Skip to main content

Osama Bin Laden Biography Goes Inside Al-Qaida Leader's Final Hideout

As the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks approaches, a new biography by journalist Peter Bergen traces Osama bin Laden's path from a shy, religious teenager to the leader of a global jihadist group dedicated to mass murder.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.

When Navy SEALs shot Osama bin Laden in that 2011 raid in Pakistan, to confirm his identity, they compared his face to one in photos they were carrying, and they noticed a discrepancy. The Osama in the photos had a gray beard. The beard on the man before them was jet-black. The reason - bin Laden had been using Just For Men hair dye. That's one of the details you'll find in a new book about bin Laden by our guest, Peter Bergen.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Bergen is publishing a biography of the founder of al-Qaida. Bergen has spent much of his career reporting on al-Qaida and the global jihadist movement. In 1997, he traveled to Afghanistan for CNN to produce the first television interview of bin Laden. He's published six previous books, including several about al-Qaida, and he was the only journalist to get inside bin Laden's compound after the U.S. raid before it was demolished.

His new book is based in part on materials seized in the raid and on hundreds of interviews, including conversations with a dozen of bin Laden's inner circle. Bergen writes in the new book that he wanted to understand why bin Laden created an organization dedicated to the mass murder of civilians.

Peter Bergen is still a national security analyst for CNN. He's also vice president for Global Studies & Fellows at the think tank New America. And he's a professor at Arizona State University, where he co-directs the Center on the Future of War. His new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

Well, Peter Bergen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You've written so much about Osama bin Laden. What kind of new source material were you able to draw on on this new research?

PETER BERGEN: Well, the key to all this was it was only in late 2017 that the Trump administration released the 470,000 files that were recovered in Abbottabad, Pakistan, included in which was something that was described by the CIA as bin Laden's journal. It turned out to be something slightly different. It's all handwritten in Arabic. It was the - kind of a family journal that the bin Laden family kept essentially in the last several weeks of bin Laden's life. And it's a kind of good window into, you know, both what he was thinking at the time and also what his two older wives were thinking and his adult children, because they basically were kind of perplexed about what to do about the events of the Arab Spring, which bin Laden well understood as the most important event, you know, in the Middle East arguably in centuries - was his own view of it. And yet, you know, his ideas, his followers were absent in at least the, you know, the first several months of the Arab Spring.

DAVIES: Right. There's a lot of fascinating material here about those last months before the U.S. raid in Pakistan. At this compound where bin Laden was hiding, you know, he was, I guess, the most hunted man on Earth at that point. And he had a lot of people living with him. How many? Who were they?

BERGEN: Well, the total is 27 - 16 of his own family and 11 - he had two bodyguards and their families. So, you know, typically when we think of a fugitive, we don't think of a fugitive taking three wives and a dozen kids and grandkids with them. But bin Laden - you know, one of the themes of the book is bin Laden, for all his many vices and, you know, all the evil that he - and death and destruction that he caused, he was something of a family man, and he wanted to have his family around him. And, in fact, the folks at the CIA who were really tracking bin Laden, knew him the best - you know, the fact that he - this mysterious group of people who were living at this compound seemed to include many family members, you know, for them, that was a tell that it might well be bin Laden because bin Laden had always had at least three or four wives with him at any given moment, despite the fact that - you know, even when he was living in exile in Sudan in the '90s and then in Afghanistan in the five years before 9/11. He was surrounded by family members despite the risks of - you know, even before 9/11, he was, you know, very much wanted by the United States. So he had this, you know, sort of significant entourage.

DAVIES: I mean, it's understating it to say he was security conscious. What kind of restrictions did he impose on all of these, you know, wives, grandchildren, the bodyguards, their families?

BERGEN: Well, interestingly, it was a prison of his own making, and he was the chief warden, in a sense. And he himself, the - you know, was extremely careful about what he did. He would walk around the garden with a cowboy hat on so that nobody could recognize him if there was a satellite overhead. He had a healthy respect for American spy capabilities. And, you know, his family members were not leaving the compound. He never left the compound. In fact, he was hiding to such a degree that one of the bodyguards' wives wasn't aware that it was Osama bin Laden living amongst them, even though she herself was living on the same compound. And one time bin Laden appeared on TV, and one of the daughters - 9-year-old daughters of a bodyguard asked, you know, kind of isn't that the guy who's living here (laughter)? And at that point, the bodyguard kind of got rid of the TV and told his daughter, you know, not to talk about this and also, you know, prevented contact with the bin Laden family. So bin Laden was hiding from people on his own compound.

