Biographer Traces Osama Bin Laden's 'Rise And Fall'

Sep 10, 2021
Originally published on September 13, 2021 6:26 am

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. President Biden will visit all three memorial sites - ground zero in Lower Manhattan, Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon, where planes hijacked by terrorists crashed, killing nearly 3,000 people. Our guest today is journalist and author Peter Bergen, who's spent much of his career reporting on al-Qaida and other jihadist groups. He's written a new biography of Osama bin Laden based in part on material seized when Navy SEALs raided bin Laden's compound in Pakistan and killed him in 2011. It's also based on hundreds of interviews, including conversations with a dozen of bin Laden's inner circle. The title of Bergen's book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

Peter Bergen is a national security analyst for CNN. He's also a vice president for global studies and fellows at the think tank New America and a professor at Arizona State University, where he co-directs the Center on the Future of War. I spoke to Bergen about his book in early August. Coming up, we'll hear that interview. But first, an update with Peter Bergen about the recent events in Afghanistan, where the withdrawal of U.S. troops led to the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the takeover of the country by the Taliban.

Well, Peter Bergen, welcome back to FRESH AIR. When we spoke in August, you said you were certainly very troubled by then President Biden's announced plans to withdraw U.S. forces. And you said, you know, despite all the problems in Afghanistan, there are a whole new generation of Afghans who are younger, used to new freedoms, have no nostalgia for the Taliban. You didn't think the Taliban would have an easy time taking over the country and predicted that if the U.S. troops left, what we might see is a brutal civil war. Having seen these events unfold, what's your take on this?

PETER BERGEN: Well, we're in a new iteration of the civil war that has gripped Afghanistan since before the Soviets invaded and that civil war began in '78. Obviously, the Taliban right now have gained what appears to be a total victory. There's still some debate this week about the extent to which they have eliminated the anti-Taliban resistance in Panjshir Valley, but they have taken over. And Taliban, you know, a lot of people surrendered to the Taliban without a fight, not because they're cowardly or bad people, but because, you know, people want to retain their heads on their shoulders. And they've seen multiple different rulers at different times over the last several decades in Afghanistan.

What I am concerned about is, you know, the fact on Tuesday we had the announcement of the new Taliban Cabinet, and that looks a lot like the old Taliban. There was a lot of wishful thinking about what the Taliban - you know, a new and improved Taliban. I don't see any evidence of that. Siraj Haqqani, who was the military leader of the Taliban, he was the architect of this very, very swift military victory. He's been named minister of the Interior, which in Afghanistan is like running Department of Homeland Security and the FBI combined. He, according to the United Nations, is closely aligned with al-Qaida. He's actually a member of al-Qaida.

And so we're in the unusual situation where a member of one of al-Qaida is for the first time in history the top Cabinet member in a nation state, a very unpredictable outcome and a very sad one as we memorialize the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

DAVIES: Right? I mean, Haqqani has this - is known for running the Haqqani network, which is an infamous terrorist network, right?

BERGEN: Yeah, he's designated by the - as a foreign terrorist. You know, $5 million on his head from the FBI, up to $10 million from the State Department. I'm not quite sure why those are different figures in different parts of the U.S. government. His uncle, Khalil Haqqani, also has a $5 million reward on his head from the State Department. He's now the minister of refugees. He - before that, he was appointed by the Taliban to run security in Kabul, which is rather grimly ironic because the Haqqani network has conducted, you know, multiple mass casualty terrorist attacks in Kabul, killing many, many Afghan civilians. But this shows you where the Afghan government is going. This is not some new and improved Taliban 2.0. It's very much old-school Taliban. And I think they will default to the various policies they had before 9/11.

DAVIES: And you say Haqqani is a member of al-Qaida. I wonder what that means, you know, 10 years after Osama bin Laden's death. I mean, when he engineered the 9/11 attacks, he had this sanctuary in Afghanistan and was a galvanizing leader with a lot of money. What's al-Qaida like today?

BERGEN: Well, you know, it's a shadow of what it was before 9/11, but, you know, when I say that Siraj Haqqani is a member of al-Qaida, I'm quoting a report from June by the United Nations in which they say they describe Siraj Haqqani in the leadership of al-Qaida. So, you know, al-Qaida has got a new lease of life. And the U.N. report, again, which describes the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida as closely aligned. This is a report that came out in June, so it's very recent. And, you know, certainly al-Qaida itself, you know, is going to enjoy a renaissance in Afghanistan because they're going to have the space. I mean, they have - one of the top Cabinet officials is, you know, part of their organization and a close ally.

