It was a simple meal in a complicated place. Fruit and cheese arrived on a silver platter. There were three of us around a table inside the headquarters of the Popular Arab and Islamic Conference located in Khartoum, Sudan. Secretaries came in and out, whispering messages to their boss, Hassan al-Turabi and, sometimes, to his other guest, Osama bin Laden. Turabi, as always, looked sharp, spotless, his turban crisply creased and perfectly tied; bin Laden appeared comfortable in wrinkles and unbothered by the tea stain atop his left bosom.
Yes, I'll take it, Turabi tells a factotum and excuses himself to field a phone call. Heading to his desk, he adds, please start, you two. I'll only be a minute.
Good manners advises us to wait. But bin Laden turns away from me and stares at a bare white wall. We had met once before, at a crowded reception; we didn't say much to each other then, and, obviously, he's not interested in making small talk now.
I had arrived in Khartoum weeks earlier to research a story about the world's leading manufacturers of terror. Entering the city, I was respectful of its magic. The Blue and White Nile rivers meet here, forming what Arab poets call the longest kiss in history. It's also the traditional gateway connecting black Africa to the Arab north, and its bazaars were famed for offering goods and services that blurred the lines separating the exotic and the forbidden.
Another more pressing reason for a circumspect approach came out of Khartoum's position as both the wheelhouse and the engine room of fundamentalist Islam. Military camps originally built by America to prepare Islamic warriors for battle against Russian designs in Afghanistan were now being used to train Islamic terrorists in their battle against just about everybody. And, since this was home to the officer corps, it was where the maps were being drawn for the passage ahead.
At the time — November 1994 — Osama bin Laden was considered a rich kid with a mixed reputation as a fighter. His money bought him attention, and his knack for logistics garnered him respect. Earlier, during conversations with various commanders in the Afghan war, bin Laden had been described to me as just the kind of guy you want behind the lines to keep an army going. These men thought it funny that bin Laden's organizational skills were honed by retired American spooks working with his father's construction company while building the Saudi infrastructure. Not once did anyone remark on bin Laden's qualities as a fighter.
Eat. Please start. I'm almost done, Turabi encourages, covering the speaker end of the phone. I reach for a date; bin Laden doesn't move, still intent on the wall. Turabi smiles at me, then nods and returns to his phone call.
Back then, Turabi was the draw; not bin Laden. Turabi was the acknowledged power in Sudan, a Geppetto pulling the strings of puppet-like bureaucrats. He had left politics years ago, giving up his post as Sudan's attorney general to assume greater prominence as Islam's éminence grise. He directed the flow of events through his speeches, religious writings and, when necessary, whispered commands to politicians.
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