DAVIES: These two guys that were working there are sometimes described as bodyguards. They were really much more than that, right?

BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, you know, bin Laden didn't treat them particularly well. One of the interesting things that comes out of these documents is how angry they were (laughter) about - you know, basically they were being paid $100 a month in local currency. Bin Laden had always been something of a miser. And, you know, they were taking these enormous risks, looking after the world's most wanted man and his family members. And they were very concerned. They were concerned that they would be found. They were telling bin Laden he couldn't bring additional family members into the compound. His third wife, who'd been living under house arrest in Iran, showed up, and the bodyguards said they wouldn't go and pick her up and bring her into the compound. In the end, she appeared at the compound against sort of the better judgment of the bodyguards.

And bin Laden was - at one point actually wrote a formal letter to the bodyguards on January 15, 2011, a few months before he was killed, saying, you know, I understand that our disagreements have become so profound that even though you live on the same compound, I'm writing you this formal letter to kind of acknowledge what we've agreed, which is, you know, let me find new protectors. And, of course, bin Laden would also have to leave this compound that he so carefully planned, with its 18-foot walls in places, to go somewhere else because the compound itself was registered in a - in one of the bodyguards' names. So his relations with the two people who were really keeping al-Qaida and him afloat were really beginning to fray in the last several months of his life.

DAVIES: Yeah, you would think someone who you relied so - in so many ways on to keep you safe, you might pay a little better and treat a little better. I mean, the compound was registered in their names, right? They burned their own trash there, right? They grew a lot of their own food. Did anybody ever leave, or did the kids go to school?

BERGEN: The kids were home-schooled. You know, one of the kind of interesting things about the book is the extent to which bin Laden's two older wives played such an important role in his life because two of them had Ph.D.s, which I think might be surprising to some listeners who may sort of assume that bin Laden was not going to marry kind of highly educated women. One had a Ph.D. in child psychology. Another one had a Ph.D. in Quranic grammar. And so they were - these two older wives were home-schooling the kids. And they'd been doing this for years, even before 9/11. Bin Laden - you know, it's not like in Afghanistan, bin Laden was sending his kids to school before 9/11. And these wives were also playing an important part in kind of helping bin Laden think through complicated strategic problems that related to kind of the future direction of al-Qaida.

DAVIES: There was no internet access there. Is that right? I mean, could people watch television, listen to the radio?

BERGEN: They could watch Al Jazeera on satellite TV. And bin Laden watched a lot of Al Jazeera because, of course, he was, you know, kind of a news junkie. When a female announcer came on screen, he would kind of get his remote and flip up kind of the screen guide so it covered her face. They took the whole kind of concept of separation of men and women so much to heart that when men came on the TV, the women would leave the room. But, yeah, they would certainly watch some television. And, in fact, you know, amongst many - the 470,000 files I mentioned that were released at the end of 2017 by the Trump administration, there was quite a number of cartoons that the kids were watching. So they watched TV, but, you know, it was kind of limited to news and cartoons.

DAVIES: So how did he manage relationships with all these wives in this place? Did they have their own living space? Did he spend time in bedrooms, alternating ways with each of them?

BERGEN: You know, I mean, the night he was killed, it was Amal's, quote, "turn with a sheikh."

DAVIES: Amal was the youngest wife, right?

BERGEN: Amal was the youngest wife. And so the night he was killed, it was Amal's turn with a sheikh - the way they referred to bin Laden was a sheikh, an honorific title. And so, yeah, they clearly had turns with bin Laden. He viewed his wives as - you know, if you can treat them all equitably, you're allowed to have the four wives that the Quran sanctions. And so bin Laden would - in each house he was in, he would create spaces for each of his wives. They would each have their own bedroom. They would each have their own kind of rudimentary kitchen. When I visited the Abbottabad compound before it was demolished in 2012, you know, I could see that each wife had her own little - she had her bedroom, her bathroom and then her own kind of crude kitchen. They were not living in any great luxury, but bin Laden certainly was trying to treat each of his wives equitably.

DAVIES: Right. And there's this little detail of him using Just For Men hair dye on his beard. Do we know why?