So, I mean, I think that we've seen the movie before where foreign fighters pour in, whether it was pre-9/11 Afghanistan or Iraq in the summer of 2014, and we're going to see the same thing in Afghanistan - foreign fighters coming in for training, this great jihadist victory being celebrated by jihadists around the world or people motivated by this ideology. And some of them may not travel to Afghanistan. They may just, you know, kind of act on their own, whether they're in the United States or in Europe or elsewhere to carry out attacks sort of in the name of al-Qaida.

So unfortunately, you know, I wish I wasn't saying this on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but you know, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is tremendously exciting for, you know, al-Qaida and other jihadist groups and kind of gives them another new lease of life.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, this is remarkable to consider that when you think back to the 1990s, when al-Qaida really grew, bin Laden had this sanctuary within Afghanistan which was ruled by the Taliban, but it was an uneasy relationship. There were at times that the government became quite annoyed with bin Laden's activities. Now we have a circumstance in which a member of al-Qaida is actually a leader in the Afghan government. I mean, they might not need to have a remote, you know, training base. They could have offices in downtown Kabul.

BERGEN: Yeah. You know, I mean, sad, but true. But, I mean, I think the focus is is broader than simply al-Qaida. I think, you know, the U.S. military has often in the past said that there are 20 foreign terrorist organizations present in Afghanistan. There's a kind of alphabet soup of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is a Pakistani group focused on attacks on India, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which are focused on Uzbekistan, and a bunch of other groups. And I think they are all going to be energized by this. And they, you know, they thrived when the Taliban was in power last time. And I think they will thrive again when the Taliban is in power now.

And the Taliban today is in a much better shape than it was before 9/11. I mean, now they're armed with the latest MRAP, you know, mine-resistant vehicles, American armored Humvees, American rifles. And they have seemed to have completely destroyed what remained of the anti-Taliban resistance. And they're a formidable force. Now, I think they will make some unforced errors. They may engage in ethnic cleansing. They may kill an American or Americans. They may, you know, kind of nurture some kind of terrorist attack that's attributable to them. And all those things can change the equation for President Biden and American allies. So none of this is, like, static. And I think the Taliban will do something dumb that will provoke some kind of response.

DAVIES: Do you have friends, associates in Afghanistan you hear from these days?

BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, I - all of my Afghan friends got out because they saw the writing on the wall over time. But, you know, I mean, one - a group that I'm quite focused on is the American University of Afghanistan students and alumni of which 3,900 did not get out of the 4,000. And I talked to Leslie Schweitzer, who's the - a board member and the founding chair of the university. And she said, you know, both the Taliban and the United States basically hindered the efforts to get students out, which is, I think, you know, a tragedy. And, you know, it's, you know, these students, many of them survived a Taliban attack which killed 17 students and faculty back in 2016. A lot of them went back. Even severely wounded students went back to graduate.

This particular institution has the highest percentage of Fulbright scholars in the world - 11%, which is an astonishing percentage. And, of course, the Taliban, you know, it's everything the Taliban doesn't want because it's - United States-orientated women and men are sharing classrooms and, you know, getting a good - great education. So those folks are all stuck. And, you know, we certainly - the airlift worked well in terms of getting 122,000 people out. But according to International Rescue Committee, there's 300,000 Afghans who likely played some role with the United States. The New York Times did its own deep dive into this and found about 250,000. And we still don't really know who was on those planes out. We know that 5,500 Americans got out. But, you know, who else were on the planes? And who else did we leave? And it's not clear.

DAVIES: Tomorrow is the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. What were you doing on September 11, 2001?

BERGEN: I was going into CNN to talk about the recent assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was the leader of the anti-Taliban resistance. And he was the last thing standing between the Taliban taking over all of Afghanistan. His death was a big blow to the anti-Taliban resistance. And here we are 20 years later, the Taliban have taken over all of Afghanistan. That resistance was being led by Ahmad Shah Massoud's son, Ahmad Massoud, who's 32. And it looks like, as the reporting suggests, that the anti-Taliban resistance has more or less completely collapsed. And so it's, you know, it's kind of a grim way to memorialize 9-11 that suddenly the Taliban is back in control - stronger than ever, if I may add.

