- - Monday, September 20, 2021

Although no one in the United States realized it at the time, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979 was a seminal moment in the life of a young, devout Sunni Muslim whose father was a billionaire construction magnate in Saudi Arabia.

Osama bin Laden, then 22, was “deeply upset” when he heard an “infidel” army attacked Afghanistan, an event that would turn out to be “the most transformative of his life, launching him into a full-time job helping the Afghan resistance,” writes Peter Bergen in his new biography, “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.”

And few in the West noticed when bin Laden, a decade and a half later, issued his first public declaration of war against the United States. A man known to that point as a “terrorist financier” was putting the world on notice that he would wage jihad against the most powerful country from his cave house in the mountains of Tora Bora.

Bin Laden repeated his jihad declaration, part of a scalding critique of U.S. foreign policy, in his first television interview, produced by Mr. Bergen for CNN in 1997. Again, few in the U.S. noticed.

“Our interview got virtually no pickup,” Mr. Bergen said in an interview for this episode of History As It Happens. “It just went into the void. And I think that was because, as far as anyone was concerned, it wasn’t clear that [bin Laden] had really done anything.”

By the late 1990s, only a handful of counterterrorism officials at the CIA and FBI had noticed bin Laden and were concerned he threatened American citizens. They would lead an unsuccessful push to capture or kill al Qaeda’s leader in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes, years marked by the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.

Mr. Bergen, a vice president of New America and CNN national security analyst, is one of the world’s leading authorities on al Qaeda and international jihadism. In this episode, Mr. Bergen discusses the purpose of his latest book: to attempt to explain why bin Laden chose to dedicate his life to mass murder.

“These ‘why’ questions are difficult, because you can’t really get to the answer completely, because we can’t live inside somebody else’s head,” Mr. Bergen said. “I don’t engage in much armchair psychologizing.”

Bin Laden grew up in one of the most austere religious milieus in the world for a Sunni Muslim, but none of his 54 siblings chose to pursue Islamism. “By his own account, that turned him more towards religion. He memorized the Quran,” Mr. Bergen said.

Bin Laden’s embrace of radical Islam and violent jihad found its raison d’être in U.S. foreign policy, which he blamed for supporting corrupt, secular dictators throughout the Middle East. The U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia to fight the Gulf War in 1991 further radicalized bin Laden, completing his break with the Saudi royal family.

Among the subjects discussed in this episode: Islam at the heart of al Qaeda; bin Laden’s battlefield exploits in Afghanistan; the myth of CIA-bin Laden cooperation; why so few people in the West noticed him prior to 1998; and his escape from Tora Bora in late 2001, among other issues.

To listen to Peter Bergen’s conversation with host Martin Di Caro, download this episode of History As It Happens.

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