The man who wants to wage holy war against the Americans
A pilgrimage through a broken and dangerous land of death
An Arab in Afghan robes 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 we set off up the track which Ossama 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, bouncing down ravines 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 scarf, eyes peering at us through spectacles - 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 anti-tank rocket launcher and pulling from his pocket an electronic metal detector, 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 illuminating terrifying gorges on either side. Still clutching the wheel, the Arab fighter turned to me and smiled. "Toyota is good for jihad," he said. I could only agree.
In the moonlight, I could see clouds both below us in the ravines and above us, curling round mountain tops, the headlights now shining on frozen waterfalls and icy pools. Ossama Bin Laden knew how to build his wartime roads - many an ammunition truck and tank had ground up here during the titanic struggle against the Red 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 screaming orders to halt.
"No one can get to us here," the driver muttered.
Our meeting was almost an anti-climax. Ossama Bin Laden looked fatigued when he entered the tent in which I was waiting cross-legged on a rough blanket, my shoes left at the entrance. At times during our conversation, he paused for at least a minute to choose his words. He was, however, studiously polite, offering the usual Arab courtesy of food to a stranger: a tray of cheese, olives, bread and jam. But his message was unequivocal, even brutal, while couched with the usual conditional clauses. "I am not against the American people - only their government," he said. How many times have I heard that phrase? I told him I thought the American people regarded their government as their representatives. He listened to this in silence. "We are still at the beginning of our military action against the American forces," he said.
If the United States regarded him as the foremost "terrorist" in the world - as I suggested to him they did - then "if liberating my land is called terrorism, this is a great honour for me". And so we embarked on a three-and-a-half hour interview in which the US was damned for supporting Israel, but in which Europe was faintly praised for its slow departure from American policy in the Middle East.
For him, there was no difference, he said, between the American and Israeli governments, between the American and Israeli armies. But Europe was beginning to distance itself from the Americans, especially France - although he condemned French policies towards north Africa. He did not mention Algeria but the name hovered over us for several minutes like a ghost.
He gave me a Pakistani wall poster in Urdu which proclaimed the support of Pakistani scholars for his holy war against the Americans, even colour photographs of graffiti on the walls of Karachi, demanding the ousting of US troops from "the place of the two Holy Shrines (Mecca and Medina)". He had, he said, received some months ago an emissary from the Saudi royal family who said that Bin Laden would have his Saudi citizenship and passport returned to him and that his family would receive 2 billion Saudi riyals (pounds 339m) if he abandoned his jihad - declared on 23 August - and went back to Saudi Arabia. He had rejected the offer and so had his family, he said.
The US was in Saudi Arabia because of its oil but - more importantly - because it feared ("along with the Zionists") that "they and their local agents would drown in the Islamic uprising". Of the strict Islamist Taliban militia, which now controls three-quarters of Afghanistan and in whose region Bin Laden now lives, he said that he had "struggled alongside them" since 1979. "We believe that Taliban are sincere in their attempts to enforce Islamic religious law. We saw the situation here before [they took over] and after, and have seen an obvious improvement."
Despite these words, Ossama Bin Laden was unwilling to have me taken back to Jalalabad through the Taliban checkpoints at midnight. So I spent the night under the stars at his guerrilla camp, close to the massive rock-hewn air-raid shelter that he built during the Russian war. When the Arabs drove me back before dawn next day, they paused by the roadside to pray, kneeling on rugs with their rifles beside them, crying "Allahu Akbar" over the bleak landscape of rivers and snow-capped mountains. And amid the pageant of stars above us, a great comet trailed down the sky with a fiery tail, unseen since the time of the Pharaohs. It was, I learned later, the Hale-Bopp comet. "They say that after a comet, there will be a great war," one of the Arabs said to me.
We had driven past the police barracks in Jalalabad at first light but, minutes later, a thunderous explosion tore across the road, incinerating every driver within 100 metres, a massive blast at the local munitions store that killed at least 50 men, women and children and left hundreds wounded. The Taliban were on the streets, beating back relatives of the dead with sticks, a mile-high column of brown smoke belching into the sky. It was not difficult to see how this broken, dangerous nation could engender anger and an acceptance of death; even a desire to turn the weapons once used against the Soviets upon the world's only surviving superpower.
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