Osama bin Laden hated 'being out of the spotlight' after 9/11'

Osama bin Laden hated ‘being out of the spotlight’ and was plotting ways to stage another terror attack on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 – including killing Obama – because he felt ‘history was passing him by,’ new book reveals

  • New biography The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden, by journalist Peter Bergen, lays bare details of the Al-Qaeda leader’s final days 
  • Almost a decade after the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden had been feeling like ‘history was passing him by’ as he holed up in his compound in Pakistan, the book reveals
  • The terrorist leader felt ‘ignored’ and hated being out of the spotlight as dictators in the Middle East were toppled in the Arab Spring in 2011
  • Realizing Al-Qaeda was a ‘brand in trouble’, he planned a ‘mea culpa’ and hoped to introduce the world to a ‘gentler’ Al-Qaeda in an attempt to revive its fortunes 
  • He also wanted to stage another spectacle for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, like killing President Obama, Bergen writes 
  • Bin Laden dismissed the idea of killing then-Vice President Joe Biden because he was ‘totally unprepared’ for the presidency

Osama bin Laden’s final days were marked by rage and frustration because he ‘could not stand being out of the spotlight’ as the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks approached, a new book reveals. 

Details of the Al-Qaeda leader’s life are laid bare in The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden, by journalist and CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, published by Simon & Schuster on Tuesday. 

The biography reveals that a decade after the devastating 9/11 attacks, bin Laden felt he was being ‘ignored’ while holed up at his compound in Pakistan in 2011, a feeling which ‘gnawed more than anything.’ 

With the Arab Spring roiling the Middle East – which Al-Qaeda had no role in – the terrorist leader felt that ‘history was passing him by.’ 

He began to be consumed by paranoia, at one point asking one of his wives when she last visited the dentist fearing a tracking chip had been put into her mouth.

He also micromanaged the affairs of Al-Qaeda, even writing up a 10-page memo that detailed how many palm olive trees should be planted for irrigation. 

Osama bin Laden’s final days were marked by rage and frustration because he felt ‘history was passing him by’, ten years after the devastating 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, a new book reveals

Author and journalist Peter Bergen reveals the Al-Qaeda leader felt he was being ‘ignored’ while holed up at his compound (pictured) in Pakistan in 2011 and hoped to reset the terrorist group’s image in a desperate effort to become relevant again

Obama administration officials receive an update during the SEAL Team 6 mission to kill bin Laden in 2011

When US Navy SEALs stormed his Abbottabad compound on May 2, 2011, bin Laden was planning to record a video that he hoped would reset Al-Qaeda’s image and emphasize the ‘friendliness’ of the terrorist organization in a desperate effort to become relevant again. 

Bergen, one of the world’s leading experts on bin Laden, spoke to sources who were until now reluctant to talk about the terrorist leader, and combed through the 470,000 files found on computers seized at bin Laden’s home.

Bergen traces bin Laden’s unlikely rise to leading a terrorist group that for decades posed the gravest threat to the West and inspired dozens of attacks.

Bin Laden was born in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to a father, Mohammed, who was a wealthy property developer and a mother who was from a poor village in Syria. 

His parents divorced when he was two and he only saw his biological father five times in his life before his untimely death at the age of 60 in 1967.

The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden, by journalist and CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen, was published by Simon & Schuster on Tuesday

But bin Laden benefited from his family’s wealth and connections and he attended an elite school in Jeddah modeled after British schools, complete with uniforms.

By the age of 16, he was already thinking about jihad, the belief that Muslims should wage a holy war – he just hadn’t found the enemy yet.

In 1974 he married his first of four wives, Najwa, who was 15, and had two sons soon after.

Bin Laden was radicalized further at Abdel Aziz University in Jeddah when he read the teachings of the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, a leading theorist of violent jihad.

But the ‘most transformative’ moment of bin Laden’s life up to that point would be the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army.

He began to gather donations for what he considered to be his jihad, at one point raising $5million from his family’s wealthy connections.

A millionaire in his own right at the point, he used some of his own personal fortune and began to spend time in Pakistan bringing money to finance the Afghan fighters.

The cash helped to pay for ‘Jihad’ magazine, which recounted tales from the frontlines and was a powerful recruitment tool and an early example of Islamists using the media for propaganda purposes.


Bin Laden, pictured left with one of his sons, had 25 children including 11 with his first wife Najwa. The terrorist leader was in an upstairs bedroom with his youngest wife, Amal (right), when he was killed

(From left) Fatima, Abdullah and Hamza, three of Osama bin Laden’s grandchildren; and Hussein, Zainab and Ibrahim, three of the five children he had while on the run with Amal, his fourth and youngest wife. Hussein was in the room when his father was shot dead

It was essentially the first global jihadist project, bringing Muslims from around the world to fight, according to the book. 