DAVIES: Peter, thank you.

BERGEN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Peter Bergen is a journalist who's written extensively about al-Qaida and other jihadist organizations. After a break, we'll hear my interview about his new book, "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden." This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an occasion that may prompt many to wonder how anyone could commit such an atrocity. When our guest, veteran journalist Peter Bergen, wrote his new biography of Osama bin Laden, he said one question he wanted to explore was why Bin Laden chose to build an organization dedicated to mass murder. I spoke to Bergen in early August about his book, "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

You've written so much about Osama bin Laden. What kind of new source material were you able to draw on on this new research?

BERGEN: Well, key to all this was it was only in late 2017 that the Trump administration released the 470,000 files that were recovered in Abbottabad, Pakistan, included in which was something that was described by the CIA as bin Laden's journal. It turned out to be something slightly different. It's all handwritten in Arabic. It was the kind of a family journal that the bin Laden family kept essentially in the last several weeks of bin Laden's life.

And it's a kind of good window into, you know, both what he was thinking at the time and also what his two older wives were thinking and his adult children, because they basically were kind of perplexed about what to do about the events of the Arab Spring, which bin Laden well understood as the most important event in the Middle East - arguably in centuries was his own view of it. And yet, you know, his ideas, his followers were absent in at least the, you know, the first several months of the Arab Spring.

DAVIES: Right. There's a lot of fascinating material here about those last months before the U.S. raid in Pakistan. At this compound where bin Laden was hiding, you know, he was, I guess, the most hunted man on earth at that point. And he had a lot of people living with him. How many? Who were they?

BERGEN: Well, the total was 27, 16 of his own family and 11 - he had two bodyguards and their families. So, you know, typically when we think of a fugitive, we don't think of a fugitive taking three wives and a dozen kids and grandkids with them. But bin Laden, you know, one of the themes of the book is bin Laden, for all his many vices and, you know, all the evil that he - and death and destruction that he caused, he was something of a family man. And he wanted to have his family around him. And in fact, the folks at the CIA who were really tracking bin Laden knew him the best. You know, the fact that he - this mysterious group of people who are living in this compound seemed to include many family members.

You know, for them, that was a tell that it might well be bin Laden because bin Laden had always had at least three or four wives with him at any given moment, despite the fact that, you know, even when he was living in exile in Sudan in the '90s and then in Afghanistan in the five years before 9/11, he was surrounded by family members despite the risks of, you know, even before 9/11, he was, you know, very much wanted by the United States. So he had this, you know, sort of significant entourage.

DAVIES: I mean, it's understating it to say he was security conscious. What kind of restrictions did he impose on all of these, you know, wives, grandchildren, the bodyguards, their families?

BERGEN: Well, interestingly, it was a prison of his own making. And he was the chief warden in a sense. And he himself, you know, was extremely careful about what he did. He would walk around the garden with a cowboy hat on so that nobody could recognize him if there was a satellite overhead. He had a healthy respect for American spy capabilities. And, you know, his family members were not leaving the compound. He never left the compound. In fact, he was hiding to such a degree that one of the bodyguards' wives wasn't aware that it was Osama bin Laden living amongst them, even though she herself was living on the same compound. And one time, bin Laden appeared on TV, and one of the daughters - 9-year-old daughters of the bodyguard asked, you know, kind of, isn't that the guy who's living here? (Laughter) And at that point, the bodyguard kind of got rid of the TV and told his daughter, you know, not to talk about this and also, you know, prevented contact with the bin Laden family. So bin Laden was hiding from people on his own compound.

DAVIES: These two guys that were working there, you know, are sometimes described as bodyguards. They were really much more than that, right?

BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, you know, bin Laden didn't treat them particularly well. One of the interesting things that comes out of these documents is how angry they were (laughter) about - you know, basically, they were being paid $100 a month in local currency. Bin Laden always - had always been something of a miser. And you know, they were taking these enormous risks looking after the world's most wanted man and his family members.

And they were very concerned. They were concerned that they would be found. They were telling bin Laden he couldn't bring additional family members into the compound. His third wife, who'd been living under house arrest in Iran, showed up, and the bodyguards said they wouldn't go and pick her up and bring her into the compound. In the end, she appeared at the compound against sort of the better judgment of the bodyguards.

