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Bin Laden Back in Saudi Arabia?

It is him. The man on the tape is Bin Laden. He is alive. It took only a brief flurry of phone calls to the Middle East and south-west Asia for the most impeccable sources to confirm that Osama bin Laden is alive and that it was his gravelly voice that threatens the West in the short monologue first transmitted by the Arab Al-Jazeera television channel.

So the Saudi billionaire, the man in the cave, the “Evil One”, the bearded, ascetic man whom the greatest army on earth has sought in vain, is with us still. It’s the real McCoy.

As usual, “US intelligence”–the heroes of 11 September who heard about Arabs learning to fly but didn’t quite manage to tell us in time–came up with rubbish for the American media. It may be him. It’s probably him. The gravelly voice may mean he’s been hurt.

He is speaking fast because he could have been wounded by the Americans.

Untrue.

The US was finally forced to acknowledge yesterday that the man some of them had claimed to be dead was still very much in the land of the living–and uttering the kind of threat that fulfils the worst nightmares of Western leaders. “Just like you kill us, we will kill you,” he said.

When he was recorded, bin Laden was not talking into a tape-recorder. He was talking into a telephone. The man on the other end of the line–quite possibly in Pakistan–held the recorder. Bin Laden may not have been in the same city as the man with the recorder. He may well not have been in the same country.

Osama bin Laden always speaks slowly. His voice is rapid, and the reason for this is apparently quite simple: the recorder’s battery was low. When replayed by Al-Jazeera at proper speed, the voice goes up an octave.

I know Bin Laden and, though I did not meet him after 11 September, I got to understand him over the years. But writing about him is now one of the most difficult journalistic tasks on earth. You have to say what you know. You have to say what you think must be true. You have to ask why he made this tape. The story moves deeper into questions. Why? What for? Why now? It requires a new, harsh way of writing to tell the truth, the use of brackets and colons.

Knowledge and suspicion and probability and speculation keep grinding up against each other. Bin Laden survived the bombing of Tora Bora. Fact. Bin Laden escaped via Pakistan. Probability. Bin Laden is in Saudi Arabia. A growing conviction.

So here, with all its imperfections and conditional clauses, is what I suspect this tape recording means.

The story is a deeply disturbing one for the West. It is one which is not easy to write. I am frightened of the implications of this tape. One of its messages to Britain–above all others after the United States–is: watch out. Tony Blair was right (for once) to warn of further attacks, though the Bin Laden phone call was not (I suspect) monitored. But it was Bin Laden.

We should start with Tora Bora in the autumn of 2001. Under heavy bombardment by the US Air Force, Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida fighters realised they could not hold out indefinitely in the cave complex of the White Mountains above Jalalabad. Bin Laden was with them. Al-Qa’ida men volunteered to fight on to certain death against the Afghan warlords paid by the Americans, and Bin Laden at first refused to leave them. He argued that he wished to die with them. His most loyal bodyguards and senior advisers insisted he must leave. In the end, he abandoned Tora Bora in a state of some anguish, his protectors hustling him down one mountainside with much the same panic as Dick Cheney’s security men carried the US Vice-President to the White House basement when al-Qa’ida’s killer-hijackers closed in on Washington on 11 September. All of the above comes under the label of “impeccable source”.

If he fled on a white horse–a story that originally came from one of Jalalabad’s corrupt Northern Alliance gunmen–Bin Laden must have taken leave of his senses. He can ride, but travelling by horse under fire only adds to the danger. And a white horse, for heaven’s sake? A horse than can be seen in the night?

Bin Laden went either to Kashmir (possible, though unlikely) or Karachi (most probable). I say that because Bin Laden boasted to me once of the many admirers he had among the Sunni clergy of this great, hot and dangerous Pakistani city. He always talked of them as his “brothers”. He once gave me posters in Urdu which these clerics had produced and pasted on the walls of Karachi. He liked to quote their sermons to me. So I’ll go for Karachi. But I may be wrong.

In the months that followed, there were little, tiny hints that he remained alive, like the smell of tobacco in a room days after a smoker has left. An admirer of the man insisted to me that he was alive (fact, but not an impeccable source). He was trying to find a way of communicating with the outside world without meeting any westerner. Absolute fact. His most recent videotape–which was dismissed as old by those famous “US intelligence sources” because he didn’t mention any events since November 2001–was new. (Strong possibility, backed up by a good–though not impeccable–source.)

So why now? The Middle East is entering a new and ever more tragic phase of its history, torn apart by the war between Israelis and Palestinians and facing the incendiary effects of a possible Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Bin Laden must have realised the need to address once more the Arab world–and his audiotape, despite the direct threats to Britain and other Western countries, is primarily directed towards his most important audience, Arab Muslims. His silence at this moment in Middle East history would have been inexcusable in Bin Laden’s eyes.

And just to counter the predictable counter-claims that his tape could be old, he energetically listed the blows struck at Western powers since his presumed “death”. The bombings of French submarine technicians in Karachi, the synagogue in Tunisia, Bali, the Chechen theatre siege in Moscow, even the killing of the US diplomat in Jordan. Yes, he is saying, I know about all these things. He is saying he approves. He is telling us he is still here. Arabs may deplore this violence, but few will not feel some pull of emotions. Amid Israel’s brutality towards Palestinians and America’s threats towards Iraq, at least one Arab is prepared to hit back. That is his message to Arabs.

Bin Laden always loathed Saddam Hussein. He hated the Iraqi leader’s un-Islamic behaviour, his secularism, his use of religion to encourage loyalty to a Baath party that was co-founded by a Christian. America’s attempt to link al-Qa’ida to the Baghdad regime has always been one of the most preposterous of Washington’s claims. Bin Laden used to tell me how much he hated Saddam. So his two references to “the sons of Iraq” are intriguing. He makes no mention of the Baghdad government or of Saddam. But with UN sanctions still killing thousands of children–and with Iraq the target of a probable American invasion–he cannot possibly ignore it. So he talks about “Iraq’s children” and about “our sons in Iraq”, indicating Arab Muslim men who happened to be Iraqi, rather than Iraqis. But not Saddam. It’s not difficult to see how the US administration may try to use these two references to make another false link between Baghdad and al-Qa’ida, but Bin Laden–who is intelligent enough to be able to predict this–clearly felt that an expression of sympathy for the Arabs of Iraq outweighed any misuse Washington could make of his remarks. This has to come under the label of speculation (although near certainty might be nearer the mark).

Back in 1996, Bin Laden told me that British and French troops in Saudi Arabia were as at risk of being attacked by his followers as American forces. In 1997, he changed this target list. The British and French he now dissociated from any proposed attacks. But in the new audiotape, they are back on the hit list along with France, Canada, Italy, Germany and Australia. And Britain is at the top.

The message to us–the West–is simple and repeated three times. If we want to back George Bush, the “pharaoh of the age”–and “pharaoh” is what Anwar Sadat’s killers called the Egyptian president after his murder more than two decades ago–we will pay a price. “What business do your governments have in allying themselves with the gang of criminals in the White House against Muslims…?” I have heard Bin Laden use that Arabic expression ifarbatu al-idjran twice before in conversation with me. “Gang of criminals”. Which is what the West has called “al-Qa’ida”.

So what comes next? A few weeks ago, I was asked by a member of an American university audience where I thought the next blow would come. The two words I thought of were “oil tanker”. This came under the label “total speculation”. But I didn’t want to give anyone any ideas. So I said nothing. The following week, al-Qa’ida struck the supertanker Limburg off Yemen. Now I search my mind for worse thoughts. And I prefer to end my story.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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