BERGEN: You know, vanity, I think (laughter). You know, he also would use - you know, when he did his videos, he would apply - often apply - he wanted to look younger. I mean, the guy was - when he died - when bin Laden died, he was 54, but he certainly looked a lot older in reality. So, you know, he was using Just For Men hair dye. When I visited the compound, I actually saw what was in his bedroom, the bedroom in which he was killed. And I saw, you know, in his toilet area, Just For Men hair dye.

And, you know, he was vain. I mean, he was very kind of conscious of his media appearances. He would, you know, sometimes get people to redo takes. And he would often - you can - in the videos that were released by the Trump administration in December 2017 that came out of the compound, you know, he would do multiple takes of, you know, his speeches. He would - he was very interested in micromanaging kind of the way that he appeared in the media. So I think that the fact he was dyeing his hair, dyeing his beard, you know, isn't that surprising.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Peter Bergen. His new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Peter Bergen. He's a journalist and author who's written several books about al-Qaida and other jihadist movements. His new book is a biography of Osama bin Laden called "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

You know, the months before Osama bin Laden's death in 2011 was the beginning of the Arab Spring, I mean, this outburst of Democratic aspiration and activity. How did bin Laden regard these developments?

BERGEN: You know, with great excitement. He wrote one of his top deputies, this is probably the most important development in the Middle East in centuries. But he was also perplexed about what to do about these great events because he was cognizant of the fact that the protesters that - you know, in the streets of Cairo or in the streets of Tunisia were not waving banners of bin Laden demanding, you know, Taliban-style theocracies. They were demanding kind of universal human rights - the rights to assembly, free speech - you know, not to live under an authoritarian, corrupt government.

So, you know, bin Laden really was kind of thinking through about, how do I respond to this? Well, how can I position myself to be relevant? What can I say about it? And, in fact, you know, the Arab Spring, by the time bin Laden - you know, starts, really, you know, in January of 2011. He's killed in May of 2011. You know, I think the fact that he never really was able to produce a statement addressing the events of the Arab Spring during his lifetime kind of speaks for itself because he just didn't quite know what to say, how to position himself as leader of the Arab Spring.

There was - two weeks after he died, posthumously, al-Qaida released a tape in which he did talk about the events of the Arab Spring, and he made some very sort of general comments about, you know, these great events. And, you know, he wanted to play a role, but it's not like he could contribute very, you know, great ideas to these events because the protesters were not demanding kind of what al-Qaida was offering, which is essentially - you know, bin Laden's vision of the future was Taliban-style theocracies from Indonesia to Morocco. And the protesters in the Arab Spring, that was not what they were interested in.

DAVIES: Yeah. It must have been so frustrating to him, to a man who had had such impact 10 years earlier, to kind of be a bystander to history.

BERGEN: I think it was frustrating. When you look at this - so there's a - the 228-page bin Laden family journal. They began writing the journal several weeks before bin Laden died. And basically, every night, they would gather before dinner and sometimes after dinner, as well, and sort of discuss the events of the day. You know, they talked about the revolutions in Tunisia, the - you know, the revolution in Egypt, the uprisings against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. And, you know, bin Laden was, you know, watching a lot of Al Jazeera and listening to a lot of - and watching a lot of BBC and kind of absorbing a lot of the news. And he would then sort of have meetings with his two oldest wives and his two oldest daughters and oldest son, and they would talk through kind of what had happened that day.

But they were preparing a speech that bin Laden would give. And, you know, they were very excited about this speech because they thought that bin Laden could - you know, it was kind of a crazy idea, but they thought that once bin Laden delivered the speech that somehow he would become one of the leaders of the Arab Spring. And bin Laden's big idea was that, you know, he would kind of suggest that a council of kind of religious elders would kind of be convened to advise the new governments in the Arab world. Of course, there was no demand for this idea, but this was the idea that he alighted upon.

He was also considering issuing some kind of mea culpa to the Muslim world about - he was very cognizant of the fact that al-Qaida and its affiliates had killed many Muslim civilians, whether al-Qaida in Iraq or al-Shabaab in Somalia. And he felt that this was damaging al-Qaida's kind of brand in the Muslim world. And so he was also contemplating issuing some kind of public apologia, saying, you know, basically, we're a group that is committed not to killing Muslims.

And he never delivered that message, but it was certainly something that he was very interested in delivering in the context of the Arab Spring and also in the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11, because bin Laden was also very cognizant that that was coming up very soon, that he - it was a good moment to reposition al-Qaida, this kind of kinder and gentler al-Qaida that he was hoping to create.

DAVIES: It's interesting that they'd spent so long in this place that was very isolated. And I wonder if it could sort of breed a kind of delusion that this guy who nobody really wanted to hear from very much was the man of the hour and whose words, you know, could move history.

BERGEN: Yeah, I mean, I think that these were delusions, and I quote - I mean, bin Laden was deluded about a lot of things. First of all, he was deluded about the American reaction to 9/11. He had no idea that the United States was really going to go into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban. And, you know, there was kind of an ex post facto kind of gloss he put on what happened, sort of saying this was all a clever, diabolical plan to bring the United States into the Middle East and kind of bankrupt the United States.

But really, that was not his plan at all. He thought 9/11 would push the United States out of the Middle East and then all the client regimes of the United States, such as the Saudi's regime, would fall. So, I mean, he had a bunch of delusions. They started with kind of what the American reaction would be to 9/11. They continued with, you know, when he was on the run, about - you know, basically he believed that, you know, al-Qaida would be able to mount another attack on the United States. He was very hopeful about this.

And, you know, he seemed not to want to understand that al-Qaida had basically been, you know, largely decimated in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I quote one of his longtime associates in the book, who said that of the 1,900 Arab fighters who were living in Afghanistan, you know, at the time of 9/11, 1,600 of them were killed or captured in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And there was other people in al-Qaida who understood that the 9/11 attacks had been sort of a kamikaze mission for al-Qaida.

And bin Laden was telling them, you know, you need to kill President Barack Obama or kill General David Petraeus or don't bother with then-Vice President Joe Biden, because he's not prepared to be president. But he was sort of inciting them to do these attacks, and, you know, who was going to do that? And I quote James Clapper, who was the director of National Intelligence at the time of bin Laden's death, who said, you know, he reminded him a little bit of Hitler, you know, moving around these divisions at the end of World War II that didn't exist.

DAVIES: You know, there's a view that's, I guess, somewhat widely held that the Pakistanis must have known where bin Laden was and must have been hiding him or assisting in his hiding or turning a blind eye. What does your research say?

BERGEN: I mean, it's hard to prove negatives, but I mean, as far as I can tell, there's just simply no evidence for that view. You know, bin Laden was hiding from people that were living with him on the compound. He was extremely paranoid. There was no reason for him to inform somebody in the Pakistani government about where he was. In fact, al-Qaida took a very hostile view of the Pakistani government, was planning military operations against Pakistani targets. Bin Laden, in the 470,000 files that have been released publicly from Abbottabad - there is simply no evidence that bin Laden was being protected by Pakistani officials, was in communication with Pakistani officials, that Pakistani officials knew where he was.

So the reason I think this view arises is, you know, he was living relatively close to Pakistan's equivalent of West Point. And so people sort of say, well, the Pakistanis must have known, but, in fact, they were as befuddled by the fact that he was living in Abbottabad as anybody else. And in fact, the United States was listening in on Pakistani communications the night that bin Laden died. And Pakistani leaders were clearly kind of sort of finding the situation very strange and didn't understand what was going on. So there's no evidence that bin Laden was being protected by Pakistani officials. It's a widespread view, but that doesn't mean it's true.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me re-introduce you again. We are speaking with Peter Bergen. He's an author and journalist who spent years studying al-Qaida and other jihadist movements. His new book is a biography of bin Laden. It's called "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden." We'll talk more after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Peter Bergen, a journalist and author who's written several books about al-Qaida and other jihadist movements. His new book, based in part on materials seized in the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed, is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

You write about his early life. And this is interesting stuff. I mean, he came from a wealthy family. The money was from this construction company that his father founded. He became a close friend of the Saudi royal family. And they became enormously rich. What kind of relationship did Osama bin Laden have with his two parents?

BERGEN: Well, with his father, Mohammed bin Laden, who founded this - you know, basically came to Saudi Arabia in 1930, just before, you know, this huge gush of petrodollars landed on the kingdom. And, you know, he adeptly kind of took advantage of that to become the largest construction magnate in the Saudi kingdom. Bin Laden's relationship with his father was, I think, virtually nonexistent. I mean, this is a - you know, bin Laden had 54 siblings. And bin Laden's father married his mother in Syria when she was a teenager. He was - bin Laden's father was around 50 when they got married. And bin Laden barely saw his father. It looks like he only met with his father five times in his entire life. His father died when bin Laden was 10. Bin Laden appears to have had only one one-on-one meeting with his father.

