As a new era of True Spies begins, Sophia di Martino joins the experts to reveal Osama bin Laden’s origins, methods and motivation. CIA operatives Gina Bennett and Tracy Walder join CNN’s Peter Bergen, the man who first interviewed Osama, to share the unvarnished truth about bin Laden’s rise to power. In Part 1 of this three-part epic, we follow Bergen to the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border region for the recording of the first televised interview with the al-Qaeda leader.
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True Spies Episode 133: The Bin Laden Files, Part 1: The Making of Bin Laden 

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the world’s greatest secret missions. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who navigate these secret worlds. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino and this is True Spies from SPYSCAPE Studios.

PETER BERGEN: We were searched. At one point, they said, “Now's the time to tell us if you have a tracking device. Otherwise, it's going to be a problem later.” And clearly, the problem later would be a swift execution. We said truthfully, we had no tracking devices and then we got into this next vehicle. We went up to the mountains. It wasn't really a road. It was like a riverbed or a stream, the bed of a stream that we had met higher and higher. And I think I estimate it was like 6,000 feet up. I estimated it was around midnight. And then we waited and we were given some kind of goat curry or something, some kind of local food. And suddenly out of the darkness appeared bin Laden.

NARRATOR: Episode 133, The bin Laden Files Part 1: The Making of bin Laden. 1997, somewhere south of the Hindu Kush, central Asia. It’s been a year since Osama bin Laden announced a declaration of war against the United States. Now he is giving his first television interview from a cave high in the mountains that straddle the Afghan-Pakistan border region.

PETER BERGEN: He was 6’4”. He was rail thin and carried himself like a cleric. He spoke in a monotone, very low-key. He didn't come off as angry even though his words were full of anger against the United States. 

NARRATOR: This is Peter Bergen, the CNN producer who scored bin Laden’s first-ever television interview. It was the first time the head of al-Qaeda proclaimed his message of war directly to a western audience. A year later, in 1998, he decreed another Fatwa, this time calling for Muslims to kill Americans anywhere they found them. But nobody noticed except for a few intelligence agents working deep within the US government who in turn were routinely left unheard, ignored, or even laughed at.

PETER BERGEN: No one paid any attention because even though it was CNN, bin Laden was still somebody who wasn't known. And even though he was making these threats, he hadn't seemed to deliver on any of them. And that was really my question as I left the interview. This guy seems very serious. The people around him seemed so very serious. There were 30 heavily armed men who were guarding him, some with AK-47s and some had RPGs. Yet, Afghanistan at that time was probably the most backward country in the world in terms of its connection to the outside world. The Taliban had turned it back to the Middle Ages. There was no Internet. There was barely any kind of phone service of any kind. You needed a satellite phone. There was no TV. And here was bin Laden declaring war on the United States, which was 6,000 miles away. So how do you attack the United States from literally the other end of the world?

NARRATOR: Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Within a few short years this tall, softly-spoken Saudi had followed through with his threats, unleashing four hijacked planes on landmarks of America’s soil. In just a few hours 3,000 were killed, the date of 9/11 was scorched into Western consciousness, and the world changed forever. But how was this allowed to happen? Who was asleep on the job when a man in a cave slipped past the world’s largest, most sophisticated intelligence complex and struck at the heart of a superpower? In this three-part special, True Spies goes deep into the folklore around Osama bin Laden to separate the myth from reality.   

PETER BERGEN: There's a famous moment where bin Laden goes to senior members of the Saudi Royal Family and says, “Look, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I have a mujahideen force. I can recruit 100,000 men to fight against Saddam.” And so the Saudis just basically said, “That isn't going to happen. Thanks for the suggestion.” And that idea was basically just laughed out of court.

NARRATOR: To understand what turned the son of a construction billionaire into the most infamous terrorist the world has ever known, and to explain how terrible events could have been averted, we’ll tell the story of the early years in the making of Osama bin Laden. Who he was, what made him tick, and why he chose the path he did.  

GINA BENNETT: My assessment of bin Laden and Sudan… I think this was a four-year period where things could have turned out quite differently.

NARRATOR: And we’ll hear from the spies who tracked him.  

TRACEY WALDER: I only spoke with the folks who are at probably the highest echelons of al-Qaeda. All of them were quite aware or had directly participated in September 11.