And bin Laden was - at one point, actually wrote a formal letter to the bodyguards on January 15, 2011, a few months before he was killed, saying, you know, I understand that our disagreements have become so profound that even though you live on the same compound, I'm writing you this formal letter to kind of acknowledge what we've agreed, which is - you know, let me find new protectors.

And of course, bin Laden would also have to leave this compound that he'd so carefully planned - with its 18-foot walls in places - to go somewhere else because the compound itself was registered in a - in one of the bodyguards' names. So his relations with the two people who were really keeping al-Qaida and him afloat were really beginning to fray in the last several months of his life.

DAVIES: Yeah, you would think someone who you relied so - in so many ways on to keep you safe, you might pay a little better and treat a little better. I mean, the compound was registered in their names, right? They burned their own trash there, right? They grew a lot of their own food. Did anybody ever leave? Did the kids go to school?

BERGEN: The kids were home-schooled. You know, one of the kind of interesting things about the book is the extent to which bin Laden's two older wives played such an important role in his life because two of them had Ph.D.s, which I think might be surprising to some listeners who may sort of assume that bin Laden was not going to marry kind of highly educated women. One had a Ph.D. in child psychology. Another one had a Ph.D. in Quranic grammar.

And so they were - these two older wives were home-schooling the kids. And they'd been doing this for years, even before 9/11. Bin Laden - you know, it's not like in Afghanistan bin Laden was sending his kids to school before 9/11. And these wives were also playing an important part in kind of helping bin Laden think through complicated strategic problems related to kind of the future direction of al-Qaida.

DAVIES: You know, there's a view that's, I guess, somewhat widely held that the Pakistanis must have known where bin Laden was and must have been hiding him or assisting in his hiding or turning a blind eye. What does your research say?

BERGEN: I mean, it's hard to prove negatives. But I mean, as far as I can tell, there's just simply no evidence for that view. You know, bin Laden was hiding from people on - that were living with him on the compound. He was extremely paranoid. There was no reason for him to inform somebody in the Pakistani government about where he was. In fact, al-Qaida took a very hostile view of the Pakistani government, was planning military operations against Pakistani targets. Bin Laden - in the 470,000 files that have been released publicly from Abbottabad, there is simply no evidence that Bin Laden was being protected by Pakistani officials, was in communication with Pakistani officials, that Pakistani officials knew where he was.

So the reason, I think, this view arises is, you know, he was living relatively close to the Pakistan's equivalent of West Point. And so people sort of say, well, the Pakistanis must have known. But in fact, they were as befuddled by the fact that he was living in Abbottabad as anybody else. And in fact, the United States was listening in on Pakistani communications the night that bin Laden was - died, and Pakistani leaders were clearly kind of sort of finding the situation very strange and didn't understand what was going on. So there's no evidence that bin Laden was being protected by Pakistani officials. It's a widespread view, but that doesn't mean it's true.

DAVIES: Our guest is Peter Bergen. He's an author and journalist who spent years studying al-Qaida and other jihadist movements. His new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden." We'll talk more after a break. And Justin Chang will review "The Card Counter," the new film about a professional poker player who was convicted of war crimes at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Peter Bergen, a journalist and author who's written several books about al-Qaida and other jihadist movements. His new book, based in part on material seized in the raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed, is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

You know, the months before Osama bin Laden's death in 2011 was the beginning of the Arab Spring - I mean, this outburst of democratic aspiration and activity. How did bin Laden regard these developments?

BERGEN: You know, with a great excitement. He wrote one of his top deputies, this is probably the most important development in the Middle East in centuries. But he was also perplexed about what to do about these great events because he was cognizant of the fact that the protesters that - you know, in the streets of Cairo or in the streets of Tunisia were not waving banners of bin Laden demanding, you know, Taliban-style theocracies. They were demanding kind of universal human rights - the rights to assembly, free speech and not to live under an authoritarian, corrupt government.

So, you know, bin Laden really was kind of thinking through about, how do I respond to this? Well, how can I position myself to be relevant? What can I say about it? And, in fact, you know, the Arab Spring, by the time bin Laden - you know, starts, really, you know, in January of 2011. He's killed in May of 2011. You know, I think the fact that he never really was able to produce a statement addressing the events of the Arab Spring during his lifetime kind of speaks for itself because he just didn't quite know what to say, how to position himself as a leader of the Arab Spring.

