He accurately listed the nationalities and sometimes the names of the nineteen-man suicide squad, all but four his Saudi compatriots. Osama confirmed the existence of four hijacking teams, rejoiced in the tradecraft that deliberately kept each in the dark about the others' existence. He explained their division between the four witting pilots and the Saudi "muscle" who, he chuckled, learned the exact nature of their suicide mission only "just before boarding" the four airliners to cow their passengers into submission with box cutters once the plane was in the air. Osama said he knew five days in advance that the operations would take place on September 11 and had a radio tuned in ready to hear the first plane hit the Trade Center's north tower.
"Be patient," he then told his "overjoyed" guests: more was to come, as it indeed did over the next hour or so. He recounted that in the planning stage his engineering training had helped him calculate the number of likely deaths from the explosive impact of a nearly fully fueled airliner on the twin towers' metal structures. He acknowledged his surprise that they collapsed completely. "All that we had hoped for," he allowed, was the destruction of "three or four floors" where the aircraft hit and those above the impact.
And, as it turned out, indeed I had been--almost--right about his watching the crashes on television. His spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, had turned on a television set in an adjoining room and seen the first run of the constantly repeated footage of the planes hitting the twin towers before excitedly summoning Osama. "I tried to tell him about what I saw," the spokesman recounted, "but he made a gesture with his hands, meaning: 'I know, I know.'"
The specialist literature long ago concluded that modern terrorism's objective was to inflict maximum casualties with maximum publicity. In those terms Osama had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. For days on end television screens the world over repeatedly showed the scenes of horror that consumed nearly 3,000 lives (and initially were feared to have killed more than twice as many). Yet his very success left a string of tantalizing questions unanswered. Logically, he must have realized that the United States would react--and massively. Yet perhaps his gift for meticulous reckoning finally had gone awry or his increasingly audacious acts of violence emboldened him to the point that he felt invulnerable. He had preached that the Americans were paper tigers so long and hard that he could be excused for relishing the disarray that overtook the U.S. government and kept a humiliated President George W. Bush out of Washington for nine embarrassing hours after the fourth and final airliner crashed in Pennsylvania.
Had such cocksure reasoning now convinced him the United States dared not mount a major punitive expedition in Afghanistan, where he had come to believe his own distorted propaganda claims that his Arab volunteers all but single-handedly defeated the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s? Osama was not alone in suggesting the dangers of a new foreign intervention in Afghanistan. Russian veterans warned the United States of the horrors they had experienced there. Those tales of Afghan savagery and resentment of foreigners, reinforced by nineteenth-century massacres of British troops at Afghan hands, had played no small role in dissuading President Bill Clinton and his successor from mounting a major military operation to punish the increasingly cheeky Taliban regime and its Al-Qaeda guests. (In fact, high-tech American weaponry, combined with wads of cash and local Afghan allies, initially routed the foot soldiers of Osama's Al-Qaeda organization and its Taliban protectors with surprising ease and speed in what more properly should be called a campaign rather than a war. If there was going to be an Afghan quagmire, more likely than not it would take the form of trying to maintain a modicum of law and order on the cheap rather than investing in the "nation-building" that was so doctrinally repugnant to the administration.)
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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