The big bang story

Veena Venugopal | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 09, 2017
Chasing tail: Neither officials nor spooks in Pakistan or the US come across as particularly smart at planning the capture of Osama Bin Laden.

Chasing tail: Neither officials nor spooks in Pakistan or the US come across as particularly smart at planning the capture of Osama Bin Laden.   -  Reuters

The Exile; Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy; Non-fiction; Bloomsbury; ₹699

The Exile; Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy; Non-fiction; Bloomsbury; ₹699

A gripping read, The Exile tells the story of Bin Laden’s life after 9/11, much of it from the eyes of his entourage

Settling down into a nest of shawls and bolsters, fortified by sweetened tea, Osama bin Laden was anxious and excited, watching as a scrawny Yemeni bodyguard, who also covered duties in Al Qaeda’s media office, ranged around the mouth of the cave balancing a large satellite dish, humming to himself.

“It is very important we are able to watch the news today,” Osama insisted, directing the guard this way and that.

“Today” was September 11, 2001. Bin Laden was awaiting news of the ‘Planes Operation”, something that very few people among the top leaders of Al Qaeda knew about, and even fewer approved of. As things turned out, the satellite dish did not work. And Bin Laden learned about the success of the operation on the radio. In Karachi, Mokhtar, a jihadi who had hatched the plan of the Planes operation and sold it to Bin Laden, was ecstatic. But, after both the towers of the World Trade Centre had fallen, Mokhtar allowed himself momentary panic. “Shit,” he said whistling. “I think we bit off more than we can chew.”

Although The Exile starts with a ‘where were they’ when the planes hit the towers narrative, much of the book is dedicated to what happened after. It is the story of the terror attack largely, and refreshingly, told from the point of view of the terrorists. Investigative journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy have impressive credentials. Their two previous books that I have read — The Meadow, a meticulous account of the kidnapping of six western backpackers in Kashmir in 1995, and The Siege, the story of the jihadi attacks in Mumbai in 2008 — are backed by exhaustive research, each thread is backed by pages of notes in the bibliography to form a coherent and compelling story. Even by their superlative standards, The Exile is a masterpiece in investigation. Across Tora Bora and Karachi, Tehran and Washington, some place in Thailand, Poland and Cuba, Scott-Clark and Levy try to piece together the lives of some of the Al Qaeda leaders, as well as that of Bin Laden’s several wives and children, from that moment in 2001, all the way until elite US Seals entered a house in Abbottabad in Pakistan and “take out” Bin Laden, and further on to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq.

The story of Bin Laden’s family is one of the most interesting threads of the book. His sons are all raised to be mujahideens. One rejects the path and escapes from his father before the pivotal moment of 9/11. Others stay put, are moved from one hideout to another. Some are bitter about having to give up the opulent lives they led in Saudi to live in draughty caves. Others are certain that jihad is their life’s purpose. Most of the boys borne by Bin Laden’s first wife, Najwa, are on the autism spectrum. His daughters, some as young as 12 and 13, are strategically married off to commanders and tribe leaders purely in order to secure alliances. Bin Laden is the kind of patriarch who puts only his concerns first. Even when expressing his desire to meet them while in hiding, Bin Laden is obsessed about his personal security, and worried that tracking devices might be inserted in his wives’ bodies or dental fillings.

The other story is that of Abu Zubaydah, a Peshawar-based Palestinian logistical expert. Zubaydah is captured by the CIA in Faisalabad in 2002. He becomes the original ghost detainee of the Bush government, who is moved from one detention camp to another — Thailand, Poland, Guantanamo — and is also the original recipient of government-approved intense torture, including but not limited to, waterboarding. Zubaydah’s unflinching account of the kind of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used on him is a reminder that cruelty is not a monopoly of the terrorists.

The Exile is also an account of how governments bungle. Neither officials nor spooks in Pakistan or the US come across as particularly smart at planning the long game. That they eventually got Bin Laden only proves that he made more mistakes than they did. Despite the fact that the whole thing was a rotten business that played over nearly 10 years, Pervez Musharraf seems to stand out and stink the most. Caught between benefactions of the US government and the anti-America sentiment at home, which heightened after the drone attacks began, Musharraf’s decisions were taken purely on the basis of personal ambition and professional greed. That Pakistan found itself at the lose-lose side of the bargain is his burden to solely bear.

As stories of cowardice go, Musharraf could take some consolation from Bin Laden himself. On that moonless night, when American forces stormed the Abbottabad house, Bin Laden had no defence. He had some euros sewn inside his kurta and a couple of numbers he could call in an emergency. However, as the Seals crept up the staircase, and it seemed like the moment the family had feared for a decade was upon them, Bin Laden did what he was capable of. He hid behind his youngest wife.

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Published on June 09, 2017
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