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ANATOMY OF TERROR. From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State – Ali Soufan.

We can hope that the Islamist movement ignited by Osama bin Laden, fanned into an inferno by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and now fueled, like a vision of hell, by thousands of corpses, will not endure quite as long as the death cult inaugurated by bin Laden’s medieval doppelgénger, Hassan-i Sabbah. But at the same time, let us also recognize that al-Qaeda’s story is far from over.

We have killed the messenger. But the message lives.

FRIENDS AND ENEMIES

On a crisp morning in December of 2001, I picked up a pockmarked clay brick, one of thousands like it littering the site of what only weeks before had been a hideout for the most wanted man on earth. Perhaps, I thought, this very brick had formed part of the wall of Osama bin Laden’s sleeping quarters, or the floor where he habitually sat to receive visitors. As I felt the heft and contour of that brick in my hands, I contemplated the unlikely sequence of eventssome in my lifetime, others over long centuries that had brought me to that extraordinary time and place.

I was born in Lebanon, emigrated to America, and went to college and then grad school in Pennsylvania. I took a double major in political science and international relations, with a minor in cultural anthropology, and followed that up with a master’s in foreign relations. With the Cold War freshly over and America’s position as the world’s only superpower seemingly secure, it was tempting to conceive of the world as a complex but orderly machine, in which nation-states would set rational policies and those rational policies would dictate logical strategies.

Yet there was something fundamentally unsatisfying about this clockwork view of the world. From my graduate studies, one prominent counterexample stuck in my mind, one from 2,500 years ago. The Peloponnesian War pitted Athens’s Delian League against a coalition of states led by Sparta and eventually aided by the mighty Persian Empire. After a quarter century of alarms and reversals, Athens finally surrendered. By paving the way for Alexander’s unification of Greece and his subsequent conquests, the war changed the course of European and world history. But the outcome was by no means foreordained.

I came to see that all the key decisions were based neither on policy nor on strategy but on personalities.

Speeches and emotional appeals consistently carried the day. Half a millennium later, Cato the Younger would mark this same phenomenon in Rome’s rocky transformation from republic to empire. “When Cicero spoke,” he said, “people marveled. When Caesar spoke, people marched.”

Theories are great tools to think with. They open your mind, broaden your perspective. But it is people who make the world go round. Individual human beings, with all their idiosyncrasies and contradictions and baggage, with their ideas sculpted by culture and belief and education and economics and family, are the agents of every grand historical force that future generations will see smoldering in the tangled wreckage of the past.

While I was still a student, I began following through the Arabic press the exploits of a dissident Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden and his nascent extremist organization, al-Qaeda, the Base. I marveled at this man’s audacity in declaring war on America, and his charismatic ability to attract followers to his side. But my own calling could not have been more different. Fresh out of grad school, I joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where one of my first assignments was to write a paper on this man bin Laden and his group. My report came to the attention of John O’Neill, the legendary head of the bureau’s counterterrorism section, based in Manhattan. In time, John became my mentor and a close friend. When suicide bombers murdered seventeen American sailors aboard the USS Cole in October 2000, John assigned me to lead the investigation. I traveled to Sanaa, Yemen’s ancient capital, and began running down leads and interrogating suspects.

John O’Neill retired from the bureau in the summer of 2001. I took him out to lunch to celebrate, and told him I was getting married. He gave me his blessing. But this would prove to be our last meeting. On August 23, John became security director for the World Trade Center. Two weeks later, he died rushing back into the south tower, courageous to the very end, determined to do what he had been doing his whole career: save lives.

Three months later, standing with my colleagues in the remains of bin Laden’s bombed out Kabul compound, I felt myself overcome by a strong sense of revenge, for my country, for the thousands murdered, and especially for John. Ever since the attacks, the alQaeda leader had been confidently predicting America’s imminent downfall. Now, bin Laden and his extremist cohorts were learning that the United States and its broad coalition of allies would not give in to terrorism so easily. For now, the sheikh still evaded capture, but the tide had turned. The piles of rubble, the lone wall that remained of a sizable residence, the twisted metal of what had once been a staircase, the smattering of air-dropped leaflets offering twenty-five million dollars for information leading to bin Laden’s capture, all bore witness to the turn of fortune’s wheel. Back home in the United States, some political leaders were already talking about Afghanistan as a future democratic beacon for the region.

