Boyhood friend struggles with bin Laden's terror

Batarfi says bin Laden used to like Western movies

CNN/August 21, 2006
By Henry Schuster

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia -- Khaled Batarfi thought his teenage friend Osama was capable of many things.

He would become the next Bill Gates or follow in his father's footsteps and become one of the most successful businessmen in the Middle East. That was his picture of the young bin Laden's potential.

Batarfi never thought his friend would become the man the world knows as Osama bin Laden -- a leader of a terrorist organization and a man who plans and carries out mass murder.

As we sat for an interview on a quiet street in their old neighborhood in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Batarfi told me of his reaction after 9/11, when it became apparent that bin Laden was behind the plot.

"I was shocked ... couldn't believe it. It's like you, you have a sweet boy, you knew him all his life and then he left. And then, now finally he's killing man number one in the world," Batarfi told CNN as part of an upcoming documentary, "In the Footsteps of bin Laden".

Batarfi is the managing editor of al-Madinah, one of Saudi Arabia's leading newspapers. He has lived in the United States and has made his way successfully in the world.

He is also a man who grew up with bin Laden.

The boy he knew

Batarfi describes the bin Laden he knew as a quiet teenager who liked karate movies, drove an American car, went to the mosque several times a day and commanded respect in his own quiet way.

From the way bin Laden's family lived, Batarfi said you would never have known bin Laden's father was one of the richest and most successful men in Saudi Arabia.

As boys in the neighborhood, they played plenty of soccer. Batarfi was the captain of the neighborhood team; bin Laden answered to him.

One day they were in a tough neighborhood and Batarfi wandered off the soccer field for a rest. Someone else on the team came running over and said bin Laden was being roughed up by an opposing player.

"I went running to -- to the guy, and I pushed him away from Osama and solved [the] problem this way. But then Osama came to me, and said, 'You know, if you waited a few minutes, I would have solved the problem peacefully.'"

That incident stands out in his mind all these years later. A boy who wanted to make peace, a boy who wanted to avoid violence.

Becoming 'more and more religious'

Even then, he said, bin Laden was captivated by a religion-oriented goal. This was after Israel had taken full control of Jerusalem, including the Muslim holy mosque al-Aqsa during the Six Day War in 1967.

"He would talk more about that and more how we could, we should prepare ourselves for that day, the liberation of Jerusalem by not being too soft," Batarfi said.

" ... And by being more, being tougher, learning some skills, swimming, for example, outdoor activities, things like horse riding, going to the desert instead of going to the beach for the weekend, living kind of [a] tougher life. He would do that himself and then invite us to his camps."

Bin Laden was preparing himself. But he had not yet found his true cause.

Batarfi and bin Laden lost touch, as boys often do as they grow into young men with their own interests.

Bin Laden went off to a university and became more religious. He also began to work for his father on building projects around the Saudi kingdom.

After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, bin Laden found his cause.

And in their few encounters during that time, Batarfi noticed a change in his childhood friend.

Bin Laden would invite him to meetings where he spoke to Saudis about the war in Afghanistan, trying to raise money and encourage young men to go and fight there.

"Every time he came back from Afghanistan, I felt he became more and more religious and more assertive in his ways: less shy, more talkative, more expressive. More sure of himself."

The child was becoming the man, but still not the man behind 9/11.

Same smile, different message

As Batarfi tries to understand the man his friend has become, he used his hands to make his point.

It was not an elevator ride, he said, raising his hands straight up. He didn't just go from here to there in one quick motion.

More like climbing stairs, Batarfi believes, using his hands to cut a series of steps in the air.

One of the biggest steps he thinks was fighting in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden invited his friend several times to visit him in Afghanistan, to see the war against the Soviets. Batarfi never went.

But now he imagines that the violence, the fighting, the culture changed bin Laden.

"He killed men and being hunted to be killed and living in caves, looking for a home, couldn't find a home -- cut from his family, cut from his friends, cut from his original life. So anything could happen to men in this environment.

"Soldiers go to war innocent and come back from war different people."

Batarfi said this is not to excuse bin Laden, but to understand him.

September 11, 2001, was a shock to Batarfi, yet he believes bin Laden when he says he was behind it. Many Saudis don't, but his childhood friend does.

In his heart and head, Batarfi believes the boy he once knew has become capable of terrible things. When he sees videos of bin Laden, he feels terribly sad.

"He still had the same voice, the same smile, the same way of talking.

"Only the message is different now."

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