The Exile – The Flight of Osama bin Laden

Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

Bloomsbury, £25

Review By David Pratt

IT WOULD be about eight years ago now. Embedded as a correspondent with a US military unit, I found myself sitting one afternoon swapping stories with American helicopter pilots in the shade of a sweltering hot summer’s day at their airfield base near the Afghan city of Jalalabad. As we chatted, I asked a casual question.

“Do you know Samarkhel, it’s near here?” I enquired of the pilots. In turn they wanted to know why I had asked. I told them that it was around there back in 1989 that I had bumped into Osama bin Laden and had drunk tea with him.

As the pilots swapped looks of incredulity and laughed a little nervously, unsure of whether I was being funny, I thought it best to explain. I recounted how, long before the Americans were in Afghanistan, I’d visited the country as a reporter on and off for almost 10 years.

During that time, I often accompanied the Afghan mujahideen – holy warrior – guerrillas fighting the Soviet Red Army occupation.

I told the pilots, too, of how in 1989, while accompanying the mujahideen, we ran across bin Laden and other Arab fighters in the later stages of a battle around the Samarkhel garrison near Jalalabad.

It was a story I’d told many times before and beyond the pilots’ obvious surprise, never for a moment did I imagine there would be any comeback.

But that day I imagined wrong.

No more than two hours after recounting my tale, I was told to report to an office on the airbase where, for some time, two US military intelligence officers questioned me about those years. They were especially interested in my conversation with bin Laden.

Before writing this review, I promised myself I wouldn’t mention my meeting with al-Qaeda’s infamous leader. Over the intervening years, I’ve occasionally felt a sense of guilt at having dined out on it so often. Reading this remarkable book, however, made me realise that revisiting that chance meeting with bin Laden all those years ago was something I couldn’t avoid including.

For it was during the brief half hour that I spent in the company of the man his followers referred to as “the Sheikh” that I momentarily glimpsed the real man rather than the myth or infamous terrorist household name bin Laden would become. And my fleeting experience of him chimes with the portrait created in this remarkable book.

What struck me more than anything else about The Exile –The Flight of Osama bin Laden is the phenomenal degree of intimacy that the co-authors Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy have managed to achieve with bin Laden himself.

Far from being a drawback, the very fact that they were never able interview bin Laden during those long years in exile is precisely what makes this book so compulsive.

By tracking down the myriad bin Laden family members, associates and al-Qaeda members that inhabit this huge tour-de-force of a read, the authors have brought the personality of bin Laden into a sharper focus than could ever have been imagined. The detail mustered is little short of incredible, and evidently the result of forensic research only the best of investigative journalists could dig out.

In short, the book covers the years of bin Laden’s life following the “planes operation” or 9/11 attack in the United States. It’s the story of a man on the run hunted like his fellow al-Qaeda jihadists and family by Western intelligence agencies and haunted by the prospect that one day they would catch up with him.

“I never stopped praying that everything in the world would be peaceful, and that our lives might return to normal,” Najwa, one of bin Laden’s four wives, would later say.

That life, of course, would never be normal. When time ran out for bin Laden the moment would be etched into history, but never has this been captured so eloquently as in this book.

Just as Najwa prays for normality, so another of bin Laden’s wives, Amal, gives a chilling eyewitness account of that bloody night when a US Special Forces Seal Team dropped by helicopter into the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where the bin Laden family had been hiding for at least five years.

As one of Osama’s sons, 23-year-old Khalid, runs upstairs clutching a Kalashnikov assault rifle to announce that the “Americans are coming,” Amal recalls thinking how “Osama had told her the last time Khalid had fired a weapon was at the age of thirteen.”

Once again it’s the minutiae the authors have garnered that makes for such compelling reading and is evident from the very first pages. The opening paragraphs of the first chapter, as bin Laden prepares to watch the “planes operation” on television, is terrifying in its mundanity. Outside the mouth of the cave in which they are hiding in the Sulaiman mountain range above the Afghan city of Khost, bin Laden’s Yemeni bodyguard struggles to get a signal from the satellite dish.

“It is very important we are able to watch the news today,” bin Laden insists, directing the guard this way and that while clicking his tongue in annoyance. As the authors describe, in the end there “was no picture and it became obvious to everyone that they were going to have to listen on the radio, while the rest of the world watched.”

Meanwhile, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, aka Mokhtar, the self-confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is watching television too. But before settling down he calls for a takeout from the local branch of Dunkin’ Donuts where he and fellow plotters of 9/11 are crowded around a TV set in an apartment in the Pakistani city of Karachi.

Poring subsequently over film reruns of the airliner United 175 bearing down on the World Trade Centre, the onlookers chant: “God…aim…aim…aim.”

Only when the Twin Towers collapse does Khalid Sheikh Mohammad perhaps fully realise the potential gravity of the consequences and momentarily looks panicked. “Shit,” he says, whistling. “I think we bit off more than we could chew.”

It’s this feel of being there that makes The Exile such an exceptional account of those lost years when bin Laden and his family went to ground. Such is the universal perception of who for so long was the world’s most wanted man that it’s hard to imagine anything ordinary about his life and family.

But the very ordinariness that is common to all families is present here too, with rows between bin Laden and his wives and sons taking on something akin to a surreal TV soap opera, but one all too viscerally real.

Scattered as the bin Laden family are, from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran and beyond, as the years roll by there is an ever-present sense of claustrophobia and foreboding about their precarious existence throughout the book.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating episodes is time spent by some family members in the unlikely location of Iran, a Shia country often at odds with the Sunni Wahhabist brand of Islam that bin Laden, a Saudi national, espoused.

For such a broad-ranging account, the book flows easily, helped by its literary reportage style, taut language and wonderful use of short datelined passages. These let the reader know where and when they are over the many locations and years it spans.

There are other themes here too, such as the evolution, schisms and paranoia that grip al-Qaeda in the years after bin Laden and company are forced to make numerous dangerous moves when flushed out of the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan by the American invasion in late 2001.

There are also new insights into the CIA’s rendition and torture programme. For anoraks and general readers alike intrigued by Middle Eastern politics, Islamist inspired terrorism and intelligence issues this is a terrific addition. Big it might be, but it is also a page-turner.

There have been many books before on bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but this is one of the best. This is bin Laden the man. Above all it’s a unique glimpse into darkest recesses of those caves in Tora Bora and the thinking of those that inhabited them while hiding from the world.