NARRATOR: Osama bin Laden’s story starts not in Saudi Arabia but in the harsh, barren valleys of Yemen’s Hadhramaut region. Translated as ‘death is present’ Hadhramaut is the birthplace of Osama’s father, Mohammed bin Laden.

PETER BERGEN: I visited the bin Laden family village shortly before the 9/11 attacks and it's like stepping back into the Middle Ages. 

NARRATOR: Peter Bergen was researching the world’s most famous terrorist long before he was a household name. As a TV news producer in the 1990s, he became interested in the growing instability in the Middle East.

PETER BERGEN: Hadhramaut, basically, there's really nothing to do there. The women are in the fields. They wear very distinctive black conical hats. They are rigorously separated from men, so much so that apparently they developed their own dialect. And literally, the architecture of the houses is such that women don't have to encounter men at all. 

NARRATOR: Bin Laden’s father traveled north to Saudi Arabia, just as the house of Saud was setting up their kingdom in 1932.

PETER BERGEN: That turned out to be very good timing because very shortly thereafter Standard Oil of California inked its first oil deal with the Saudi kingdom. And basically, that created a giant gusher of oil wealth, and the Saudi King was obviously the main person in terms of distributing it.

NARRATOR: Mohammed bin Laden ingratiated himself with the Saudi Royal Family. A bricklayer by trade, he became their man for many of the major building projects the kingdom embarked on, funded by American petro-dollars.

PETER BERGEN: And crucially, he was involved in rebuilding the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, the two holiest places in Islam. Not only was that very lucrative, but it was a very prestigious thing to be rebuilding these holy sites. And Mohammed bin Laden became one of the richest men in the kingdom. 

NARRATOR: As his business expanded, Mohammed traveled around the Middle East. One day in 1956, he found himself in the Syrian port city of Latakia. It’s here that he meets a young woman from Yemen called Alia, who becomes his wife, the first of at least 20 over the course of his life. Aliah’s only child with Mohammed was born in 1957. Mohammed names him Osama, Arabic for ‘lion’. You’d think that would mean a father would have a certain amount of pride in his son, but Mohammed and Alia’s marriage ends shortly afterward and Mohammed moves on to his next bride, leaving bin Laden virtually fatherless.

PETER BERGEN: He was the only child of this particular marriage, yet he had 53 siblings, but they're all half-siblings. And so this was the giant family. And Mohammed bin Laden, the patriarch of the family, was a very busy guy. And he had very little time for his kids, particularly Osama.

NARRATOR: Bin Laden only ever met his father on a handful of occasions but these meetings left an indelible impression on the boy - a boy with no full siblings; just half brothers and sisters and a Yemeni mother discarded from the family only shortly after entering it. And by 1967, when bin Laden was 10 years old, his father was dead, his American pilot having crashed his plane trying to land on a remote airstrip near one of the billionaire’s construction projects. Bin Laden, already a shy boy, retreats even further into himself.

PETER BERGEN: Even though bin Laden had no real relationship with his dad, it seemed to have a big effect on him personally. He became, by his own account, more religious. He started reading the Quran. At a certain point, he memorized the entire Quran, which is not a small feat of memory, since there are more than 6,000 verses and it turned him in a more religious direction.

NARRATOR: By the time bin Laden was a teenager, he had become deeply serious with a strict religious code unusual in someone so young. Aged 14, bin Laden traveled with some of his brothers to England. There, he befriended a couple of Spanish teenagers who were tracked down after the events of 9/11 and asked to tell their story to a Spanish newspaper.

PETER BERGEN: He said a number of interesting things to them. He said that my mother was "a concubine", which is a very interesting way of putting it - like she wasn't a real wife. But certainly, she was somebody that his father just came along and had a kid with and then basically got rid of.

NARRATOR: As bin Laden went deeper into his religious studies, he came to frown upon what he saw as his father’s lax observance of the Muslim faith.

PETER BERGEN: What Mohammed bin Laden, the senior bin Laden, would do is he would keep the four wives allowed by the Quran, but he'd keep divorcing the third and fourth one, bringing in new wives into the fold. 

NARRATOR: It was clear to the Spanish teenagers whose paths unwittingly crossed with the future terrorist, that the young bin Laden was already an outsider.

