Osama bin Laden: Past, Present, and Future

Question: Who were Osama’s mentors?

Steve Coll: Immediately after his father’s death he sort of went to a day school, a prep school, in Jeddah, the only one to an international modern standard in the kingdom at the time and he was essentially recruited in to an Islamic group by a charismatic Syrian gym teacher at his prep school who mentored him and taught him and essentially indoctrinated him in to the Muslim brotherhood. And that was the beginning of a series of relationships with mentors, essentially professional mentors, that seemed also to have a sort of personal role in his life, Abdullah Assam, who was the collaborator and cofounder of the precursor organization to al Qaeda during the anti-Soviet war, Ayman al-Zawahiri, later the Egyptian who co-founded al-Qaeda with him. Though Zawahiri was his deputy, he was also in a sort of biographical sense also a mentor and a kind of a patron of Osama. The overall narrative is maybe not too surprising but worth just sketching, which is he’s a shy, privileged, wealthy young man who is recruited into international Islamic radicalism and is mentored and doted on primarily at first because of his money and his older, more ambitious mentors want access to what he has, not only his own deep pockets but also the fundraising world that he can open up in Saudi Arabia, but gradually as he ages and as he matures he either overthrows his mentors or slowly separates from them and develops his own ambition and his own very full, egotistical sense of his own capabilities. And I don’t think in the end he is a prisoner of his mentors. I think instead he sort of grows beyond them by and large, even Zawahiri.

Question: How do you think he perceives his role?

Steve Coll:  Well, you can see he’s always- he’s often been a creature of media and has yearned to be heard and this-, particularly as he came in to his own and decided that he had a role to play in this narrative that he imagined he had been called in to by God and where he was drawn also for reasons of his own ambition. He had an intuition about brand building and about media that was really one of his core talents and one of his core insights and a source of much of his innovation and achievement, and after 9/11 he had to repress some of those instincts because it was too risky to go on television as often as he might like. You can see him when he comes forward. Even after periods of silence he comes forward with a video or he comes forward with an audio tape and if you read through the text of everything he’s been saying since 9/11 when he does surface to talk or you look at those videotapes you have the impression of someone who’s in hiding but has access to a lot of media. He’s reading--  He’s clearly reading books. He clearly has access to the news whether it’s on the internet or on satellite television and he’s- and you- sometimes you almost have the sense that he’s watching President Bush on television make a speech and he just gets- he gets, “I got to talk. I got to say something. Bring my media guy.”  And then he goes and he makes a speech and he’s almost talking back to the global media. So I do think there’s- there is clearly an impulse that he has to be heard. That’s how he’s always conceived his role, as a vanguard, someone who stimulates and encourages others, not as someone who needs to control a political organization or be the boss but someone who inspires.

Question: Is Osama’s son preparing to take over?

Steve Coll:  Yeah. It sort of confirms the little bits of information that were available about his family’s circumstances in this period of exile. Osama has had at least four or five wives. The wives that are known are- have all returned to their home countries. I believe almost all of his daughters if not all of his daughters have also returned home. He has perhaps a dozen or more sons and of those some have returned home and some were believed, like Hamza, to be in exile with him if- perhaps living with him, perhaps living near him. There was an exchange between Osama and his son, Hamza, on the- on Jihadi web sites in late 2001 where Osama essentially wrote a letter to Hamza in the form of a last will and testament. And so Hamza along with a couple of other sons have clearly been with him. They’ve appeared in videos before as young Jihadis even at ages nine and ten. By now Hamza I guess--  I don’t know what the video shows today but I would guess he is about 16 or 17 and so he would have been one of the three or four that you would have guessed was roughly wherever Osama’s hiding along the Pak-Afghan frontier that Hamza is out there, too. Probably Laden and Mohammed and a couple others are out there as well.

Question: What does he make of his portrayal in American media?

Steve Coll: He clearly reads accounts. He’s not interested in his own biography and in fact he- he’s frustrating as a subject because he won’t talk about himself even- but as a political figure, as a militant, he’s very interested in his international reputation and he often mocks those who he thinks misinterprets him. So an example that I’m sympathetic to is that the cliché version of him and his leadership and his movement wants to locate him in a cave in a place where he is- he’s just completely looking backward and is isolated from globalization and from modern technology. And an expression of this has been the theory that maybe he was sending coded messages when he spoke on television and he wrote- he gave this very funny--I think he wrote it--this very funny essay where he mocked all these American analysts who think that he has to scrawl- imbed code inside his messages as if he’s living in area of carrier pigeons. And he basically says, “Look. I’ve got access to e-mail. I can e-mail people when I want to tell them what to do. I can call them. I’m living in the same world you’re living in. Stop trying to think that I’m using pigeons to communicate my messages.”  So I think he does get frustrated with some of those images.

