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In search of Osama bin Laden: The stunning inside story of the 9/11 attack mastermind

An interesting discussion on Day 4 of JLF 2018 touched on the future leadership of the al Qaeda and on bin Laden family politics. American journalist Peter Bergen, who interviewed the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, co-authors of the novel The Exile: The Stunning Inside story of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Flight attended the session.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 28, 2018 18:38 IST
Prerna Madan
Prerna Madan
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Osama bin Laden,al Qaeda,Hunt for Osama Bin Laden
Cathy Scott-Clark(second from right ) and Peter Bergen (right) in conversation with Suhasini Haidar during the session Manhunt: Pakistan and the Search for Bin Laden at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

When Osama bin Laden appeared out of the darkness in the middle of the night, the first thing that struck me was how tall he was, said American journalist Peter Bergen who interviewed the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in1997.

“Osama was 6-foot-4-inches-tall. I expected someone revolutionary, but he looked more like a cleric. He spoke very quietly even though his words were full of anger for the United States,” Bergen said, describing his impressions of bin Laden at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 on Sunday.

For Jaipur Literature Festival full coverage, click here

How did the son of a Saudi billionaire end up as the man behind the killings of 2,700 people on September 11, 2001? The answers may be hidden in bin Laden’s childhood. His father divorced his mother Hamida, who remarried and had more children. “Although he had 17 brothers and many sisters, Osama grew up alone. He was very much on the outside and he barely saw his father again,” said Cathy Scott-Clark, co-author of novel The Exile: The Stunning Inside story of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in Flight.

“A lot of rejection formulated his (Osama’s) need for attention and verification. And I think that is a very important factor in Osama seeking attention in his later life.”

Osama, who formed al Qaeda in 1988, was a “family man”, his wives and daughters speak positively about him, said Scott-Clark, who interviewed bin Laden’s family for the book. “They didn’t have anything to do with al Qaeda, they just happened to be part of his family,” Scott-Clark said.

The panelists also discussed “politicking” within the bin Laden family and the story of his wives thinking Osama was going through a “mid-life crisis” when he married his fourth wife, who was 16 at the time. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

Bergen too said he believed bin Laden’s four wives had “space” and were treated “equally”. Two of his wives even had PhD degrees and they really believed in the jihadist movement.

However, Adrian Levy -- who co-authored The Exile with Scott-Clark – disagrees. He said that, for bin Laden, his family was “tradable”; his sons were “military puppets” trained to become militants and his daughters were often “political capital” married for alliances.

Levy’s view is backed by Osama’s fourth son Omar who escaped with his mother Najwa from Afghanistan days before 9/11. In the book ‘Growing up bin Laden’, Omar writes: I often wonder if my father has killed so many times that the act of killing no longer brings him pleasure or pain. I am nothing like my father. While he prays for war, I pray for peace.”

On a lighter note, the panelists also discussed “politicking” within the bin Laden family and the story of his wives thinking Osama was going through a “mid-life crisis” when he married his fourth wife, who was 16 at the time.

Osama’s last days

The al Qaeda leader’s death in a 2011 nighttime raid by US Seals in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was not “heroic”, Bergen said. Osama had been hiding in the compound for five years.

The most wanted militant, with a bounty of $25 million, was attempting to run a global terrorist network from his compound in Abbottabad but it was “inefficient”, said Bergen, author and editor of four books on Osama. He added that during his time in hiding, Osama wrote memos that also included unusual entries – one had him pondering if he should change the name of al Qaeda.

The bin Laden legacy

Osama’s death was a turning point in history but those who thought al Qaeda was over were proved wrong, panelists believe. Bergen told HT that the al Qaeda still has 10,000 fighters and members in Syria while it continues to thrive in Yemen and North Africa. “It is playing a longer game than Islamic State in Syria,” he said, referring to the IS, the terror group behind its signature lone-wolf terror attacks in Europe.

Osama’s ideology is a lot “harder to kill than the man himself”, warned Bergen. Despite fissures with al Qaeda, IS too looks up to Osama for major “spiritual influence”.

Moreover, Osama’s son Hamza bin Laden (28), who has been featured in al Aqeda video, may be a natural successor as leader of the group. He is young and he already has the family name, said Bergen.

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First Published: Jan 28, 2018 18:37 IST