Demystifying and demythologizing Osama bin Laden

September 12, 2006

The Center on Law and Security hosts a conversation between New Yorker Staff Writer Lawrence Wright and Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Steven Simon on the history of al Qaeda.

When author and Center on Law and Security Distinguished Fellow Lawrence Wright envisions the first meeting between Al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, he pictures something much like Colonel Tom Parker eyeing Elvis Presley for the first time.

Zawahiri, a leading Egyptian jihadist, saw in bin Laden a well-financed terrorist who already had fashioned a reputation for himself as a war hero. Zawahiri, Wright said, took one look at bin Laden and thought to himself, “I can use this kid; he's rich, he's charismatic”­—qualities that Zawahiri himself lacked.

The alliance of these two men, said Wright, created Al-Qaeda. Speaking nearly five years to the day of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Wright came to the Law School to discuss his just-published book, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.”

In a question-and-answer session with Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Steven Simon, Wright traced the history of Al-Qaeda, debunked myths about its charismatic head, Osama bin Laden, and outlined the ways in which the U.S. government missed opportunities to have prevented the attacks.

While bin Laden has been depicted in the media as an extremely tall playboy billionaire with kidney disease, the truth isn't as extreme, Wright said. Instead, bin Laden is likely worth about $7 million, was always "pious"—he's fasted twice a week since his teenage years—and seems to suffer from Addison's disease, the same hormonal disorder that afflicted President John F. Kennedy.

But one part of bin Laden's reputation that's true is his extraordinary gift at controlling his image. "He exaggerates many of his talents," Wright said. "One talent he doesn't exaggerate: he's a great spin doctor."

Wright told the audience how bin Laden forged the beginnings of what would become Al-Qaeda after he left Saudi Arabia in 1992 to take up residence in Sudan. Among other traits, he was financially generous, reaching out to potential terrorists who needed assistance. After Zawahiri's followers bombed the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan in 1995, the Pakistan government assembled several hundred Arab Afghans for deportation, when Bin Laden appeared with tickets for all of them to Sudan.

Wright also delved into ways in which the U.S. government could have prevented the attacks, arguing that had the FBI, NSA and CIA worked together at the start of the decade, rather than withholding information, history would have unfolded very differently.

"If the agencies had cooperated, we could have stopped 9/11," Wright said "There were real opportunities and we had good people who could have done it."

For example, one of the 9/11 hijackers, Khaled al-Mihdhar, was living in San Diego for months, and the NSA had known of his connection to terrorists in Yemen, but hadn't shared that information.

But Wright added that he doesn't support efforts to make it easier for the government to eavesdrop. He also proposed that the authorities might have gone overboard on some initiatives designed to increase security. Recently, he said, he visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia—and encountered the type of security normally associated with air travel. "I had to take off my shoes to visit the Liberty Bell," he said. "It angered me. In our pursuit of safety—which is never actually in one's grasp—we give up a lot of things."

By Wendy Davis