There was - two weeks after he died, posthumously, al-Qaida released a tape in which he did talk about the events of the Arab Spring, and he made some very sort of general comments about, you know, these great events. And, you know, he wanted to play a role. But it's not like he could contribute very, you know, great ideas to these events because the protesters were not demanding kind of what al-Qaida was offering, which is essentially, you know - you know, bin Laden's vision of the future was Taliban-style theocracies from Indonesia to Morocco. And the protesters in the Arab Spring, that was not what they were interested in.

DAVIES: Yeah. It must have been so frustrating to him, to a man who had had such impact 10 years earlier, to kind of be a bystander to history.

BERGEN: I think it was frustrating. When you look at this - so there's a 228-page bin Laden family journal. They began writing the journal several weeks before Bin Laden died. And basically, every night, they would gather before dinner and sometimes after dinner, as well, and sort of discuss the events of the day. You know, they talked about the revolutions in Tunisia, the - you know, the revolution in Egypt, the uprisings against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. And, you know, bin Laden was, you know, watching a lot of Al-Jazeera and listening to a lot of - and watching a lot of BBC and kind of absorbing a lot of the news. And he would then sort of have meetings with his two oldest wives and his two oldest daughters and oldest son, and they would talk through kind of what had happened that day.

But they were preparing a speech that bin Laden would give. And, you know, they were very excited about this speech 'cause they thought that bin Laden could - you know, it was kind of a crazy idea, but they thought that once bin Laden delivered this speech that somehow he would become one of the leaders of the Arab Spring. And bin Laden's big idea was that, you know, he would kind of suggest that a council of kind of religious elders would kind of be convened to advise the new governments in the Arab world. Of course, there was no demand for this (laughter) idea, but this was the idea that he alighted upon.

He was also considering issuing some kind of mea culpa to the Muslim world about - he was very cognizant of the fact that al-Qaida and its affiliates had killed many Muslim civilians, whether al-Qaida in Iraq or al-Shabaab in Somalia. And he felt that this was damaging al-Qaida's kind of brand in the Muslim world. And so he was also contemplating issuing some kind of public apologia, saying, you know, basically, we're a group that is committed not to killing Muslims.

And he never delivered that message, but it was certainly something that he was very interested in delivering in the context of the Arab Spring and also in the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11 because bin Laden was also very cognizant that that was coming up very soon and that he - it was a good moment to reposition al-Qaida, this kind of kinder and gentler al-Qaida that he was hoping to create.

DAVIES: It's interesting that they'd spent so long in this place that was very isolated. And I wonder if it could sort of breed a kind of delusion that this guy who nobody really wanted to hear from...

BERGEN: (Laughter).

DAVIES: ...Anymore (ph) very much was the man of the hour and whose words, you know, could move history.

BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, I think that these were delusions. And I quote - I mean, bin Laden was deluded about a lot of things. First of all, he was deluded about the American reaction to 9/11. He had no idea that the United States was really going to go into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban. And, you know, there was kind of an ex post facto kind of gloss he put on what happened, sort of saying this was all a clever, diabolical plan to bring the United States into the Middle East and kind of bankrupt the United States.

But really, that was not his plan at all. He thought 9/11 would push the United States out of the Middle East and then all the client regimes of the United States, such as the Saudis' regime, would fall. So - I mean, he had a bunch of delusions. They started with kind of what the American reaction would be to 9/11. They continued with, you know, when he was on the run about - you know, basically he believed that, you know, al-Qaida would be able to mount another attack on the United States. He was very hopeful about this.

And, you know, he seemed not to understand that al-Qaida had basically been, you know, largely decimated in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I quote one of his longtime associates in the book, who says that of the 1,900 Arab fighters who were living in Afghanistan, you know, at the time of 9/11, 1,600 of them were killed or captured in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. And there was other people in al-Qaida who understood that the 9/11 attacks had been sort of a kamikaze mission for al-Qaida.

And bin Laden was telling them, you know, you need to kill President Barack Obama or kill General David Petraeus or don't bother with then-Vice President Joe Biden because he's not prepared to be president. But he was sort of inciting them to do these attacks. And, you know, who was going to do that? And I quote James Clapper, who was the director of national intelligence at the time of bin Laden's death who said, you know, it reminded him a little bit of Hitler, you know, moving around these divisions at the end of World War II that didn't exist.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Peter Bergen. His new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is Peter Bergen. He's a journalist and author who's written several books about al-Qaida and other jihadist movements. His new book is a biography of Osama bin Laden called "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden."