In the decade that followed, my life changed utterly. I spent another four years with the FBI, investigating the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist crimes. I got married, left the bureau, and eventually became the father of three very energetic boys. And so it was that, on a Sunday evening in the spring of 2011, I found myself at home, assembling a pair of swing seats for our newborn twins as the television chattered away in the background. At around 9:45 pm, a special announcement broke through the babble: the president would shortly be addressing the nation. Clearly, something big had happened.

It was 11:35 pm. by the time President Obama approached a podium in the East Room of the White House and confirmed to the world that U.S. Navy SEALS had killed Osama bin Laden. As the president spoke of the people bin Laden had murdered, of the families bereaved, of the children left fatherless, my thoughts turned again to John O’Neill and the other friends I had lost along the way. Near the end of his remarks, Obama said, “Justice has been done.” That was certainly true, but the ramifications of bin Laden’s demise had yet to play out.

Would the jihadist edifice simply crumble without its keystone? Or would bin Laden prove more powerful as a martyr than he ever had been as a living leader?

No doubt these questions were on the president’s mind, too. ABC News’s Martha Raddatz had reported “absolute jubilation throughout government.” For my part, I could not help but feel more troubled than jubilant.

Emails began flooding my inbox, from friends and colleagues congratulating me, and from reporters seeking my take on events. An editor from the New York Times asked if I would put my views in an op-ed for the paper. I sat down to analyze the situation. I thought of all the dozens of al-Qaeda acolytes I had interrogated over the years, playing high-stakes games of mental chess with extremists and murderers for the sake of extracting priceless evidence. They had pledged bayat to bin Laden, swearing allegiance neither to the office nor the organization but to the man himself. To whom would zealots such as these now declare fealty?

Osama bin Laden had been uniquely well equipped to lead the network he founded. He had walked away from the wealth and luxury of the Saudi upper crust in order to devote himself to jihad, against the Soviets and then against America. This personal history helped him in two ways. First, his freely chosen asceticism helped inspire fanatical devotion among his followers. Secondly, at the same time, his privileged background endowed him with contacts among wealthy elites willing to bankroll terrorism. Bin Laden’s death would therefore leave a gaping hole in aI-Qaeda’s recruitment and fund-raising efforts.

It seemed likely that bin Laden’s longtime deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, would be named the new emir. If so, I knew that he would struggle. To be sure, Zawahiri is clever and strategic. He is, after all, a fully trained surgeon who honed his militant skills battling the Sadat and Mubarak regimes in his native Egypt. He is also a zealot of uncompromising brutality, responsible more than anyone for justifying the tactic of suicide bombing and by extension for the tragic toll it has taken on innocent Muslims. But for all his intelligence, his cunning, and his zeal, Zawahiri possesses none of the charisma bin Laden had. Indeed, his personality has alienated many people over the years. More importantly still, Zawahiri is an Egyptian. Within al-Qaeda, his appointment would inflame the already tense internecine rivalry between his countrymen and the Gulf Arabs who make up the jihadi rank and file.

As an organization, then, al-Qaeda was in deep trouble. But what of bin Ladenism as an idea? That, I felt, was a different story. I feared that some of the regional groups that bin Laden had worked so hard to keep in line-like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and aI-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, would split off. They might even intensify their ideology. No doubt they would see the nascent Arab Spring as an opportunity to impose their ideas on their fellow Muslims. In the pages of the New York Times I wrote:

We cannot rest on our laurels. Most of Al Qaeda’s leadership council members are still at large, and they command their own followers. They will try to carry out operations to prove Al Qaeda’s continuing relevance. And with Al Qaeda on the decline, regional groups that had aligned themselves with the network may return to operating independently, making them harder to monitor and hence deadlier.