Shuttling between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, bin Laden decided he wanted more than one wife to solve the problem, as he saw it, of there being more women than men in the world, so he took three more wives.

After the weddings he joked to a friend: ‘I don’t understand why people take only one wife. If you take four wives, you live like a groom.’

By 1987 bin Laden had become an assertive leader and formed the idea of Al Qaeda which was to be devoted entirely to jihad.

The group was helped by $8million that bin Laden received from his family’s fortune in 1988 after the untimely death of his brother Salem, who had taken over the family construction business.

Under 19 pages of by-laws – the organization would always be heavily bureaucratic – bin Laden outlined how married fighters would get the equivalent of around $400 per month and a vacation once a year.

Al Qaeda members even got two weeks off sick, free trips home to see their families and had their medical treatment paid for.

Married members even got a generous furniture allowance of around $1,200.

After the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1988, bin Laden moved to Sudan to support Islamist fighters there, but fell out with the Saudi government for criticizing them.

He was stripped of his citizenship and effectively branded a traitor to his own country.

His personal life was in disarray too and his second wife asked him for a divorce because she couldn’t tolerate the conditions they were living in in Sudan.

Despite his wealth, bin Laden was pious and made his wives live in a desert region of Sudan.

On the ground floor of the compound was a room where bin Laden (pictured) watched TV and old videos of himself, reliving his past glories while wrapped in a blanket on cold nights

According to Bergen, bin Laden was a news junkie and watched the BBC and CNN and would become animated when his name was mentioned

In his final days, bin Laden’s wives and adult children would ‘interview’ him as if he were on TV, opining about the day’s events, the book states 

Everyone slept in hollows in the sand dug out by his eldest sons and were told to cover themselves in dirt if they got cold.

Bin Laden was suspicious of modern medicine and drank Avena, a syrup made from oats, which he believed acted as a natural Viagra.

For the same reason he ate copious amounts of olives, though there is no evidence it has any true effect.

In 1992, after President George H.W. Bush sent 28,000 US troops to Somalia to intervene in the civil war, bin Laden saw the move as part of a larger plot to take over the Muslim world.

He told his men: ‘We have to stop the head of the snake. The snake is America.’

Bin Laden’s war against the US had begun.

It was around this time that he came onto the radar of American intelligence agencies for the first time after one of his followers went to the CIA and told them everything he knew.

In 1996 the State Department wrote in a fact sheet that bin Laden was one of the ‘most significant financial sponsors of Islamist extremist activities’ in the world.

Soon after bin Laden issued his first public statement that he was at war with the US.

He moved his family to Afghanistan where he began to plot a series of attacks that would make him the most wanted terrorist in the world.

They included the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi that left 213 people dead including 12 Americans.

The 2000 bombing of the USS Cole by suicide bombers in Aden, Yemen, claimed the lives of 17 US sailors and injured 39.

The terrorist leader ‘could not stand being out of the spotlight’ – particularly during the Arab Spring in 2011 – so he ‘created that spotlight for himself in his own household’

He would even dye his graying hair so he appeared fresh in the dozens of videos he made for his supporters. Pictured: bin Laden sits in front of a map in an undated still frame from a recruitment video for his extremist Al-Qaeda network

Incredibly, the White House did not respond to the USS Cole attack and, Bergen writes, the CIA had already bungled several opportunities to kill bin Laden with missile strikes.

They included bin Laden joining some Arab princes for a hunting trip in 1999 in Afghanistan but the air strike was called off because officials did not want to risk killing members of the Emirati Royal family.

Gary Schroen, the CIA station chief in Pakistan at the time, would get a phone call years later from a man who saying he was the falcon handler for the camp where the the men were at.

The man said that bin Laden had been there and the CIA ‘should have taken the shot.’

The roots of the 9/11 attack began when Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who would later become one of the most high profile detainees at Guantanamo Bay, pitched the idea of crashing planes into buildings in the US.

According to the book, bin Laden was initially ‘lukewarm’ about the idea until Mohammed suggested targeting the World Trade Center in New York with small planes packed with explosives.

Bin Laden countered that they should use passenger jets instead, saying: ‘Why do you use an axe when you can use a bulldozer?’

Bergen writes that there was ‘more than a touch of Hollywood’ in the plans and an early version featured Mohammed being on the tenth plane where he would kill all the adult male passengers.

After landing he would emerge from the aircraft to deliver a speech castigating the US support of Israel. 

Instead, on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda terrorist planes flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, while another flight heading towards the White House crashed before reaching its target.  

Bin Laden, according to the book, was ‘surprised’ by the carnage of the attacks. 

He ‘gravely underestimated’ the US response which would lead to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and ultimately his death.

