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Profile of Osama bin Laden

Aired August 22, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: The evolution of Osama. What turned Osama bin Laden away from a life of easy affluence to a campaign of deadly terror? A portrait of the jihadist as a young man.
Hello and welcome.

Osama bin Laden is one of the most familiar faces in the world and the bare facts of his biography are almost as well known: his birth to a wealthy Saudi family, his radicalization and ultimately his rebellion against the Saudi government and the West.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour, building on the work of CNN contributor Peter Bergen, has traveled the world to talk to the people who knew him best. Her documentary special will be broadcast Thursday.

Even as a young man, Osama bin Laden had trained himself to endure harsh conditions. A rich man's son who embraced austerity. But it was Afghanistan that changed him and after a distant relationship with his father, there was a crucial role for a mentor there.

On our program today, the Osama bin Laden they knew. Here's Christiane Amanpour.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTL. CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 1979, Afghanistan, Soviet troops invade an Islamic nation. A call for jihad against the infidels sounds throughout the Muslim world, a call raised by men like Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian cleric, charismatic and deeply spiritual. He is the man who would mentor and shape Osama bin Laden throughout much of the 1980s.

HUTAIFA AZZAM: My name is Hutaifa Azzam. I've been living with bin Laden for more than eight years continuously you could say.

AMANPOUR: Hutaifa is Abdullah Azzam's son. This is his first interview for Western television.

AZZAM: My father was teaching Islamic and Arabic studies and Osama bin Laden was studying engineering at that time.

AMANPOUR: Bin Laden was drawn to the influential cleric seen here in Afghanistan. He was the ideological force behind the call for jihad and he implored the young and impressionable Osama to follow him.

AZZAM: At the end of 1984, the end of summer, my father told him "You have to leave with me. I'm leaving to Pakistan and Afghanistan."

AMANPOUR: But bin Laden was hesitant to follow.

AZZAM: He said, "No. I cannot leave Saudi Arabia without having the permission of King Fahd."

AMANPOUR: At this time, bin Laden was still deeply loyal to his family with its strong ties to the ruling house of Saud, but the king encouraged volunteers to go fight with the Afghans. Bin Laden responded. He made the move from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan.

ABDULLAH ANAS, FORMER ARAB FIGHTER: People called me Abdullah Anas. I remember I met Osama in 1984, in Abdullah Azzam's house in Islamabad.

AMANPOUR: Anas was one of many Arab Muslims recruited by Abdullah Azzam to wage jihad in Afghanistan. He is seen here with Azzam and two of his sons, Ibrahim and Hutaifa.

ANAS: Sheikh Abdullah was the father figure of all of us. You can't imagine how he loved Osama bin Laden.

PETER BERGEN, JOURNALIST: The picture you get of bin Laden at this point in his life, he's shy, he's retiring, he's monosyllabic. People barely get a word out of him and he's completely overshadowed by his mentor Abdullah Azzam, who is a larger than life, charismatic figure and somebody who really had a father/son relationship with bin Laden.

AMANPOUR: I traveled here to the city of Peshawar, Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan, to find out more about bin Laden and his mentor Abdullah Azzam.

Peshawar is a bustling frontier town, the perfect gateway for smugglers, spies, mercenaries and Mujahedeen, those holy warriors who came to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

ANAS: You can find the arms. You can buy Kalashnikov. You can sell it. It's an open area, completely open area.

AMANPOUR (on camera): It was in this neighborhood that Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam set up the headquarters of an organization they called the Services Bureau. It was to assist Muslim fighters heading into Afghanistan and also Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet Army.

(voice-over): The Services Bureau was run by Azzam. Osama bin Laden was the financier, donating some of his own fortune, and the money he collected from other wealthy Saudis.

(on camera): One of these houses, we're told, used to be a guest house, where the recruits would come before entering Afghanistan. They'd be given weapons and clothing, as well as military and ideological training. Bin Laden himself trained at one of the camps.

AZZAM: The training on weapons and how to use weapon, how to fight, how to join the battles. Together we were with bin Laden, yes.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Bin Laden's time in the shadow of his mentor, Abdullah Azzam, would be short-lived. No longer content to merely fund the fight, bin Laden yearned to join it. His countless hours and days in the harsh Saudi desert without shelter and with few provisions had prepared him for this moment. It was always his belief that he was destined to be a holy warrior.

