If Osama had planned his own endgame, was he resigned to his fate and even anxious to embrace the martyrdom he had so helped popularize? He may have reckoned that he and Al-Qaeda could not reasonably hope to match, much less outdo, 9/11. With his health then rumored to be undermined by an implacable kidney affliction and an often-incurable heart condition called Marfan's syndrome that threatens early death, had he decided to bow out at the top of his form, at age forty-four, rather than risk an uncertain future that might tarnish his legend? Such was the subject of endless speculation and the stuff of a myth that he and his followers were intent on creating.
But in the practical world what mattered immediately was that Osama, deliberately or by miscalculation, had acted like a Muslim Samson. He had brought the temple down on his Taliban hosts and jeopardized the peerless Afghan sanctuary that had allowed his Al-Qaeda to grow without serious challenge and to extend its operations virtually worldwide. The tantalizing mystery of his fate masked that reality. Inconclusive mountain battles and collusion with like-minded Islamic radicals in Pakistan helped maintain the illusion of intact Al-Qaeda discipline and strength. Well into 2002, Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives found refuge in the wild and wooly tribal areas along the Afghan border in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, which had scarcely changed since Kipling's day. Yet the Pakistanis caught hundreds of his operatives, many of them mere foot soldiers, and turned them over to the Americans. In April his key young lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, was wounded and captured in a shoot-out 200 miles to the east, in Faisalabad, near the Indian frontier. In September Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a key cog in the Hamburg cell entrusted with the 9/11 operation, was captured in teeming Karachi, Pakistan's chaotic and lawless principal port.
Indeed there is a world of difference between having the free run of an entire country and the uncertainties of clandestine refuge in Pakistan and elsewhere. Whatever Al-Qaeda's long-standing connections, Pakistan now was run by a general who had stopped openly flirting with Islamist radicals and had thrown in his lot with Washington only days after September 11. Until then, ever since Osama had returned to Jalalabad in 1996, he had done pretty much what he wanted in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Money and old networks stitched together nearly twenty years earlier during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan stood him in good stead in both countries.
Osama had come so very far since the 1980s, when he had arrived in Afghanistan as an untested youth with little experience but great ambitions. He, who then had been manipulated, had become a past master of flattery, influencing, even threatening those he needed for his purposes. Over the years he had learned to cut corners while still projecting to his followers the image of an uncompromisingly pure man of action. For all his outward devotion to the details of obscurantist Islamic practice, he thought nothing of transgressing his Taliban hosts' puritanical rules. Not for him were Taliban prohibitions on such symbols of modernity as computers, television sets, audio- and videotapes, which were ritually draped by the religious police from trees as satanic works of the infidels.
Above all else, he had been careful to cultivate Mullah Mohammed Omar, the rustic one-eyed Pashtun Taliban leader who one day in Kandahar had donned the cloak that legend claimed was the Prophet's own, thus proclaiming himself the commander of the faithful. In some American circles it became popular to insist that Osama had turned Mullah Omar into his malleable creature. Initially, the record showed no more than that Osama was indeed constantly careful to keep him sweet. Osama supplied him with fancy four-wheel-drive vehicles, cash and flattery, for he knew his own precarious presence in Afghanistan depended solely on Mullah Omar's sufferance. Osama was well aware that some hardheaded Taliban leaders had sought to persuade Mullah Omar to jettison a foreigner who, for all his Islamic credentials in the war against the Red Army, increasingly represented a mortal danger to their regime.
Excerpted from Osama by Jonathan Randal Copyright© 2004 by Jonathan Randal. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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