And so, you know - and the parents divorced when bin Laden was only 2. So his relationship with his father was nonexistent, really. But he did believe that he was kind of fulfilling an important mission of his father. His father supposedly said that, you know, one of his sons would sort of fight jihad, holy war. And bin Laden felt that he was kind of fulfilling his father's wishes. His relationship with his mother was very warm. You know, he would kiss her hands. He would make small talk with her. He'd compliment her on, like - on her cooking. He always remained very, very close to her even when he was on the run in Sudan and Afghanistan in the '90s. He - you know, he would communicate with her to the extent that he could. So he had a very warm relationship with his mother.

DAVIES: So he grew up in this family that had enormous wealth. And, you know, some wealthy Middle Eastern families would send their children to be educated in Western countries, many in the United States. And many were known for a very lavish lifestyle. There's a photo you have in the book. It's really this remarkable photo of, I guess, maybe, 20 or so members of the bin Laden family on vacation in Sweden in 1971. You want to describe this photo and why you included it?

BERGEN: This is a pretty well-known photo of the bin Laden family on vacation. I think there were 23 bin Laden siblings in the picture, one of whom may be Osama bin Laden. There's some debate about it. But the larger point is is that Salem bin Laden, who took over the family - the oldest brother - took over the family business when his father, Mohammed bin Laden, died in a plane crash. You know, he was a very Westernized guy. He bought a house in Orlando, kind of an estate. He, you know, basically played the guitar. He'd play "Where Have All The Flowers Gone" and these kinds of 1960s hits. So he was extremely Americanized, as were so many members of the family. And in this photo, I think, the reason I included it was, you know, all the women are not covered. There are - you know, the guys have got all these kind of 1970s hippies' kind of outfits on.

I think it just shows that, you know - one of the interesting puzzles is bin Laden had 54 siblings. None of them chose the path that bin Laden did. And so if one of the questions I'm trying to answer in the book is - why did he go down this path? - this photo, I think, is kind of an interesting kind of counterpoint, which shows that, you know, nothing is inevitable in any of our lives. None of the 22 siblings who are in this picture of Osama bin Laden, you know, none of them chose a life of jihad. And, in fact, a quarter of bin Laden's siblings were educated in the United States. They owed their money, their fortune, in many ways, to the marriage of convenience between the United States and the Saudi kingdom, which is, you know, based on the oil business. And most of the family were, you know, not at all anti-American.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's fascinating. I mean, the kids in this picture here, they got bellbottoms and sideburns and all this stuff.

BERGEN: (Laughter).

DAVIES: Osama bin Laden worked for the family construction company a lot. You describe that he would actually drive bulldozers. Do we know why he turned so resolutely towards religion?

BERGEN: You know, that's a puzzle. And, I mean, I try not to do too much armchair psychology in the book because, you know, I'm not a psychologist. And, you know, I'm interested in how bin Laden got to where he became. Answering the why is kind of a more complex question. But in his own account to his family, he said the death of his father turned him - made him more religious. His father died when he was 10 in a plane crash. Bin Laden told his family members that he began studying the Quran. At a certain point, he memorized the entire Quran, which is quite a feat of memory, as there are 6,000 or so verses in the Quran. So I sort of take bin Laden in his own, you know, account that he told his family, I take that at face value, that his father died. Even though he really spent no time with his father, he felt close to his father.

He was always kind of a solemn and grave kid. The death of his father made him more solemn and more grave, turned him towards religion. By the time he's a teenager, as I recount in the book, he - you know, he's fasting twice a week. He's saying an extra set of prayers that is not required in - you know, required in the Quran. In the middle of the night, he is - you know, like, he's a religious zealot as a teenager, which is kind of unusual. When he brings his buddies over to - you know, to play, they chant songs about Palestine, not the sort of typical kind of, you know, behavior that you see in a teenager. So I think the death of his father made him more religious. And he kept going down that path.

DAVIES: The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was clearly a transformative event in his life. He would have been in his early 20s then. And he had money, right? He had his share of the family inheritance. And so he spent a lot of it assisting the Afghan resistance forces, eventually goes there and becomes a military leader himself. He wants to organize, you know, Arabs who were motivated to come and, you know, drive the Russians out of Afghanistan into a military force. And, of course, most of those who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan were not Arabs. They were, you know, Pashtun-speaking Afghans, I guess. What kind of impact did bin Laden have as a military leader in Afghanistan? And how did he spin it? How did he play it in creating his image?