BERGEN: I think he's always modeled himself on the Prophet Mohammed, and the Prophet Mohammed was not only a great religious figure but was also somebody who personally battled the infidels. And so, for bin Laden, it would be important to continue in the Prophet Mohammed's footsteps.

AMANPOUR: For bin Laden the early days on the battlefield were terrifying.

AZZAM: When bin Laden used to hear the explosions, he used to jump and he used to run away. I still remember that me and my elder and younger brother, we used to laugh.

AMANPOUR: But several years on the battlefield would harden bin Laden. Fear gave way to ambition. Mohammed bin Laden's shy and reticent young son, Osama, once reluctant to lead, was now ready to command his own all-Arab army in Afghanistan.

ANAS: Osama started to think about governing all Arabs, as much as he can, and put them in one camp, in one front.

AMANPOUR: His mentor adamantly opposed this idea. It was the beginning of a rift that would never heal.

AZZAM: Bin Laden went and he built up his own camps. He built up his own front and he started doing his own battles. My father doesn't want Arab to work separately and that's what bin Laden did in 1987.

BERGEN: Bin Laden decided to create this all Arab army because the young Arabs he was recruiting were willing to martyr themselves, were willing to take incredible personal risk, and it was this group of people that bin Laden molded to take on the Soviets directly.

AMANPOUR: Their first test was the battle of Jaji in the Spring of 1987. Hutaifa Azzam fought alongside bin Laden, who was suffering from low blood pressure in the thin, mountain air.

AZZAM: It was a very, very hard battle. And he joined the battle while he was ill and he was having this low pressure and my father told him to take respite, he refuses. And he joined the battle for more than four days.

AMANPOUR: The Russians fell back. Jaji was the first victory for bin Laden's Arab army.

BERGEN: It was not a particularly significant moment in the Afghan war. But from a psychological point of view, it was really the beginning of, sort of, bin Laden's almost mythic persona, because a group of Arabs had held off the Soviets. It got a lot of play in the Middle East.

AMANPOUR: The once reticent and terrified bin Laden was now hailed as a fearless leader, a hero on the front lines of Jihad.

AZZAM: He's brave, and he's ready to give his life. He's not a coward.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI, JOURNALIST: I visited the sight of that battle with him in Jaji.

AMANPOUR: Bin Laden invited journalist Jamal Khashoggi to Afghanistan. It was a bit of PR in his new campaign to become Osama, the general. The beginning of his media strategy to draw attention to himself, and his message, a skill he would come to perfect.

Khashoggi took this picture, he says the first one ever published of bin Laden.

(on camera): So far Osama, Jaji was a recruiting tool.

KHASHOGGI: It was a recruiting tool. It was the start of having an independent front, where he become the Amir, the leader of those Arab Mujahedeen who are gathered around him.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): In 1988, the Soviets, worn down and demoralized, began to withdraw from Afghanistan. And bin Laden, now battle-hardened, returned to Peshawar, a holy warrior, without a war.


MANN: He was to find a war soon enough, though.

You can watch the full documentary, "CNN PRESENTS: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF BIN LADEN," hosted by Christiane Amanpour this Thursday at 18:00 GMT.

We take a break. When we come back, more on the conversations with people who knew him well.

Stay with us.


MANN: Osama bin Laden has released about two dozen videotapes. They're widely screened and broadcast, spreading his image and influence. But bin Laden is no longer viewed as an operational commander of al Qaeda. Experts suggest he's too far underground and too far from the men who would do his bidding.

Welcome back.

He has become such a secretive, infamous and almost mythical figure. All the more reason to marvel at the people who knew him as a neighbor, a new recruit, a devout if undirected young man.

Peter Bergen, who we saw in Christiane's report, tracked down a lot of those people for his book, "The Osama bin Laden I know," which served as the basis for the CNN PRESENTS documentary.


BERGEN: Bin Laden is going to be 50 next year, and so by the large of averages, someone who is 50 is going to have encountered a lot of people over his lifetime. On the other hand, bin Laden has also been somewhat secretive about his personal life. He comes from a very closed society, Saudi Arabia. His family isn't talking.

And so in my initial research for my book, what I did was sort of a universal search through Google, Nexus, through FIBIS (ph), which is a very useful U.S. government tool that translates foreign newspapers around the world, looking for anybody who had ever met bin Laden. And once I got, you know, maybe 200 names, then the question was could they actually be got to. And in my book, I interviewed may 50 of those people.

