 2001.

I was granted an interview by the World's Most Wanted Man that same day in Kabul. I was not allowed to use my camera to take any pictures of bin Laden. One of his sons, Abdul Rehman, took my picture with his father and with Dr al-Zawahri. Abdul Rehman used his own camera and gave me the film.

Despite these security measures, a lady spy noticed the unusual movement of many important Arabs in Kabul.

I remember the incident that occurred when I was having tea with bin Laden and Dr al-Zawahri after my interview. Bin Laden reminded me that this was the third interview he had granted me. He told me I had made some mistakes in the translation in the article published after my first interview in 1997, but added that he had found no evidence of any misrepresentation.

He was hopeful, he said, that I would not misrepresent him in this interview. More than 20 Al Qaeda leaders were present in the small room, drinking tea. Most of them were of the view that the US-backed Northern Alliance was moving close to Kabul due to the support of Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, who was providing the Americans air bases in Pakistan.

Suddenly, an Arab Al Qaeda fighter entered the room and informed his leaders that they had arrested a woman in a blue burqa a few metres away from where we met. She had been spying under the cover of posing as a beggar. She begged money from the Al Qaeda guards posted outside the location where I was interviewing bin Laden. One guard noticed she seemed more interested in watching him than in begging.

This Al Qaeda fighter started observing her movements. He soon caught her red-handed when she was overheard talking to someone about 'Sheikh' on a Turaya satellite telephone. This news was broken to the meeting in Arabic. I understood the gist.

Bin Laden immediately ordered one of his associates that his guest (me) must not be harmed. The associate, whose name was Muhammad, told me he would take me to Jalalabad.

In the ensuing rush, I said goodbye to bin Laden and left with Muhammad in a car. We were arrested by some Taliban guards outside Kabul because I did not have a beard. I also had a camera in my possession.

Muhammad did not inform the Taliban that he was from Al Qaeda. Instead, he told them that he worked for Afghan Interior Minister Mullah Abdur Razzaq. The Taliban verified this information from the minister and released us after three hours.

Bin Laden did not believe in suicide

Image: Al Qaeda figures Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (top), Walid Bin Attash, (2nd from top), Ramzi Bin al Shib
Photographs: Janet Hamlin/Reuters
It was late in the evening when we arrived in Jalalabad. Muhammad dropped me to a big house and disappeared. He returned after two hours with some startling news. He claimed the location in Kabul where I met his 'Sheikh' had been bombed just 15 minutes after our departure. Luckily, the 'Sheikh' and the others had left immediately after we departed and nobody was harmed.

Muhammad told me with a smile: "Brother, you missed martyrdom with us." I was unaware of the exact location of the interview. Muhammad told me it was in the Weir Akbar Khan area of Kabul, where I had met the World's Most Wanted Man.

I spent that night in Jalalabad, surviving intense US bombing. The next morning, Muhammad bid me goodbye and I left for Pakistan by road. We were to meet again in 2004 in Kunar when I was covering the presidential election in Afghanistan.

It was then that he told me the story of how he and his 'Sheikh' had survived the US air force's carpet-bombing in the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan.

It wasn't until the third week of December 2001 that bin Laden and his fighters broke the circle created by the Americans with the help of Haji Zahir, Haji Zaman and Hazrat Ali. Al Qaeda's strategy sometimes resembles that of the hunted in Hollwyood's Western movies.

A huge number of Al Qaeda fighters entered the Kurram tribal area of Pakistan from Tora Bora -- but bin Laden headed off in a different direction with a small group. Muhammad was part of that group. Some Chechen and Saudi fighters provided them cover of gunfire and they walked the whole night towards the safety of Paktia.

A top Afghan security official, Lutfullah Mashal, confirmed to me later that bin Laden escaped to Paktia from Tora Bora in December 2001. Mashal followed him secretly. He claimed that bin Laden entered North Waziristan from Paktia. He spent some time there in the Shawal area and then moved to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, to the province of Khost.

Mashal now works with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and he is sure that the Americans missed capturing bin Laden in Tora Bora because they were not ready to deploy their own forces on the ground.

The Americans depended on a Northern Alliance commander, Hazrat Ali, who betrayed them. According to highly reliable Afghan sources, Hazrat Ali provided safe passage to Al Qaeda fighters after getting plenty of money from them.

Bin Laden stayed underground throughout 2002. He and his colleagues were always on the run. They kept changing their hideouts, again and again. They were determined to save their lives, and because of that, they were not fighting the Americans.

In April 2003 bin Laden surfaced in Afghanistan after the US invasion of Iraq. He called a meeting in the Pech valley in Kunar province and delivered a hard-hitting speech, in which he announced his plans to resist America in Iraq.

'Get the Americans in Iraq before they get us in Afghanistan,' he said and declared that Saif ul Adil would be in charge of organising the resistance in Iraq. He advised ul Adil to contact Musab al Zarqawi, who was hiding in Iran at the time.

Bin Laden started addressing small gatherings of his comrades in Kunar, as well as in Paktia. One of his daughters-in-law died during childbirth in the Kunar mountains.

There was a big gathering at the funeral of his daughter-in-law. Afghans who found about the death started visiting the homes of some Al Qaeda fighters who had married women from Kunar. News of these events reached the Americans who launched an operation in Kunar. Once again bin Laden escaped to southern Afghanistan before the bombing started in the Pech valley.

In late 2004 bin Laden found himself surrounded by British troops in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. He had been hiding in a mountain area with three defence lines.

Highly placed diplomatic sources informed me recently in Kabul that the British forces were very close to capturing bin Laden dead or alive. He was besieged for more than 24 hours, dodging one of the world's best equipped armies, escaping with his life yet again.

According to details gathered from some Taliban sources in Helmand, the British forces broke two Al Qaeda defence lines in an area of five kilometres.

Hand-to-hand combat was about to commence, but darkness descended. The night provided some welcome relief to Al Qaeda. Bin Laden wanted to fight on the frontline, but his colleagues stopped him from doing so. Hot words were exchanged. Bin Laden was angry, but Abu Hamza Al Jazeeri convinced him to escape.

Al Qaeda placed many rockets with timers, aimed in two different directions, as a deception. They decided to break the enemy encirclement, heading in a third direction with a group of fighters on foot. That group provided bin Laden cover. Most of the fighters lost their lives, but the escape plan succeeded.

Bin Laden slipped from British hands with Al Jazeeri and some other fighters. My sources denied reports that bin Laden had ordered his guards to shoot him if he were near capture.

The Al Qaeda sources claimed that bin Laden did not believe in suicide. It was easier for him to sacrifice his life in battle against the enemy till the last bullet and the last drop of his blood had been spent.

'The Americans dragged my father's body'

Image: Osama bin Laden's death is celebrated in New York's Times Square
Photographs: Chip East/Reuters
After that escape he was very careful. He stopped moving around in Afghanistan and chose Pakistan's tribal areas to lead an underground life. His large family was scattered after 9/11. Some of his children moved to Iran. One son reportedly spent time in Karachi.

No one expected that Osama bin Laden would be cornered in Abbotabad. He was hiding in Abbotabad with one of his wives, son and daughter.

When the Americans attacked his hideout he immediately started fighting. His wife received a bullet injury in her foot. According to his injured wife, Osama rushed to the rooftop and joined his guards who were resisting the attack.

His 10-year-old daughter Safia watched the American commandos entering the house. They took away her father's body. She confirmed later that 'The Americans had dragged my father's body through the stairs.'

Osama bin Laden is dead, but Al Qaeda and its allies are not dead. Bin Laden always exploited flaws in American policies. His real strength was hatred against America; Islam was never ever his real strength.

Physical elimination of Osama bin Laden is only big news for the Americans, but many people outside America want the elimination of the policies which may produce more bin Ladens.

America came to Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden. No doubt he was responsible for the killing of many innocent people, but the Americans cannot justify the killing of innocent people through their drone attacks just because Osama killed some innocents.

Both Osama bin Laden and the Americans violated the sovereignty of Pakistan. It must stop now. Osama is dead. If America does not leave Afghanistan after his death, then this war will not end soon. The world will remain an unsafe place.