BERGEN: You know, I mean, he - at the height of the war against the Soviets, there might have been 300 Arab - so-called Afghan Arabs - on the battlefield. Meanwhile, there were, you know, somewhere between 175,000 to 250,000 Afghans at any moment fighting the Soviets. So the Arabs had virtually no impact on - in any - you know, strategically or even operationally on the war in Afghanistan.

But in bin Laden's mind, there was no doubt that he himself fought with almost suicidal bravery against the Soviets. In 1987, he and some of his kind of followers set up a military camp quite near a Soviet base, and they fought for, you know, two or three weeks against Soviet special forces. But, you know, bin Laden - but bin Laden set up this military camp. It didn't have any strategic impact on the war. The Afghans don't really need help with fighting. But in bin Laden's mind, you know, the - his Arabs - the people, his followers - you know, helped defeat a superpower.

I think this was absolutely delusional, one of many delusions he had. But it was a delusion that he felt very strongly and was shared by others because, you know, journalists came to cover bin Laden, including Jamal Khashoggi, who, of course, was murdered by the Saudis in 2018 in Istanbul. But Jamal Khashoggi was the first mainstream journalist to cover bin Laden and wrote a, you know, pretty massive piece in Arabic and in English documenting bin Laden and his efforts.

And, you know, bear in mind that there were several thousand members of the Saudi royal family, none of whom were fighting in Afghanistan. And here is bin Laden, a member of a prominent Saudi family, fighting himself personally against the Soviets and recruiting people to fight against the Soviets. And so it was kind of a heroic story. And there's no doubt that bin Laden fought, you know, with some bravery. But, you know, what effect did it have on the larger war? The answer is virtually nothing.

DAVIES: You write that he formed al-Qaida - there are actually documents that show this - I guess in 1988, moves to Sudan and operates there and eventually is forced to leave because he's creating problems with the Saudi regime. And they, you know, exert pressure to get - to force him to leave. He relocates in Afghanistan. And in this period, he's angry about American troops intervening after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He doesn't like to see all these American troops in Muslim countries. And he begins planning mass attacks that will kill large numbers of civilians. Do we know why he chose that approach?

BERGEN: You know, the why questions are very difficult in history; you know, why bin Laden went down the path he did. I try and explain to the reader, how did he get there? Because I think how is perhaps a more clear way of explaining it. So I think there was nothing inevitable about how, you know, bin Laden, this shy (ph) religious teenager, then becomes a leader of a group dedicated to mass murder. There were a series of events that kept pushing him further and further down the path of radicalization. And each one of them, you know, if he - you know, he could have chosen a different path at several points in his life.

But the introduction of American troops into Saudi Arabia turned his sort of latent anti-Americanism into kind of a passionate hatred of the United States. And, you know, he decided that, you know, the best approach to getting the United States out of Saudi Arabia was to use violence. And he was influenced by the fact that in 1983, Hezbollah attacked the Marine barracks in Beirut, killed 241 American service personnel, and, you know, the Reagan administration pulled out of Lebanon as a result. So he used that. He saw that as sort of a model. He thought that with sufficient military pressure on the United States that we, the United States, would pull out of Saudi Arabia and other places in the Middle East where American troops are based. That, of course, was a delusion. It didn't work.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with journalist and author Peter Bergen. His new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with journalist and author Peter Bergen. He's written several books about al-Qaida and other jihadist movements. His new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

A lot was written about the Bush administration's failure to respond to warnings about al-Qaida before the 9/11 attacks. That's been written about a lot. You've taken a really close look at it. As you looked at this material, should they have been more aware of what the intelligence community was coming up with?

BERGEN: I mean, the short answer is yes. I mean, the volume of strategic warning from - what it was - what's the purpose of the CIA is to provide strategic warning to policymakers. And the CIA was sending all sorts of classified warnings during the summer of 2000 and warned about the threat from bin Laden. Of course, they didn't know - you know, there was no information about where and when this attack might happen. But, you know, there's the famous August the 6 presidential daily brief in which - which was titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack In The U.S." You know, that was briefed to President Bush at his ranch in Texas. He didn't really do anything about it in order to - you know, his - the group of people around him just didn't consider bin Laden, al-Qaida, a real threat. They were concerned about Iraq. They were concerned about other issues.

