BUG IN THE ELEPHANT'S EAR
For days after September 11, 2001, I wondered if Osama bin Laden, along with
the rest of the world, had watched the real-time footage of those fully fueled
airliners, hijacked by suicidal pilots and their henchmen, as they rammed into
the Pentagon and the twin towers of Manhattan's World Trade Center. For reasons
I still do not completely fathom, everything else about 9/11, as the attacks
soon were called, was subordinated for me to that possibility. Perhaps it was
that in years past, high up in his Afghan redoubt carved into the Hindu Kush, he
had indulged a rich man's fascination with gadgetry, delighting in showing
visitors his computers, satellite telephones and dishes and other high-tech
paraphernalia. Did he now savor life imitating art, a pastiche of kitsch reruns
of Hollywood horror movies complete with plummeting bodies, billowing flames,
imploding buildings, brave firemen rushing back up the stairs to their deaths?
Did he appreciate the novelty of doomed airline passengers describing their
predicament on state-of-the-art cell phones while other passengers heroically
rushed their captors, determined to deflect their airliner-turned-missile from
yet another landmark target?
At the time I doubted ironclad answers would be forthcoming. I was indulging in pure speculation, but speculation based on more than two frustrating years trying to figure Osama out. On past form, I felt, he would approve and perhaps claim he helped inspire, but still stop short of admitting he ordered, planned, much less micromanaged this extraordinary act of violence, guaranteeing his name a lasting footnote in the annals of terrorism. Such winking indirection had become his modus operandi stretching back almost a decade. It allowed him to insinuate a kind of global reach even when by any logical yardstick no irrefutable proof linked him to some of the acts of terrorism laid at his door. And, of course, in his mind at least, it distanced him from those he had organized.
Then less than a fortnight before Christmas, a grainy, partly inaudible amateur videotape was released by a hesitant Bush administration wary of its seeming suspiciously good luck in obtaining the improbably self-incriminating "mother of all smoking guns." For the administration, the cassette's contents were literally almost too good to be true.
Entertaining some fifty to sixty dinner guests in Kandahar just days before the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime in mid-November, an almost languid Osama was shown providing chapter and verse for a hanging judge's fantasy. Right down to the occasional chuckle and laugh, the chilling tale the lanky six-foot-four Saudi told without remorse would make even a nineteenth-century melodrama villain blanch in disbelief. And indeed disbelief was how much of the Muslim world greeted the cassette, whether out of denial, because the contents seemed too pat or because the doubters could not understand why Osama would have been so arrogant, careless or plain stupid to have said what the cassette had him saying.
(If anything, the outraged accusations of fraud were somewhat subdued, perhaps reflecting the then still recent defeat of the Taliban regime and the initial disruption of Osama's Al-Qaeda organization or at least of its frontline foot soldiers. Equally off-putting to the worldwide Muslim audience he assiduously courted was his single-minded interest in Saudi Arabia to the exclusion of Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya or other Islamic conflicts he normally championed.)
The Bush administration did not see fit to dispel the mystery of the cassette's provenance in an effort to bolster the credibility of its bona fides. For reasons elucidated neither at the time nor later, the U.S. government did no more than hint it had been found in a private house in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, had been rushed to Washington in late November, had been checked and double-checked and had provoked a sharp debate about the wisdom of releasing its overly providential contents. The government's hesitation and Muslim doubts were understandable because on the tape a coldly dispassionate Osama uncharacteristically corroborates key bits of information and surmises that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency and other investigators the world over had so painstakingly pieced together.
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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