Sep 07, 2002

Getting Inside the Mind of bin Laden

Getting Inside the Mind of Bin Laden
By Peter Bergen
The Guardian (London)
September 7, 2002

I quit my job at CNN in the autumn of 1999, to start working full time on a book about Osama bin Laden. I had become interested in the mysterious multimillionaire Saudi after I met him in eastern Afghanistan in 1997, and spent most of the next four years trying to understand the man. Finally, at the end of August last year, I gave my manuscript to my publisher. Having worked for more than a decade in the news business there were many things I did not understand about publishing, not least the seemingly geological time scale on which publishers work. When I handed in the manuscript, my editor told me that they would be publishing the book in 10 months. I found this somewhat surprising. As I told my agent, “A lot of things can change in 10 months.” I had a strong hunch that Bin Laden was planning another attack against an American target and that it would happen long before the slated publication date of my book. The clearest signal was a two-hour al-Qaida propaganda videotape then circulating around the Middle East. I had acquired a copy of the tape three weeks before the Trade Centre attacks and had it translated. It was an eye-opener. It was the most wide-ranging distillation of Bin Laden’s views, and predicted additional anti-American actions. One of my sources told me: “These threats on the videotape are genuine. Bin Laden’s followers are making preparations against more than one American target.”

I was so sure that an al-Qaida attack was in the offing that I wrote a letter on August 17 to a reporter at The New York Times. I began it: “I think there is a major story to be told wrapping around the new Bin Laden videotape and the various threats against US facilities . . . and (which) responsibly suggest that an al-Qaida attack is in the works.” On the morning of September 11 2001, I watched in horror as the planes struck the World Trade Centre.

A day or so later my editor called to talk about the book. We both agreed that the old publication date made no sense. We needed to get it out as soon as possible. And there was also the small matter of recalibrating the tone and content. In the interests of attracting readers to a tome about the hitherto largely obscure phenomenon of al-Qaida I had included a good number of travelogue scenes. Much of those would have to be cut, as levity had little place in an exegesis of a mass murderer and his organisation.

And my previous conclusions about al-Qaida were simply wrong. In the old version of the book I had written: “In past years the likelihood that a US citizen will die at the hands of a terrorist has actually receded. An American . . . is more likely to be killed by a dog, or a bolt of lightning, than by an act of terrorism.” Get me Rewrite!

Copyright: 2002 The Guardian (London)



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"We Got Him": President Obama, Bin Laden, and the Future of the War on Terror, CNN