For the interview, we interviewed maybe three dozen. A number of them ended up on the cutting room floor. We had, I think 21 people in the documentary. Some of them were easy to get to, not -- well, let me rephrase that. I wouldn't say any of them were easy to get to. A, there is geography. Places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, some are living in London, but, you know, the people who spoke to us were ones who actually -- once they agreed to be interviewed, they were very happy to talk about their experiences with bin Laden.

MANN: Let me jump in on that very thought. Was it hard to convince people? Were they afraid of talking about him?

BERGEN: You know, strangely enough, I think they were -- it was easier perhaps post-9/11 than it would have been pre-9/11. I'm thinking particularly of Saudi Arabia. You know, reporting in Saudi Arabia is very difficult, but since May 2003, when al Qaeda started attacking the Saudis directly, I think the Saudi government has had a rather different view about the threat posed by al Qaeda and I think it's been more open to letting journalists come in.

And, really, a critical part of our documentary was talking to bin Laden's childhood friends, his university friends, in Saudi, and without the Saudi government giving us permission to do that, you know, it would have been really a problem for both my book and also for this documentary. And, so, I think that was easier, funnily enough, in the post-9/11 era than it might have been pre-9/11.

MANN: Were they surprised at how he turned out? I mean, imagine going to school with someone who ends up emerging as the world's most infamous terrorist.

BERGEN: To use an English phrase, they were gob smacked, I think, is the word. They were very surprised. Here are -- the guys who grew up with him remember him as a shy, retiring, monosyllabic, not a leader, somebody who couldn't organize a picnic, almost, who turns into this leader of the world's most deadly terrorist organization. That would be pretty surprising for anybody. So, yes, they were surprised.

Those childhood friends, those university friends, started losing touch with bin Laden, I would say in 1985, 1986, when he started fighting inside Afghanistan, fighting the Soviets directly, and somehow that really transformed him. He started standing up his own Arab military unit, much against the advice of his friends and family. That Arab military unit would be come al Qaeda.

And so at that point -- and also he became more infamous by this group of Egyptian militants, headed by him and Al Zawahiri. So, again and again, in the documentary you see people who sort of say we started losing touch.

MANN: In the documentary, it's easy to draw a link that you did not -- in the book as well, it's easy to draw this link between a boy from an enormous family and a largely absent father and then this strong father figure that he feels drawn towards. How much do you make of that?

BERGEN: Well, in the book and in the documentary we're pretty careful not to do any kind of armchair psychoanalysis, but let's do some now. Bin Laden has had some real father figures, and Abdullah Azzam, in the Eighties, really was a father figure to him, a guy who was very instrumental in bringing Arabs from around the world to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, a very charismatic guy, a profoundly religious guy.

You could also make the argument that Ayman Al Zawahiri was something of a father figure when bin Laden encountered him for the first time in the mid-Eighties. Zawahiri was older, more experienced with the world. That relationship has, I think, equalized now. There's no father/son, but I think certainly bin Laden has been looking, at least until when he was in his 20s, for somebody who was going to give him some direction. Abdullah Azzam was the first person, Ayman Al Zawahiri was the second. You may even make the argument that the leader of Sudan, Jurabi (ph), in the early Nineties, also supplied some of that.


MANN: Peter Bergen, author of an extraordinary book and a participant in a remarkable documentary that you'll see on Thursday.

We take a break now. When we come back, Osama bin Laden today. We rarely see or hear from him. Should we still fear him?

Stay with us.


MANN: Has Osama bin Laden won or lost? Al Qaeda was expelled from its home in Afghanistan, its leaders are dispersed, its men and money are being hunted down, but at the same time a new generation of jihadists has formed to fight in Iraq, and there is no end to the threat of terrorist violence.

Welcome back.

U.S. President Bush says he believes the war on terror will last for years. Some other people believe that in important respects it may already be over and the U.S. and its allies have won it.

Joining us now to talk about that is Brian Michael Jenkins, of the Rand Corporation, author of "Unconquerable Nation: Knowing our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me put the question to you. Five years after 9/11, has Osama bin Laden got what he wanted, jihad being waged worldwide?

BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS, RAND CORPORATION: Well, you have to look at it from his perspective. Certainly we have degraded the operational capabilities of al Qaeda, of the jihadist enterprise. We have, as you pointed out, dispersed training camps. We have removed a number of their key operational planners. Their leaders are on the run.

But we have not dented their determination. Osama bin Laden and Sheik Zawahiri are able to continue to communicate, the radicalization process continues. They continue to recruit, to inspire young men to turn themselves into weapons, as demonstrated in these most recent arrests in London.

MANN: So it sounds like in the debate you side with President Bush, there is still a war on.

JENKINS: There definitely is a conflict that will continue for a long time. When we look at this in terms of measuring it in terms of five years, I think that's an extremely short period of time, if you compare this to, say, past insurgencies or terrorist campaigns in history. These are more often measured in decades. And, certainly, from bin Laden's perspective, he would assert that this conflict began centuries ago, and as he says, will continue until judgment day.

MANN: Is he still relevant as anything more than an image and a slogan?

JENKINS: You know, Osama bin Laden is but a single man. Lacking a standing army, spending his life in hiding, he is militarily insignificant in the conventional sense of that term. But he still has the awesome power of ideas and words. He is the voice of the jihadist enterprise and an extraordinarily effective communicator. He never was an operational commander. He doesn't order men to fight. He inspires them to fight.

MANN: There are plots being alleged in Britain to blow up jetliners headed to the United States. There is a plot that has been uncovered in Germany to blow up German trains. How much does it change things that we're not talking about remote people in a distant country but increasingly in Western Europe, authorities looking at their own citizens with fear?

JENKINS: I think this has been one of the successes of the jihadists.

As I said at the beginning, while we certainly have degraded their operational capabilities, the fact is today the jihadist ideology as initially defined by al Qaeda has spread throughout the world, whereas there were a handful of Web sites discussing this at the time of 9/11, there are now hundreds of Web sites discussing this, communications have continued. In a sense, this inspiration, this ideology, has transcended the original historic organizational skin of al Qaeda to become an important motivator for angry young men worldwide.

MANN: It sounds like you're saying that he's winning, yet you've written a book called "Unconquerable Nation." Which is it?

JENKINS: The fact is, we are doing well, measured in the conventional military sense of that term, although the terrorist campaign continues.

In the political dimension of that, we have done far less well. We have not addressed this radicalization and recruiting process, and that in a sense condemns us to a strategy of combating what we are seeing now forever.

MANN: Let me push you a little bit and suggest that maybe the West, broadly speaking, when you talk about "we," have made things worse, at least the United States and the United Kingdom, because of the invasion of Iraq and because of U.S. support in particular for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Some people say that the West is doing a better job of recruiting terrorists than the terrorists are.

JENKINS: There is no question about that. There is no question but that the invasion of Iraq galvanized many in the Arab community and Muslim community worldwide, angered many. Subsequent to the invasion, the events, as we have seen unfold in Iraq, from the abuses at Abu Ghraib to the continued violence in that country, have been exploited as recruiting posters for the jihadist enterprise.

Beyond that, the fact is that Iraq has become a training academy for a future generation of jihadists. Their skills that they're developing in this conflict will diffuse throughout the enterprise, raising their operational capabilities.

MANN: So, to bring us full circle, what does the West have to do to ultimately win against Osama bin Laden and the cause he represents?

JENKINS: First of all, if you look at, again, if you look at past insurgencies, past terrorist campaigns, very rarely can you define "win" in our conventional sense. We do warfare as a finite undertaking, with a beginning and an end, but these things often don't end that way. If we can -- if we are successful in impeding the recruiting, if we can contain their actions to the kinds of terrorist activity that we have seen since 9/11, which fortunately are pre-9/11 scenarios, then over a period of time what may happen is that developments in the world will increasingly make the ideology as pronounced by bin Laden irrelevant.

And that's what happens to terrorist organizations. The world moves on. These men become older and are locked in their tiny, little universes. It is incumbent upon us to make it through that long haul, not losing our values in the process.

MANN: That sounds like a distant hope.

Brian Michael Jenkins, author of "Unconquerable Nation," thanks so much for talking with us.

JENKINS: Thank you.

MANN: And, once again, a programming note, once again reminding you, "CNN PRESENTS: IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF BIN LADEN," hosted by Christiane Amanpour, will be seen Thursday at 18:00 GMT.

And that's INSIGHT. Thanks for joining us.



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