Heroic, vain, calculating, a caliph and a ruthless "terrorist" – a word Osama bin Laden uses of himself – are some of the characteristics of the al-Qa'ida leader that emerge from a remarkable new book by a journalist who knew him.
So does al-Qa'ida's order of battle in Afghanistan when 19 suicide attackers flew aircraft into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon a year ago. At least 62 British citizens, 30 Americans and eight Frenchmen were members of al-Qa'ida before 11 September, according to this extraordinary account of Mr bin Laden's war against the West.
Western and Arab intelligence agents will pore over Bin Laden Unmasked by Al Jazeera television's Islamabad correspondent, Ahmed Zeidan, a Syrian who has met Mr bin Laden several times, including at the wedding feast of Mr bin Laden's son Abdullah.
The 215-page treasure trove is being published in Beirut at a moment when the Americans say they don't know whether the world's most wanted man is alive or dead. Mr Zeidan believes he is alive; and recounts how Mr bin Laden persuaded Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, to allow him to stay in Afghanistan – a move that provoked America's bombardment of the country.
The book contains a wealth of unpublished material on the Saudi billionaire blamed for the 11 September crimes against humanity. Mr Zeidan's investigations reveal there were 2,742 Afghan "Arabs" from al-Qa'ida – in other words, Muslims who had fought for Mr bin Laden – in Afghanistan during the Taliban era: they included 62 Britons, 30 Americans, eight Frenchmen, 1,660 north Africans, 680 Saudis, 480 Yemenis, 430 Palestinians, 270 Egyptians, 520 Sudanese, 80 Iraqis, 33 Turks and 180 Filipinos. The Taliban,Mr Zeidan says, provided roughly the same breakdown.
During the Taliban rule, Arab Afghan fighters were dispersed across Afghanistan – this is al-Qa'ida's order of battle revealed for the first time – as 260 Arabs in four bases around Kandahar, 145 Arabs in Orzakan in two bases, 1,870 fighters in Kabul in seven bases, 404 around Mazar-i-Sharif, 400 in three bases around Kunduz, 300 in Laghman province, 1,700 in 12 bases in Nangahar province opposite Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, 160 in Kunar, 600 in Khost and 740 in Paktia.
Al-Qa'ida now passes its information through the internet, the book claims. Its messages are spread through a website called al-Nidaa – the Calling. The words of Mullah Omar are distributed on an Arabic website called the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan".
The book contains an interview recorded in October 2000 in which Mr bin Laden recalls how Mullah Omar was approached by the Saudi head of intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, on behalf of the Americans, to hand over Mr bin Laden, not long after the bombing of two American embassies in Africa. "The Taliban came to me, requesting that I should stop making statements about the Saudi kingdom and keep my declarations aimed at the Americans," Mr bin Laden told Mr Zeidan.
"I shed tears, and I told Mullah Omar that we would leave his country and head towards God's vast domain, but that we would leave our children and wives in his safekeeping. I said we would seek a land which was a haven for us. Mullah Omar said that things had not reached that stage. The Taliban then apologised and left me alone."
Mr bin Laden says it was a "natural state of affairs" there would be spies in his training camps, because "there were unbelievers among the ranks of the followers of the Prophet Mohamed, but that this did not mean that the Prophet ceased his work."
The book suggests Mr bin Laden may have turned to vanity as his campaign against the Americans continued. When Mr bin Laden's son married an Afghan woman last year, Mr Zeidan was a guest and spent the day with the al-Qa'ida leader. The Syrian journalist recalls how Mr bin Laden recited a poem in front of his fighters and then asked the cameraman to re-film the scene next day in front of the same men. "To me this showed Osama's vanity," Mr Zeidan writes. "Very few people, but usually those who understand the importance of public relations ... ever request re-filming ... He went as far as calling on al-Qa'ida members to sit facing him, to play the role of eulogisers as had happened at the wedding."
Mr bin Laden's response to the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden port is reported as follows: "I knelt thanking Allah for this heroic operation that destroyed American arrogance; it is a sign to the Americans that they must leave the Arab region and the Arabian peninsula in particular."
Mr bin Laden is quoted as saying that "the accession of a person like King Abdullah to the Jordanian throne will not change matters so long as Jordan doesn't have the resources to stand on its own feet. This condition applies to all Arab and Islamic countries that can't be independent nations on their own. The only solution is to revert to Arab and Islamic unity, which was the case before the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate. Then, we used to live together for centuries, unlike the so-called [Arab] 'nations' so recently created, whose borders were imposed on them by the West."
The only question the book does not answer is whether Mr bin Laden is alive. Mr Zeidan says: "I think he is alive – the last tape he did for Al Jazeera, I think it was him."
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