Osama bin-Laden Interview, June 1999: Entering the Mind of an Adversary
Osama bin-Laden's news medium of choice, the Al-Jazeera television network, has enabled him to converse in a religious style of Arabic used by learned men of theology in Saudi Arabia. Al-Jazeera correspondent Jamal Abdul-Latif Ismail, author of Bin Laden, Al-Jazeera, and I (Bin Laaden wa al-Jazeerah wa Ana) conducted a most insightful interview with Bin-Laden in 1999.1 This essay focuses on excerpts from this interview and helps the reader understand the meaning behind Bin-Laden's words.
Getting the Interview
Ismail begins his book by describing how he obtained interviews with Bin-Laden and the number two al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Getting to Bin-Laden involved many false starts and required working with contacts in London, Cairo, and Peshawar: an al-Qaeda operative would set up an interview with Ismail then abruptly cancel it. It is important to understand that Ayman Al-Zawahiri and members of his Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) orchestrated media events. Al-Zawahiri, who has a keen understanding of the power of media, imagery, and slogans, is a prolific writer about the past and future of Islamic militancy. His book Knights Under the Prophet's Banner is required reading for those who wish to understand al-Qaeda.2 The book explains the rationale behind Al-Zawahiri's strategic shift from attacking Egypt to directly attacking the United States.
Ismail dealt with several al-Qaeda front men before landing the interview with Bin-Laden. Meetings at hotels and telephone calls at specified times finally resulted in Ismail's contact with Al-Zawahiri via telephone. Ismail was taken to many safe houses and never knew if he was temporarily stopping for a rest or if this was the place his interview would occur. It took 16 months to secure a face-to-face interview with Bin-Laden. Bin-Laden no longer grants personal interviews, no doubt because al-Qaeda used a hit team posing as a television crew on 9 September 2001 to assassinate Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood in Afghanistan. Bin-Laden now videotapes his messages.
Interview and Assessment
Ismail's interview affords much insight into Bin-Laden's ego, mind, and psyche. Bin-Laden uses symbols and imagery that requires interpretation and chooses words carefully to create a mystique and image for Arab audiences. Excerpts from the interview follow:
Ismail: Who is Osama bin-Laden, and what does he want?
Bin-Laden: Praise be to Allah, Usama bin Muhammed bin Awad bin Laden was by Allah's grace born to Muslim parents on the Arabian Peninsula in the Malaaz District of Riyadh in the year 1377 Hejirah . With Allah's grace, we went to Medina 6 months after my birth. I then spent my entire life in the Hijaz between Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah.
My father Sheikh Muhammed bin Awad bin Laden was born in Hadramaut and left to work in the Hijaz over 70 years ago. With Allah's grace, he was given an honor not bestowed on any contractor and that is the building of the holy mosque in Mecca, which contains the blessed Kaaba. [Muslims believe this is the first House of God established by the Prophet Abraham.] He then undertook the construction of the prophet's mosque in Medina. When the Jordanian government announced a bid to renovate the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem, he gathered all his architects and engineers and asked them to place a bid without any profit. They insisted that they could submit a competitive bid and make a little profit on this project. So, may Allah have mercy on his soul, he further reduced the bid in order to guarantee serving this project. It is with Allah's grace that he would occasionally pray in all three mosques in one day. It is no secret that he was one of the founders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's infrastructure.
After this I studied in the Hijaz and majored in economics at Jeddah University or what is called King Abdul-Aziz University, I learned early the inner-workings of my father's company, may Allah bless him, despite the fact that my father died when I was 10 years old, this is briefly who Osama bin-Laden is. …