The Washington Post

Peter Bergen: Five Myths about Osama bin Laden

May 09, 2011

Join Peter Bergen as he discusses his latest Outlook piece, "Five Myths about Osama bin Laden" Monday, May 9 at 11 a.m. ET. In his piece, Bergen writes, "From the origins of the al-Qaeda terrorist network to the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, to the manhunt that came to an end with such drama last Sunday, bin Laden's life has been shrouded in mysteries and misconceptions that will far outlive him."

Have a question? Ask now.

I am Peter Bergen, I direct the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, and I will be talking about the pervasive myths, mysteries and misconceptions surrounding Osama bin Laden.

Was it a myth that Bin Laden had a Kidney problem? I have heard different accounts on this.

Yes. a myth. Omar bin laden says his father suffered from kidney stones, rather than a serious kidney problem.

Please comment on the money. How and where did he get the money?

The money that bin Laden inherited was about 20 million dollars over the course of many years, not the much larger sums some have suggested.  In 1994 his family cut him off.  Since then money has come from donations.

Peter, Keep up the great work. There is one question that I have been unable to answer, through research and the endless media and journalistic efforts following the capture of Bin Laden. My question is this; IF, like many are speculating the Pakistani government (ISI) had been providing assistance to Bin Laden's protection from the United States- (housing, financing, etc) what exactly were the benefits in terms of their interests? It is my opinion that IF in fact they were involved, it was a catastrophic mistake on their behalf. It would be much easier to understand their protection of Taliban leadership(to influence the events in Afghanistan) or even LeT(Lashkar-e-Taiba) members, because they serve strategic Pakistani interests in the region. But why risk billions of dollars in American aid and military support by not handing over Bin Laden years ago? Are they that foolish? Poor domestically with intelligence gathering? or a combination?! Thanks Peter!

Incompetence is a better explanation than conspiracy in most human activity.

Some conspiracists claim that we funded bin Laden during the Russian ocupation of Afghanistan and even that he was "a CIA asset," but I thought he had his own money. Politics makes strange bedfellows. What do you say?

CIA did fund Gulbuddin Hekmatyar during the war against the Soviets, who is now the leader of a Taliban allied insurgent group fighting in northeastern Afghanistan,  and an Afghan Pashtun close to bin Laden. CIA also had a relationship in the 1980s with Jalaluddin Haqqani, later a millitary commander of the Taliban. But the CIA and al-Qaeda had no direct dealings of any kind.

What was bin Laden's academic quest before he decided to become a menace to the West?

Bin Laden studied economics and public administration before he turned to a life of jihad.

BL said that his objective was to bleed American economy and destroy its values. Did he succeed somewhat in this front?

Bin Laden may have studied economics at university but he is quite naive about the size of the American economy. Right now the US is spending 1% of GDP in Afghanistan. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968 the US spent 9.5%.

Hi Peter. I've heard you say in your WashPost piece and on CNN that al-Qaeda has no one to take over and match bin Laden's charisma. Can you give some examples of his charisma? What was it about him that enabled him to win over flocks of young men who ultimately took an oath to him and joined his terrorist group?

Several of his followers have described their first encounter with the al Qaeda leader as an intense spiritual experience and when they explain their feelings for him it is with love. Abu Jandal, a Yemeni who became one of his bodyguards, described his first meeting with bin Laden in 1997 as “beautiful” and said he came to look on him “as a father.”  Shadi Abdalla, a Jordanian who was also one of bin Laden’s bodyguards explained his boss’s attraction: “A very charismatic person who could persuade people simply by his way of talking. One could say that he ‘seduced’ many young men.” 

[1] “as a father”: Al Hammadi op. cit.

[2] “seduced many young men”: Excerpts of Shadi Abdalla’s interviews with German authorities that occurred between April 2002 and May 2003: “Summary Interrogation S. Abdalla: UK and European Connections plus Background Al Tawid/Zarqawi,” author’s collection.

I keep reading that Osama had no computer or telephone hookup, hence why the reports on the haul from his hard drive?

No Internet but plenty of computers

Sorry if this question is dense, but even after all these years I simply can't understand what the al Qaeda types hope to accomplish. They keep kicking the hornet's nest that is the West and then complaining when those hornets come after them. Violence begets intervention which simply increases the West's stake in the region. If I were trying to maintain Sharia law in a place like Afghanistan, the last thing I would want to do is draw any outside attention to my society - recall that we left the area alone in the 1990s. So when I hear that even recently bin Laden was working on further terror attacks in the West, I'm just confused. If those attacks had happened, it would have meant more American military involvement in the region, not less. Do they understand pyrrhic victories in central Asia? Thanks.

I completely agree with this. For bin Laden the tactics --violence against the West--took over the strategy. Hence his failures as a leader

Is it true he lived in a cave?


Where and how did the "he is living in a cave" story start and was there a propaganda effect?

It was an erroneous assumption, from the start.

You say Osama has been getting donations. I would assume the CIA knows who these donors are. Do you think Americans will be found on the list?

The material recovered from the house where bin Laden lived may answer the donation question. And I'd be surprised if any Americans were donating money to him, although certainly there are Americans in his organization like Adam Gadahn.

Did he have any adult sons who were a part of Al Qaeda and who could feature as a continuation of him?

Yes, Saad bin Laden is an adult son who has played some role in the organization. He may have been killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan.

If the U.S. finds sufficient evidence that Pakistan knew Osama bin Laden was living there or helped him stay hidden, what do we do? Is there any chance the U.S. goes to war with Pakistan over this dispute? If not, how do we justify going to war in Afghanistan but not Pakistan to the rest of the world? Do we impose some other sort of sanctions against them?

Sanctions on Pakistan have been part of the troubled US-Pakistan relationship in the past and should not be considered as an option in the future. Peter

What does America gain with its overly Pakistan friendly policy? The cold war is over - the Soviet Union is no more. Does America not realise that Pakistan's tinpot generals use the billions of dollars of US aid to promote terrorist activities in India and to fill their own pockets.In the short term this policy only satisfies the brittle american ego since they are allowed to do just about anything on pakistani soil. By focusing on the armed militants in the tribal belts america is punishing the puppets rather than the puppeteer - the pakistan army's tinpot generals.The so called jihadi militants are a creation of the pakistan generals - starting with Zia ul Haq whose legacy is being continued to this day by his successors. Is the fact that oil from the last unexplored reserves in the world - Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan etc- has to be routed through Pakistan, influencing American policy?

Pakistan will be the fifth largest country in the world in terms of population in 2015, and it has nuclear weapons. The US has a vital interest in its stability.

Mr. Bergen, where are the other adult children of Osama bin Laden? His siblings? Are any of them talking to the press? Is it true the the family company owns shares in Microsoft and Boeing? Who paid for the food, animals and groceries delivered to his home where he lived and died?

Many of the kids are in Saudi Arabia, others in Pakistan.

You depict al-Quada almost as a personality cult with Osama bin Laden as the centerpiece, so now do the charismatic leader is dead, do you expect the organization to fall apart, just as the Indian movement led by Crazy Horse fell apart after his death, and the Mexican movement led by Pancho Villa fell apart when he was killed. Or is there more to al-Qaeda that will continue to bother us for a long time? Perhaps a shorter version of my question is: is the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda now over?" Or will it now just splinter into smaller but just as intensively determined groups decidated to attacking American power.

The threat from al Qaeda remains but it has become less potent over time and the death of bin Laden renders it even less potent.

Why should we believe that Osama bin Laden did not die more than nine years ago? The Taliban announced his death on December 16, 2001, and considering his end stage kidney failure and cadverous appearance, there is no reason to doubt it. And the fat Osama bin Laden of the confession tape was too ridiculous for words. Even the Pentagon's photo gallery in "Challenges Face Next Al Qaeda Leader," May 7, 2001, look nothing like each other or the real Osama. Nor has anyone seen Ayaman al-Zawhiri since 2002.

There have been more than 30 video- and audiotapes from bin Laden since 9/11 many of them commenting on current events.

Mr. Bergen - Thank you for hosting this chat. Do you think the U.S. would have been better served in the long run had our administration kept secret both the location and the killing of Osama bin Laden for as long as possible and instead first pursued any leads gleaned from the information found at bin Laden's compound? It seems that we lost a one in a million opportunity to bury al-Qaeda once and for all in a short sighted trade to gloat over bin Laden's death. Your thoughts?

The death of bin Laden is not something that could be kept secret, and in any event (predicatably) al Qaeda itself has now announced the death.

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, what do you believe the Pakistani government should do to convince us they weren't sheltering him? Do you believe they are also harboring (and protecting) Mullah Omar, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, and Sirajuddin Haqqani?

All the people you mention are living in Pakistan.

There are those who are claiming that bin Laden was innocent regarding 9/11. We never brought charges against him. Do you know if there's any truth to claim of innocence?

Bin Laden has taken public credit for the 9/11 attacks. I believe him!

Can you put an end to the myth that Iraq and Al Qaeda were closely working together?

Yes. There is no eveidence for this. I have an entire chapter in my most recent book The Longest War that examines this question.

Mr. Bergen: I seem to recall that in, "The Bin Ladens: An Arab Family in the American Century," Steve Coll said that, had Osama's older brother, who headed the family after their father's death, not died in a plane crash, that Osama would never followed the path of jihad because, quite simply, his brother would never have allowed it. Can you comment on this?

Yes this is correct. I made the same point in the 2006 book "The Osama bin Laden I Know," based on a discussion with a family member.

In your piece Sunday, Myth 2, you conclude with OBL's quote: "why did we not attack Sweden." But they did attack Sweden on December 11 of last year. Capitalism, democracy, freedom are all connected - to attack one you attack them all. - Thoughts?

Bin Laden's point is that al Qaeda did not attack Sweden

Mr. Bergen, I've long been an admirer of your work but I was dismayed by your treatment of the third "myth": Al-Qaeda's ideology has nothing to do with Islam. I'm a Christian but even I know that the "selective" reading of the Quran you describe is about as fair a representation of Muslim belief as using a single, apocalytic verse of Revelation to encapsulate Christianity. Moreover, can you cite a reputable Islamic scholar (i.e., not a self-appointed authority) who endorses any of the tenets of Al-Qaeda's ideology? Unless you can, I think you've fallen well short of busting that particular "myth."

Bin Laden cites verses in the Koran, selectively. They are in the Koran, not the hadith.

How important was bin Laden since this spring's rebellions and taking down of governments in Tunisia and Egypt?

Not at all important.

Now that bin Laden is dead, al-qaeda is even less influential than they had already become in the international terror "scene". However, can you agree that a major issue will now be "lone-wolf" & domestic terrorists committing Jihad in the name of their new martyr Usama? Perhaps this becomes more of a threat to the U.S. than al-qaeda ever was?

Sure. But lone wolves cant pull of a 9/11, or anything close.

Do you have any evidence which directly connect OBL and 9/11 besides the testimonies by al-Quada members in the 9/11 commission report or OBL confession in the 2004 televised video?

What more do you need? There is also the two days of interviews that KSM and Ramzi Binalshibh gave to Yosri Fouda of al Jazeera before they were captured.

Since Ayman al-Zawahiri used to be focused on Egypt, do we have any signs from statements from him or his followers as to whether this focus has shifted and how do they view the new Egyptian government?

Zawahiri has made a number of recent statements seeking to position himself as having some future role in the recent events in Egypt. No one in Egypt is listening.

One thing that has always troubled me has been the enormous effort and resource which bin Laden (and al-Qaeda) have devoted to destruction. I can easily understand that they object to many aspects of Western culture, as well as the dominance of that culture in the modern world. Yet it seems to me that if bin Laden would have used his energies and considerable resources toward the task of BUILDING a city, or a culture, consistent with his ideals, rather than applying that effort to developing more ingenious and efficient ways to DESTROY the existing cities and cultures, he would have not only received less worldwide resistance but it is likely that he would have achieved more success as well. Why do you think he focused so much on destruction of the existing world rather than the creation of his own?

Partly this is about revenge on America.

Isn't the ISI more of a threat to US national security currently than Al-Quaida?


Isn't it true that bin Laden denied responsibility for the attacks in an interview with al Jazeera in October 2001?

That was when he telling the Taliban he wasnt involved. If he had said he was involved at that time the Taliban would no longer have been able to assert that he had no role in the attacks.

In regards to a lone-wolf not pulling off a 9/11 style attack. I'd argue it only takes 1 scientist or other person with access to chem, bio, radiological material to unleash an IED style bomb at a sporting event, etc... thoughts? It's my belief that our major concern relating to the future of terrorism should be focused on preventing this type.

Bruce Ivins, one of the leading microbiologists in the world, killed five people in the US with anthrax during the fall of 2001

Are you of the position that focusing more attention to improving Pakistani/Indian relations is THE most if not one of the most important factors in lessening the threat of terrorism in the region? In terms of Pakistan, wouldn't they be more willing to commit to complete engagement in Afghanistan (not support the Taliban) if improvement was made in their relationship with India? Kayani has said himself he is "India-centric" in his military objectives. In terms of dealing with radical islamic organizations isnt the Pakistani/Indian relationship quite on the level of or more important than the Palestinian issue?

Yes, that's right,

I am surprised at how much info the CIA is releasing re the "treasure trove"" of data. what is the purpose of this? Why not just go after the guys and not announce you have it?

Maybe to make folks break cover?

Why was the bin Laden family flown out of the United States right after the September 11 attacks? I should think it would have been more in our interests to questions them about their knowledge and contact with Osama bin Laden and to keep them in the United States where any contact could be better monitored. Why did we decide it was in our immediate best interest to move the family out of the US, indeed, being among the few airplanes allowed to travel at that time?

This subject was dealt with at length by the 9/11 Commission report

As Egypt's government evolves, hopefully, toward something like Turkey's, do you think Zawahiri reconsiders his line of work? Perhaps go into retirement? Or does he have an ego that would be fed by being the head of al Qaeda?

I don't see Zawahiri retiring

Mr. Bergen, many in the Muslim community simply do not accept all the accusations against Bin Laden even if they disagree with terrorism as a tactic. Is there a time or a place when each allegation against him can be seen along with its verification or proof that would satisfy any who see it? There was never a trial.

There was also no trial of Adolf Hitler. Does that make him less guilty?

Your thoughts on the release/non-release of OBL death photos? Should they be released in your opinion? Would you want to see them? Chances the next president releases them?

I think tey will come out anyway given the digital age we live in.

How much of al Qaeda's energies are given towards the United States compared to other countries?

Al Qaeda in Iraq kiled tousands in Iraq. Al qaeda also killed 52 in London on 7/7/2005. But the US remains the Main Eneny for al Qaeda.

Peter, at this point in time, what is the relationship between Iran and Al Qaeda?

Some senior al Qaeda members were living under some form of house arrest until recently in Iran. They have been released and likely made their way to Pakistan.

UBL was Arab. Some are now calling for an uprising in Pak. Do we now worry that the death of UBL inspires a serious uprising in which ISI and military elements loyal to Taliban then take control of Pak and it's nukes?

This is implausible

Where do you come down on the should the US use torture, whether one calls it legal or illegal. do you feel it is a useful tool or uneffective and against our values?

Ineffective and against our values. That's also the position of the FBI and the US Supreme Court.

Peter, I am enjoying The Longest War! It seems to me that perceptions about bin Laden & al Qaeda have changed over the years since 9/11. At one point, it was believed that he funded AQ from a personal fortune of $200 million and that AQ was a large organization with sleeper cells all over the globe. Now we hear that OBL was strapped for cash & that there are 100 AQ members, max, in Afghanistan. To what extent were early views of OBL & AQ accurate? If they were not accurate did false perceptions influence US policies in unhelpful ways?

The scale of his fortune was an early myth, and the scalke of the al Qaeda threat was exaggerated by some.

Dear Mr. Bergen, With all due respect intended, where does your career go now that Bin Laden's death has occurred? Will you continue to research al Qaeda?

Im writ8ing a book about the hunt for bin Laden next.  Adfer that I have somepther  ideas about books related the Islamic world.

Mr. Bergen, I want to understand why you said that Israel or Mid-East policies caused Osama and other Islamic terrorists to kill 3000 civilians in the U.S. and keep trying to kill more every day. If that were true, how would you explain the burning of 2 Churches today in Egypt, murder 0f 16 at a cafe in Morocco last week, daily reports of ethnic cleansing/genocide carried out by Muslims against natives in Thailand, Kashmir, Phillipines.....?

Bin Laden declared war in 1996 on "the Crusaders and the Jews". He is a serious anti-Semite and anti-Zionist.

We had a history of anarchists who blew up Wall Street and were involved in all sorts of havoc. But they disappeared. Can we expect Osama's followers to follow a similar disappearing path now even they acknowledge their leader is dead?

Eventually, the threat from jihadist terrorists will recede, as the threat from anarchists did at the beginning of the 20th century.

In This Chat
Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen is the director of national security studies at the New America Foundation and the author of “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda." In 1997, he produced the first television interview of Osama bin Laden.
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