BUG IN THE ELEPHANT'S EAR
For days after September 11, 2001, I wondered if Osama bin Laden, along with the rest of the world, had watched the real-time footage of those fully fueled airliners, hijacked by suicidal pilots and their henchmen, as they rammed into the Pentagon and the twin towers of Manhattan's World Trade Center. For reasons I still do not completely fathom, everything else about 9/11, as the attacks soon were called, was subordinated for me to that possibility. Perhaps it was that in years past, high up in his Afghan redoubt carved into the Hindu Kush, he had indulged a rich man's fascination with gadgetry, delighting in showing visitors his computers, satellite telephones and dishes and other high-tech paraphernalia. Did he now savor life imitating art, a pastiche of kitsch reruns of Hollywood horror movies complete with plummeting bodies, billowing flames, imploding buildings, brave firemen rushing back up the stairs to their deaths? Did he appreciate the novelty of doomed airline passengers describing their predicament on state-of-the-art cell phones while other passengers heroically rushed their captors, determined to deflect their airliner-turned-missile from yet another landmark target?
At the time I doubted ironclad answers would be forthcoming. I was indulging in pure speculation, but speculation based on more than two frustrating years trying to figure Osama out. On past form, I felt, he would approve and perhaps claim he helped inspire, but still stop short of admitting he ordered, planned, much less micromanaged this extraordinary act of violence, guaranteeing his name a lasting footnote in the annals of terrorism. Such winking indirection had become his modus operandi stretching back almost a decade. It allowed him to insinuate a kind of global reach even when by any logical yardstick no irrefutable proof linked him to some of the acts of terrorism laid at his door. And, of course, in his mind at least, it distanced him from those he had organized.
Then less than a fortnight before Christmas, a grainy, partly inaudible amateur videotape was released by a hesitant Bush administration wary of its seeming suspiciously good luck in obtaining the improbably self-incriminating "mother of all smoking guns." For the administration, the cassette's contents were literally almost too good to be true.
Entertaining some fifty to sixty dinner guests in Kandahar just days before the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime in mid-November, an almost languid Osama was shown providing chapter and verse for a hanging judge's fantasy. Right down to the occasional chuckle and laugh, the chilling tale the lanky six-foot-four Saudi told without remorse would make even a nineteenth-century melodrama villain blanch in disbelief. And indeed disbelief was how much of the Muslim world greeted the cassette, whether out of denial, because the contents seemed too pat or because the doubters could not understand why Osama would have been so arrogant, careless or plain stupid to have said what the cassette had him saying.
(If anything, the outraged accusations of fraud were somewhat subdued, perhaps reflecting the then still recent defeat of the Taliban regime and the initial disruption of Osama's Al-Qaeda organization or at least of its frontline foot soldiers. Equally off-putting to the worldwide Muslim audience he assiduously courted was his single-minded interest in Saudi Arabia to the exclusion of Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya or other Islamic conflicts he normally championed.)
The Bush administration did not see fit to dispel the mystery of the cassette’s provenance in an effort to bolster the credibility of its bona fides. For reasons elucidated neither at the time nor later, the U.S. government did no more than hint it had been found in a private house in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, had been rushed to Washington in late November, had been checked and double-checked and had provoked a sharp debate about the wisdom of releasing its overly providential contents. The government's hesitation and Muslim doubts were understandable because on the tape a coldly dispassionate Osama uncharacteristically corroborates key bits of information and surmises that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and other investigators the world over had so painstakingly pieced together.
He accurately listed the nationalities and sometimes the names of the nineteen-man suicide squad, all but four his Saudi compatriots. Osama confirmed the existence of four hijacking teams, rejoiced in the tradecraft that deliberately kept each in the dark about the others’ existence. He explained their division between the four witting pilots and the Saudi "muscle" who, he chuckled, learned the exact nature of their suicide mission only "just before boarding" the four airliners to cow their passengers into submission with box cutters once the plane was in the air.  Osama said he knew five days in advance that the operations would take place on September 11 and had a radio tuned in ready to hear the first plane hit the Trade Center’s north tower.
"Be patient," he then told his "overjoyed" guests: more was to come, as it indeed did over the next hour or so. He recounted that in the planning stage his engineering training had helped him calculate the number of likely deaths from the explosive impact of a nearly fully fueled airliner on the twin towers' metal structures. He acknowledged his surprise that they collapsed completely. "All that we had hoped for," he allowed, was the destruction of "three or four floors" where the aircraft hit and those above the impact.
And, as it turned out, indeed I had been--almost--right about his watching the crashes on television. His spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, had turned on a television set in an adjoining room and seen the first run of the constantly repeated footage of the planes hitting the twin towers before excitedly summoning Osama. "I tried to tell him about what I saw," the spokesman recounted, "but he made a gesture with his hands, meaning: 'I know, I know.'"