You write about his early life, and this is interesting stuff. I mean, he came from a wealthy family. The money was from this construction company that his father founded. He became a close friend of the Saudi royal family, and they became enormously rich. What kind of relationship did Osama bin Laden have with his two parents?

BERGEN: Well, with his father, Mohammed bin Laden, who founded this - you know, basically came to Saudi Arabia in 1930 just before, you know, this huge gush of petrodollars landed on the kingdom. And you know, he adeptly kind of took advantage of that to become the largest construction magnate in the Saudi kingdom.

Bin Laden's relationship with his father was, I think, virtually nonexistent. I mean, this is a - you know, bin Laden had 54 siblings. And bin Laden's father married his mother in Syria when she was a teenager. He was - bin Laden's father was around 50 when they got married. And bin Laden barely saw his father. It looks like he only met with his father five times in his entire life. His father died when bin Laden was 10. Bin Laden appears to have had only one one-on-one meeting with his father.

And so, you know, the - and the parents divorced when bin Laden was only 2. So his relationship with his father was nonexistent really. But he did believe that he was kind of fulfilling an important mission of his father. His father supposedly said that, you know, one of his sons would sort of fight jihad, holy war. And bin Laden felt that he was kind of fulfilling his father's wishes.

His relationship with his mother was very warm. You know, he would kiss her hands. He would make small talk with her. He'd compliment her on her cooking. He always remained very, very close to her, even when he was on the run in Sudan and Afghanistan in the '90s. You know, he would communicate with her to the extent that he could. So he had a very warm relationship with his mother.

DAVIES: So he grew up in this family that had enormous wealth. And you know, some wealthy Middle Eastern families would send their children to be educated in Western countries - many in the United States. And many were known for a very lavish lifestyle. There's a photo you have in the book. It's really this remarkable photo of, I guess, maybe 20 or so members of the bin Laden family on vacation in Sweden in 1971. You want to describe this photo and why you included it?

BERGEN: This is a pretty well-known photo of the bin Laden family on vacation. I think there were 23 bin Laden siblings in the picture, one of whom may be Osama bin Laden. There's some debate about it. But the larger point is that Salem bin Laden, who took over the family - the oldest brother took over the family business when his father, Mohammed bin Laden, died in a plane crash. You know, he was a very Westernized guy. He bought a house in Orlando, kind of an estate. He, you know, basically played the guitar. He'd play "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and these kinds of 1960s hits. So he was extremely Americanized, as were so many members of the family. And this photo, I think the reason I included it was, you know, all the women are not covered. The guys who have got all these kind of 1970s hippies' kind of outfits on.

I think it just shows that, you know - well, you know, one of the interesting puzzles is bin Laden had 54 siblings. None of them chose the path that bin Laden did. And so if one of the questions I'm trying to answer in the book is, why did he go down this path? This photo, I think, is kind of an interesting kind of counterpoint which shows that, you know, nothing's inevitable in any of our lives. None of the 22 siblings who are in this picture of Osama bin Laden - you know, none of them chose a life of jihad. And in fact, a quarter of bin Laden's siblings were educated in the United States. They owed their money, their fortune, in many ways, to the marriage of convenience between the United States and the Saudi kingdom, which is, you know, based on the oil business. And most of the family were, you know, not at all anti-American.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's fascinating. I mean, the kids in this picture, they got bell-bottoms and sideburns and all this stuff. Osama bin Laden worked for the family construction company a lot. You described that he would actually drive bulldozers. Do we know why he turned so resolutely towards religion?

BERGEN: You know, that's a puzzle. And I mean, I try not to do too much armchair psychology in the book because, you know, I'm not a psychologist. And you know, I'm interested in how bin Laden got to where he became - answering the why is kind of a more complex question. But in his own account to his family, he said the death of his father turned him, made it more religious.

His father died when he was 10 in a plane crash. Bin Laden told his family members that he began studying the Quran. At a certain point, he memorized the entire Quran, which is quite a feat of memory as there are 6,000 or so verses in the Quran. So I sort of take bin Laden at his own - you know, the account that he told his family, I take that at face value.

By the time he's a teenager, you know, he's fasting twice a week. He's saying an extra set of prayers that is not required in, you know - required in the Quran. When he brings his buddies over to - you know, to play, they chant songs about Palestine - not the sort of typical kind of, you know, behavior you see in a teenager. So I think the death of his father made him more religious, and he kept going down that path.

DAVIES: The Russian invasion of Afghanistan was clearly a transformative event in his life. I mean, he would have been in his early 20s then. And he had money, right? He had his share of the family inheritance. And so he spent a lot of it assisting the Afghan resistance forces, eventually goes there and becomes a military leader himself. He wants to organize, you know, Arabs who are motivated to come in and, you know, drive the Russians out of Afghanistan into a military force. And of course, most of those who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan were not Arabs. They were, you know, Pashtun-speaking Afghans, I guess. What kind of impact did bin Laden have as a military leader in Afghanistan? And how did he spin it? How did he play it in creating his image?

BERGEN: You know, I mean, at the height of the war against the Soviets, there might have been 300 Arab - so-called Afghan Arabs on the battlefield. Meanwhile, there were, you know, somewhere between 175,000 to 250,000 Afghans at any moment fighting the Soviets. So the Arabs had virtually no impact on - in any - you know, strategically or even operationally on the war in Afghanistan.

But in bin Laden's mind, there was no doubt that he himself fought with almost suicidal bravery against the Soviets. In 1987, he and some of his kind of followers set up a military camp quite near a Soviet base. And they fought for, you know, two or three weeks against Soviet special forces. But you know, bin Laden set up this military camp. It didn't have any strategic impact on the war. The Afghans don't really need help with fighting. But in bin Laden's mind, you know, the - his Arabs, the people - his followers, you know, helped defeat a superpower. I think this was absolutely delusional, one of the many delusions he had. But it was a delusion that he felt very strongly. And it was shared by others because, you know, journalists came to cover bin Laden, including Jamal Khashoggi who, of course, was murdered by the Saudis in 2018 in Istanbul. But Jamal Khashoggi was the first mainstream journalist to cover bin Laden and wrote a, you know, pretty massive piece in Arabic and in English documenting bin Laden and his efforts.

And you know, bear in mind that there were several thousand members of the Saudi royal family, none of whom were fighting in Afghanistan. And here was bin Laden, a member of a prominent Saudi family fighting himself personally against the Soviets and recruiting people to fight against the Soviets. And so it was kind of a heroic story. And there's no doubt that bin Laden fought, you know, with some bravery. But what effect did it have on the larger war? The answer is virtually nothing.

DAVIES: You write that he formed al-Qaida - there are actually documents that show this, I guess - in 1988, moves to Sudan and operates there and eventually is forced to leave because he's creating problems with the Saudi regime. And they, you know, they exert pressure to get - to force him to leave. He relocates in Afghanistan. And in this period, he's angry about American troops intervening after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He doesn't like to see all these American troops in Muslim countries. And he begins planning mass attacks that will kill large numbers of civilians. Do we know why he chose that approach?

BERGEN: You know, the why questions are very difficult in history. You know, why Bin Laden went down the path he did - I try and explain to the reader - how did he get there? - because I think how is perhaps a more clear way of explaining it. So I think there was nothing inevitable about how, you know, bin Laden, this shy religious teenager then becomes a leader of a group dedicated to mass murder. There were a series of events that kept pushing him further and further down the path of radicalization. And each one of them, you know, if he - you know, he could have chosen a different path at several points in his life.

But the introduction of American troops into Saudi Arabia turned his sort of latent anti-Americanism into kind of a passionate hatred of the United States. And you know, he decided that, you know, the best approach to getting the United States out of Saudi Arabia was to use violence. And he was influenced by the fact that in 1983, Hezbollah attacked the marine barracks in Beirut, killed 241 American service personnel. And you know, the Reagan administration pulled out of Lebanon as a result. So he used that - he saw that as sort of a model. He thought that with sufficient military pressure on the United States, that we - the United States would pull out of Saudi Arabia and other places in the Middle East where American troops are based. That, of course, was a delusion. It didn't work.

DAVIES: Peter Bergen, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

BERGEN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Peter Bergen's new book is "The Rise And Fall Of Osama Bin Laden." Coming Up, Justin Chang reviews "The Card Counter," the new Paul Schrader film about a professional poker player and former military man who was convicted of war crimes at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA J. WILLIAMS' "THE CHILD WITHIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.