When Osama met Mullah Omar: A moment that could have changed history

Editor's Note: Can the course of history be shaped by a single conversation? The fate of a nation sealed by a second-guessed decision that will doom it to war and perdition?

This haunting excerpt from Jean Sasson's Growing Up Bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World (Penguin, Rs 399) recounts an encounter between Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, as witnessed by Omar, bin Laden's teenage son.

They meet in Kandahar, in September 1998, the mullah driven out of seclusion by intense pressure from the Saudis who have issued an extradition request. Bin Laden has been indicted in June by a U.S. grand jury investigation, charging him of a "conspiracy to attack defense utilities of the United States." In response, Al Qaeda bombs the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7. Thirteen days later, the United States retaliates by sending cruise missiles to decimate Al Qaeda training camps in Khost, Afghanistan.

The Taliban leadership finds itself at the crossroads of history. Bin Laden's intentions are crystal-clear, as are the early indications of a likely US response. Mullah Omar is worried, angry, eager to expel his once-welcome guest. What happens next is history, but this brief encounter is a reminder of what may have been – at least for a nation that will eventually be 'bombed back into the Stone Age.'

 When Osama met Mullah Omar: A moment that could have changed history

Omar bin Laden (handout photograph, 2007) Reuters

Mullah Omar was wearing distinctive Taliban dress consisting of a black waistcoat and a white shirt, so white and shiny that we knew it was made from the finest cotton. He had a black turban twisted around his head, with only a small amount of jet black hair protruding from under the turban. He had a handsome masculine face with olive skin. Unkempt, bushy brows gave him an intense look. His healthy beard was thick and reached midlength.

I was surprised that when my father walked towards Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader rudely walked away, not giving my father a chance to greet him in the usual Islamic manner by saying Salam Alaikum, followed by a handshake and the customary kisses on the cheek and embraces. Such greetings are a sign of great respect in my culture.

My brothers and I followed the crowd of men, for as the sons of Osama bin Laden, we had the right. Much to everyone’s surprise, Mullah Omar called out for a western-style chair to be found for him to sit on. A chair left behind by the Russians was found in one of the houses. That is where Mullah Omar sat, indicating that although he would sit high in that chair, everyone else should sit on the ground, including my father.

Additionally, Mulah Omar had the chair placed at the opposite side of the garden, ordering his men to sit between him and my father. My father calmly settled himself on a Persian carpet that had been placed on the ground, sitting cross-legged in the Arab style. This is not a good sign, I thought to myself.

The display was surreal, with Mullah Omar perched high on his chair, while my father was a good distance away, sitting low on the ground. The rebuke could not be missed. Mullah Omar was letting my father know that he was nothing to him. His actions also indicated that he was furious.

The insults continued when Mullah Omar failed to address my father directly, instead speaking in the language of his Pashtun tribe, Pashto, using his personal translator to interpret his message into Arabic. My father spoke Pashto fluently, so I did not understand the reason for the disengagement during such an important conversation.

Despite the social snubs, my father sat quietly, respectful and patient, waiting to hear what Mullah Omar had to say. It was a strain to listen to the translated conversation because both men spoke in low voices, Mullah Omar’s voice even softer than my father’s. The similarities between them struck me more and more.

Mullah Omar did not waste words or time, but launched into explaining why he had come out of his habitual seclusion. The Taliban leader was displeased at my father’s militant activities. Concerned only with the internal affairs of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar had no desire to attract interference from the outside world. Already there were rumblings from human rights organizations about the treatment of women under the Taliban.

The political situation is heated,” Mullah Omar concluded. “It is best if you and your men leave Afghanistan.”

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My father’s face remained impassive, even though I knew the last thing he wanted was to be expelled from his sanctuary. He was very slow to respond, choosing his words carefully, then speaking softly at last.

Sheik, I have spent many years of my life in Afghanistan, from the time I was a young man, fighting for your people. Never once did I forget this country, returning to build a village, even moving my wives, children, and close friends here. Now we are a large group numbering many hundreds of people. How can I move such a large group of people easily? Where would I move them to?”

Mullah Omar repeated, “The time has come for you and your fighters to leave Afghanistan.”

My father paused, and after careful consideration, softly said, “The Sudanese government allowed me to live there for five years. Would you offer me the same courtesy? Will you allow me to remain in Afghanistan for another year and a half?”

Mullah Omar remained quiet for a very long time, his face thoughtful. When he finally answered, he spoke at great length. I cannot remember his exact words, but he carefully detailed the pros and cons of my father’s continued presence in Afghanistan.

Just as instinct whispered to us that Mullah Omar’s next words would be for my father to leave, my father ever so lightly touched a Muslim nerve, saying, “Sheik, if you give in to the pressure of infidel governments, your decision will be against Islam.”

Mullah Omar, who was known for his total devotion to Islam, gave a little twitch. He would be hesitant to go against Islamic teachings. He paused.

In that moment Mullah Omar chose his religion above all, above the good of his country and the well-being of the world.

He nodded. “Sheik Osama, I will fulfill your request. I will give you the same courtesy as the Sudanese government did. You have my invitation for another year and a half. During that year and a half, make arrangements for your move. Find another country for your family.”

My father was saved once again, because he had outwitted Mullah Omar. Once he realized that the mullah was going to expel him despite his loyalty to the Taliban, my father had ever so carefully chosen the perfect words to change his mind, at least temporarily. No good Muslim would ever bend to the infidel’s will over the good of a Muslim, even if the infidel was in the right and the Muslim was in the wrong.

My father was a brilliant man in many ways.

Few onlookers realized exactly what had transpired, knowing only that all was well. A celebratory mood spread through the crowd of men.

When my father called for the food to be displayed, many men began bringing whole sheep on platters, with rice and vegetables. Although our food supplies were low, somehow my father and his men had managed to put on a huge feast. As is our Arab way, my father ordered the servers to present the choicest pieces to the Taliban leader.

But we were in for a final shock. Mullah Omar stung my father with a parting insult, brusquely declaring that he was not hungry. With that, the leader of the Taliban marched away, without speaking a word of farewell to my father. The large number of men with their big guns jumped into their assigned vehicles. Mullah Omar’s caravan quickly left.

Although humbled by the day’s events, my father was relieved that he had some time to work out the details of his future. When he had been expelled from Sudan, he had only a few months to organize. Now he had over a year to make his plans. Anything could happen in a year. Refusing to eat, he retired to meet with his top lieutenants.

I admit to a feeling of pride that my father had saved the day yet again, although I also thought that nothing would have been better for me personally than for the mullah to force my father’s departure within the hour. Either way, I know now that nothing would have stopped my father from his Jihad.

If he could not remain in Afghanistan, he would go to Pakistan. If Pakistan removed the welcome mat, he would go to Yemen. If Yemen threw him out, he would journey to the middle of the most hostile desert where he would plot against the West. Violent Jihad was my father’s life; nothing else really mattered. Nothing.

Updated Date: Jun 25, 2011 16:33:09 IST