The specialist literature long ago concluded that modern terrorism’s objective was to inflict maximum casualties with maximum publicity. In those terms Osama had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. For days on end television screens the world over repeatedly showed the scenes of horror that consumed nearly 3,000 lives (and initially were feared to have killed more than twice as many). Yet his very success left a string of tantalizing questions unanswered. Logically, he must have realized that the United States would react--and massively. Yet perhaps his gift for meticulous reckoning finally had gone awry or his increasingly audacious acts of violence emboldened him to the point that he felt invulnerable. He had preached that the Americans were paper tigers so long and hard that he could be excused for relishing the disarray that overtook the U.S. government and kept a humiliated President George W. Bush out of Washington for nine embarrassing hours after the fourth and final airliner crashed in Pennsylvania.
Had such cocksure reasoning now convinced him the United States dared not mount a major punitive expedition in Afghanistan, where he had come to believe his own distorted propaganda claims that his Arab volunteers all but single-handedly defeated the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s? Osama was not alone in suggesting the dangers of a new foreign intervention in Afghanistan. Russian veterans warned the United States of the horrors they had experienced there. Those tales of Afghan savagery and resentment of foreigners, reinforced by nineteenth-century massacres of British troops at Afghan hands, had played no small role in dissuading President Bill Clinton and his successor from mounting a major military operation to punish the increasingly cheeky Taliban regime and its Al-Qaeda guests. (In fact, high-tech American weaponry, combined with wads of cash and local Afghan allies, initially routed the foot soldiers of Osama's Al-Qaeda organization and its Taliban protectors with surprising ease and speed in what more properly should be called a campaign rather than a war. If there was going to be an Afghan quagmire, more likely than not it would take the form of trying to maintain a modicum of law and order on the cheap rather than investing in the "nation-building" that was so doctrinally repugnant to the administration.)
If Osama had planned his own endgame, was he resigned to his fate and even anxious to embrace the martyrdom he had so helped popularize? He may have reckoned that he and Al-Qaeda could not reasonably hope to match, much less outdo, 9/11. With his health then rumored to be undermined by an implacable kidney affliction and an often-incurable heart condition called Marfan's syndrome that threatens early death, had he decided to bow out at the top of his form, at age forty-four, rather than risk an uncertain future that might tarnish his legend? Such was the subject of endless speculation and the stuff of a myth that he and his followers were intent on creating.
But in the practical world what mattered immediately was that Osama, deliberately or by miscalculation, had acted like a Muslim Samson. He had brought the temple down on his Taliban hosts and jeopardized the peerless Afghan sanctuary that had allowed his Al-Qaeda to grow without serious challenge and to extend its operations virtually worldwide. The tantalizing mystery of his fate masked that reality. Inconclusive mountain battles and collusion with like-minded Islamic radicals in Pakistan helped maintain the illusion of intact Al-Qaeda discipline and strength. Well into 2002, Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives found refuge in the wild and wooly tribal areas along the Afghan border in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, which had scarcely changed since Kipling's day. Yet the Pakistanis caught hundreds of his operatives, many of them mere foot soldiers, and turned them over to the Americans. In April his key young lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, was wounded and captured in a shoot-out 200 miles to the east, in Faisalabad, near the Indian frontier. In September Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a key cog in the Hamburg cell entrusted with the 9/11 operation, was captured in teeming Karachi, Pakistan's chaotic and lawless principal port.
Indeed there is a world of difference between having the free run of an entire country and the uncertainties of clandestine refuge in Pakistan and elsewhere. Whatever Al-Qaeda's long-standing connections, Pakistan now was run by a general who had stopped openly flirting with Islamist radicals and had thrown in his lot with Washington only days after September 11. Until then, ever since Osama had returned to Jalalabad in 1996, he had done pretty much what he wanted in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Money and old networks stitched together nearly twenty years earlier during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan stood him in good stead in both countries.
Osama had come so very far since the 1980s, when he had arrived in Afghanistan as an untested youth with little experience but great ambitions. He, who then had been manipulated, had become a past master of flattery, influencing, even threatening those he needed for his purposes. Over the years he had learned to cut corners while still projecting to his followers the image of an uncompromisingly pure man of action. For all his outward devotion to the details of obscurantist Islamic practice, he thought nothing of transgressing his Taliban hosts' puritanical rules. Not for him were Taliban prohibitions on such symbols of modernity as computers, television sets, audio- and videotapes, which were ritually draped by the religious police from trees as satanic works of the infidels.
