Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Seeking the bin Laden Behind the Myth and the Mystery

The New York Times
January 12, 2005
Seeking the bin Laden Behind the Myth and the Mystery

Osama bin Laden has been an obvious focus of the press for so long that it is strange that his basic biography remains so blurry. Network news programs have depicted an elusive, faraway bogeyman with a deadly reach, but his might seems rather meager, when seen up close.

"Meeting Osama bin Laden," which will be shown on PBS tonight, finds that the al Qaeda leader has schemes that are villainous and grand but a demeanor that is polite and shy. That's the report from several journalists who have followed his decade-long ascent in some Islamic fundamentalist sects. In addition, former allies echo this mild-mannered depiction of the target of what is called history's biggest worldwide manhunt, as if to say, "That guy?"

The program is troubled by a consistent problem in the treatment of big news stories. The largest United States television networks don't devote enough minutes to telling the fullest possible story, even if that would mean explaining the one man we are all supposed to fear most. Meanwhile, PBS gets encyclopedic when telling such a televised tale, but without the verve or tempo that will make millions sit rapt for an hour.

If only the producers of "Meeting Osama bin Laden" approached this subject as a gripping magazine read, then they might have had a tighter conceit to connect details that don't make their way into daily dispatches on the conflict. Here's one this PBS special hints at, but doesn't quite deliver: The man is more adept at cultivating mystery than widespread support.

The program speeds through a digest of Mr. bin Laden's childhood, with the most salient point being his solo status, even in his crowded family. He was the only child of his industrialist father's 10th and final wife. His half-siblings tended to connect only with others of the same mother, leaving Osama on his own. His father was himself a Yemen-born entrepreneur in the exclusive society of Saudi Arabia, and Mr. bin Laden's outsider persona seems stoked by that fact too. Still, he had a privileged boyhood as his father flew him by private jet to prayer services in mosques he helped to build in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 was at first an occasion for Mr. bin Laden, whose father died before his son's teenage years, to finance Islamic rebels with his inheritance. Then Mr. bin Laden put his finger on actual triggers and apparently heard a call to arms. His donations of money and tractors financed construction of the Tora Bora caves, which protected what he came to call "my mujaheddin," or holy warriors, according to a former Saudi intelligence chief who met with the young benefactor when he was first flush with victory over the Soviets.

Sensing he was on a divinely guided roll, Mr. bin Laden drew up larger plans to expel so-called infidels out of "Palestine, Kashmir and Chechnya," according to the show, and eventually the United States itself became his nemesis. He reportedly resented that American troops entered Kuwait to cast out the Iraqi invaders, a cause in which he would have liked to play the hero, and that Saudi royals welcomed American troops on what he considered sacred ground.

And as he undertook these greater goals, Mr. bin Laden continued to impress people as demure. One journalist notes he "opened his heart" to him during an interview. Another recalls him swinging the legs of his lithe 6-foot-4-inch frame over the arms of his office chair during their chat. Someone else describes him as muscular and feline.

He is said to have princely holdings, like a stableful of stallions, but treats his sons like cadets, with Kalashnikov-training for their role in the jihad. A reported kidney disease is said to require that he take constant sips of water and green tea. And then there's a vague consideration of his four wives, which one former houseguest had the nerve to tease him about. "People who have special circumstances need such an arrangement," Mr. bin Laden replied, laughing. No further explanation is offered.

That's just one more detail thrown into this factual compilation that is ultimately too timid in demystifying the bin Laden legend. The show's biggest insight should have been further emphasized: again and again, the glory-seeking avenger is pushed to the margins by those from whom he expects much more gratitude.

Over all, it appears that Mr. bin Laden has benefited from the caution that the American news media use when considering a religious cause, and this program at least tries to present a more complete picture. Televised images of raving radicals often suggest big numbers and resolute intensity, but in this program some rifle-shooting revelers, touting Mr. bin Laden's arrival, are described as having done so only under orders from bin Laden henchmen. For years, this bashful mastermind has issued terrifying edicts, backed with images of spectacular destruction, and Western journalists are still caught between overselling his might and underestimating his determination.

'Meeting Osama bin Laden'

PBS, tonight at 10; check local listings.

Zvi Dor-Ner, producer for WGBH; Brian Lapping and Peter Kessler, producers for Brook Lapping; Lucy Hetherington, producer for BBC; Will Lyman, narrator. A Brook Lapping Production for WGBH Boston in association with BBC and Norddeutscher Rundfunk and RTE.