Osama bin Laden: part Robin Hood, part Che Guevara, part Saladin, part “religious pop star in a land hungering for inspirational role models,” and part Old Man of the Mountains, “whose votaries so intimidated Middle Eastern contemporaries that they were dubbed Assassins.”
So writes former Washington Post foreign correspondent Randal (After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?, 1997), who apologizes for not having been able to interview bin Laden personally. It wasn’t for lack of trying, says Randal; bin Laden even responded to one of his repeated requests for a meeting by asking who translated it—because, bin Laden added, the Arabic version was terrible. The response, Randal says, suggests bin Laden’s command of English (and, he adds, even hints that bin Laden has a sense of humor). Bin Laden has knowledge of many things, some not strictly in keeping with the strictures of fundamentalist Islam: “Not for him were Taliban prohibitions on such symbols of modernity as computers, television sets, audio- and videotapes, which were ritually draped by the religious police from trees as satanic works of the infidels.” Randal may not have met bin Laden, but he has talked with many who have known the 47-year-old Saudi demiroyal over the years, and he provides details that have not been widely circulated: bin Laden is, strictly speaking, illegitimate, which has complicated his relationship with his half-siblings, whom the king of Saudi Arabia effectively adopted after their father’s death. His austerity separated him early on from others in his cohort, for bin Laden has been involved in some form of militant Islam since at least the 1970s, when “he showed little interest in the pleasures and experimentation that rich Saudi children indulge in at home and abroad.” He has attracted a huge following, but bin Laden would not have become a fundamentalist hero had the CIA not been around: Saudi Prince Bandar remembers that Osama thanked him for “bringing the Americans to help us” in Afghanistan—adding, “At that time, I thought he couldn’t lead eight ducks across the street.”
A masterful work of reporting, and of great importance in understanding the rise of modern Islamic terrorism and its singular personification.