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Was a family feud the reason for the crumbling of Osama bin Laden’s empire? An interview with Adrian Levy

Hindustan Times logo Hindustan Times 16-07-2017
The image of deceased Taliban leader Osama bin Laden appears on screen at the Democratic National Convention in September 2012. © Corbis: Shawn Thew, EPA The image of deceased Taliban leader Osama bin Laden appears on screen at the Democratic National Convention in September 2012.

Investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark’s explosive new book The Exile is an insider look at Osama bin Laden and the workings of Al-Qaeda. In an interview with Brunch, Adrian talks about meeting Osama’s family, how the Bush administration could have apprehended him long ago, and their next true crime series featuring Mumbai’s top cop.

Your book pieces together an inti-mate portrait of Osama bin Laden – starting from his frustrations of not being able to watch 9/11 on TV in the hills of Khost, Afghanistan, to the final showdown in Abbottabad. Would you say the ‘Sheikh’ (as Osama was called) was ultimately compromised because of the love of his family?

He was compromised because of his messianic vision of himself and his ego. He started his journey in The Exile with one wife and one child, having all but abandoned the other three wives to their fates in Afghanistan. However, when all were reunited, their house in a Pakistan garrison required quiet, but instead got was the chaos of more children. The clan grew harder to conceal, and the guardians, known as the Kuwaiti brothers, grew ill from stress, finally serving Osama with an eviction notice. He talked his way out of it in April 2011, and proudly told his wives he had done it. Only for the US to raid in May. There were other impacts too. When Osama only had three wives they were a relatively stable unit. That despite him being an egotistical and abusive father who subjected his wives and kids to great hardships. Several of the boys suffering from Aspergers-like conditions or Hydrocephalus that he would not permit to be treated. He married off his girls at puberty to create new military pacts, and Khadijah, one of them, died in childbirth in Waziristan.

Finally, Osama chose to marry a child as his fourth wife – Amal, from Yemen. This decision threw the family unit into chaos. The other wives were furious, and called this Osama’s mid-life crisis. The result was that many close advisers, including the head of security, left him. The wives grew fractious, as did the kids.

Tell us about your interactions with Osama’s family...

We met many of the wives and children, the religious mentors and strategists. All meetings came about after years of playing footsie – edging towards people who required massive reassurances. They were all, finally, bright, funny and as preoccupied by their appearances as any celebrity anywhere. But also paranoid. The wives and children had been dragged into a conflict not of their own choosing and left at the end stateless – without travel documents or nationality. The children found themselves without skills and also unemployable.

You also state that the Bush administration could have apprehended Osama, his family and top aides, but chose not to. Why?

From 2002, almost the entire religious shura of Al-Qaeda and the military council, plus most of Osama’s family were sheltering in Iran. The Revolutionary Guards offered them sanctuary, but also viewed them as bargaining chips. In 2001, Iran had shown itself to be leaning towards the West by facilitating the Bonn Conference, where it helped the US install Hamid Karzai as the President of post-Taliban Afghanistan. But Bush responded by making his infamous 2002 Axis of Evil speech in which he floored his special advisors and envoys to the region by placing Iran inside that axis. That speech crushed the reformist in Iran, and raised the game of the hardliners, who would soon get Ahmadinejad into power as President. And, slam doors on the US. Before then, the reformists tried once more and offered up virtually all of Al-Qaeda. The final offer came early 2003. However, Vice President Dick Cheney put the kibosh on the deal, as he was focussed on invading Iraq, which he said had weapons of mass destruction, and assisted Al-Qaeda. Many countries (inside and outside the sub-continent) benefit from enabling insurgencies far more than they do by squashing them. Pakistan and the US prefer certain wars to run long. India too. There is a war dividend.

© Provided by Hindustan Times

Have you faced any threats to your life after the publication of your investigative books?

Between every book we vanish. We cannot go on social media. We cannot advertise our research or the places we travel to. We cannot post pictures of children or family events. We have to be quiet – in our own research purdah. Here we live, slowly mining, accruing, gathering – and it can be super-frustrating. You want to shout. I know this, I have that. I met so and so. But no one can know. Until we are ready. Human frailty requires that our egos be stroked, but in these works you have to reject bragging for actually building truths.

What are you working on next?

We’re now working on a true crime series out of Mumbai called Bombay Lieutenant, which will raise a few eyebrows. Two decades of IS med-dling, organised criminals, corrupt politicians and sportsmen – all of them in one of the world’s greatest cities. And a cop – who right now we can’t name. Watch this space.

From HT Brunch, July 16, 2017

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