Bin Laden, the inside story

Print edition : October 27, 2017

May 1, 2011: President Barack Obama (second, left) and Vice President Joe Biden (right), along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House. Photo: REUTERS

Ayman al-Zawahiri with Osama bin Laden at Khost, Afghanistan, in 1998. Photo: AP

The book, backed by relentless research, brings out the actions that led to the killing of the Al Qaeda leader.

HISTORY has seen a fair share of injustice and suffering. As Eduardo Galeano says: “We make the history that makes us.” Two wars and the rise of fascism scarring the deep-seated liberal philosophy prevailing in Europe has brought us to the juncture of a violent beginning of the 21st century. The bleak past cannot be treated as dead weight and must alert us to the scourge of military intervention in the era of nationalism and the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or I.S.).

Jehadist terrorism is here to stay and the Al Qaeda central leadership consisting of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden’s son and heir, Hamza bin Laden, is relentless in its design of destroying the West. Although bin Laden is dead, the resurgence of Al Qaeda has been rapid. From Al Qaeda’s founding in 1988 to bin Laden’s death in May 2011, Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy focus on the life and times of bin Laden in The Exile, marshalling facts about the history of the jehadi movement as a fallout of the Iraq invasion with a sharp insight into the unyielding results of U.S. torture and the working of Iranian and Pakistani intelligence in offering refuge to Al Qaeda militants. Theirs is a history written from below, questioning the elitist accounts of Western analysts and their biased ideology.

How far this account is “true” can only be conjectured as scepticism remains the underlying response to historical writings, an exercise that cannot be exempt from the ideological postures of the writer.

Nevertheless, the authors tell the inside story with a gripping account of their meetings with bin Laden’s wives, sons, his friends and security chiefs, and religious and media advisers during their travels across West Asia. The stories are retold here by men and women who had “nothing to lose but lots to prove”. Their narration is corroborated by evidence obtained through emails, videos and photo albums. Out of this evidence comes the narratives of the experience of bin Laden’s followers, al Qaeda’s concealments and ducking strategies, drone assaults and, finally, the dramatic raid on the Abbottabad hideout.

What was released to the world, the authors allege, was an untruthful picture of the fall of bin Laden. In a powerful piece entitled “Osama bin Laden, a Lion in Winter” that appeared in The Washington Post, David Ignatius spoke of the fragmentation of Al Qaeda, the greying of bin Laden watching his TV and gradually “becoming delusional and impotent and his organisation getting defunct”. Added to this was the release of the film Zero Dark Thirty, a collaboration between Washington and Hollywood that succeeded in driving home the message of U.S. heroism depicted in the courage of the Seals. The film apparently is an attempt to establish the legitimacy of the use of torture to extract information.

Torture, filmed in the movie, seems to be the reason behind the discovery of the Abbottabad location, thereby establishing the legitimacy of U.S.’ use of pain to extract information. However, what led to the success was not torture but “the dogged detective work” and the quest of the White House and the Pentagon to “aggressively pursue those who broke the real stories”. And more than anything, it was Barack Obama’s re-election to the White House for a second term that compelled him to go for bin Laden.

The book, therefore, candidly and with relentless research, brings the details that uncovered a bloody period of history that has changed the very culture of the world. Being in exile was not really what bin Laden and his family had opted for.

Flushed out of the Tora Bora caves, part of the White Mountains (Safed Koh) of eastern Afghanistan, they were on the run with the U.S. war machinery in hot pursuit: “The women pinned up woollen rugs as insulation and plumped thin foam mattresses with old clothes, inspecting the bedding for scorpions and snakes. Narrow alleys that connected the apartments to a tin toilet outhouse were swilled out, and in the rudimentary kitchen area someone fixed the water pump and got an old generator running.... At night they huddled under a blanket with a Kalashnikov and a stash of grenades, wondering what would befall those friends and family left behind in the cities.” And the children entertained themselves by brandishing guns or listening to Madonna on their father’s transistor while the wives “improvised spaghetti Bolognese—tomato puree mixed with a packet of Maggi noodles”.

Osama bin Laden, interestingly, faced a schism among his family members and followers: “There were many missing faces; the ones bin Laden had hoped would share this moment with him. But most of Al Qaeda’s leadership had rejected the Planes Operation as an off-the-books project, planned and executed almost entirely by brothers who were not in the outfit.”

One of his wives along with his eldest son departed, desiring a more peaceful life. Many of his soldiers and advisers stood up against the attack on the Twin Towers. But he had succeeded in carrying out the attack and was now on the run, with the U.S. forces hounding him. George Bush delayed bin Laden’s capture owing to the political designs of the U.S. foreign policy that envisioned a continued involvement in West Asia. And Obama successfully won his second term in the White House with his success at Abbottabad while the world continues in the throes of fierce upheavals and the appalling rise of the I.S. The long history of genocide from the arrival of Columbus on American soil five centuries ago to the massacre at the Twin Towers cannot be ignored. It cannot be disregarded because history repeats itself in extreme human responses and the barbarism of the state remains no different from the savagery of fundamentalists.

A new epoch began with the 9/11 massacre. As bin Laden joyfully remarked to his family members up in the mountains on that historic day: “We are not writing our history. But America will and many times over. What it will say—regardless—is that we all did this. Everyone associated with this… will be condemned… but a time will come when we will write our own version.” His dream of rewriting history, of detailing triumphs and tragedies, ended in Abbottabad, but a new chapter in human history had already been written.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor