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Getting to know Osama bin Laden

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat them.

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Osama bin Laden: Son of privilege to terror leader.

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The world's most-wanted man is the subject of a new biography, and if you are at all interested in his al Qaeda organization and why it exists, you need to read it.

"The Osama Bin Laden I Know," from CNN's terrorism analyst Peter Bergen (Free Press, $26), is based on interviews with those who have met al Qaeda's leader, and it brings together a treasure trove of information and documents about the man and the movement.

Bergen has organized the book in such a way that you understand bin Laden's roots, his motivations and his aims as his story unfolds. Accounts from childhood friends, former jihadi colleagues and even bin Laden's bodyguards are mixed with bin Laden's own words.

What emerges is a profile of a man who has remained remarkably consistent in his views since Bergen met him during a CNN interview in 1997.

"He hasn't changed," says Bergen. "He's against the U.S. and Israel and most Middle East governments."

"We are still not sure what he wants, except he believes in a caliphate, a Muslim state. He'd like to see Taliban-style theocracies all across the world."

Life and times

Bergen talks to those who knew bin Laden when he was growing up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Even in the 1970s, says Bergen, "bin Laden stood out as a religious zealot. He was fasting two times a week. He was something of a nutcase. The person who gives the best explanation into what makes bin Laden tick is his brother-in-law, Jamal Khalifa, who says that if Osama doesn't do God's will, he thinks he will be punished. That seems to be what drives him."

Later, bin Laden went to Afghanistan, where the son of privilege (his father was one of the wealthiest people in Saudi Arabia) became a supporter, then a leader, in the fight against the Soviets who had invaded.

Bin Laden's emergence is paralleled by the rise of al Qaeda, which since 9/11 has become more of a movement than an organization.

[In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked with Bergen on al Qaeda stories for almost a decade and consider him a good friend. That said, I learned much from this book.]

The birth of al Qaeda

There has, remarkably enough, been a rash of conspiracy theories that allege al Qaeda never really existed, that it is some sort of invention of Western governments. Bergen is scathing about such theories in his book: "All of these assertions are nonsense."

You can read through some recently uncovered documents, which contain minutes from the August 1988 meeting in which bin Laden and several of his fellow jihadis discuss founding a new military group that includes "al Qaeda" (which means the Base in Arabic).

The al Qaeda that emerges from these pages, especially during the years before 9/11, is an organization that seems in hindsight remarkably easy to infiltrate. There are accounts from bodyguards and others, including the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, who went through the training camps in Afghanistan and often came remarkably close to bin Laden.

So why wasn't U.S. intelligence able to get someone on the inside and penetrate the organization?

"That's an interesting question," says Bergen. "There were thousands of people going through these training camps. We weren't recruiting the sort of people who could penetrate al Qaeda."

There is even a tantalizing hint that the man who is public enemy No.1 might have actually visited the United States.

One of bin Laden's acquaintances from Jeddah said he thought bin Laden took one of his children there for medical treatment in the years before al Qaeda was founded. But there has been no confirmation of that, and Khalifa says he believes bin Laden visited Great Britain instead.

A terrorism reading list

"Best of..." lists are usually reserved for the end of the year, but even though it is January, there are three must-reads, including Bergen's book.

"Jawbreaker" (Crown, $25.95) is former CIA officer Gary Berntsen's account of chasing bin Laden in Afghanistan. It reads like fiction, but the account of how bin Laden got away at Tora Bora is all too real in all its frustration.

Meet Berntsen even for a few minutes, as I did, and you are struck by his intensity. That comes across in the book, which is as blunt as the man. He still seethes at the missed opportunities that helped bin Laden to escape.

Berntsen may have been the CIA's most decorated officer before he retired. He considered himself a man of action not a bureaucrat or a political animal, which often put him at odds with others at the agency. He took over the Jawbreaker operation from Gary Schroen, who has also written a book about his experiences in Afghanistan - "First In" (Presidio Press, $25.95). (Full story)

Berntsen's is an account not to be missed.

"State of War" (Free Press, $26) by James Risen has justly attracted a lot of attention. Risen is the New York Times reporter who broke the story of how the Bush administration is using the National Security Agency to conduct surveillance inside the United States, without court permission. His book lays this out in great detail as it comes at the war on terrorism from a much different angle than either Bergen or Berntsen.

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