It brings me no pleasure to see those premonitions borne out. Al-Qaeda has indeed fractured into regional units. Zawahiri, the cold bureaucrat, has struggled to maintain control. Meanwhile, the cancer of bin Ladenism has metastasized across the Middle East and North Africa and beyond, carried by even more virulent vectors. Whereas on 9/11 al-Qaeda had around 400 members, today it has thousands upon thousands, in franchises and affiliates spread from the shores of the Pacific to Africa’s Atlantic seaboard, and that is without even counting the breakaway armed group that calls itself the Islamic State. AI-Qaeda’s Syrian branch alone has more members than bin Laden ever imagined for his entire network. It is striking to note that, in October of 2015, more than fourteen years after the 9/11 attacks, US. forces disrupted what is believed to be the largest al-Qaeda training camp ever, all thirty square miles of it-right in the organization’s historic heartland of Afghanistan.

In the Middle East, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda’s most vicious offshoot to date, employs methods so savage that even hardened terrorists publicly denounce their brutality. Where bin Laden encouraged militants in his network to focus on attacking the West directly rather than hitting regimes in the Muslim world, the Islamic State has successfully done both. It has brought mass murder to the streets of Paris, airports in Brussels and Istanbul, a Russian airliner in the skies over Sinai, and a Christmas market in Berlin. It has killed worshipers at mosques in Yemen and Kuwait, attacked police, soldiers, and border guards in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and bombed political rallies in Turkey. At the same time, it has conquered millions of acres across Iraq and Syria, aided by tens of thousands of foreign recruits. The organization’s formal break with al-Qaeda in 2014 has not stopped the Islamic State from expanding to other troubled regions of the world, most notably Libya. The group has even established a beachhead in remote regions of Afghanistan, where it vies violently for control with al-Qaeda’s longstanding allies, the Taliban, who governed Afghanistan until the United States removed them from power in 2001.

A video popular among Muslims living in the projects of East London, Birmingham, and elsewhere in England shows a man squatting in a Syrian field, his features covered with a ski mask, his rifle at the ready. Fighting in the Levant is “not as easy as pulling out your nine-millimeter on a back road of the streets of London and blasting a guy,” he says in a forthright East London accent. “It’s not as easy as putting up your feet on the couch after a hard day’s work on the corner.”

Inspired by such bin Ladenist propaganda, as many as 38,000 foreigners had joined the fighting in Syria by the end of 2015. Compare that to the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, which attracted “only” 8,000 foreign nationals. And whereas those who made the journey to that conflict came overwhelmingly from Muslim-majority countries, the war in Syria has attracted over 5,000 foreign fighters from the United States and the European Union, as well as many hundreds from Russia. Around 20 to 30 percent of these fighters have already returned home.

Not all of them are plotting violence, by any means; but the numbers are so great that even if only a small proportion of these fighters emerge from the conflict as hardened terrorists, it could spell big trouble for the West. How big? Think of it this way: the islamic State’s attacks on Paris in November of 2015, in which 130 innocent people died, were perpetrated by just 9 men.

My first book, The Black Banners, told the tale of al-Qaeda up to the death of its founder. In this book, I aim to take the story further. True to my conviction that personalities matter, I will focus my story through the eyes of several key individuals, notably bin Laden himself; Saif al Adel, his wily security chief; Ayman al-Zawahiri, his deputy and successor; Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who founded the organization that would become the Islamic State; Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the group’s current “caliph”; and the men (and in bin Laden’s case, the women) of their inner circles. Through these characters, we will trace the transformation of al-Qaeda as an organization, the simultaneous development of bin Ladenism into a far more potent and lethal force, the rise and decline of the Islamic State, and the impending resurgence of al-Qaeda.

In its landmark final report, the 9/11 Commission concluded that the tragic attacks of September 2001 were allowed to proceed in part because of a catastrophic “failure of imagination” on the part of US. intelligence. Analysts commonly asserted that they simply couldn’t imagine someone flying a plane into a building. In a similar vein, a month before the US. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told a Senate panel, “It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army.” It took less than two months, and minimal U.S. casualties, to conquer the country; yet eight years, five thousand coalition deaths, and $1.7 trillion were nowhere near enough to “provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq.”

Know your enemy, Sun Tsu admonishes us across the millennia. And yet, time and again, when inquiries are held and hard questions asked, the response amounts to, “We couldn’t conceive, we couldn’t imagine, we couldn’t wrap our heads around the possibility that something like this could happen.” Or, just as bad, we did imagine some worst-case scenario and therefore it was sure to happen, as in the so-called One Percent Doctrine espoused by Vice President Dick Cheney, who told Americans, “If there is a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis. It’s about our response.” That is the high road to an absurd and ruinous waste of finite intelligence, military, diplomatic, and law-enforcement resources.

The key to a more constructive use of our imaginations is empathy, not in the colloquial sense of sharing another person’s perspective, but in the clinical sense of being able to see the world through another person’s eyes. Sadly, after fifteen years of the war on terrorism, we still do not really know our enemy in this deeper sense.

In this book, by delving into the personalities of men who mean us harm, I aim not to create sympathy for them, far from it, but to help point the way to a deeper understanding of their worldview, their motivations, and how best to combat the destructive ideology they represent.

I still have that battered clay brick I picked up in bin Laden’s shattered hideout. A decade and a half later, it sits on a shelf in my office in Midtown Manhattan. Looking at it while I work reminds me of the progress we have made against terrorism since I first picked it up on that winter morning, but also of the missteps we have made along the way, and above all of how far we have still to go.

We have killed the messenger. But the message lives.

PROLOGUE

THE OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN

Once upon a time, there was a terrorist who dwelled in the mountains. Throughout the Muslim world and beyond, his name became a byword for brutality. Tribal Chieftains, great religious leaders, even sovereign rulers would take extraordinary pains to protect themselves against the terrorist and the cadre of killers he commanded. So loyal were his acolytes to their sheikh, so certain of the Paradise he promised, that they were prepared to die horribly, on his command. His followers claimed to be the most faithful among the faithful. Their aim was twofold: to shield from its perceived enemies the religious sect to which they belonged, and to eliminate from this imperfect world the corrupting influence of apostasy and religious impurity. Their modus operandi was public murder: every death a spectacle, every spectacle a political message.

Niceties such as guilt or innocence did not trouble the terrorist or his men; they operated under a fatwa, an infallible religious ruling, commanding the murder of “infidels”, non Muslims and “apostates”, Muslims who failed to live up to the terrorist’s own austere interpretation of Islam. And, of course, the terrorist and his men arrogated to themselves the right to distinguish between faithful and faithless. It was no surprise, therefore, that the vast majority of the terrorist’s victims were not Christians, Jews, or Zoroastrians but fellow Muslims.

Today, this terrorist is dead, long dead. His name was Hassan-i Sabbah. He was born sometime in the mid-eleventh century and died in 1124. The death cult he founded has long since faded away, but not before outliving its creator by more than a hundred years. Its name has passed into legend around the world, the Assassins. For Hassan-i Sabbah, the most prominent apostates were the Seljuk, the Turkish dynasty that ruled over much of the medieval Islamic world. The principal infidels were the Crusaders, who periodically rode in from western Europe to impose their disfigured version of Christian morality on the Holy Land.

Today’s terrorists see the world in similar terms. Their apostates are the modern-day rulers of the Islamic world, be they secular, like Egypt’s military strongmen, or allied to the West, like the House of Saud. Their infidels are the Christians, the Jews, the Americans, the West in general. They imagine themselves beset by contemporary Crusades, both literal and figurative. Some, like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Taliban in Afghanistan, see modern, Western-style education as a conspiracy against Islam. Today’s fanatic killers may use suicide bombs instead of poison-tipped daggers, but they deploy eerily similar fatwas to justify their indiscriminate murder of innocent people at the World Trade Center in New York, in neighborhoods of Beirut, on trains in London and Madrid, on a residential street in Baghdad, at a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, in a nightclub in Istanbul, and on and on.

In Hassan-i Sabbah’s day, he and his followers were dismissed as wild outliers, able to execute their murderous missions only because they were stoked on drugs. The very word “Assassin” was said to derive from the Arabic hashishin, meaning “marijuana users.” In the popular imagination, today’s suicide bombers are seen as similarly brainwashed or brain-dead. In reality, many are troubled young people who discern little meaning in their own lives and view their acts as an ultimate expression of faith. Similarly, modern scholarship teaches that the word “Assassin” more likely derives not from any pharmacological association but from the Arabic asas (foundation of the faith). The Assassins were seen as returning to the basic principles of their religion, in other words, as fundamentalists. That is a vital difference, and one with enormous contemporary resonance. Not for nothing is the most notorious modern terrorist group known as al-Qaeda, The Base, or, in an alternate rendering, The Foundation.