The CIA did make one quite major error, which was they knew that two odd (ph) members of al-Qaida were living in the United States. They didn't inform the FBI in any meaningful manner or watch list these guys until just a couple of weeks before 9/11. So they certainly - there was a tactical mistake that the CIA made. Quite a number of CIA employees were aware of this information, didn't act on it. But from a strategic point of view, the CIA provided plenty of warning in the summer of 2001 that al-Qaida was planning some kind of major attack against American interests.

DAVIES: And then, of course, after 9/11, I mean, there was the invasion of Afghanistan. And the United States relied on alliances with Afghan warlords to attack the Taliban. And there was a point where Osama bin Laden was holed up in the caves of the remote Tora Bora region, which he knew so well. They were - there was heavy bombing. But he managed to slip away. And the Bush administration was criticized for this. What do you make of this? Should - did they have the capacity to track him down and prevent him from fleeing?

BERGEN: You know, I spent a fair amount of time in Tora Bora, which is up - mountains go up to 14,000 feet. It's six miles by six miles. It's on the border of Pakistan, the very porous border. So, you know, the fact is it's not an easy place to kind of cordon off. But the United States never tried. And to me, it's surprising. The World Trade Center pile of debris was literally still smoking on December 12, 2001, which is the day that bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora. It's also the same day that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was getting briefed about the future Iraq war plans by the Pentagon. And to me, that sort of speaks for itself. Here is the architect of 9/11 escaping. And Donald Rumsfeld is getting briefed on the Iraq war plans. So that shows you where their head was at. And there was plenty of information, well-known, at the time that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, but no will to get him. There were more journalists at the battle of Tora Bora by my count than there were American soldiers. There were about 100 journalists covering the battle and about 70 American soldiers in total.

DAVIES: Hate to ask you to play what if, but, yeah, what if bin Laden had been killed or captured then right after 9/11? How might the war of terror have played out differently?

BERGEN: Well, I think, you know, it's a great what-if. I mean, and - I mean, I think a few things. One, I think it would've been harder to make the case to go to war against Iraq, because part of the case that was made by the Bush administration that, somehow, Iraq and al-Qaida were allied, which wasn't true. But if bin Laden was already gone, the supposed alliance between al-Qaida and Iraq would have been much less relevant. I think if al-Qaida - you know, if bin Laden had been captured, perhaps it would have been easier to make a peace deal with the Taliban if al-Qaida was no longer so relevant.

It would have been sort of a punctuation mark to sort of say, you know, we don't - you know, we went to get bin Laden. We got him. He went on to lead al-Qaida for another 10 years. He went on to be an inspirational figure to, you know, jihadists around the world. Al-Qaida itself went on to, you know, carry out attacks in the West - for instance, the London attacks of July 7, 2005, which killed 52 commuters on the London transportation system. All these things might not have happened if bin Laden had been captured or killed at the battle of Tora Bora. Of course, he wasn't. He slipped away at 11 o'clock at night on December 12, 2001. He went on to live for another decade.

DAVIES: You know, one subject which I think you do address pretty rigorously is the question of whether coercive interrogation techniques, which were adopted by, you know, U.S. forces, were effective in fighting al-Qaida.

BERGEN: Yeah. And I use the word coercive interrogation because I don't use the word torture. Torture is in - no one can deny that coercive interrogation techniques were used by the CIA. Some people might debate whether they amount to torture or not. So I - rather than using the word torture, I use the word coercive interrogations. They were, of course, largely used by the CIA. I conclude, based on all the facts that are known, that they were pretty ineffective in terms of finding bin Laden. The CIA says that they were useful in eliciting certain information.

But if you look at the five key members of al-Qaida who were asked about bin Laden and who were subjected to coercive interrogation techniques, they all provided false information about bin Laden's whereabouts or no information. And so the CIA sort of - certain members of the CIA - former members of the CIA defend the coercive interrogation techniques, saying, well, you know, they did work. And in some cases, even though they didn't provide bin Laden's location, the fact that they were lying about bin Laden's location when they provided useful information about other questions sort of proves that they worked. I don't - to me, there's a kind of logic flow problem with that response.

