It was dark when we entered the city. Our transport turned from the main road into a maze of semi-paved streets, then on to sand. Most of the houses in the area were built of mud and their condition spoke volumes about their owners’ financial circumstances.
Stopping overnight at a house in Kandahar, I struggled to sleep under the stress of the situation and the scorching heat of the city.
Around 6 a.m., Othman woke me up. It felt as if I had slept less than an hour. Another man entered the room. I did not recognize him at first, but when he introduced himself as Abu Hafs, I knew the name. This was Mohammed Atif, aka Abu Hafs, the military leader of Al-Qaeda.
He joined me and Othman for breakfast: Naan bread, butter, jam and eggs. While we ate, he said they now had enough trained fighters to fight the “coming battle” and were in full mobility mode. In any emergency, he explained, they could evacuate their bases and move to other battle-ready locations within half an hour. After 9/11, I remembered what Abu Hafs had said and how the Tora Bora caves were prepared to shelter Al-Qaeda’s leadership and soldiers.
We resumed our journey after breakfast. I could feel the terrain change from cracked road to rigid and wild track, over which the old rust-bucket bus bounced and juddered most of the way to our destination.
After three hours we stopped at a residence renovated in the form of a fortified compound, with unscaleable boundary walls and a massive gate. This was perhaps the lion’s den. I could see a small contingent of men inside. The compound was like the fortress of an “underground world.” There were enough weapons and ammunition to bring an entire city under siege. After a thorough security inspection and body pat down, I was pointed toward one of the rooms, and men turned monsters stared back as I made my way inside.
Dressed in a white-smoke colored traditional Arabic thobe, and with a typical bright white Middle Eastern turban on his head, a commanding personality stood in the center of the room waiting to greet me along with his trusted companion — a variant of the famous Russian AK-47. This was Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, a declared terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head even then. Next to him was Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the second most-wanted terrorist in the world, who now leads the remnants of Al-Qaeda.
As I stepped farther into the room, Bin Laden moved forward and hugged me in the customary Afghan greeting style. The others followed suit. I was being hugged by the most notorious personality on the planet, surrounded by all his men, declared by the world as “terrorists with evil plans.” The thought of a laser-guided missile striking the compound and annihilating us all at any moment loomed large in my mind.
As we sat down on a cotton mattress on the floor, Bin Laden said: “The plan has changed, I will only give reserved comments.” He said he was restrained by an understanding with the Taliban not to talk to the media. Of course, I had no idea that the twisted statements he gave me later would materialize in the catastrophic attacks on the Twin Towers, which killed over 3,000 innocent people.
Bin Laden had been openly criticized by his followers and the leadership of Al-Qaeda for backtracking on his commitments. His promise to the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, that he would refrain from media statements and meeting journalists, was broken. But his pledge not to use Afghan soil as a base for attacks on any foreign country was the most vital of Bin Laden’s broken accords with the Taliban, a deceit that cost his hosts their fiefdom and led to a war with consequences that have been unfolding since 2001.
I asked him what news he wanted to give me. He repeated that the news was about some future attacks. Abu Hafs intervened, and said: “In the coming weeks, there will be a big surprise; we are going to hit American and Israeli installations.” Chillingly, he added: “The coffin business will increase in the United States.”
I looked at Bin Laden and asked if he was serious, seeking confirmation. He smiled at me and nodded in agreement. Bin Laden had few words, but Al-Zawahiri was anxious to talk. He said they would strike the head of the snake first, meaning the US, and confirmed that the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad had merged with Al-Qaeda in April of that year.
Tea was served, then Bin Laden’s personal photographer was ready to snap a few shots, and to film the three of us as I sat on the right of Al-Zawahiri with Bin Laden on his left.
Bin Laden shook hands with me and said he would be inviting me again after the success of their objective. His parting words to me were: “If something big happens, I will be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That’s where you can come again to interview me.” He left the room, followed by Al-Zawahiri and Abu Hafs.
By “something big,” of course, he meant the 9/11 attacks. It felt odd to hear Bin Laden say this, since a fugitive of his stature, the most wanted man in the world, would surely not disclose his whereabouts or divulge operational secrets. To me, it felt misleading. Later, Abdullah, Bin Laden’s son, wrote that his father actually planned to settle in Kunar province in northeast Afghanistan, but when US forces took control of the province he moved to Peshawar city in Pakistan, then Haripur, before settling in Abbottabad, where he was eventually found and killed.
After the meeting, I was taken back to the same house in Kandahar where I had spent the previous night. I was anxious to get back to civilization and break this news to the world.
After crossing the border to Pakistan, I sat in the departure lounge in Quetta waiting for my flight to Islamabad, deep in thought, wondering about the dilemma I faced. Should I report the truth, the news, however bad? Or would I be projecting violence and terror?
In the end, the truth won, as it should. My story was broadcast on MBC on June 23, 2001. In my concluding remarks, I said the coming days would reveal who would attack first, and how big this attack would be. As we all now know, it was huge, catastrophic and terrifying, and it shook the world, but the ripple effect brought much chaos and disaster back to where it was planned. Southeast Asia in general, and Afghanistan in particular, still yearn for peace and stability 16 years on.
In November 2001, my phone rang again. It was Othman. “The person” was ready to meet me as promised, he said. “Will you?”