PETER BERGEN: He just seemed more remote than his fine young, more fun-loving, half-brothers who were also with him. They thought they were Saudi princes. They seemed to have a lot of money. And they went and they did things like taking boat trips in the Thames. But bin Laden was asked, "Do you want to go back to the UK after this? Doing a summer at summer school there?" And he basically said he didn't want to go back. He really rejected it. 

NARRATOR: By the late 1970s - now in his early 20s - bin Laden was fervently religious. He no longer spoke to some of his childhood friends for their supposed lack of commitment to Islam, and even shocked and intimidated his own family members with his zealotry. Many of his brothers were in the West, enjoying the life of a rich young Saudi, treating the world as their playground. But not Osama. And then something momentous happens, something that crystallizes in the young man’s mind his vision for himself. Something that sends shockwaves through the Muslim world.

PETER BERGEN: 1979 was probably the most important year to the greater Middle East in a very, very long time. 

NARRATOR: In November 1979, Islamist militants seize the holiest site in all of Islam, the Great Mosque in Mecca. Bin Laden is disgusted by the Saudi regime’s response to the attack. In the retaking of the Great Mosque, they allowed tanks into the building, a violation unconscionable to the young bin Laden.

PETER BERGEN: It seems the first time and bin Laden's own account that he sort of turned against the Royal Family.

NARRATOR: The second momentous event of 1979 is the Iranian revolution. The Ayatollah overthrows the Shah, a US-backed secular dictator. This also has a big impact on bin Laden.

PETER BERGEN: So it showed to people like bin Laden that these revolutions that came from a religious perspective could work. 

NARRATOR: But it’s the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve of 1979 that arguably has the biggest effect on the young bin Laden. The infidels were now in a Muslim land.

PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden immediately traveled to Pakistan. He gathered some money and donated it to people who are going to support the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: In Pakistan, bin Laden meets a Palestinian cleric by the name of Abdullah Azzam and is immediately taken in by Azzam’s charisma.

PETER BERGEN: Azzam was a very effective recruiter, a brilliant orator. And he actually personally fought the Israelis when he was in Jordan. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he saw that as a legitimate jihad. He recruited a lot of people. Bin Laden was very much in his shadow, kind of a younger guy. 

NARRATOR: Together, Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden set up the ‘Services Office’ in Peshawar, Pakistan to recruit, house, and train Arab warriors. The Saudis and the CIA also poured money into the Afghan resistance but not to bin Laden. The CIA’s focus was on the local Afghan warriors, not traveling Arabs, who they viewed as wanting to be martyred. Besides, bin Laden had his own money. Lots of it. He didn’t need the CIA.

PETER BERGEN: He was the money guy and he was donating $25,000 a month back when that was a lot of money to this enterprise. And he was helping pay for Saudis to travel there. 

NARRATOR: For the first four years of the war, bin Laden doesn’t cross over into Afghanistan itself, having promised his mother he would keep himself safe. He stayed put in Peshawar with Azzam.

PETER BERGEN: He was so shy and so retiring that he would sit in meetings and say nothing for hours at a time. And all he was really doing was financing these Arabs who were coming to fight against the Soviets in some shape or form. 

NARRATOR: By 1984 though, he can’t take it any longer. Although still quiet, deferential, and forgettable, the 27-year-old decides he must see with his own eyes how the jihad is going. Azzam suggests Jaji, a mountainous outpost only a few miles across the border.

PETER BERGEN: This is probably the most transformational event of his life. Previously his friends and family had said, “Don't go in, it's too dangerous”, which it was. The Soviets had total air control. I mean, they killed one million Afghans in a population out of 16 million, at least one million Afghans. They made a third of the population homeless.

NARRATOR: Bin Laden is shocked by what he sees. The weaponry and facilities used by the Afghan fighters are appalling. Embarrassed that it has taken him so long to come to the frontline of the Holy War, bin Laden believes that only by being martyred will God forgive him. He decides to stay at the front and fight, setting up al-Masada, ‘the lion’s den’, in Jaji, deliberately choosing an exposed spot overlooking Soviet positions.

PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden was recruiting a lot of idealistic young Saudis to come and fight. Now he placed the base right next door to a Soviet base because he was hoping to attract enemy fire. He and his followers wanted to be martyred. Now, that was a military tactic that was not smart. And in fact, the Afghans did anything they could to avoid any kind of conventional fighting with the Soviets because they knew they would lose. And that wasn't the kind of war that was going to be successful. They were fighting a guerrilla war, whereas bin Laden wanted to fight mano-a-mano with the Soviets 

NARRATOR: Bin Laden fortifies his outpost with diggers and trucks from the family business. He excavates tunnels deep within the mountain, building an operations room, a weapons cache, and a food storage facility. The Soviets noticed a surge in activity in the area. On May 12, 1987, they launched an assault on the position. MiGs drop 1,000-pound bombs. Napalm is spread over the mountainside. Spetsnaz, Russian special forces, advance on the base. Bin Laden’s band of 60 Mujahideen warriors - however - stand firm. And after several weeks of intense fighting, the Arabs are still there. Bin Laden himself stands in the line of fire, repelling several waves of attacks.

PETER BERGEN: He did actually fight quite bravely against the Soviets. There was some commentary after 9/11 that he had made all this up about his battlefield exploits. But the fact is, there are plenty of eyewitnesses and videotapes and also contemporaries writing contemporaneous coverage of bin Laden fighting against the Soviets. 

NARRATOR: Three weeks into the battle, the Arabs withdrew, relieved by a much larger Afghan force who completed victory at the Battle of Jaji. Thirteen of bin Laden’s men were killed. He himself is wounded in the foot. But it was not the massacre he was expecting. Within nine months, the Soviets were defeated and pulled out of the country. And although it’s true that the traveling Arabs were a powerful symbol of Muslim resistance in the Soviet-Afghan war, the war itself is won by the Afghans. Nonetheless, they are lionized back home. A Saudi journalist pays a visit to bin Laden to get the scoop on the Jaji base attack. In the article that follows, he celebrates the Arab warriors in Afghanistan, punctuating the copy with pictures of the warrior bin Laden surrounded by jubilant men. That journalist’s name by the way? Jamal Khashoggi - the same Jamal Khashoggi who would meet a grizzly fate in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey in 2018. Osama bin Laden is reborn, transformed by his recent rise into a confident and eloquent multi-millionaire, feted for his heroics in battle. And the myth is born. Inspired by his exploits in Jaji, bin Laden uses the term ‘The Base’ as the name of his new organization. Its Arabic name? al-Qaeda. Bin Laden told Khashoggi, the journalist, that, “The flame of jihad should continue elsewhere, in places like Central Asia. It will be called al-Qaeda.”

PETER BERGEN: And, in 1988, some of the core people that were at that base in Afghanistan met in Pakistan and started talking about founding formally the al-Qaeda organization to basically take the jihad to other countries.

NARRATOR: But there was division growing among some of the Arabs. Abdullah Azzam, the figurehead of the Afghan Arabs and bin Laden’s great mentor, didn’t share bin Laden’s zeal for exporting the jihad to other Muslim countries. The infidels were in Afghanistan, but now they’ve been driven out. But bin Laden? He and many of the Arabs were high on victory. Plus, remember, he can do what he wants. He’s got the money.  

PETER BERGEN: I think arrogance is probably a good term, I mean, he went from being a hyper-religious, very pious teenager who barely said a word into suddenly leading this military force that had fought the Soviets. So, in his own mind, Bin Laden now saw himself as a leader of men and other men saw him as a leader. I mean, they pledged allegiance to him, a religious oath of allegiance, the first members of al-Qaeda and anybody else who joined al-Qaida swore a personal oath of allegiance to him. During this period in the ‘80s, he really changed his personality.

NARRATOR: As time goes on, bin Laden spins his own legend, claiming he is the real reason for victory over the Soviets. He conveniently brushes under the carpet the quarter of a million Afghans who fought in the war; compared to the Arab force of no more than several thousand. In fact, bin Laden’s military prowess is later undermined by a lesser-known battle. A year after the Soviets withdrew, bin Laden devised an ambitious plan: to attack the communist government forces who were still in situ at Jalalabad. It was a disaster. He lost more men there than in the entire war. But as the Mujahideen disband and leave Afghanistan to go back to their homelands, many take their newly found mythical ideas of themselves with them. Especially Osama bin Laden, the Lion.

PETER BERGEN: These experiences drew out this kind of guy who was very self-assured about what he wanted to do in life and saw himself as a leader. 

NARRATOR: Bin Laden returns to Saudi Arabia, where he has designs on overthrowing the Socialist regime in neighboring Yemen, the birthplace of his father. But the Saudis tell him no.

PETER BERGEN: The Saudis did not want Osama bin Laden to be conducting his own foreign policy without their say-so. 

NARRATOR: Then, in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

PETER BERGEN: At the time, Saddam had the fourth-largest Army in the Middle East. He had just fought a decade-long war with Iran. These guys were a professional Army.

NARRATOR: Bin Laden goes to the Saudi Royal Family again. This time his plan is even bolder.

PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden goes to senior members of the Saudi Royal Family and says, “Look, Saddam Hussein's invaded Kuwait. I have a mujahideen force. I can recruit 100,000 men to fight against Saddam.” And so the Saudis just basically said, “That isn't going to happen. Thanks for the suggestion.” And that idea was basically just laughed out of court.

NARRATOR: Instead, Saudi Arabia joins the coalition gearing up against Iraq. In the process, the Saudis agreed to some half a million US soldiers being stationed in the country. Bin Laden is outraged. The infidels were now in the Holy Land - the land of Mecca and Medina - itself. And they're the worst sort of infidels too: Americans.

PETER BERGEN: He made a big point, which actually has some truth, which is that the Saudis spend vast amounts of money on their own - on their buying airplanes and the latest weaponry - and yet weren't able to defend themselves. And bin Laden pointed out the kind of corruption and incompetence of the Saudi military, which was something the Saudis did not appreciate. 

NARRATOR: Frustrated, bin Laden turns his attention back to Afghanistan where a fierce civil war had broken out among the various factions of the local Mujahideen. Many of the warring tribes, and much of the broader population, are in favor of the return of the exiled Afghan King.

PETER BERGEN: And al-Qaeda was very opposed to this; they didn't want the king suddenly reappearing in Afghanistan. 

NARRATOR: Bin Laden wanted a caliphate, an Islamic state ruled by Muslim clerics, in Afghanistan. Not another kingdom like that of Saudi Arabia. But most of the Afghan fighters aren’t interested in what he has to say. “He was just a money guy. And remember the farce at Jalalabad,” many of them thought. Meanwhile, the Afghan King, a potential obstacle to bin Laden’s wishes, was holed up in Rome. In 1991, an early al-Qaeda member came to bin Laden with an idea. They should assassinate the Afghan King. Bin Laden authorizes the hit but on strict conditions.

PETER BERGEN: At one point, the assassin asked bin Laden, “What happens if the king of Afghanistan's grandkid is there?” And bin Laden said, “We don't kill children. You must be careful about that.”

NARRATOR: Bin Laden adds, “We are Muslims. We do not eliminate children.” With his instructions, the al-Qaeda operative travels to Rome, posing as a journalist. He manages to secure an interview with the Afghan King. At the end of the meeting, the assassin stands up and says “And now I must kill you,” lunging at the King with a dagger.

PETER BERGEN: The only reason that he didn't mortally wound him is that the King had a packet of cigarillos right in that place where his breast pocket is and it deflected the blade. And then this guy, the assassin, would-be assassin, was arrested and put in jail for 10 years.

NARRATOR: It is the first known attack by al-Qaeda outside of Afghanistan. That same year, bin Laden was firing barbs at the Saudi regime for allowing Americans into the Holy Land, undermining their authority. Eventually, the Royal Family had enough.

PETER BERGEN: And at a certain point, they made it very clear to bin Laden that he was persona non grata. And that's when the decisive break with the Saudis came. 

NARRATOR: Bin Laden, the son of one of the Royal Family’s once-closest confidants, is exiled. And it’s at this point in the story of Osama bin Laden, that a small number of US intelligence agents start to take notice of a broader problem.

GINA BENNETT: All these nations that allowed volunteers to go to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets were not really, I think, anticipating that these individuals would come back. And, rather than going back to normal life or retiring from militant jihad, a number of them were joining Islamic extremist groups, political dissident groups in their countries, and becoming increasingly violent.

