He was a nice, quiet boy, a loner, kept pretty much to himself. Then he got a little funny in the head—but we never saw it coming.
So suggests Osama bin Laden’s high-school English teacher, remembering him as “extraordinarily courteous . . . probably partly because he was a bit shyer than most of the other students.” From shy teenager to world-renowned criminal: The career arc that CNN correspondent Bergen’s oral history describes surely seemed unlikely to the wealthy Saudis among whom bin Laden came of age, though all the signs were there; a neighbor, for instance, recalls that though bin Laden was fond of Westerns and kung-fu movies, he was also a priggish fundamentalist who dreamed of liberating Palestine and chided his siblings for ogling the maid and wearing short-sleeve shirts. He translated that fundamentalist drive into military action by funding and fighting alongside the anti-Soviet mujahedeen of Afghanistan, though he later made the “odd” decision to form the predominantly Arab force called al Qaeda. The accounts of his fellow soldiers and of veterans of al Qaeda, some taken from trial transcripts and intelligence reports, point to bin Laden as something of a failure as a strategist; his closest friend from university chided him in Afghanistan for his willingness to spend his soldiers’ lives, saying, “You can throw away the Koran, but not drop the blood of a person,” while even al Qaeda members characterized him as “a madman from a mental hospital, a madman but a genius.” All recent accounts agree, however, that bin Laden outfoxed his American pursuers in post-9/11 Afghanistan and is very much alive, though he will gladly fight to the death as a martyr for Islam: “I am just a poor slave of God,” he told Al-Jazeera. “If I live or die, the war will continue.”
Know your enemy, the adage goes. This is a most helpful resource.