A Moment of Candor From a Manipulator

Washington Post Foreign Service/December 14, 2001
By Michael Dobbs

A skillful manipulator of public opinion, Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden has always taken great care to tailor his message to his audience. But yesterday, a message clearly intended for a small group of hard-core Islamic supporters was aired on television stations around the world.

The result was a fascinating glimpse into bin Laden's motivations and character and the inner workings of his al Qaeda terrorist network. For the first time, a worldwide television audience was able to get an inside view of bin Laden chuckling over the deaths of thousands of people, including some of his own operatives.

"This is the first step in the demystification of bin Laden," said Fawaz Gerges, an expert in Islamic affairs at Sarah Lawrence College outside New York City. "What we saw was Osama bin Laden unedited. He came across as someone extremely coldblooded, very dangerous, and without any feelings at all, not just toward Americans, but also to Arabs and Muslims."

The hour-long video shows bin Laden exchanging impressions about the Sept. 11 attacks with a trusted visitor from Saudi Arabia. At one point, bin Laden announces that he had four days' notification of the suicide airliner hijackings, and was waiting by his radio for confirmation that they had been carried out.

The video, which was found in a house in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, carries a date stamp of Nov. 9, officials said. That was the day that the Taliban lost control of the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, the first in a string of defeats for the radical Islamic militia that had sheltered bin Laden. The Taliban fled the capital, Kabul, on Nov. 12.

In previous statements and interviews, bin Laden praised the hijackers as good Muslims carrying out the "will of Allah," but stopped short of claiming personal responsibility for the attacks in New York and Washington. His ambiguous stance permitted his Taliban hosts to argue that there was "no proof" of his involvement in the atrocities, and therefore no justification for handing him over to the United States -- a view shared by many Muslims, according to public opinion polls.

While some Muslim commentators said the videotape contained conclusive evidence of bin Laden's intimate involvement in planning the Sept. 11 attacks, others dismissed it as a U.S. government forgery. The satellite news channel al-Jazeera, which is based in Qatar and widely watched in the Arab world, aired an interview with a London-based expert on Islamic groups, Hani Subai, who pronounced the tape a crude "fabrication."

"It is shameful that the strongest nation in the world should be presenting this tape as proof," said Subai, arguing that bin Laden looked much "healthier" in the video than in recent pictures, with less gray hair. He said the decision to air the tape showed that the Bush administration had "no evidence" against bin Laden.

"My jaw drops when I hear such talk," said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, after watching the al-Jazeera broadcast. "There is no way a Muslim who wants to be honest about this can listen to bin Laden and say his language is moral, decent and humane."

Almost as revealing as the comments made by bin Laden on the videotape, according to El Fadl and others, was his demeanor as he made them. In the past, he has steered clear of expressing any emotion, and rarely smiles. In the video, he laughs frequently, and even smiles when he recalls that some of the hijackers were not aware of the nature of the operation until after they boarded the planes.

At another point in the video, bin Laden jokes about his supporters having dreams before the attacks about planes hitting a large building. He tells his visitor that he ordered one supporter to keep silent because he was worried that "the secret would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dream."

Other passages from the video provided terrorism experts with greater insight into how al Qaeda operations are carried out, and the relationship between the leadership in Afghanistan and the troops in the field. It seems clear from bin Laden's remarks that, while he was intimately involved in the attack on the World Trade Center, he gave his subordinates considerable latitude in the details of how it would be executed, including the precise timing.

"These are autonomous groups," said Mustafa Alani, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in London, referring to the units of men who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as earlier bombings of the USS Cole in Yemen and U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. "The high strategy comes from the center, but the details are planned by the groups."

Bin Laden confirmed the suspicion of U.S. investigators that the Sept. 11 attacks were led by an Egyptian-born hijacker, Mohamed Atta, who piloted the first plane that flew into the World Trade Center. He described Atta as a "member of the Egyptian family," evidently referring to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization, which formally merged with al Qaeda in 1998.

"We now know for certain that the Egyptian group was responsible for this operation," said Alani, noting the key role played by bin Laden's military commander, Mohammed Atef, an Egyptian and former policeman who is believed to have been killed in a U.S. bomb attack on Kabul.

Several remarks in the videotape suggest that al Qaeda operations are highly compartmentalized, with information about forthcoming attacks restricted to bin Laden and a few key aides. A top al Qaeda spokesman, Abu Guaith, was caught in the video saying he had learned about the attacks from a television broadcast, and rushed into the adjoining room to inform bin Laden.

"I tried to tell him about what I saw, but he made gesture with his hands, meaning: 'I know, I know.' "

Bin Laden also confirmed a theory developed by U.S. investigators that the hijackers were divided into two groups: brains and muscle. The brains consisted of pilots such as Atta who had trained for their mission over a lengthy period. The muscle was made up of dedicated al Qaeda foot soldiers largely ignorant of the nature of the operation.

"The brothers who conducted the operation, all they knew was that they have a martyrdom operation," bin Laden recalls. "We asked each of them to go to America but they didn't know anything about the operation, not even one letter."

Peter L. Bergen, author of "Holy War Inc.," a current best-selling biography of bin Laden, said he was struck by "the global nature" of bin Laden's ambitions. "It is clear from the tape that he wanted to provoke a global holy war, and a worldwide resurgence of Islam," said Bergen, citing a passage in which the Saudi dissident boasts about increased sales of Islamic books and large numbers of converts to Islam.

Contrary to earlier images of bin Laden speaking from a lonely mountain cave, the latest videotape shows him in an urban setting, in a comfortable-looking house. It is clear that until very recently he was able to keep in close and regular touch with his supporters around the world and received a constant stream of information.

"His command and control system seems tighter than we may have thought earlier," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorist expert with the Washington office of Rand Corp., a California-based research organization. "Despite the fact that the air campaign was well underway when this was filmed, he still seems to feel very safe."

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