Bin Laden after 9/11

The Exile
The Stunning Inside Story of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Flight
Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy
619 pages; Rs 699

What did Osama Bin Laden do for nearly a decade after the Americans invaded Afghanistan in October, 2001 and ousted him from the Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan? There were Elvis sightings from China to Spain. How about Santa Monica, someone joked. His assassination by a US Navy SEAL team on May 1, 2011, revealed the embarrassing fact that he had been hiding not far from Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad. 

What was he doing in a country supposedly allied to the superpower against which he had authorised the most audacious terrorist attack? The received truth from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), selectively culled from documents scooped up from the Abbottabad hideaway, was that the world’s most wanted terrorist had become a feeble, ailing man presiding over a declining movement. 

Al Qaeda, the CIA said, was on its last legs, its leaders jailed, dead or dispersed. America’s War on Terror had worked, we were invited to infer. We know now that this is grossly untrue. In the opaque world of Islamic jihad, the rapacious head-chopping Islamic State may have dominated the headlines since 2014, but its ideological parent (and adversary), Al Qaeda, remains a force to be reckoned with. 

The Exile, a doorstopper of a book, tells you how and why by filling in the blanks between Bin Laden’s escape and death. It is a vintage Cathy Scott-Clark-Adrian Levy production, with fine investigative reportage and extensive research – including 64 pages of notes – form-fitted into a page-turning narrative. 

If you’ve been following the story, the book covers familiar ground but certainly clarifies the superpower bungling and deep-state rivalry that has sustained the West Asian crisis.  Though the ISI’s role in sheltering Bin Laden is incontrovertibly proved here, the lingering question of whether Pakistan’s military was complicit or plain incompetent in its “ignorance” of the Abbottabad raid remains unanswered. Scholars may have to wait till 2031 for clearer answers. Even so, The Exile is a valuable addition to 9/11 literature because it contains critical clues to the future of this epic struggle. 

As with their two India-related books The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel and The Meadow – Ms Scott-Clark and Mr Levy are even-handed in their approach. In place of the obtuse “clash of civilisations” template favoured by many western journalists, the authors take care to weigh the human costs of geo-political rivalries. 

Details of the CIA’s horrific “rendition” programme are a case in point. Accounts of waterboarding, beatings, electrocution and sexual humiliation were assiduously covered by the media. The authors tell us what it really meant for the victims by reproducing sections of a diary one 9/11 conspirator, Abu Zubaydah, was allowed to keep and which the authors obtained from his lawyer. The festering rage of his long humiliation is indelibly etched in an author photo of Mr Zubaydah, a “forever prisoner” at Guantanamo, as is his mentor and 9/11 mastermind, the Pakistani Khalid Shaikh Mohammad.  

Ms Scott-Clark and Mr Levy capture, too, the toll 9/11 took on Bin Laden’s four wives, numerous children and grandchildren and associates. Today, they live in semi-seclusion in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia under the protection of Bin Laden’s older brother or in Doha, Qatar. All bear a heavy psychological burden of Bin Laden’s fugitive life. For instance, when the children were given toys they did not how to play, having spent their formative years in hiding.

The larger story, which unfolds chronologically, is embedded with thought-provoking information. “The Planes Operation,” as Bin Laden called the 9/11 plot, did not enjoy whole-hearted support from within the Al Qaeda shura, or council, because most feared the consequences of US retribution (a spot-on prognosis).

The close collaboration of the jihadi biradari also finds confirmation here. Cornered by US special forces in Tora Bora, Bin Laden’s escape was not just a result of ham-handed Bush-Cheney policy that encouraged General Tommy Franks to withhold reinforcements. The Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) helped with its December 2001 attack on Indian Parliament. 

Led by Masood Azhar, the terrorist India released after the hijack of Indian Airlines flight 814 in 1999, JeM’s diversionary assault caused crack Pakistani troops from Tora Bora to be redeployed to the eastern border to deal with India’s military build-up there. Mr Azhar is described here memorably as a “fat Punjabi with a reedy voice” who had pledged assistance to Bin Laden. 

The real sit-up fact in this book is the role of the Iranian deep state, represented by the fearsome Quds Force led by the hard-line anti-American General Qassem Suleimani. Most of Bin Laden’s family and key Al Qaeda leaders were under protective house arrest in Iran, and Quds Force also provided escape routes from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Why would a Shia power help Sunni terrorists? It was a calculation predicated on the regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia and its US ally plus insurance against Al Qaeda attacks. Qatar plays a central role as a financial conduit.  

There is plenty of jaw-dropping detail, some of it tantalisingly incomplete, suggesting other lines of inquiry for Ms Scott-Clark and Mr Levy to pursue. The terror funding network is one, and the suspicion surrounding Bin Laden’s influential second wife, Khairiah, who was incarcerated in Teheran for nine years before being released to join her husband at Abbottabad is another. The SEAL team raid occurred just days after her arrival.  

You read about Bin Laden’s hapless attempts to rein in the Islamic State, the evolution of the atomised nature of terrorist attacks, the genesis of the Saudi-Qatar crisis and Iranian duplicity. And now, Hamzah, “Osama’s most stridently religious son” who US forces mistakenly thought they had killed at Abbottabad, is mobilising Al Qaeda again under the tutelage of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, his father’s successor, and calling for attacks on America, Saudi Arabia and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad….

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel