When Robert Fisk interviewed Osama bin Laden

Robert Fisk, The Independent’s Middle East correspondent, and a war reporter of some renown, interviewed Osama bin Laden three times in 1996/7. Here is a memoir from from his three encounters, of which I’ve quoted below. The Sudanese interview (1996) is re-published here, I can’t yet find the other two interviews, all links lead nowhere, almost as if they’ve been removed from the web (although there is an account of all three in Fisk’s book, The Great War for Civilization) If I were the Indy’s web editor I’d dig them out of the archive, sharpish. The interviews are of historical significance and are most useful articles in trying to understand bin Laden, who almost always was presented as an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure in most of the Western media and as a Saladin-cum-Che Guevara by the mythmakers in the mujahideen.

The first time I met Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan it was a hot, humid night in the summer of 1996. Huge insects flew through the night air, settling like burrs on his Saudi robes and on the clothes of his armed followers. They would land on my notebook until I swatted them, their blood smearing the pages. Bin Laden was always studiously polite: each time we met, he would offer the usual Arab courtesy of food for a stranger: a tray of cheese, olives, bread and jam. I had already met him in Sudan and would spend a night, almost a year later, in one of his mountain guerrilla camps, so cold that I awoke in the morning with ice in my hair.

I had been given a rough blanket and my shoes were left outside the tent. Whenever we met, he would interrupt our interviews to say his prayers, his armed followers – from Algeria, Egypt, the Gulf Arab states, Syria – kneeling beside him, hanging on his every word as he spoke to me as if he was a messiah.

On 20 March, 1997, I would meet him again. Although only 41 at the time, his ruggedly groomed beard had white hairs, and he had bags under his eyes; I sensed some infirmity, a stiffness of one leg that gave him the slightest of limps. I still have my notes, scribbled in the frozen semi-darkness as an oil lamp sputtered between us. “I am not against the American people,” he said. “Only their government.” I had heard this so often in the Middle East. I told him I thought the American people regarded their government as their representatives. Bin Laden listened to this in silence. “We are still at the beginning of our military action against the American forces,” he said.