by Florian Flade
Abdel Bari Atwan walking with Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora, November 1996 (Copyright Abdel Bari Atwan)
The chief editor of the London-based Arab newspaper „Al-Quds Al-Arabi“, Abdel Bari Atwan, met Osama Bin Laden in November 1996 and lived three days with him in the caves of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Fifteen years later the Al-Qaida leader was killed by a US commando raid in Pakistan. I spoke to Abdel Bari Atwan, whom I also interviewed last September on Bin Laden, to ask him about his thoughts on the killing and the impact of Bin Ladens death on the al-Qaida network.
Mr.Atwan, were you surprised when you heard the news the United States was able to find and kill Osama Bin Laden?
I did expect that one day the Americans would reach them. They have a huge intelligence service, huge intelligence equipment, it is not only the Americans, it was everyone looking for him. So he cannot hide forever. A single mistake will lead to his capture or death, no question about that. What surprised me is the ambiguity about the whole operation. The Americans were not straight forward to tell us what happened. We haven´t seen the corpse, we haven´t seen the body, and also the details about the operations kept changing. Once they said he was in a luxury house, a mansion, now we discover it was very humble. They said to us he used his wife as a human shield – no he was unarmed and he did not resist. His wife was injured. They buried him in the sea which is very strange. According to Islamic Sharia law it doesn´t say he should be buried in the sea.
Where you surprised about the location where Bin Laden was hiding for the last few years?
I was surprised, also about the Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) and the government could not discover these helicopters. Why did they fail to detect the raid? That means a military academy like this, a ammunition factory like this, is not well guarded?. Does that mean also the nuclear weapons are not well guarded? It is a affront to the Pakistani government unless they knew about it and the Americans say the Pakistanis didn´t know about it. For the Americans to come and to kill an important man like this and go away and take his body and the body of his son without the Pakistani government to know about this – this is ridicules.
Do you think the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI or the government knew where Bin Laden was hiding?
I don´t believe the Pakistanis knew where he is. They would not commit such a strange thing because this will effect the relation with the United States which is already deteriorating, that´s my first impression. the Pakistani government harboring him or keeping silent about him will create huge problems with the United States. The Pakistanis don´t have a secret. If they were hiding Bin Laden, the US would know because the Americans have infiltrated the intel and would know about it.
Did Bin Laden choose the city of Abbottabad as a hideout because of the big military presence – did he think he was safe from an American assassination in such area?
Actually I also kept saying that Osama Bin Laden is not in the tribal areas, he would be in a city in Pakistan or other parts of the world. He is very clever, he wouldn´t stay in an area were the Americans are looking for him. What made me believe that was the fact that most of his men were arrested in Pakistani cities: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was arrested in Rawalpindi, Ramzi Binalshibh in Karachi, Abu Zubaydah was in Faisalabad. Most of his men were in Pakistani cities not in the tribal areas. So it is logically that he is in one of the Pakistani cities. To choose a place that is close to the military academy shows that he is quiet clever. He choose that place knowing that nobody will look in that area particular.
Bin Laden was family man: Are you surprised there was family with him in the Abbottabad compound?
No, because he was not staying there by choice, he was forced to stay there. He could not move freely, the longer he stayed, it was secure for him. We don´t know about what his family will tell, we only heard the American side of the story. What we have is: he was in the house. But was he permanently in the house? Was he only visiting his family in the house and was traced? We don´t know, yet.
Do you think conspiracy theories will be around until al-Qaida confirms the death or the US President released the picture of Bin Laden´s body?
There will be alot of ambiguity for a long time. We have to see what the Americans will say, we have to have proves and pictures are not good enough…
…there are many fake pictures already spreading.
Yes. We need an independent observer. Why didn´t we see the corpse itself? Why was it not shown to the international media? It is very important to have independent verification of the American story. Second, we are waiting for al-Qaida to confirm that he was killed. Maybe Osama Bin Laden was abducted by the Americans and killed later? They say he was buried in the sea: Do we have any proof of that? Nobody told us, just very briefly. The conspiracy theories will be very thrive. People will believe he is still alive, they wouldn´t believe he was killed even though they Americans raided his place. They will say he is with them, being interrogated by them.
Was the alleged burial in the ocean a smart idea?
