The reports of Osama bin Laden’s death came as a shock to the real Osama, who has lived in Ulverstone for the past seven years. The former terrorist mastermind, who now operates a video store and take-away in the close knit North West town, said that he was very much alive, and US troops must have “got the wrong guy”. “These Muslims all look very similar”, he said, without a touch of irony. “Its the beards”.
In our interview, the first he has given to a western journalist, Bin Laden, or Binny as he is known to his customers, was disarmingly frank and relaxed, with little of the trademark intensity the world has come to see in him. He was full of praise for the Howard government’s policy on immigration, which had allowed him to study catering at Burnie TAFE on a student visa, and then become an Australian citizen, at a ceremony hosted by Senator Abetz in 2007.
Mr Bin Laden only agreed to be interviewed because he felt the record needed to be set straight on the mistaken identity. “Poor guy”, he said, “it must have been a hell of a shock”.
He had chosen NW Tasmania because of its reputation as a quiet hiding place for celebrities, going right back to Elvis, who had worked as a cab driver in Smithton before being recognized and moving to Chile where he now works in radio.
Bin Laden said he had settled well into the friendly but rather quiet community, and recently bought a house and ten acres at North Motton, where he planned to grow ginseng. He had married Deanne, a single mother of four from Ridgely in 2008. “ She knows about my past”, he said, “and she forgives me. She is part of a great church, wonderful fellowship, and has come close to talking me into accepting Jesus. But I just think, maybe religion causes too much trouble, you know?”
The obvious question, the camel in the room so to speak, just had to be asked. “Was he still doing terrorism ?” “Definitely not” he said. He felt terrible about the whole thing. “We were pretty angry about the Yanks putting bases in Saudi Arabia in the 1990’s, he explained, its hard to explain to an Aussie, no offence, but it’d be like putting a Buddhist army into the Vatican. And a lot of Sunni/Shi’ite stuff that goes way back. But really, when it comes down to it, we were just young guys with too much testosterone. And we never thought it would actually come off.”
Did he have an insight into the conspiracy theories? “Well..”, and he leaned in across the laminex table at this point, he had been “thanked, off the record”, by high ranking figures in the US intelligence services, who said their whole industry had been revitalized, at a time when no-one much cared any more. “We’d never have got away with it unless they had left that window. Heck, guys training to fly Boeings, not wanting to learn how to land them. Middle Eastern appearance, dodgy passports. They could have stopped us if they’d wanted to.” I sat, stunned, thinking of the cost in human life, the way it had changed history.
“It had been good for the whole US economy”, he said, a little defensively. Didn’t he feel guilty about the half million reported civilian deaths in Iraq in the resulting, if tenously linked US invasion? His eyes flashed with anger and suddenly, for the first time in our interview, you could see the old Osama, a man who could fire a Kalashnikov and mean it. “Well, that was something we never imagined. Iraq had nothing to do with it. Bloody Bush, the guy’s a moron. It had to be about the oil. But so clumsy. Nothing surgical about it. At least with terrorism, you don’t need a whole war. Thats the whole point, scare millions of people by just hurting a few. Look at the trouble getting through the airport now”, he added.
What did he think of Tasmanian politics ? “Well, I don’t support the Pulp Mill”, he said. “But where I come from, corruption is a way of life. It was one of the things that attracted me to the NW coast, the politicians here would fit in well in the Middle East. Its all about who you know, and what favours you need. But back home there are balances, the rich look out for the poor. They give jobs to folks who would never get them any other way. If I ran Gunns, people like those loggers would have jobs for life, not just be on a contract, too insecure. I don’t know how John Gay can sleep at night”.
As our time was nearly up, I asked if he had anything to say to Tasmanians who had made him feel so welcome? He waved his arms expansively as if to say - just look around. “Tassie is a great place, friendly, and peaceful. No missiles, no predator drones, no Taliban. I hate those guys, to be honest. Just too intense”. He seemed to gather himself, looked at me with a piercing, almost pleading gaze. “You have to understand about Afghanistan, its kind of medieaval over there”, he explained. “What they really need is more primary schools, more medical care. Especially ante natal care for mums. You know, one in six Afghan mothers die in childbirth? In Australia its one in a hundred thousand. That kind of thing makes life seem a little cheap, a little harsh. They need help, but not from the barrel of a gun”.
It was time to stop. He asked that folks respect his privacy, but wanted me to mention that he has a great special Tuesday night special on an overnight DVD and a doner kebab, the Al Quaeda special, just $6.00. “Bloody quiet on a tuesday in Ulverstone”, he said, with a smile, before getting to his feet. He strode away to his car, he had to take his kids to footy training.
I watched him go with a feeling of unresolvedness. I had found the whole interview quite surreal. But then, I hadn’t asked the hard questions yet. He had, after all, ordered the deaths of 3000 innocent people. How could he live with himself? Didn’t he deserve to die for his many horrific crimes ? And how had he got away ? Those questions were the ones I really needed answers to, in fact the whole world needed answers to. That would have to come out in the second interview. I couldn’t wait.