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My Lunch with Osama Bin Laden

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By all accounts, Turabi had engineered and nurtured the Islamization of Sudan. His biggest trick was replacing civil law with sharia, which treats crime as a sin, an affront to the Koran, and is enforced with a passion absent in the West. Cops from the morals squad prowl the streets, on patrol for bared legs and midriffs, rock music and other banned signifiers of Western pop culture. Being caught with a bottle of beer, for instance, earns a six-month jail term; the second offense merits another six-months in the cooler, plus twenty lashes with a whip made from camels' tails. Thanks to Turabi, Sudan had been recast in religious terms, with Allah and his prophet Mohammed providing context and direction. At last, after waiting a thousand years, according to Turabi, the world's 700 million Sunni Muslims could draw inspiration from fundamentalism in action.

Turabi rejoins us at the table, and we dig into the food. For the last few years, his house and office were run like a salon, a place where the best and the brightest and most ambitious flocked to make connections and prove their worth to the revolution in the making. He starts talking about model-making and how many pieces must be glued together before the job is done. Believe me, he says, we're only at the beginning of Islam's march. Soon, many nations will become one. And God's voice will thunder.

Sudan, he adds, is merely the staging area for the worldwide expansion of fundamentalist Islam. This is true, bin Laden seconds. Turabi resumes speed and says that soon, revivalism will define a vast geography. We will be bigger than the European Union.... We will be more powerful than America.... The power that belonged to Russia will be ours, yes, ours. Try the cheese. It's delicious.

Is it French? I ask, knowing Turabi refined his taste for fine clothes and food while studying for his Ph.D. in Paris.

I wish, Turabi says wistfully.

Bin Laden insists Muslim hands make the best of everything and spears a date with a paring knife.

Turabi shrugs but doesn't correct his guest. It's important, he told me earlier, that Khartoum welcome all types willing to fight for Islam. It's the only way to insure that revivalists from around the world have somewhere to share information and coordinate strategies. He'll offer whatever it takes to come up with the attack plan that banishes modernism and other products of the Enlightenment.

He then reminded me that fundamentalist Islam is, essentially, a reaction against cultural forces that encroach on a Muslim's ability to practice his or her faith. Anything that denigrates the premier role of the Koran or even competes for attention is, by definition, morally corrupt. If the climate is off one degree or 180 degrees, the fundamentalist is duty-bound to seek socio-moral change by whatever means necessary. And heaven belongs to those who die while battling the devil in whatever guise.

Ever eloquent, Turabi weaves fundamentalism into a dramatic theology of liberation. Monarchist governments and secular ones already in the Arab orbit, he says, must be toppled to free people of their great burden. He then puts those nations on notice and predicts their imminent destruction.

Yes. Yes. Right. It will happen, bin Laden cheers and goes quiet, resuming his nodding in sequence with Turabi's phrasing. Suddenly, bin Laden twists his neck to face me and runs his eyes up and down my body as if he's sizing up a lamb carcass. I can't tell if he's smiling or sneering; his beard is untrimmed and shades the corners of his mouth. He locks on me as Turabi reprimands me for being arrested yet again. Three strikes and you're out, I'm warned.

A few days before, I was thrown in jail for the second time, arrested inside African International University. It's the school of choice among radical Muslims looking for a career in terrorism. It functioned like a graduate school, offering advanced training in theology and bomb-making. Students were drilled in the classroom as well as in the field, and the pop-pop of automatic weapons lured me inside with a camera.

You stay away from there; no Westerners allowed, bin Laden lectures, picking up where Turabi leaves off. He's aghast that a bald, pasty-white Westerner could walk uninterrupted through school doors. He tells Turabi security must be tightened and then revs his engine, raising his voice and speaking far too quickly for me to understand. Turabi laughs and changes the subject. He's recording a sermon later and briefs us about what he's going to say. Bin Laden leans into every word.

While Turabi plays host to the officer corps, video and audio cassettes of his speeches take him deep into the hearts and minds of the average grunt manning the front lines. The foot soldiers memorize these speeches and, eventually, let their AK-47s and Turabi speak for them. Inevitably, in jail cells and courtrooms from New Jersey to New Caledonia, captured revolutionaries spout Turabi's words in answer to almost any kind of question involving identity (Who are you?) and purpose (Why are you shooting at us?).

Orange Fanta is brought in, and the conversation drifts to Egypt. Turabi laments the state of the revolution there and goes on about the need to topple any government propped up by America. America is so arrogant, he says. Your government feels it can buy anything it wants.... A bit later, he notes — and correctly so — that a free election in Egypt would install fundamentalist allies of his into power. The United States stands in the way of the truth. Don't you see that?

Now finished, he asks my thoughts. You forgot something, I say: The armed revivalist groups fighting the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are best known for their incompetency. They've neither advanced the revolution's cause nor adhered to the teachings of the Koran. Indeed, they appear to be led by nitwits intent on killing tourists, even though the Koran forbids taking an innocent life.

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