NARRATOR: This is Gina Bennett. She was one of the few people in the West taking any notice of what the Afghan Arab veterans were getting up to following the war with the Soviets. A CIA counterterrorism analyst for nearly 35 years, she came to have one focus throughout the 90s - Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

GINA BENNETT:  You can't just ignore how people are radicalized and that when they leave a conflict zone, they don't necessarily de-radicalize. So you have thousands of somewhat seasoned fighters who all had this unbelievable, unique experience leaving Afghanistan and going back to their own countries or finding that they weren't allowed to go back to their own countries. They were showing up in places that they were able to get to, such as Kashmir or Algeria, or even the southern Philippines, places that were experiencing conflict at that time. It was clear it was a growing problem. It wasn't going to organically just take care of itself.

NARRATOR: Expelled from Saudi Arabia, bin Laden joins the trend of Afghan Arab veterans landing in Islamist hotspots. He chooses Sudan.

PETER BERGEN: The leader of Sudan, the de facto leader is a guy called Al-Turabi, who is sort of Islamist and he's welcoming militant groups from around the Middle East to come and live in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. He and bin Laden have a close relationship. 

NARRATOR: Gina Bennett noticed a pattern and in 1992 she wrote the first memo highlighting the issue. Not published until a year later, it is entitled The Wondering Mujahideen. In it, Gina warns that ‘US support of the mujahideen during the Afghan war will not necessarily protect US interests from attack’, adding that: ‘Afghan veterans could launch attacks on surprise locales.’

GINA BENNETT: This is still a very public post-Colonial context for a lot of the countries we're talking about. I mean, there are some countries in Africa that didn't even become independent until the 1980s. So you're dealing with populations that look at the very corrupt rule in their own country, and they're waiting for somebody to make it better. And bin Laden is out there selling, “Well, we can do it. We can make it better. And by uniting, we can do this rather than approaching it from individual groups.” And that was just a very unusual narrative at the time.

NARRATOR: Bin Laden brings a coterie of Islamist fighters with him to Sudan. But that’s not all he brings.

PETER BERGEN: By bin Laden's own account, he invested $26 million in Sudan.

NARRATOR: Al-Turabi also gifts bin Laden one million acres of land, where he sets up training camps for Islamist fighters. But business takes up most of his time.

GINA BENNETT: In Sudan, it was pretty clear that he was borrowing from his father's playbook of trying to become kind of the kingmaker to Hassan Al-Turabi, who was head of the national Senate, which was running Sudan at the time.

NARRATOR: A subsidiary of the bin Laden construction company builds the airport at Port Sudan, the second largest city in the country, while also paving a new 500-mile highway from there to Khartoum. He employs over 4,000 people and becomes the sole exporter of key Sudanese products like corn, sunflower, and sesame. At this point, Gina Bennett is still one of the few people outside of the Arab world who has ever heard of bin Laden. Studying him every day, she has her own view on his time in Sudan from 92’ to 96’.

​​GINA BENNETT: I think this was a four-year period where things could have turned out quite differently. Bin Laden, unbeknownst to people, swore Bayat [oath of allegiance] to Hassan Turabi. He looked at him as the leader of the Muslims. There was continued clandestine tradecraft, training, and other kinds of training, militant training, sabotage training, that kind of thing. So it's not as if he was going completely legit, but there was a portion of bin Laden that looked that way. But what I can never really say is where his heart was. Which way? Because some of his family members said he really, really wanted to go legit. 

NARRATOR: Bin Laden himself says he is nostalgic for Medina, saying so to several fellow veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war that visit him. Jamal Khashoggi, who covered bin Laden’s exploits during the Afghan war and by now was an acquaintance, travels to Sudan as an emissary of the Saudi Royal Family. He has a proposition.

PETER BERGEN: What Jamal was offering him - at that time Jamal was close to the Royal Family - was just, “Give us an interview. We’ll publish it in the newspaper. And all you have to do is just say, “Look, I was wrong. I'm renouncing my criticism of the Saudi regime. I'm not calling for violence.” And bin Laden was actually, I think, open to considering that.

NARRATOR: Alia, bin Laden’s beloved mother, even traveled to Sudan too, entreating her son to come home. But by now bin Laden is a marked man. The year before Khashoggi visited him in Sudan, bin Laden had nearly been assassinated. Not by the Saudis or the Americans. But by a rival Islamist group.

PETER BERGEN: It was a group they call themselves Takfiri. Takfiri is even more militant than al-Qaeda. And they saw bin Laden as somebody who wasn't sufficiently Islamic, ironically, and they tried to kill him. 