It was not always thus. In fact, Islam began as a liberalizing force. It introduced racial and social equality to an Arab tribal society that had previously enjoyed neither. Islam was supposed to enlighten Arabia and deliver it from the Jahiliyyah, the Days of Ignorance. Through the new faith, women gained the right to inherit property and divorce their husbands 1,300 years before many of their Western sisters would win similar privileges. Ijtihad, independent thinking, was actively encouraged, one large reason why philosophy, literature, and the sciences all flourished throughout the first few hundred years of the faith.

Then, around the tenth century, the political and religious establishments determined that critical thinking posed a direct challenge to their authority, which rested on dogma and ritual. The “Gate of ljtihad” was closed. There was, these rulers said, nothing more to be learned. It was the end of history. It became impossible even to discuss whether the hijab, the head and neck scarf worn by some observant Muslim women, was ordained by law or custom, because that question and thousands of others were supposedly settled for all time centuries ago, and the state would silence anyone who dared say otherwise. In such an environment, there is little scope for constructive progress on the difficult questions of politics and society.

In 1989, the year of revolution against Soviet despotism, the National Interest magazine published an essay by Francis Fukuyama entitled “The End of History?” It captured the spirit of the age. “What we may be witnessing,” Fukuyama wrote, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In terms of governance, this was akin to saying that there was fundamentally nothing more to be learned. Western, free-market liberalism had triumphed; all that was left was for the rest of the world to catch up.

The reality was exactly the reverse. The Cold War, with its four-decade thermonuclear stalemate, did not initiate history’s thrilling denouement; in fact, it functioned more like an intermission. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the movie could begin again. Great screenwriters tell us that, stripped down to essentials, there are only so many basic plots to choose from. Real life is like that, too. Scenarios repeat; roles recur; different actors don the costumes.

A Saudi millionaire dresses like an eleventh-century rebel, takes up arms, and encourages his followers to ascribe divine powers to him. In response to his atrocities, the West becomes mired in Afghanistan, a country whose highways are lined with the carcasses of Soviet tanks, and later in Iraq, a land created arbitrarily one hundred years ago by colonial fiat. After a decade of violence in that country, a shy bookworm from the sticks proclaims himself caliph of the Muslim world, puts on a black turban in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad, and demands the allegiance of all Muslims on pain of death.

This false caliph’s murderous movement draws sustenance from a war in neighboring Syria that bears more than passing similarities to eighteenth-century conflicts between Persian shahs, Russian tsars, and Turkish sultans.

We can hope that the Islamist movement ignited by Osama bin Laden, fanned into an inferno by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and now fueled, like a vision of hell, by thousands of corpses, will not endure quite as long as the death cult inaugurated by bin Laden’s medieval doppelgénger, Hassan-i Sabbah. But at the same time, let us also recognize that al-Qaeda’s story is far from over.

Chapter 1

THE SNAKE WITH BROKEN TEETH

Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).

-TWEET BY SOHAIB ATHAR, @REALLYVIRTUAL, 12.58 AM PKT, MAY 2, 2011

Go away helicopter before I take out my giant SWATTER :-/

-@REALLW|RTUAL, 1.05 AM PKT

A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. lhope its not the start of something NASTY :-$