Above all else, he had been careful to cultivate Mullah Mohammed Omar, the rustic one-eyed Pashtun Taliban leader who one day in Kandahar had donned the cloak that legend claimed was the Prophet’s own, thus proclaiming himself the commander of the faithful. In some American circles it became popular to insist that Osama had turned Mullah Omar into his malleable creature. Initially, the record showed no more than that Osama was indeed constantly careful to keep him sweet. Osama supplied him with fancy four-wheel-drive vehicles, cash and flattery, for he knew his own precarious presence in Afghanistan depended solely on Mullah Omar's sufferance. Osama was well aware that some hardheaded Taliban leaders had sought to persuade Mullah Omar to jettison a foreigner who, for all his Islamic credentials in the war against the Red Army, increasingly represented a mortal danger to their regime.
In advertised as well as secret meetings, American emissaries constantly reminded Taliban representatives in no uncertain terms that time was running out, that Osama's next terrorist operation would at long last mean war. Such foreign warnings appeared to have a perverse effect on Mullah Omar. Already back in 1998, soon after the truck-bomb attacks on American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that August, he had jeopardized official Saudi financing when the Kingdom's intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, showed up in Kandahar mistakenly convinced Omar would honor an earlier pledge to hand Osama over.
Throughout 2001, telltale signs chronicled Osama's growing ascendancy over Mullah Omar. Osama openly defied the formal Taliban prohibition on his public pronouncements, staged an ostentatious wedding for a son and privately encouraged the destruction of the two giant Buddhas in Bamian and other pre-Islamic art, in keeping with the idol-smashing convictions of the puritanical Saudi Islamic faith of his upbringing. But for all his careful cultivation of Mullah Omar, little if anything suggests Osama bothered to inform his host of his plans for September 11, which were a good two years in the making. To have so taken any of the Taliban into his confidence would only have encouraged dissension among those Afghan leaders who increasingly feared that Omar was allowing Osama to compromise their destiny. For years, for all the public show of solidarity with Osama--and their unconvincing claims to have him under their thumbs--Taliban leaders had argued privately among themselves about the obvious dangers of harboring a guest so patently determined to march to his own drummer. Those long-muffled dissensions were confirmed once the Taliban regime was dismantled in November 2001.
Long before, even the dimmest Afghan had an inkling of what was going on in dozens of Al-Qaeda training sites scattered around Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and rural locations, many of them built into the Hindu Kush during the war against the Soviet Union. After all, some camps simultaneously housed Al-Qaeda terrorist trainees, Taliban conscripts and cannon fodder for Pakistan's irredentist campaign in Kashmir to weaken archenemy India. The more hardheaded Taliban thought of their self-styled Islamic emirate as a state, while recognizing that the United Nations and various nongovernmental humanitarian organizations provided what passed for the few government services on offer to the population. Osama indulged Mullah Omar's hankering for renewing the caliphate to run the Sunni Muslim world that Ataturk had abolished in 1924 soon after establishing the Turkish Republic. In fact, Osama was more interested in the process of getting there--jihad and his radical methodology of spreading holy war--than in the mundane business of running a government. And so Mullah Omar and the Taliban were expendable.
It soon became an article of faith for Americans that September 11 utterly changed their lives. Beauty, or in this case horror, was in the eye of the beholder. One of Americans' great strengths is their ability to live in the present and think in the future to such an extent that it is difficult to predict what enduring scars 9/11 will leave on the American psyche. Who before September 11 could have predicted that the Bush administration would abandon its inward-looking election platform and embark on a policy seemingly determined to reorder the Middle East, an undertaking that had brought woe to so many previous world powers? But more mundanely, what demonstrably changed was the modus operandi of terrorism; in that, 9/11 marked a radical departure.
1. Washington Post, April 15, 2002. Seven months after 9/11, Al-Jazeera, the free-swinging satellite network based in Qatar and watched by millions of Arabs in preference to their own often-censored national stations, broadcast a cassette showing Saudi hijacker Ahmad Alghamdi announcing in a March 2001 "last will and testament" that he knew his forthcoming martyrdom-or suicide-mission would be against a target in the United States. "It is high time we killed Americans on their own turf," he said. Al-Jazeera news editor Ibrahim Hilal remarked, "This tape closes the door of suspicion. It is the final say that Al-Qaeda is behind it."
2. New York Times, April 19, 2002. Paul Bucherer, a Swiss authority on Afghan art, said a special Al-Qaeda squad methodically smashed a storeroom full of ancient Buddhist and Gandharan statuary originally from Kabul's National Museum shortly before the Buddhas were blown up in March 2001. He said the Al-Qaeda squad of non-Afghans expertly carried out the destruction after local Taliban leaders refused to participate. Letters Western journalists found in Kabul after the Taliban fell described how Osama and top aides had convinced Mullah Omar to destroy the Buddhas.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Osama by Jonathan Randal. Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Randal. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.