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Bin Laden's brother-in-law speaks

Former confidant details life with terrorist leader

From Nic Robertson and Henry Schuster

Bin Laden's brother-in-law, Jamal Khalifa, runs a fish restaurant outside the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah.
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CNN Exclusive: Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law talks to CNN.
Osama Bin Laden
September 11 attacks

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, and former best friend, says he's not surprised the terrorist leader has been difficult to capture.

"Who is going to capture him and where?" Jamal Khalifa said.

Khalifa spoke to CNN in an exclusive interview about bin Laden and their past, which he said took the two men from university to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan before they parted company.

"For 10 years, the Russians did not capture even one leader of the Afghan mujahedeen with the full forces everywhere. So I think it is a little bit difficult," he said.

These days, Khalifa runs a fish restaurant just outside the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah.

"Ten years we are together," said Khalifa. "When we were in the university and after that. Always we are together. We live in one house."

Bin Laden and Khalifa met at Jeddah's King Abdulaziz University in the late 1970s and became close friends, nearly inseparable, Khalifa said.

They also shared a teacher, Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian cleric who later joined bin Laden as founders of al Qaeda. Azzam's teachings helped influence bin Laden and Khalifa to go to Afghanistan and join the jihad against the Soviet forces that had invaded that country in 1979.

It was a sign of bin Laden's respect and affection for Khalifa that he arranged for Khalifa to marry his sister. But Khalifa thought a degree of caution might be in order, since they were headed into a war zone.

"He is the one who suggested ... I marry his sister," Khalifa said. "I told him, 'Osama, we are going to die and you are talking about marriage. So let's go first and if I come alive, we will do it.' So, I came alive."

Khalifa said he spent most of his time in Pakistan, setting up an Islamic relief charity, building schools and mosques for refugees displaced by the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

At the same time, bin Laden was becoming a leader of Arabs who came to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was able to use some of his family fortune and contacts to raise money for the jihad, and he led men into combat.

Khalifa said that he was troubled at the time that bin Laden was creating his own fighting force from the men, who were known as the Afghan Arabs. "I saw him starting to group the Arabs in one place and start to let them go and fight by themselves."

Khalifa said he didn't realize that he was witnessing the beginnings of al Qaeda. But he said that what he saw he didn't like. He had a visit from three men, including Abu Ubaidah and Abu Hafs, who later became al Qaeda's first two military commanders.

They asked him a series of questions. Only later, he said, did he understand he was being screened about becoming a member of al Qaeda. This was in the late 1980s.

'Osama, you are doing something wrong'

"I am the first one who stood up in front of Osama and told him, 'Osama, you are doing something wrong. You are going to the wrong direction,'" said Khalifa, who said he did not approve of the worldwide jihad that bin Laden and his advisers were planning.

Sheik Azzam, their mentor, was murdered under still-mysterious circumstances shortly afterward, and bin Laden became the uncontested leader of al Qaeda.

"He is a wealthy man, he has very good connections, and many people really love Osama," Khalifa said.

He said he parted company with bin Laden in the late 1980s, but they remained in touch. He last saw him in early 1992 during a family visit to Sudan.

The bin Laden Khalifa saw on video most recently aired on Arabic-language news channels looks like a man who has aged a great deal, he said.

On that tape, bin Laden once again took responsibility for the attacks of September 11, 2001. Khalifa believes that to be the case, but he says his brother-in-law was the leader of the attacks, but not the organizer.

"He cannot organize anything. I am the one who is leading. I am the one who is leading him in the prayer. I am the one who is leading if we go for outing, for picnic, for riding horses," Khalifa said with a laugh.

Khalifa has become more outspoken in his criticism of bin Laden. Last year, after a wave of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, he published an open letter to bin Laden in a Saudi paper, asking him to renounce the terrorism being committed in his name.

"Please come out, tell those people to stop," Khalifa wrote in the letter. "You are the one who can tell that, and you are the one who can stop it."

He never got a response from the man who was once his best friend. But there have been more attacks.

Khalifa has been the target of an extraordinary amount of scrutiny because of his background.

In the Philippines, where he went from Afghanistan, officials charged in a 1994 report that he was using businesses and prominent Islamic charities as fronts to funnel money to terrorists. Much of the investigation was done after Khalifa had left the country.

No charges were filed, Col. Boogie Mendoza of the Philippine National Police, said, because at the time the Philippines had no anti-terrorism laws. Currently, Khalifa does not face any charges in the Philippines. In fact, Mendoza said, if Khalifa returned to Manila, he would likely be put under surveillance but not be arrested.

Khalifa next traveled to San Francisco, California. He was arrested there by the U.S. government after it learned he was wanted in Jordan, where he had been convicted in absentia on a charge of plotting to overthrow the government. After being deported to Jordan, he was retried and acquitted.

Although Khalifa is named as a defendant in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit brought by the families of 9/11 victims, he contends there is no evidence to link him to the attacks.

On September 11, Khalifa was on a business trip in Southeast Asia. After he returned to Saudi Arabia, he was jailed for several months. He said he still doesn't know why he was arrested.

"They came and said, 'You are clear and you can go now.' That's it. So I don't know what is going on," he said.

Nawaf Obaid, a national security consultant for the Saudi government, said officials there now believe Khalifa "does not pose any security threat to any government and that he has broken all ties that have linked him to his charitable groups when he was operating out of the Philippines."

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