Book Review: “The Exile” captures the strange History of Osama Bin Laden’s ‘Wander Years’

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In this 1998 file photo made available on March 19, 2004, Osama bin Laden is seen at a news conference in Afghanistan. VOA

May 29, 2017: Title: The Exile; Author: Cathy Scott-Clark & Adrian Levy; Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; Pages: 640; Price: Rs 699

Between fleeing his Tora Bora mountain stronghold in 2001 till the US finally settled scores with him in 2011, Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts were a deep mystery. But in his — and his top aides — disappearance, there was far more going on than we know. Remember what else happened in the Indian subcontinent in December 2011 that may have facilitated his escape from Afghanistan?

And then it is not only Pakistan’s complicity or negligence that is the story, nor the US’ short-sighted approach and its egregious errors that long delayed his detection after top Al Qaeda leaders were bombed out of their Afghan safe haven by the vengeful Americans in wake of 9/11.

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In their latest book, the gifted investigative journalist duo of Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy bring out much more that we know or believe about Al Qaeda — its tense relations with the Taliban, how divided it was over 9/11, and who actually called the shots in the operation which, despite its success, turned out to be massive overreach.

And there is a most complete account of how Bin Laden and his extensive family spent their dangerous “wander years”, especially the rather strange things he got up to. (According to some sources, he attended a preparatory meeting on the 26/11 Mumbai attack) and the efforts to apprehend them.

Of equal relevance is a penetrating examination of the close but strange and eventually strained links between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

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Noting that nearly two decades after “few books have told the history of Al Qaeda from the inside”, Scott-Clark and Levy hold that the difficulty of getting into “any volatile, paranoiac outfit, one that executes outsiders as spies and lures reporters to meetings that become kidnappings” is just one reason.

The other reason, say the duo, whose most recent work was on the 26/11 Mumbai attack, especially on the heritage Taj Hotel, is an “extraordinary act of control by Western governments”, particularly the Americans, who only released a “cherry-picked history” and even misleading revelations by sources.

On the other hand, while a surprising number of top Al Qaeda leaders retain their life and (some) liberty, there is a virtual gag order by various Arab, Asian and African governments that took them in.

But Scott-Clark and Levy, who got the idea for this book from a chance meeting in 2012 with a Yemeni youth who had come to Pakistan to free his sister — Bin Laden’s fourth wife, held by authorities after the Abbottabad raid along with other survivors — contend it is a story that needs to be told.

“We need more detail and not less. We require more nuance and understanding if we are to ever tamp down a bloody conflict that threatens the globe….” they say and spent years of research and meet a varied set of people to get the complete story.

And these meetings with Bin Laden’s family, friends, mentors, companions, aides, as well as security chiefs and religious and media advisers, in Pakistan, across the Middle East from the Gulf to Mauritania, the US and Britain, resulted in “a story told about Al Qaeda by Al Qaeda men and women with nothing more to lose but lots to prove” — and well corroborated.

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But apart from Bin Laden’s life as well of his family and close associates, there are also key political, security and geopolitical issues they bring out — express or implied.

And while America’s willful blundering into another war before an existing one was won or even successfully completed is known, we also learn about its tendency to let its predilections, not pragmatism, dictate its statecraft and brute force and near-torture its interrogation methods over skilled but non-violent methods of competent interlocutors.

But while a temporary gainer was then Pakistani leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, who saw aid dollars in every help he rendered to the US before his own life was threatened and realization dawned there was a secret power centre accountable only to itself, the winner was another regional power that took deft strategic advantage of Al Qaeda’s dispersal to safeguard itself and to make up with other enemies. And when they were rebuffed, Iran had the tools for revenge. (IANS)