Bin Laden was killed in his Abbottabad compound during a raid by US special forces on May 3, 2011

In the years after the September 11 attack, bin Laden had been consumed by paranoia and di not use a phone or the internet and sent messages via courier 

Bin Laden spent much of his time on the third floor of his compound where there was a study, a small bathroom with no tile on the floor, a cheap shower and a gas heater

Bergen is caustic on the intelligence failures which allowed 9/11 to happen and writes that just one of the 33 meetings of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration was about Al-Qaeda.

Equally unforgivable was allowing bin Laden to escape the mountains or Tora Bora in Afghanistan in the months after the attack where he was penned in by US missile strikes.

The Americans were fooled by Taliban officials who promised that bin Laden would surrender to them if they agreed to a ceasefire.

Bin Laden took advantage of the truce to flee to northeast Afghanistan instead.

An enraged Bush screamed at Mike Morrell, his CIA briefer: ‘How the hell could he have possibly eluded you?’

So began bin Laden’s decade on the run during which time he released videos taunting Bush and celebrating Al Qaeda attacks like the London bombings in 2005 which left 52 dead.

The CIA’s efforts to find him went cold until 2010 when, under Barack Obama’s presidency, the agency got its best lead since Tora Bora.

Satellite surveillance revealed a man in white robes they had dubbed ‘The Pacer’ that they believed to be bin Laden.

He was taking extraordinary steps not to reveal himself or his three wives, 12 children and grandchildren who were living with him.

Bin Laden did not use a phone or the internet, and his long memos to commanders were put onto a flash drive that was smuggled out by one of the two couriers he used to send messages and buy his groceries.

The new book reveals Bin Laden also wanted to stage another spectacle for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, like killing President Obama 

The men were instructed not to even put the battery in their phones until they were an hour away from the gates.

Such was bin Laden’s paranoia about being caught that the compound was fitted with four separate gas and electricity meters so as not to raise suspicions about large utility bills.

Dozens of chickens were kept on the site and apple trees provided fruit to minimize trips to the shops.

When one of bin Laden’s wives joined him after being held prisoner in Iran for years he interrogated her about when she had last had dental work in case the Iranians put a tracker chip in her teeth.

Bin Laden’s day-to-day worries included replacing his couriers who said they were quitting because the $100 a month he paid them wasn’t worth the risk of being shot dead by a US drone strike.

He was a news junkie and watched the BBC and CNN and would become animated when his name was mentioned, Bergen writes. 

Bin Laden was radicalized at Abdel Aziz University in Jeddah when he read the teachings of the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, a leading theorist of violent jihad

He read books including Bob Woodward’s ‘Obama’s Wars’ and audio versions of Bergen’s other book ‘The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al Qaeda’s Leader’.

According to Bergen, bin Laden spent much of his time on the third floor where there was a study, a small bathroom with no tile on the floor, a cheap shower and a gas heater.

On the ground floor there was a room where bin Laden watched TV and old videos of himself, reliving his past glories while wrapped in a blanket on cold nights.

Bergen writes that Bin Laden’s vanity led him to using Just For Men to lighten his graying hair so he appeared fresh in the dozens of videos he made for his supporters.

He feared losing control of Al-Qaeda and sent out detailed memos down to the number of trees to be used in irrigation systems.

But bin Laden’s biggest problem was more existential and as dictators in the Middle East were toppled in the Arab Spring in 2011, he felt that ‘history was passing him by,’ Bergen writes.

Even though he was still the most wanted terrorist in the world, he felt that the 9/11 attacks were being ‘ignored,’ which irked him knowing the tenth anniversary was coming up.

Bin Laden realized that Al-Qaeda was a ‘brand in trouble’ and planned a ‘mea culpa’ of sorts for slaughtering innocent Muslims.

Bergen writes that bin Laden hoped to introduce the world to a ‘kindler, gentler’ Al-Qaeda in a bizarre attempt to revive its fortunes.

However, he also wanted to stage another spectacle for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, like killing President Obama.

Bin Laden dismissed the idea of killing Joe Biden, who at the time was vice president, because he was ‘totally unprepared’ for the presidency.

In his final days bin Laden’s wives and adult children would ‘interview’ him as if he were on TV, opining about the day’s events.

‘He could not stand being out of the spotlight at such an important moment in the Arab world and so he created that spotlight for himself in his own household,’ the book states.

Bergen argues that bin Laden’s death did not mark the end of Al-Qaeda or Islamic fundamentalism but paved the way for ISIS.

But on a personal level, bin Laden was deadly for his own family and two of his sons were killed in US counterterrorism operations while a daughter died in childbirth while on the run.

One of his other sons, Hamza would be killed in a US drone strike eight years later, another bin Laden executed by the Americans who had spent years hunting him down. 

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