Question: Where do you think bin Laden is today?

Steve Coll:  I think he’s along the Afghan-Pakistan border and I sometimes try to play a sort of- this parlor game that you could play with people who watch al-Qaeda or the- pay attention to the search for bin Laden. Suppose someone walks in to the room right now and says, “Osama’s been captured” or “Someone just hit him with a predator.”  You say, “Okay. Interesting. Don’t tell me where. Put a map up on the wall. Take a pin. Put the pin in the map and ten people closest to the hole wins. Where--  Who can come closest to where he actually was? And so where would you put your pin?”  And I would probably put it in north Waziristan around Miranshah and along the border. There’s an area there controlled by the Harkani[ph?] clan that he has long roots in. There are some risks to him if he stays in that area and so maybe it’s a little too busy and a little too trafficked. An alternative place where some other smart people who know the intelligence they tend to put their pins just a little bit north of that in Bajaur but it’s basically a general area around the federally administered tribal areas. Probably more north than south would be my best guess.

Question: Did the Bush administration have a role in writing this narrative?

Steve Coll:  Yeah, it did, very much in- at a couple of levels. It--  Osama’s ideology is not very fully formed. I don’t think his analysis or his ideology or his political program are by any means his strengths. His--  He has talents but ultimately this sense of ideology and strategy is not one of them and ultimately I think al-Qaeda will be defeated by the self-limiting nature of his ideology. However, to the extent that he has ideology, it has sort of two levels. One is a political, sort of terra firma here and now set of grievances in which he’s trying to give voice to an eclectic array of legitimate grievances in the Islamic world, and on the other hand he has a millenarian view of himself as leading a preordained war called by God that will end at the end of time. And at both levels the metaphor of war and the fact of war are central to his claim on his followers. So when the Bush administration after 9/11 announces a war against him and frames a global war in which he is the adversary it provides exactly the narrative that he’s been--  It reinforces and elevates and accentuates the narrative that he’s been developing, and certainly he would embrace and has embraced the sort of equivalency that the war narrative provides between himself and say George W. Bush. On the one hand, the president of the hyper-power of the post- early post Cold War period and on the other hand Osama bin Laden leading the righteous forces of Islam against the oppression carried out by that hyper-power. And the Bush administration sort of fairly quickly realized, especially after they turned their attention away from pursuing him and toward invading Iraq, that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to call attention to his--  So they- they’ve gone through this kind of bipolar sort of swings in their attitude towards Osama as an adversary trying to not elevate him by not talking about him, but then that only emphasizes the impunity that he seems to enjoy.

Question: What is al-Qaeda’s reach today?

Steve Coll:  What is al-Qaeda first of all?  It’s an organization with a particular leader and deputy leader and a bunch of committees and a headquarters sort of and some--  It is a continuous organization that was founded at meetings in 1988, has had the same bureaucracy and the same leader and deputy leader for 20 years. So there is an organization that’s called al-Qaeda that has a boss and it has committees that do finance and media and military. It’s more than that though. It’s also a movement that inspires followers who are disconnected from leaders. It’s also a network of like-minded organizations and it’s also a brand that attempts to attract other organizations and adherence whether in groups or as individuals. So al-Qaeda is I think properly understood as synthesis of these characteristics. Today al-Qaeda the organization is resilient militarily in the sense that they continue to be able to run medium-sized attacks in to Europe. They are struggling politically. I think they are strategically in a corner that they’re not likely to get out of very easily but the organization is still a factor in the security threats faced by not only the United States but also Britain and Germany and Denmark and other countries.

Question: What are your thoughts on the Hoffman and Sageman debate over al- Qaeda’s present condition?

Steve Coll:  I think they’re both right. I--  Here is a concrete example and I think it proves the case that they’re both right. The July 7 subway bombings in London--  I think you can--  The evidence is pretty well now established that that attack was supported by al-Qaeda headquarters in Pakistan and was supported by the travel that some of the participants in the plot undertook to meet al-Qaeda operatives in Waziristan and on the other hand the plot originated spontaneously in the disaffected lives of some Pakistani originated British citizens in Leeds. So on the one hand you could say that attack would never have occurred without the independent grassroots individual alienation of the Pakistani Briton in Leeds. On the other hand, it would not have occurred also without the resilient al-Qaeda organization. You can--  It’s like an Escher drawing. You can emphasize one side of that equation or the other but both are present in the narrative.

Recorded on: 07/10/2008


Steve Coll discusses bin Laden's family life, upbringing, and possible whereabouts.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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