-@REALLYV|RTUAL, 1.09 AM PKT

Sohaib Athar just wanted to get away from it all. His life in the Pakistani megacity of Lahore had been a dizzying burlesque of stifling heat, filthy air, unreliable power, and the everpresent danger of terrorist attack. After a while, it had all become too much for the young software developer. So he had packed up his laptops and fled for the relative tranquillity of the mountains north of Islamabad. Abbottabad must have seemed a promising place for a new start. The city lies cupped in a high-walled valley in the foothills of what becomes, much farther to the north and east, the outer reaches of the Himalayas. At an elevation of four thousand feet, roughly comparable to that of Salt Lake City, Utah, Abbottabad is known throughout the region for its agreeable hill-station climate. The town’s founder and namesake, the British Army Major James Abbott, waxed poetic about its “sweet air” and twittering birds. Its Anglican church, St. Luke’s, also established by the British, and built in a style that would have been familiar to soldiers homesick for the English countryside, still ministers to parishioners on Jinnah Road in the heart of the old town. Abbottabad was founded as a garrison city, and it remains so today; since Pakistan’s independence, it has been home to the prestigious Kakul Military Academy, the country’s answer to West Point. The academy has trained much of the country’s military leadership, including its former president, Pervez Musharraf. It is also a frequent port of call for top military brass from Pakistan’s allies; General David Petraeus visited in February 2010 while serving as overall commander of US. forces in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Abbottabad’s relative isolation and strong military presence conspire to create a sense of security that is sorely lacking in so many of Pakistan’s other major cities.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Sohaib Athar was not alone in seeing Abbottabad as a place of refuge. Throughout the first decade of the twentyfirst century, people had moved there from elsewhere in the country, fleeing earthquakes, flooding, and the violent war against Islamic extremists ongoing in places like Waziristan, a notoriously lawless region in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, two hundred miles to the southwest, along Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan. Abbottabad had also sheltered its fair share of less welcome transplants. Umar Patek, a key conspirator in the Bali nightclub bombing that killed more than 200 people in 2002, was arrested in Abbottabad in January 2011, together with Mohammed Tahir Shahzad, an al-Qaeda fixer who had arranged for Patek to travel to Waziristan alongside two French jihadists. it was not inconceivable, therefore, that other aI-Qaeda operatives, perhaps even senior figures, could still be laying low somewhere in Abbottabad.

About a mile and a half across town from where Sohaib Athar plied his screens and keyboards, in a relatively wealthy neighborhood where a few large houses rose over gardens in which residents grew food, there stood a spacious compound of the type known locally as a “mansion.” It consisted of a three-story main house, a guesthouse, and a number of outbuildings, all surrounded by uneven high walls, in places rising to twelve or eighteen feet, and crowned with a two-foot tangle of barbed wire.

The compound had no cable or telephone connections, although it did have a satellite dish. It lacked regular trash pickup; evidently its inhabitants preferred to burn their refuse on site. The balcony on the third floor of the big house, added following an earthquake that occurred in October 2005, was surrounded by an unbroken seven-foot screen wall. The plans for this edifice listed the property’s owner as Mohammed Arshad Naqab Khan. Khan was seldom seen, but when he did appear, he told neighbors that he was a wealthy money changer or gold merchant from the tribal regions, and that he needed high security to protect himself and his family from “enemies” he had made in that business. This seemed plausible enough. Besides, it was not uncommon for pious Pashtun families from the tribal lands to live in large, high-walled properties, to sequester their women and children indoors, and generally to keep to themselves.

But Arshad Khan and his backstory were a fiction, an alias concocted to hide the true identity of the compound’s owner.

Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed aka al-Kuwaiti

Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed was an ethnic Pakistani Pashtun whose family hailed from Shangla, a rugged, sparsely populated district in the mountains northwest of Abbottabad. Ahmed, however, was born and raised in Kuwait, and like many jihadis went by his nisbah, or toponym, al-Kuwaiti. Growing up in the tiny desert emirate, al-Kuwaiti had become the boyhood boon companion of a fellow Pakistani, an ethnic Baluch named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

KSM, as he later became known to investigators, had been a jihadi since he was sixteen years old. Having fought the Soviets in the 1980s, he would go on to mastermind the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and carry out the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl the following year.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also served as al-Kuwaiti’s mentor in jihad. He got his friend a position as emir of an al-Qaeda guesthouse in the city of Karachi, in Pakistan’s deep south, and introduced him to his sheikh, a Saudi militant Chieftain named Osama bin Laden. Not long after this fateful meeting, al-Kuwaiti would begin a long service to bin Laden and his family as courier, domestic servant, and bodyguard. He kept this work, along with his other jihadi duties, a grave secret, even from those closest to him. In 2001, when he was around thirty-five years old, he married a fourteen-year-old girl from his home district and brought her to live with him in Karachi. He explained his frequent absences from the marital home by saying that he often traveled back to the Gulf on business. Throughout this time, al-Kuwaiti remained close to his old friend Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; KSM’s wife hosted a wedding feast for the new couple at her house. But it would be years before aI-Kuwaiti would tell his bride who this mysterious friend was or admit that he, like KSM, was in reality a mujahid of al-Qaeda. By then, there would be no going back.

Following bin Laden’s defeat at the cave complex of Tora Bora in late 2001, the al-Qaeda leader fled over the mountains into hiding in Pakistan, shaving his long beard to evade recognition. Al-Kuwaiti was once again called upon to assist the sheikh in his time of need. In the summer of 2002, he set up a house for bin Laden in Swat, not far from his ancestral homeland in the north of Pakistan. Al-Kuwaiti moved his wife and children there, too, and they were soon joined by his brother, whose name was Abrar, and Abrar’s own growing family. The brothers, both olive-skinned and beardless, but with close-cropped mustaches in the traditional Pakistani style, did not look out of place in their country of origin. In exchange for their hospitality and protection, bin Laden paid the Kuwaiti brothers a salary of 9,000 rupees per month, around $100, which he supplemented from time to time with gifts and zakat (charity).

The Swat house nestled in a pretty stretch of countryside by the banks of a river. To Osama bin Laden, this bucolic setting may have seemed a welcome respite from the relentIess pace of frontline jihad. But any feeling of serenity would prove to be short-Iived. In early 2003, al-Kuwaiti’s old friend Khalid Sheikh Mohammed brought his family to stay at the Swat house for two weeks. Just a month after he left, al-Kuwaiti was watching the news with his wife when KSM’s face unexpectedly flashed onto the screen. The 9/11 planner had been arrested in Rawalpindi, the twin city of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Al-Kuwaiti flew into a panic; KSM was a tough personality and an experienced operative, but there was no telling what secrets he might divulge, knowingly or otherwise, under interrogation. Within a week, al-Kuwaiti, bin Laden, and the other residents of the Swat house had fled. Quickly, the brothers moved them to Haripur, a city to the east surrounded by squalid camps sheltering some of the millions of refugees displaced by a quarter century of conflict in neighboring Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s house in the suburbs, by contrast, was pretty and spacious, with three bedrooms, a lawn, and a roof terrace. But nobody ever visited him there. One neighbor noted that the brothers kept their gates shut, which was unusual for the area. When they needed to make phone calls, they would travel up to ninety miles away to use public call boxes.

By late 2004, aI-Kuwaiti, operating under his assumed identity of Arshad Khan, had begun buying up tracts of land in Abbottabad Cantonment for what would become bin Laden’s mansion. In August of 2005, with construction on the main building complete, bin Laden moved in, together with two of his wives, his son Khalid, and a number of his daughters and grandchildren. Al-Kuwaiti lived with his wife and children in the guesthouse on site, while Abrar and his family occupied the ground floor of the main house. Eventually, the screened-off third floor built after the October earthquake became bin Laden’s living quarters.

Bin Laden always claimed to live in accordance with the ways of the Prophet, and few parallels between their two lives would have escaped him. So it is quite possible that he would have compared his flight from Afghanistan to Pakistan with Muhammad’s Hijra, or migration, from Mecca to Yathrib, the desert settlement that would eventually become Medina. In fact, he often called on his followers to make their own hijra to Afghanistan. Since his arrival in Pakistan, bin Laden’s movements, from Swat to Haripur to Abbottabad, had traced a path roughly due east, deeper and deeper into the country. Four years after 9/11, he had made it roughly two hundred miles from Tora Bora, about the same distance as the Prophet traveled from Mecca to Yathrib. Perhaps this was an auspicious sign.

Everything about the Abbottabad mansion was geared toward privacy and self-sufficiency. The brothers hired a local farmer, a man called Shamraiz, to plow an adjacent field for growing vegetables. There were animals at the site, too, including chickens and a cow. Whatever food and provisions could not be grown, raised, or made on the premises, al-Kuwaiti and Abrar would buy at the bazaar in town. Bin Laden was no stranger to spartan living conditions. Indeed, for decades, he had deliberately sought out a life of privation. Like charismatic leaders before him, including the Assassin leader Hassan-i Sabbah, he cultivated this ascetic image as an important part of his appeal. Frugality came naturally to him; indeed, it seemed to exhilarate him. When he returned to Afghanistan in 1996, he chose a grim, unkempt hideout in the mountains in preference to several much cushier residences, including a former royal palace. Later, in the compound at Kandahar, his house was among the simplest on the base, with not even a carpet on the floor. In 2005, upon his arrival in Abbottabad, bin Laden’s wardrobe consisted of no more than a black jacket, a couple of sweaters, and six shalwar kameez, the traditional Pashtun dress of baggy pants and a long shirt.

