It had turned colder as I drove into Ulverstone for my second meeting with Osama Bin Laden, once the world’s most wanted man, and now a small business sea-changer in the quiet hills of North Motton. He greeted me like an old friend, but his eyes, though warm, were also thoughtful, as like me, he must have known this interview would go deeper into the tough questions that the world wanted answers to.
The video store was quiet, and he beckoned me through a beaded curtain into a lounge room with comfy arm chairs and a view of a back garden where a shiny new tinny gleamed on its trailer and the lawn was neat and concrete edged. A couple of Dicksonia ferns dripped rain from their luxuriant fronds onto the pine-barked beds.
I got down to tin tacks. “Binny”, I said, using the nickname that his customers had given him, unwittingly it seems, when he first set up business, his middle Eastern appearance a little disconcerting in this most Anglo of towns. “I want to start with the most important question. You are a mass murderer. How can you live here, and not expect to be brought to justice. He rose to his feet, and for a minute I thought I had overstepped the mark. But he merely went back into the shopfront, and put up a closed sign. Then he returned, and fussed for a minute with some plunger coffee, which he set on the table between us.
When he looked up again, I could see his eyes were brimming with tears. You have to realize, he said, that I was a spoiled brat. A privileged idiot. My family owned the biggest construction company in Saudi Arabia. Kind of like the Vos Nominees of the Middle East. We built everything, every airport, every downtown complex, every highway. I was the son of a seventh wife, a concubine really, not very high on the list. I never visited the West, never went to America. I didn’t speak English. In my early 20’s I got involved in politics. And one thing led to another. First it was kicking the Russians out of Afghanistan. But later the Americans moved into Saudi, propping up a corrupt government there, and it became the pattern. All across the Arab world, we had dictators, while you had democracy. You funded tyrants, while you were free, just to feed your SUV’s and your holidays in Phuket.
We wanted to strike back at the source - America. But now of course, I see things completely differently. What I did was terribly wrong. Life is sacred, nobody has the right to take it, for any reason. One day I will tell you about that. And why I will never again hurt a fly.
He was telling me, without saying it, move on. I knew I had only been given a partial answer, but his charm and honesty had disarmed me. I moved, almost robotically, to my next question. “How did you get to be in Tasmania? “
He leaned back into the lounge chair. I was picked up in 2006, a Pakistani army team were tipped off about the cave, they used stun grenades, it was over in seconds. For two weeks I couldn’t even hear right, I still get terrible tinnitus in my left ear. I was flown somewhere, a long way, fifteen twenty hours. I was kept by Americans, and to my astonishment really, they treated me fine, nothing bad at all.
I had a house, in a tropical, hot country, but air conditioned, good food. And these DVD’s that someone had left. The internet. Wikipedia. I tried opening a Yahoo account but it was blocked. So I just watched DVDs and surfed the net for almost a year. Nobody talked to me, nobody interrogated me. I was just kind of put on ice. The DVD’s were interesting. I watched the full series of the Flying Nun. An English thing about a country policeman - Heartbeat. I still can’t get that song out of my head. And gradually, using the captions, I learned to speak English.
All the time I had one goal, just one purpose. I wanted to watch the boxed set, the full 7 years of the West Wing. I watched it night after night, sometimes three episodes in a row, the shooting, the kidnapping of Abby, right up to the election and Matt Santos just scraping in. And you can’t watch that, and not be affected. I started to realize, these Americans, they aren’t all that bad. They have an ethic, a morality, that is different to mere tribal loyalty and sectarian squabbling. They are wonderful people. I began to research more - Plato, Martin Luther King, that German guy who Rudd liked ...
”Bonhoeffer?” Thats right Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Remarkable man.
As the long Tasmanian dusk moved imperceptibly into inky night, we talked on, and on. He unfolded a story so extraordinary that I began to wonder if I had imagined it. I will share it, dear Tassie Times reader, in coming weeks.
Finally though, to respond to my questioner from last time. I too found it hard to accept the story of Adolf Hitler and the Sandy Bay Bowling Club. But I am now investigating that as well,. Arthur Chumleigh-Watson, former club president told me just this week, “we suspected, of course, but he was just so good organizationally. The games always ran on time. Then some wag, quite innocently drew a HItler moustache on a photo of the office bearers in 1949, and of course it was him. We had to ban him of course. He never forgave us.”.
Anyhow, more about Bin Laden, his profound redemptive changes, and his flirtation with Liberal Party politics, in the next interview.