My Lunch with Osama Bin Laden

In this October 2001 article, writer Rory Nugent recalls meeting Bin Laden - "a rich kid with a mixed reputation as a fighter" - in the mid-1990s

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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.

This article appeared in the October 25, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

Bin Laden flashes anger, making me think that the give-and-take of dialogue is alien to him. It's his way or no way, so shut up.

Turabi either doesn't notice bin Laden's reaction or doesn't care. He tells me repair work is underway, the revolutionary groups are starting to observe a new way of doing things. Wagging a finger, he advises me not to visit Aswan. He says it's the foreigner's responsibility to stay away from the front lines, and southern Egypt is an active battle zone.

Bin Laden weighs in, speaking double time as Turabi interprets for me. Planning. Planning. Planning, bin Laden says. The old, tribal way of fighting is dead. Although bin Laden keeps gunning his motor, Turabi goes quiet and hands me the platter of fruit and cheese. When, at last, bin Laden finishes his rant, he clicks his tongue as he glances at me and lets his eyes rest on our host. In return, Turabi offers him a tired look, a professor surveying an eager but not very bright student and hands him a paper napkin, along with advice to clear the debris of cheese and bread clinging to his beard.

The fuel for the coming Islamic revolution is being bunkered as we sit and talk, Turabi informs me. From earlier discussions, I know he's referring to sophisticated weaponry, like Stinger missiles, which, more than any other single bit of gear, seat the Russians out of Afghanistan. What's missing, he adds, is the spark that will set events into motion. He's not sure what that spark exactly is, but he knows what it will cause: a juggernaut. He's convinced that once things start moving, fundamentalist Islam will re-create those 300 years, from 650 to 950, when Muslim armies established an empire that reached from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas.

I lose count of the number of times bin Laden nods his head.

Minutes later, a secretary walks in and says something to Turabi that merits his immediate attention. Lunch, my friends, is over. Back to work.

He escorts me and bin Laden to the door, and, together, the two of us walk through the court-yard, into the gatehouse waiting room and match steps to the street. A Mercedes waits for him. Do I need a ride? he asks. I decline and return for my next meeting with Turabi.

As usual, when I return, the waiting room is packed. Abu Nidal is there, as well as representatives of al-Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Red Hand Commandos and other, smaller organizations. Everyone is candid about his association with one or another fundamentalist movement. But no one will talk about his work; instead, we chat about the weather (unrelenting heat) and local soccer action (unexciting club teams).

I bump into Osama bin Laden a few times later on. We shake hands and leave it at that. He didn't strike me as a particularly interesting character. Money had given him things others had to work for, and their stories were much more revealing. Besides, over the course of my six weeks in Khartoum, I came to understand bin Laden as a small part in a colossal machine that was growing day by day.

What resonated for me, and, I'm sure, for thousands of others in Khartoum at the same time, were Turabi's words. They truly empowered the fighter and scared the hell out of me. For instance, on a Sunday, Turabi told me there is a renaissance of Islam coming. We are rising again, with Jews all around us.... It's part of a historical cycle. Islam will be on top again.... Dramatic explosions, he predicted, will propel Islam's army and reconfigure governments along an East-West axis. He then went into a long riff about one of his favorite subjects: coordination and the importance of the varous revolutionary Muslim groups to speak in one thunderous voice.

From Khartoum, I headed south, into the heart of the rebel territory, where armies were locked in war against Turabi and the government of Sudan. The year before, I had spent three months with one army and nothing had changed. Southern Sudan was still hell on earth, a place where the horrific had twisted itself into the routine. The smell of death was inescapable across an area larger than Texas, the direct consequence of a civil war that has killed more than 2 million people. The civil war, which pits black Christians and practitioners of traditional animistic ways against the Islamists, has been going on, running hot then cold, ever since Sudan gained independence from England in the Fifties. This war will not stop until the Khartoum government accepts blacks and non-Muslims as equals. Sadly, no one I talk to thinks that will happen in his lifetime unless the U.N. steps in and a new country is born.

Recently, Turabi lost power. The puppet president he had handled for so long turned against the master and he now lives under house arrest. Turabi was educated in the West. He said he loved Shakespeare, and I never doubted him. He was a debater, easy to engage and always willing to enter a dialogue. But his followers lived in a world of stark whites and blacks and were quickly tiresome talkers — when, that is, they deigned to even acknowledge my presence.

Turabi was the top man in a hierarchy of one. Directly under him were hundreds of dedicated fighters, a select few, like bin Laden, rich enough to finance their own groups within the umbrella organization. More problems I think emanate from the fanaticism that these men wear like badges of honor. They don't think beyond the mission at hand: destruction of Western culture. They've ratcheted up terrorism beyond anything we've ever experienced. Over the course of thirty years, the troubles in Northern Ireland, as traumatic as they have been, have caused approximately 3,600 deaths. In one morning, Islamic fundamentalists nearly doubled that number.

Moreover, the new order and leadership of the revolution took special pleasure whenever they used America against itself. They're humorless people. Their idea of a joke is using training camps built by Americans. They laugh thinking about their training by former Green Berets.

It's important, I believe, that America not embark on yet another program that could boomerang. I reckon the fundamentalist leadership would derive warped enjoyment if it could tear a page from the Bible and rub it in our faces. In particular, I'm thinking of the Gospel of St. Matthew describing a savior killed for the sins of others. Bin Laden may be insulated from the doings of his top aides. He's in lousy health, his operation is huge. Some underlings enjoy large budgets and free reign — like Al Zawarhiri, a senior member of Al Qaeda, or the Lebanese operative Imad Mugniyeh, who has connections with Iraq and the Hezbollah. If we catch bin Laden, the U.S. case against him must be airtight, good enough to convict him and send him off to oblivion. After all, history will judge us, too. And it would be a grave mistake to launch bin Laden's star so as to lead others on a journey like his.

From The Archives Issue 880: October 25, 2001
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