In accordance with his fundamentalist reading of Islam, he had always kept the women of his household in strict purdah, separation from men outside their immediate family. In Abbottabad that prohibition became a matter of security as well as religious obligation. Indeed, his rules were so absolute that, from the age of three, the bin Laden women were banned from watching television, so that they would never see an unfamiliar male face. His children and grandchildren were sequestered inside the house almost twenty-four hours a day. The sheikh personally home-schooled them in the bin Laden brand of extreme religion and forbade them from playing with the children of al-Kuwaiti and Abrar, who lived just feet away within the same compound. Such was their isolation that the sheikh did not even allow them to be vaccinated for polio along with the other children. The nearest the bin Laden children came to fun was their occasional competitions to see which of them could grow the biggest vegetables in the garden.

Despite his well known penchant for sports, hiking, and horseback riding, the sheikh’s own health had taken a downturn in early adulthood from which he had never fully recovered. Fortyeight when he began living in Abbottabad, he was practically blind in one eye, the result of a childhood injury he successfully concealed from the public for many years. In his twenties and thirties, during the jihad against Afghanistan’s Soviet occupiers in the 1980s, he had suffered crippling bouts of pain and paralysis, which the former surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri had treated with a glucose drip. Having inhaled Russian napalm in Afghanistan, he frequently had trouble with his larynx. In Abbottabad he complained of pain in his heart and kidneys, but there was no question of visiting a doctor. Instead, when bin Laden felt ill, he would treat himself with al-tibb al-nabawi, traditional medicine based on the hadith, sayings ascribed to the Prophet. Some believe, for example, that Muhammad recommended barley broth and honey to treat an upset stomach, senna for constipation, truffle water for eye ailments, and henna for aches and wounds. “God has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it,” says one well known hadith, “with the exception of one disease, namely old age.” By his early fifties, Osama Bin Laden had become, prematurely, an old man. In videos made inside the compound, he appears hunched and frail, his face lined, his eyes tired. His beard, salt-and-pepper at the time of the 9/11 attacks, was rapidly turning white, although he was not above dyeing it jet black in video messages meant for public consumption.

In his three decade career of murder and mayhem, Osama bin Laden had gone by many names. His followers called him Azmaray, the sheikh, the emir, the director, Abu Abdullah. His code name at the US. Joint Special Operations Command was Crankshaft, reflecting his vital importance in driving the engine of al-Qaeda. But one final nickname captured the diminished circumstances of his existence in Abbottabad. In the months leading up to bin Laden’s death, observing his daily walks within the bounds of a compound he never seemed to leave, analysts with the Central Intelligence Agency had taken to calling him The Pacer. But Osama bin Laden was no ordinary shut-in, and he was by no means cut off from the world. Far from it: Until the day he died, the sheikh remained in active control of the deadliest terror network in history.

Communication with the outside was difficult, to be sure. Ever since the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed so soon after his visit to the house in Swat, bin Laden had cut off face-to-face contact with other senior jihadis, or, indeed, any al-Qaeda members other than his immediate protectors. No doubt this was a wise precaution for a man with a twenty-five-million-dollar U.S. bounty on his head. Besides, house calls would be an impractical way of governing a network that bestrode much of the Islamic world. But remote means of communication were scarcely any more secure. Email was not to be trusted; bin Laden knew from past experience that the Americans were capable of intercepting such messages, even with encryption. As he himself wrote in August of 2010, “Computer science is not our science and we are not the ones who invented it. . . . Encryption systems work with ordinary people, but not against those who created email and the Internet.” Cellular communication, too, was risky, because it could give away a person’s location and perhaps even call forth one of the hated unmanned “spy planes” that patrolled the skies over northern Pakistan. By this time, al-Kuwaiti had evidently acquired a cellphone; but whenever he needed to place a call, he would drive out from Abbottabad for ninety minutes or more before even placing the battery in his device.

*

from

ANATOMY OF TERROR. From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State

by Ali Soufan

get it at Amazon.com