Robert Fisk: My deadliest moment with the world's most dangerous men

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The Independent Online

19 March 1997. There was a sudden scratching of voices outside the tent, thin and urgent like the soundtrack of an old movie. Then the flap snapped up and Bin Laden walked in, dressed in a turban and green robes. I stood up, half bent under the canvas, and we shook hands, both of us forced by the tarpaulin that touched our heads to greet each other like Ottoman pashas, bowed and looking up into the other's face. Again, he looked tired, and I had noticed a slight limp when he walked into the tent. His beard was greyer, his face thinner than I remembered it. Yet he was all smiles, almost jovial, placing the rifle which he had carried into the tent on the mattress to his left, insisting on more tea for his guest. For several seconds he looked at the ground. Then he looked at me with an even bigger smile, beneficent and, I thought at once, very disturbing.

"Mr Robert," he began, and he looked around at the other men in combat jackets and soft brown hats who had crowded into the tent. "Mr Robert, one of our brothers had a dream. He dreamed that you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person. You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim." This was terrifying. It was one of the most fearful moments of my life. I understood Bin Laden's meaning a split second in front of each of his words. Dream. Horse. Beard. Spiritual. Robe. Muslim. The other men in the tent were all nodding and looking at me, some smiling, others silently staring at the Englishman who had appeared in the dream of the "brother". I was appalled. It was both a trap and an invitation, and the most dangerous moment to be among the most dangerous men in the world. I could not reject the "dream" lest I suggest Bin Laden was lying. Yet I could not accept its meaning without myself lying, without suggesting that what was clearly intended of me – that I should accept this "dream" as a prophecy and a divine instruction – might be fulfilled. For this man to trust me, a foreigner, to come to them without prejudice, that was one thing. But to imagine that I would join them in their struggle, that I would become one with them, was beyond any possibility. The coven was waiting for a reply.

Was I imagining this? Could this not be just an elaborate, rhetorical way of expressing traditional respect towards a visitor? Was this not merely the attempt of a Muslim to gain an adherent to the faith? Was Bin Laden really trying – let us be frank – to recruit me? I feared he was. And I immediately understood what this might mean. A Westerner, a white man from England, a journalist on a respectable newspaper – not a British convert to Islam of Arab or Asian origin – would be a catch indeed. He would go unsuspected, he could become a government official, join an army, even – as I would contemplate just over four years later – learn to fly an airliner. I had to get out of this, quickly, and I was trying to find an intellectual escape tunnel, working so hard in digging it that my brain was on fire.

"Sheikh Osama," I began, even before I had decided on my next words. "Sheikh Osama, I am not a Muslim." There was silence in the tent. "I am a journalist." No one could dispute that. "And the job of a journalist is to tell the truth." No one would want to dispute that. "And that is what I intend to do in my life – to tell the truth." Bin Laden was watching me like a hawk. And he understood. I was declining the offer. In front of his men, it was now Bin Laden's turn to withdraw, to cover his retreat gracefully. "If you tell the truth, that means you are a good Muslim," he said. The men in the tent in their combat jackets and beards all nodded at this sagacity. Bin Laden smiled. I was saved.