It is un-islamic and un-human to throw his body in the sea to the sharks. Simply because in Islam if somebody dies on land, he has to be buried on land. They buried Saddam Hussein when they hanged him, they buried his sons when they shot them dead. They buried Abu Mussab az-Zarqawi when he was killed. And the Nazis, who where more dangerous than Osama Bin Laden, they face a trial and they were buried.
The argument was the US did not want his grave to become a place of worship – which makes no sense because Salafi-Islam does not allow grave-worship.
No, Salafi-Islam does not allow that, and he is a Salafi, so he himself wouldn´t allow any shrine for him. It would be against his will.
Does the killing of Osama Bin Laden make a difference to al-Qaida?
No, he was completely irrelevant to al-Qaida in the last 10 years, he was probably not running day-to-day affairs. He was caring about his personal safety, not to be abducted or killed. He was not in direct contact with his people. Second, al-Qaida is different today. Al-Qaida transformed after September 11th 2001, it became a flat and loose organization with many branches: we have al-Qaida in Yemen which is very strong, which has Anwar al-Awlaki who is a very radical preacher, we have Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who is the head of al-Qaida in Yemen, we have al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb, which is very dangerous and managed to acquire weapons after the Libyan regime collapsed, this will make it very lethal because it is also close to Europe. We have al-Qaida in Somalia, al-Qaida in Afghanistan still, we have al-Qaida in Pakistan – we have different al-Qaidas with different leadership. If Bin Laden was operational very irrelevant and we have now Zawahiri as the successor, this will make al-Qaida more radical. This man is a very dangerous man, he has a operational brain, he was behind transforming al-Qaida from a small local organization to a global organization.
Do you think al-Qaida will elect Dr.Zawahiri as its new Amir?
We don´t know yet. We know there is Majlis ash-Shura, the leadership council of al-Qaida, and there are many unknown members, we don´t know who they are. So there will definitely be a meeting of this council and they will elect a new leader. There has never been a situation like that because Osama Bin Laden was the founder and only leader of al-Qaida. We don´t know if they will announce a new leader, but we will see who will be taking care of the organization. I think Zawahiri will be the de-facto leader of al-Qaida.
Was killing him a huge favor to Bin Laden to turn him into martyr not only a hero to his followers?
I remember when I interviewed him in November 1996 I asked him: What is your greatest wish in life? And he said: „Do die as a martyr and to join my companions in heaven.“ It seems President Obama fulfilled his first wish which is to die as a martyr. The second wish, to go to paradise, I think that is up to God.
To his followers he was a hero since September 11th 2001, he already was „larger than life“ for them, right?
He is adored by his followers, I spent ten days with them. He laughed with them, they look at him very very highly. He is a man from the wealthiest family in the Arab world and he gave up all of this to go and fight in the causes he believed in. He was very humble, sitting with them, eating with them, living a very harsh life. He doesn´t need the Americans to kill him and make him into a hero, no, he is a hero to them for a very long time.
Is it possible for al-Qaida to replace Bin Laden?
He is irreplaceable and was irrelevant at the same time, because he was not actually running the al-Qaida organization. He was a head-figure, a spiritual leader, a ideologist, but regarding the organization it was functioning without him.
Do you think Bin Laden was more a Prophet-figure to us than he was to his followers? They knew he would die but there reason for Jihad will remain.
Osama Bin Laden is a human and one day he will day. The organization has transformed, it is not what it used to be. They have local commanders who judge things and they do not need to consult with Osama Bin Laden before they carry out any attacks or kidnappings. His disappearance will not effect the organization to a huge extent.
Do you think today´s al-Qaida is capable of carrying out a revenge attack?
I believe al-Qaida will organize a huge revenge for their leader. It takes time. Maybe there will be some quick personal revenge by individuals but they will plan for something big. And I think Zawahiri will work on that because Osama Bin Laden was very dear to him and he will not leave it without huge actions.
What do you think about the alleged will of Osama Bin Laden as it was mentioned in the media?
It is fake. It is a Saudi fabrication.
Do you think there is an authentic will?
These people don´t leave wills unless he recorded it. If you remember the 9/11 hijackers, they left wills because they were going for a suicidal mission but I don´t know, maybe he did the same. If there is one, we will see it soon.