The events of the past two decades have been so tumultuous that often getting a perspective on what the big picture is can prove difficult.
And, of course, there are the official narratives, the propaganda, the denials of facts, the enforced disappearances of those who seek to expose those facts…
Islamic militant outfits are one subject in which one encounters a lot of this sort of cloak and dagger and smoke and mirrors spin, and where the facts often turn out to be bizarre and unexpected. And so it is in the case of al-Qaeda, according to a new book by investigative journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy.
In The Exile: The Flight of Osama Bin Laden, the authors have put together the story of what happened to al-Qaeda after 9/11, and it is an astonishing corroboration of what were just sketchy rumours one had heard over the years.
The most interesting is the story of how Osama’s wife Khairiah and several of his children, along with members of the organisation’s central Shura and several military wing commanders (including the Egyptian Saif al Adel), found safe haven in Iran, and stayed there for almost a decade, sometimes treated as guests, sometimes as prisoners, and mostly as a combination of both.
During this time two of Osama’s children managed to escape Iranian custody: in 2008 his son Saad bin Laden scaled the compound wall one night and found his way back into Pakistan, only to be later killed in a drone strike in Waziristan; in 2010 his teenage daughter Iman slipped out from a supervised department store expedition the family had been taken on, and managed to get to the Saudi Embassy after contacting an older brother in Jeddah. The youngster picked up a baby doll from the store and walked out posing as a nursing mother, borrowed a phone to call her brother. She was subsequently reunited with her mother (Osama’s first wife Nejwa left Afghanistan two days before 9/11) after almost a decade.
The book reports that the Iranians offered to hand over Osama’s family and the al-Qaeda shura, and military council members to the US in 2003, and this offer was made more than once but turned down by Vice President Dick Cheney. The reason was that the Americans were simply not interested because their goal then was the invasion of Iraq which they justified with the pretense that Iraq was in cahoots with al-Qaeda.
The irony of this is that the US decision weakened the reformists in Iran and strengthened the hardliners: once Ahmedinejad took over, the al-Qaeda ‘guests’ were treated as a national asset and under the ‘protection’ of the Revolutionary Guard.
We also learn that the al-Qaeda central shura was opposed to the 9/11 attack plan, but it was pushed forward without their knowledge by Osama with militants who were not even al -Qaeda members (mainly Khalid Sheikh Mohammed). We also learn of what became of many of the al-Qaeda members and their families as they fled Afghanistan after the US invasion — and we learn of how many families (with young children) were killed in convoys hit in the aerial bombing.
The bulk of the information about the shura, the exodus and the Iran years, comes from the account of ‘Al Mauritani’ or the religious scholar Abu Hafs the Mauritanian aka Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed, who negotiated the Iranian entry for Osama’s family and other organisation members, and who is now back in his native Mauritania. Can we take him to be a reliable witness?
In response to this question co-author Adrain Levy says that his testimony is valuable, because he was at the heart of events, and also kept detailed records: accounts, diaries, correspondence. But Levy points out that his is but one interview and it has been cross-checked and matched to the hundreds of other accounts that they have.
Apart from Al Mauritani’s account, what is also fascinating is that the authors have been able to speak to Osama’s family, and put together an account of how the three wives and numerous siblings spent the years following 9/11.
They tell a story of upheaval and hardship, and reveal that several of the children had learning difficulties (at least two including Saad were autistic), that Osama would marry the daughters off in their early teens and that one daughter died ‘in a hovel in Waziristan’ giving birth to twins.
The Exile… tells an astonishing story, one that reveals that perhaps al-Qaeda was not the only villain of the piece: America’s single minded pursuit of a policy of war and invasions must make it as culpable of propping up and supporting al-Qaeda as any other country or militant patron.
The article was published in The News on Sunday on June 18, 2017 under the headline “A part of al-Qaeda in Iran”.