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Steve Coll is President & CEO of New America Foundation, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Previously he spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent and senior[…]

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

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


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