My Lunch with Osama Bin Laden

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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.

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