Now, there is an important caveat here. One of the members of al-Qaida who was interrogated was interrogated in Guantanamo. And he was not interrogated in the CIA interrogation program. And he gave up some useful information about the courier, who was known as Kuwaiti, the bodyguard that led to bin Laden. But I can tell you that the story of finding bin Laden was an Agatha Christie story. It wasn't sort of - there was one particular detainee who suddenly had all the information. It was really a series of some information from detainees, some of which was found through just conventional interrogation techniques before they were brought into the purview of the CIA. And then there were, you know, signals intercepts. And there were information from foreign governments. And there was all sorts of other breaks in the case that led, eventually, to the compound in Abbottabad where bin Laden was hidden.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Peter Bergen. His new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Peter Bergen. He's a journalist and author who's written several books about al-Qaida and other jihadist movements. His new book is a biography of Osama bin Laden called "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

You wrote recently that President Biden's speech explaining his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was the worst of his presidency. And, yeah, it seems clear that the Taliban is advancing. You know, I guess the question is, on the other side, you know, is it effective for the United States to be in a place like this? You know, troops that don't speak the local languages and don't know the local customs can make mistakes. And there's a long history of billions spent on projects that don't get much done. What sort of future would there be for Afghanistan with a continued U.S. presence?

BERGEN: You know, we're still in South Korea 75 years-plus after the end of the Korean War, and there are 25,000-plus American troops there. South Korea is not Afghanistan, but South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world at the end of the Korean War in 1953. And now it's one of the richest. Afghanistan isn't South Korea. But the point is is that, you know, under an American national security umbrella, any number of countries have done quite well, whether that's South Korea or Germany or Japan. And I think Afghanistan - you know, we know what went wrong. It's well known. But there were many things that went right. You know, girls could go to school. Women could have jobs. There's a very healthy independent media with literally hundreds of TV and radio stations in Afghanistan. Child mortality rates have plummeted. I mean, there are a lot of things that have gone right.

And by the - you know, 20 years is not that long a time for, you know, for real change to take place. I mean, the good thing is from - is that there's a whole new generation of Afghans - it's one of the youngest countries in the world. You know, I think 70% of the population is under the age of 25. There is no nostalgia amongst this group, really, to go back to the Taliban. So the Taliban, I don't think, will be able to take over Afghanistan. My concern is that there's going to be a very brutal civil war that will make the previous war that has been going on in Afghanistan since 9/11 look like a croquet match by comparison.

DAVIES: This question of whether al-Qaida and the Taliban were - you know, what their relationship is has come up over the years. I mean, you know, Osama bin Laden had plenty of trouble with the leaders of the Taliban when when he was there. Did any of the documents that were captured in the raid in Pakistan tell us more about the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban?

BERGEN: They did. And, you know, one of the documents is bin Laden sent a letter to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, just months before bin Laden was killed, in which he sort of said, you know, hang on in - hang in there because, you know, the Americans are planning to leave. And, you know, it was a letter basically designed to sort of buck up Mullah Omar's spirits. And there were also other letters to members of the Taliban by - from leaders of al-Qaida. There was also proof that they were funding elements of the Taliban. They also planned joint military operations with the Taliban, including one against Bagram Air Force Base, which is this huge Air Force - American Air Force base in central Afghanistan, which the raid carried out by one branch of the Taliban and al-Qaida happened in 2010.

So I think there's plenty of information in the documents that were released from the Abbottabad compound that showed that al-Qaida and the Taliban remained having cordial relations, that they - al-Qaida was financing elements of the Taliban, was instructing elements of the Taliban about what to do. They were cooperating on joint operations.

And then, you know, fast-forward to today. The United Nations, in June, released a report about relations between al-Qaida and the Taliban, describing them as, quote, "very close." They even said that the relations have got stronger. So there was a lot of wishful thinking about the Taliban and al-Qaida. You know, the Trump administration started peace negotiations with the Taliban in 2018, which were predicated on the idea al-Qaida and the Taliban had separated, would separate. And that was all nonsense and a charade. And I think that we will see that the Taliban are, you know, recruiting foreign fighters from around the Muslim world that - you know, the split screen on 9/11 will be the Taliban, you know, taking over chunks of Afghanistan using American military equipment that they've seized and, you know, reading the names of the victims of 9/11 at the World Trade Center site. And, you know, I can't imagine a worse split screen, but I think that is likely what we will see.

DAVIES: Peter Bergen, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

BERGEN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Peter Bergen is a national security analyst for CNN. He's also vice president for global studies and fellows at the think tank New America and a professor at Arizona State University. His new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

On tomorrow's show, we'll talk with The New Yorker's Jane Mayer about the national conservative groups that funded the ballot audit in Arizona, claiming the vote was fraudulent. In her new article, "The Big Money Behind The Big Lie," Mayer writes that those wealthy conservatives now want to let state legislators overturn elections. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue