The new book by the investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, The Exile: The Flight of Osama bin Laden, charts the career of al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, up to the day he became a household name—11 September 2001—through his downfall in 2011, to the end of 2016, when al-Qaeda was more powerful than ever. It is a thoroughly absorbing account, bringing to light vast tranches of new facts, including many intricate details of how al-Qaeda operated on a human, day-to-day level, and of those states and para-states that shielded the terror network, collaborated with it, and enabled it—and still do.
The gathering of the Bin Laden network in Sudan and then in the Taliban-held areas of Afghanistan in the 1990s is a familiar story, but the splits and debates among the Arab jihadists around Bin Laden, including the opposition of significant numbers of them to the 9/11 massacre, is perhaps less well known. The authors trace out how Bin Laden manipulated his own quasi-institutions to get his way. First, Bin Laden took on the plan of a man, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (KSM), who was not even a member of al-Qaeda, and then, ahead of the crucial vote, packed the shura (consultation) council with ultra-zealous Egyptians by engineering a merger between al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.
This high-stakes intrigue couples with the less elevated problems of running a clandestine terrorist organization. Bin Laden’s then-security chief, Nasser al-Bahri (Abu Jandal), was sent back to his native Yemen shortly before 9/11. Al-Bahri had arranged for Bin Laden to take another wife, Amal, as part of a plan to reinforce relations with an influential Yemeni tribe—Yemen at the time serving as an important recruitment and fundraising arena, as well as a potential fallback base if ties continued to deteriorate with the Taliban. Amal was a child; her presence infuriated Bin Laden’s other wives, who refused to speak to the girl, and set about al-Bahri’s wife, Tayez. Surely she must have known what her husband was going to do for Bin Laden? Why had she not told them? Amal had little choice but to accept her ostracism; Tayez was not so trapped. “[E]mbarrassed by the cattiness of his family,” the authors explain, Bin Laden “gave his security chief permission to relocate to Sana’a, dressing it up as a ‘mission’ […] to shore up support among Yemeni tribal leaders, sheikhs, and imams in preparation for al-Qaeda’s relocation there.”
When an enraged United States swept the Taliban from power in late 2001, and had “the Shaykh” and his troops cornered at Tora Bora, they ran smack into the contradiction that would bedevil the Afghan campaign ever-afterwards: not only were proxies of the “S-wing” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), like Jaysh-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba—terrorist instruments built to wage a shadow war with India—actively helping al-Qaeda operatives cross into Pakistan and protecting them once they were in the country, but powerful elements of the ISI in toto and the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment more broadly supported a policy of ensuring America could not succeed in eliminating al-Qaeda. At its most cynical, this policy was about keeping the cheques coming; for quite a number it was a deeply sincere commitment to the jihadi cause.
The role of Hamid Gul, the head of ISI during the closing stages of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, as the lynchpin of Pakistan’s underworld of “deniable” state-sponsored terrorism was reasonably well-understood. The scenes sketched by Levy and Scott-Clark of the behavior of on-duty military and intelligence officials in Pakistan constitute some of the most shocking passages in the book.
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