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“One of Our Brothers Had a Dream . . . ”
"They combine a mad love of country with an equally mad indifference to life, their own as well as others. They are cunning, unscrupulous, and inspired."—“Stephen Fisher” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940)
I knew it would be like this. On 19 March 1997, outside the Spinghar Hotel in Jalalabad with its manicured lawns and pink roses, an Afghan holding a Kalashnikov rifle invited me to travel in a car out of town. The highway to Kabul that evening was no longer a road but a mass of rocks and crevasses above the roaring waters of a great river. A vast mountain chain towered above us. The Afghan smiled at me occasionally but did not talk. I knew what his smile was supposed to say. Trust me. But I didn’t. I smiled back the rictus of false friendship. Unless I saw a man I recognised—an Arab rather than an Afghan—I would watch this road for traps, checkpoints, gunmen who were there to no apparent purpose. Even inside the car, I could hear the river as it sloshed through gulleys and across wide shoals of grey stones and poured over the edge of cliffs. Trust Me steered the car carefully around the boulders and I admired the way his bare left foot eased the clutch of the vehicle up and down as a man might gently urge a horse to clamber over a rock.
A benevolent white dust covered the windscreen, and when the wipers cleared it the desolation took on a hard, unforgiving, dun-coloured uniformity. The track must have looked like this, I thought to myself, when Major-General William Elphinstone led his British army to disaster more than 150 years ago. The Afghans had annihilated one of the greatest armies of the British empire on this very stretch of road, and high above me were villages where old men still remembered the stories of great-grandfathers who had seen the English die in their thousands. The stones of Gandamak, they claim, were made black by the blood of the English dead. The year 1842 marked one of the greatest defeats of British arms. No wonder we preferred to forget the First Afghan War. But Afghans don’t forget. “Farangiano,” the driver shouted and pointed down into the gorge and grinned at me. “Foreigners.” “Angrezi.” “English.” “Jang.” “War.” Yes, I got the point. “Irlanda,” I replied in Arabic. “Ana min Irlanda.” I am from Ireland. Even if he understood me, it was a lie. Educated in Ireland I was, but in my pocket was a small black British passport in which His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs required in the name of Her Majesty that I should be allowed “to pass freely without let or hindrance” on this perilous journey. A teenage Taliban had looked at my passport at Jalalabad airport two days earlier, a boy soldier of maybe fourteen who held the document upside down, stared at it and clucked his tongue and shook his head in disapproval.
It had grown dark and we were climbing, overtaking trucks and rows of camels, the beasts turning their heads towards our lights in the gloom. We careered past them and I could see the condensation of their breath floating over the road. Their huge feet were picking out the rocks with infinite care and their eyes, when they caught the light, looked like dolls’ eyes. Two hours later, we stopped on a stony hillside and, after a few minutes, a pick-up truck came bouncing down the rough shale of the mountain.
An Arab in Afghan clothes came towards the car. I recognised him at once from our last meeting in a ruined village. “I am sorry, Mr. Robert, but I must give you the first search,” he said, prowling through my camera bag and newspapers. And so we set off up the track that Osama bin Laden built during his jihad against the Russian army in the early 1980s, a terrifying, slithering, two-hour odyssey along fearful ravines in rain and sleet, the windscreen misting as we climbed the cold mountain. “When you believe in jihad, it is easy,” he said, fighting with the steering wheel as stones scuttered from the tyres, tumbling down the precipice into the clouds below. From time to time, lights winked at us from far away in the darkness. “Our brothers are letting us know they see us,” he said.
After an hour, two armed Arabs—one with his face covered in a kuffiah scarf, eyes peering at us through spectacles, holding an anti-tank rocket-launcher over his right shoulder—came screaming from behind two 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. He pulled a metal detector from the pocket of his combat jacket, the red light flicking over my body in another search. The road grew worse as we continued, the jeep skidding backwards towards sheer cliffs, the headlights playing across the chasms on either side. “Toyota is good for jihad,” my driver said. I could only agree, noting that this was one advertising logo the Toyota company would probably forgo.
