04.16.10

Bin Laden's Death Wish

A new book by Osama’s former bodyguard has just come out in France, filled with revelations about how he wanted to die, his desire for nuclear weapons, and where he might be hiding. .

A new book by Osama’s former bodyguard has just come out in France, filled with revelations about how he wanted to die, his desire for nuclear weapons, and where he might be hiding.

For New Yorkers who endured the apocalyptic hours we now refer to as 9/11, a question quickly emerged from the shock: Who brought this hell down onto us? After investigators fingered Osama bin Laden, a handful of my friends and neighbors in the East Village (where I lived) took to a gallow’s humor game—to feel a little less awful. What is, they asked, Osama Bin Laden’s worst nightmare?

Eight and a half later, an answer seems to have emerged, thanks to a new book by Bin Laden’s former bodyguard in collaboration with French journalist Georges Malbrunot (who was held hostage in Iraq for four months in 2004). Following al Qaeda’s deadly bombings of two U.S. embassies in eastern Africa in August 1998, Bin Laden found himself alone with his trusted bodyguard, Nasser al-Bahri. Bin Laden drew a pistol out of his pocket with two bullets in it and told al-Bahri: “If ever the Americans encircle me… I absolutely do not want to end my life as a prisoner in the United States, so you will be in charge of killing me.’"

“I am ready to give all of my wealth to possess a nuclear weapon to achieve a balance with the Americans,” the al Qaeda leader said in front of his bodyguard.

Malbrunot described the scene in a video interview with the website of Le Figaro newspaper, where he works. The interview is in support of the new book, “ Dans l’ombre de Ben Laden. Révélations de son garde du corps repenti” ( In the Shadow of Bin Laden: Revelations of a Repentant Bodyguard), that Malbrunot wrote based on 13 days of interviews with al-Bahri. The book offers an array of other fascinating revelations about Bin Laden by a man who spent three years as his intimate and who retrieved Bin Laden’s fourth wife, a 17-year-old Yemeni girl, for him.

American authorities have long known al-Bahri; they interrogated him intensively after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, he provided what is believed to be the first substantial information linking Bin Laden to the attack. (He has even testified before members of the U.S. Senate.) Al-Bahri, who is a Saudi citizen of Yemeni descent, was close enough with the 9/11 attackers that he came to consider them as “colleagues,” even if he insists that he knew nothing about their mission. (He was reportedly grabbed by authorities in Yemen and serving time in prison when the terrorists struck on 9/11. The former bodyguard only fully understood the full nature of his colleagues when he saw the famous photos of them soon after.)

His insights into Bin Laden, published in France the day after President Barack Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation summit, address Bin Laden’s craving in the late 1990s for an al Qaeda nuke. “I am ready to give all of my wealth to possess a nuclear weapon to achieve a balance with the Americans,” the al Qaeda leader said in front of his bodyguard.

Interestingly, in al-Bahri’s account, the al-Qaeda leader saw obtaining a nuclear bomb as a defensive tool that would give pause to the terrorist network’s enemies; it would not be a weapon to use simply because they obtained one. As Malbrunot explained in his video interview on www.lefigaro.fr, Bin Laden argued that a nuclear weapon should only be used if “the enemy shows a true will to eradicate us.” (Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is portrayed as more radical, suggesting that a nuke could and likely should be used on the offensive.)

All of the al Qaeda leadership’s late-1990s theoretical nuclear debates aside, al-Bahri says that he has never been aware of any meaningful al-Qaeda chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, know-how or plans.

Another notable revelation of the book involves Bin Laden’s last-minute request for a satellite television hookup to be set up in the remote mountainous Afghan border region where he was hiding in early September 2001. "It is very important that we are able to watch the news today," the al Qaeda leader told one of his henchmen in front of al-Bahri. Bin Laden’s team of killers may have succeeded in bringing down the Twin Towers, destroying a portion of the Pentagon, and seizing control of a fourth airplane many thousands of miles away from their Afghani hideout, but the terrorist leader’s local staff proved unable to get him a working television signal on time. (Bin Laden often used a solar-powered radio to stay informed.)

Today, al-Bahri, who lives in Yemen and has just been denied permission to visit France to talk about the book, says he believes bin Laden is alive and that he is still protected by Islamist tribes in the Waziristan border area (who Bin Laden has nurtured relations with since the 1980s when he paid for roads and house construction to support them). Osama’s former bodyguard believes that his onetime boss is probably hiding among a very small group of tribesmen who are more religious than authentically tribal in terms of their loyalties.

(Al-Bahri is not the only former Osama intimate to be refused admission into France this week on a book tour. Authorities also denied a visa to the terrorist leader’s fourth son, Omar, who hoped to promote his own book, Osama Bin Laden: A Family Portrait, written in collaboration with his mother—the first of Bin Laden’s five wives—and an American journalist. That book, like al-Bahri’s, denounces the al Qaeda leader.)

Al-Bahri told Malbrunot that if he could do his life over again, “I would not re-live the same life.” To help others avoid making the same mistakes, Malbrunot says that al-Bahri now works to discourage others from joining al Qaeda.

The former bodyguard has other regrets, though, dating back to that moment when his boss exposed the pistol and gave him that just-in-case order. “I wish I had used [the gun],” he recounted, “but at the time he was someone very important for me.” It wouldn’t have been Bin Laden’s worst nightmare, but it might have averted so much death.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles.  He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape