The Book Club

How Much Do We Really Know About Bin Laden and Zawahiri’s Relationship?


Salaam. Good to be back on the al-Qaida tour, isn’t it? We see each other, along with a dozen or so of the other usual suspects, at these conferences the terrorism industry has spawned. I’ve begun to think that we should all start bringing guitars and keyboards and see if we can work up a few numbers, sell some T-shirts. (By the way, what is the finest Osama-branded product or paraphernalia you have managed to find? I challenge you to top my purple packaged box of “Super Osama Bin Laden Kufa Balls,” a sweet Pakistani dessert, adorned with fighter aircraft and the visage of Himself. A friend found it in a Kandahar market, and it has been sitting for almost five years on my bookshelf; uncertain about Pakistani preservatives, I would hesitate to serve the Balls themselves at this point, however.)

Anyway, compared to some of those conferences, this is a happy occasion because it involves your terrific new book, The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaida from the point of view of its key leaders, and also of the efforts, particularly at the FBI, to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. Our readers should know that in addition to being colleagues at The New Yorker, you permitted me to read the manuscript earlier this year as part of your fact-checking rounds. It floored me—it’s a brilliant, complete piece of work. I especially admired your research into the lives of Bin Laden and Zawahiri, which draws on extensive, original interviewing in the Arab world, and also your evocative, literary voice. The reporting in the book about internal al-Qaida debates and dynamics goes well beyond anything else that has yet been published. I am sure it will generate lots of discussion among the al-Qaida-watching crowd; I hope to get a head start here with some questions about your choices of emphasis and interpretation.

First, a précis. The book opens with an account of the influential Egyptian Islamist writer Sayid Qutb’s radicalizing experiences in America during the late 1940s, when he was a young man far from home. It then develops biographical portraits of the young Ayman Zawahiri and the young Osama Bin Laden, who both read Qutb ardently. The book follows the pair to Afghanistan during the 1980s and tracks the origins and formation of al-Qaida during the anti-Soviet war. The evolution of the group after it was forced into exile in Sudan during the early 1990s, and then returned to Afghanistan, in 1996, is blended with reporting about the FBI agents who were assigned to understand and pursue al-Qaida. The book follows all these strands of narrative to Sept. 11 and then to Bin Laden’s escape from Tora Bora the following December.

Later in our exchanges, I want to ask you about your assessments of the FBI, but first let’s talk about Bin Laden and Zawahiri, since they still hover over us, on Kufa Ball boxes and otherwise. They met in either Saudi Arabia or in Pakistan during the early 1980s. Zawahiri was elder, a medical doctor who had become an Islamic revolutionary and who had been arrested and tortured in Egyptian prisons; he came to the Afghan frontier as a medical volunteer after a stint in jail. There he met the gangly Bin Laden, the soft-voiced, wealthy scion of a Saudi construction fortune. Bin Laden, too, was a volunteer, but compared to Zawahiri, he enjoyed legitimacy in his homeland, and in this phase of the Afghan war, at least, he worked closely with the Saudi government. During the ensuing decade, Bin Laden and Zawahiri collaborated, separated, and then, in 1998, finally entered into the formal alliance that gave birth to the al-Qaida that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, with Bin Laden as emir or leader, and Zawahiri as his deputy.

Their relationship is still crucial to understanding al-Qaida’s leadership, even now that the organization has given birth to a wider and more dispersed movement. Yet it remains, in important ways, an opaque relationship. You seem clear on why you believe Zawahiri was drawn to Bin Laden at the beginning—he wanted Osama’s money in order to pursue his dreams of revolution in Egypt. Yet Bin Laden’s perception of Zawahiri, the value he finds in their alliance, both early on and later, seems hazier to me. Am I correct that you see them not as intimate friends but more as political allies, the way presidents and vice presidents sometimes relate to one another in our system—close, but not often friendly; allied, but sometimes divided by the complications of shared power and ambition? In any case, what does Zawahiri offer to Bin Laden, in the tradition of vice presidents, that Osama really needs? And what, in your opinion, is the most reliable evidence about their relationship? You have put together a very convincing record of testimony about Bin Laden, as an individual, and a similarly detailed record about Zawahiri, but there seems considerably less eyewitness testimony about their relationship with one another. Would you agree? In other words, how much do you think we know—and how much are we just interpreting, or guessing intelligently—about their interactions over the years?