There was moonlight now and I could see clouds both below us in the ravines and above us, curling round mountaintops, our headlights shining on frozen waterfalls and ice-covered pools. Osama bin Laden knew how to build his wartime roads; many an ammunition truck and tank had ground its way up here during the titanic struggle against the Russian army. Now the man who led those guerrillas—the first Arab fighter in the battle against Moscow—was back again in the mountains he knew. There were more Arab checkpoints, more shrieked orders to halt. One very tall man in combat uniform and wearing shades carefully patted my shoulders, body, legs and looked into my face. Salaam aleikum, I said. Peace be upon you. Every Arab I had ever met replied Aleikum salaam to this greeting. But not this one. There was something cold about this man. Osama bin Laden had invited me to meet him in Afghanistan, but this was a warrior without the minimum courtesy. He was a machine, checking out another machine.
It had not always been this way. Indeed, the first time I met Osama bin Laden, the way could not have been easier. Back in December 1993, I had been covering an Islamic summit in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum when a Saudi journalist friend of mine, Jamal Kashoggi, walked up to me in the lobby of my hotel. Kashoggi, a tall, slightly portly man in a long white dishdash robe, led me by the shoulder outside the hotel. “There is someone I think you should meet,” he said. Kashoggi is a sincere believer—woe betide anyone who regards his round spectacles and roguish sense of humour as a sign of spiritual laxity—and I guessed at once to whom he was referring. Kashoggi had visited bin Laden in Afghanistan during his war against the Russian army. “He has never met a Western reporter before,” he announced. “This will be interesting.” Kashoggi was indulging in a little applied psychology. He wanted to know how bin Laden would respond to an infidel. So did I.
Bin Laden’s story was as instructive as it was epic. When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Saudi royal family—encouraged by the CIA—sought to provide the Afghans with an Arab legion, preferably led by a Saudi prince, who would lead a guerrilla force against the Russians. Not only would he disprove the popularly held and all too accurate belief that the Saudi leadership was effete and corrupt, he could re-establish the honourable tradition of the Gulf Arab warrior, heedless of his own life in defending the umma, the community of Islam. True to form, the Saudi princes declined this noble mission. Bin Laden, infuriated at both their cowardice and the humiliation of the Afghan Muslims at the hands of the Soviets, took their place and, with money and machinery from his own construction company, set off on his own personal jihad.
A billionaire businessman and himself a Saudi, albeit of humbler Yemeni descent, in the coming years he would be idolised by both Saudis and millions of other Arabs, the stuff of Arab schoolboy legend from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Not since the British glorified Lawrence of Arabia had an adventurer been portrayed in so heroic, so influential a role. Egyptians, Saudis, Yemenis, Kuwaitis, Algerians, Syrians and Palestinians made their way to the Pakistani border city of Peshawar to fight alongside bin Laden. But when the Afghan mujahedin guerrillas and bin Laden’s Arab legion had driven the Soviets from Afghanistan, the Afghans turned upon each other with wolflike and tribal venom. Sickened by this perversion of Islam—original dissension within the umma led to the division of Sunni and Shia Muslims—bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia.
But his journey of spiritual bitterness was not over. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, bin Laden once more offered his services to the Saudi royal family. They did not need to invite the United States to protect the place of the two holiest shrines of Islam, he argued. Mecca and Medina, the cities in which the Prophet Mohamed received and recited God’s message, should be defended only by Muslims. Bin Laden would lead his “Afghans,” his Arab mujahedin, against the Iraqi army inside Kuwait and drive them from the emirate. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia preferred to put his trust in the Americans. So as the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the north-eastern Saudi city of Dhahran and deployed in the desert roughly 500 miles from the city of Medina—the place of the Prophet’s refuge and of the first Islamic society—bin Laden abandoned the corruption of the House of Saud to bestow his generosity on another “Islamic Republic”: Sudan.
