A reporter’s quest for Osama bin Laden

John F. Burns in The New York Times:

As reporting opportunities go, few can have been more spectacularly flubbed than the one that came my way on a long-ago spring day in the former Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. The year was 1989; the location a cramped room at a ramshackle indoctrination camp for Arab militants in the hinterland outside Peshawar, the frontier town that was a staging area for the mujahedeen who forced Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan earlier that year.

At the back, in a corner, sat a tall, straggly-bearded man in his early 30s, silent, taut-faced, and plainly, by his body language, deeply upset by a reporter’s intrusion. His name, I learned later from an officer of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, was Osama bin Laden. I never spoke to him that day, on what proved to be the only firsthand sighting I would have of the man whose terrorist murderousness — and success for so long in eluding history’s biggest manhunt — was to recast the story of our time.

For me, as for many foreign correspondents of my generation, Bin Laden was to become an obsessive figure, a sort of unholy grail, just as he was for the American commandos who finally tracked him down. A handful of reporters succeeded in interviewing him in the decade after my own encounter, always under cloak-and-dagger conditions, always at one of his hideaways in Afghanistan. But none were to meet him after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he became a figure to be seen only in the smuggled videotapes that became his sermons — and now his epitaph — for the world. More:

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