NARRATOR: Takfiri gunmen attack bin Laden’s house. But he is not inside. He’s on his way back from the mosque with his two sons. Hearing gunfire they zone in on the attackers.

PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden and his own sons, picked up automatic weapons. As did his bodyguards, and they fought off the assault. 

NARRATOR: At the same time, growing evidence emerges in the press about bin Laden’s activities. He’s linked to the hotel bombings in Yemen in 1992, the World Trade Center bombing in 93’, and in training the militias that downed two US Black Hawk helicopters in Somalia that same year. Hassan Al-Turabi, who had become a real father figure to bin Laden, begins to feel the heat from the international community. The US threatened that if he doesn’t expel bin Laden, they’ll put Sudan on their list of state sponsors of terror.

GINA BENNETT: So if you're Sudan, you're trying to develop. You really don't want that designation because once the United States starts sanctioning you on certain things, then you also know the United States is going to put pressure on its allies and other countries to do the same. And this is going to become very difficult for you.

NARRATOR: Bin Laden’s family also loses patience. One of his wives leaves Sudan for Saudi Arabia, as does his oldest son. Neither will see him again. In 1996, Al-Turabi himself eventually relented. He tells bin Laden that he must leave the country. The one man bin Laden truly loved aside from his father has rejected him. Bin Laden is devastated.

GINA BENNETT: Hassan Al-Turabi was his initial hero or the person that he saw as being the leader of the Muslim world. 

NARRATOR: Left with no choice, bin Laden goes into exile. Again. He left behind a father figure but also all the wealth he accumulated in Sudan, estimated at around $30 million.

GINA BENNETT: So if you are bin Laden on the receiving end of that, though, now the United States has been chosen over you twice. I think that's when all that aspirational or attempted legitimacy just went out the door. He just snapped at that point.

NARRATOR: On May 16, 1996, bin Laden flew to Jalalabad, Eastern Afghanistan, with his 15-year-old son and two of his top al-Qaeda commanders. He was unsure of the greeting he would find. Since his time in Afghanistan a civil war had torn the country apart, destroyed most of Kabul, and spawned a mysterious group called the ‘religious students’, otherwise known as the Taliban.

GINA BENNETT: He went back to his old stomping grounds and was really dropped in a place that was not where he left because the Taliban was a new phenomenon for him to have to deal with. They didn't know who he was. I can imagine for someone who already is a narcissist, who’s already had their worldview challenged twice, this was probably an extreme moment that shaped his forward-thinking.

NARRATOR: The same year that bin Laden arrives back in Afghanistan, Gina writes another memo. She warns that the country ‘could be an ideal place’ for him to operate from. Shortly after bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan, that memo rings true.

PETER BERGEN: It's not an accident that only a week after he arrived in Afghanistan, bin Laden put out his first statement in Arabic calling for attacks against the United States. So, yeah, he was pretty aggrieved. He blamed the United States for his expulsion from Sudan. 

NARRATOR: But in the West, few people are paying attention.

GINA BENNETT: If you're a terrorism analyst or anybody who is tasked with warning the national security element of the United States or even international security or partners, whatever, you have to lean into that. And you really do have to spell out the worst-case scenarios. We were dealing with the downfall of the Cold War. A lot going on, a lot that we didn't understand about non-state networks. So leaning into it and warning a little harder, maybe sharper than people's minds are ready to absorb. You end up, unfortunately, with this like, “Oh, you're making a mountain out of a molehill and crying wolf.”

NARRATOR: As I said, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Next time on True Spies.  

PETER BERGEN: There's no debate that the best moment that came to potentially kill bin Laden was when he was on a hunting trip. And so there was a great debate at the White House, saying, “Look, we should take the shot.” 

NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week for the second installment of True Spies: The Bin Laden Files.

Guest Bio

Peter Bergen is a journalist, author, documentary producer and Vice President for Global Studies and Fellows at New America; a professor of practice at Arizona State University; a fellow at Fordham University’s Center on National Security and CNN’s national security analyst.

Gina Bennett, a former member of CIA’s Senior Analytic Service, is a counterterrorism specialist who authored the earliest warnings of some of today's terrorism trends, including the 1993 report that warned of the growing danger ofbin Laden

Tracy Walder worked as Staff Operations Officer (SOO) at the Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center Weapons of Mass Destruction Group and as an FBI Special Agent.

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