Our journey north from Khartoum lay though a landscape of white desert and ancient, unexplored pyramids, dark, squat Pharaonic tombs smaller than those of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus at Giza. Though it was December, a sharp, superheated breeze moved across the desert, and when Kashoggi tired of the air conditioning and opened his window, it snapped at his Arab headdress. “The people like bin Laden here,” he said, in much the way that one might comment approvingly of a dinner host. “He’s got his business here and his construction company and the government likes him. He helps the poor.” I could understand all this. The Prophet Mohamed, orphaned at an early age, had been obsessed by the poor in seventh-century Arabia, and generosity to those who lived in poverty was one of the most attractive characteristics of Islam. Bin Laden’s progress from “holy” warrior to public benefactor might allow him to walk in the Prophet’s footsteps. He had just completed building a new road from the Khartoum–Port Sudan highway to the tiny desert village of Almatig in northern Sudan, using the same bulldozers he had employed to construct the guerrilla trails of Afghanistan; many of his labourers were the same fighters who had been his comrades in the battle against the Soviet Union. The U.S. State Department took a predictably less charitable view of bin Laden’s beneficence. It accused Sudan of being a “sponsor of international terrorism” and bin Laden himself of operating “terrorist training camps” in the Sudanese desert.
But when Kashoggi and I arrived in Almatig, there was Osama bin Laden in his gold-fringed robe, sitting beneath the canopy of a tent before a crowd of admiring villagers and guarded by the loyal Arab mujahedin who fought alongside him in Afghanistan. Bearded, silent figures—unarmed, but never more than a few yards from the man who recruited them, trained them and then dispatched them to destroy the Soviet army—they watched unsmiling as the Sudanese villagers lined up to thank the Saudi businessman who was about to complete the road linking their slums to Khartoum for the first time in history.
My first impression was of a shy man. With his high cheekbones, narrow eyes and long brown robe, he would avert his eyes when the village leaders addressed him. He seemed ill-at-ease with gratitude, incapable of responding with a full smile when children in miniature chadors danced in front of him and preachers admired his wisdom. “We have been waiting for this road through all the revolutions in Sudan,” a bearded sheikh announced. “We waited until we had given up on everybody—and then Osama bin Laden came along.” I noticed how bin Laden, head still bowed, peered up at the old man, acknowledging his age but unhappy that he should be sitting at ease in front of him, a young man relaxing before his elders. He was even more unhappy at the sight of a Westerner standing a few feet away from him, and from time to time he would turn his head to look at me, not with malevolence but with grave suspicion.
Kashoggi put his arms around him. Bin Laden kissed him on both cheeks, one Muslim to another, both acknowledging the common danger they had endured together in Afghanistan. Jamal Kashoggi must have brought the foreigner for a reason. That is what bin Laden was thinking. For as Kashoggi spoke, bin Laden looked over his shoulder at me, occasionally nodding. “Robert, I want to introduce you to Sheikh Osama,” Kashoggi half-shouted through children’s songs. Bin Laden was a tall man and he realised that this was an advantage when he shook hands with the English reporter. Salaam aleikum. His hands were firm, not strong, but, yes, he looked like a mountain man. The eyes searched your face. He was lean and had long fingers and a smile which—while it could never be described as kind—did not suggest villainy. He said we might talk, at the back of the tent where we could avoid the shouting of the children.
Looking back now, knowing what we know, understanding the monstrous beast-figure he would become in the collective imagination of the world, I search for some clue, the tiniest piece of evidence, that this man could inspire an act that would change the world for ever—or, more to the point, allow an American president to persuade his people that the world was changed for ever. Certainly his formal denial of “terrorism” gave no hint. The Egyptian press was claiming that bin Laden had brought hundreds of his Arab fighters with him to Sudan, while the Western embassy circuit in Khartoum was suggesting that some of the Arab “Afghans” whom this Saudi entrepreneur had flown to Sudan were now busy training for further jihad wars in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Bin Laden was well aware of this. “The rubbish of the media and embassies,” he called it. “I am a construction engineer and an agriculturalist. If I had training camps here in Sudan, I couldn’t possibly do this job.”
From the Hardcover edition.