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Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001

Profile: Bin Laden often appears shy

This picture of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was a government exhibit for the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, who took the stand in his own defense on April 13, 2006. Moussaoui is a confessed al-Qaida conspirator for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. (UPI Photo/files)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Osama bin Laden, the man declared by President George W. Bush to be a prime suspect in Tuesday's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, appears quiet, emaciated and even a little shy on the first encounter.

During interviews, he takes time to warm up and needs some probing to speak his mind. Those unaware of his background may find it difficult to believe that this tall, shy man is accused of killing thousands in terrorist attacks planned and orchestrated by him and his al Qaida group of Arab and Muslim militants. But few fail to notice a strong dislike for the West and Western influences, almost bordering on hatred, when bin Laden speaks.

"Our war is not against American or Western people, it is against the corrupting influence of the West. What has the West given the world? A lust for power and a license to loot and plunder the poorer countries," he said in a recent interview to an Arab journalist while urging the Muslims to reject "Westernization of their culture and faith."

He firmly believes that the U.S. soldiers based in Saudi Arabia were "corrupting and polluting" the Muslim holy lands. American intelligence officials blame bin Laden's anti-western feelings for the terrorist attacks he is accused of carrying out against U.S. targets.

Already among the 10 most wanted men in the United States for allegedly masterminding twin U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa in August 1998, he is named by President George W. Bush as "a prime suspect" in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In 1996 when this journalist met bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, months before U.S. pressure forced him to flee to Afghanistan, he was attending a meeting of Muslim youths arranged by Sudan's former Islamist government.

"Be careful, be careful," he said when I tripped over a chair while moving toward him. "Don't get hurt."

When I introduced myself as a journalist from Pakistan, he said: "That's a long way. How was the flight? I hope you are not tired."

He speaks softly, pausing to think before he speaks, and smiles coyly as if he is embarrassed of the attention he is getting.

"He is still as calm and smooth as he used to be," said an Arab journalist who interviewed him in June this year. "Still appears very kind, very humble."

While comparing notes, we both agreed on one thing: even while being kind, he makes it very clear who is the boss.

"When he says 'sit here,' you better sit where he wants you to," said another journalist who filmed bin Laden reading a poem about the USS Cole, the destroyer believed to have been bombed by his men last Oct. 12 in Yemen. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in the attack.

He loves Arabic poetry and but has a bizarre poetic sense, often writing poems about terrorist attacks carried out by his men or others.

He also has a sharp mind. He often guesses what you are going to ask even before you complete your question, but does not rush to answer. Instead he waits, and then answers; briefly, often just one word.

Arabs say that bin Laden speaks literary Arabic and is careful in choosing his words, which makes him effective and explains why he has so many supporters willing to ignore the horrible violence he allegedly perpetuates in the name of religion.

He also has a good command of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and uses verses to back his arguments, a habit that endears him to religious people.

Born in 1957 in Yemen, bin Laden already has spent almost half his life fighting, first against the Russians and now against the West, particularly the United States. All those who have interviewed him agree that he knows the consequences of what he is doing and is prepared to die. Perhaps, that's why he often talks about going to paradise if he dies a martyr's death -- if he is killed by the West.

He always wears a spotless, white Arabic robe and a traditional scarf for his interviews. Sometimes he also wears shalwar-kamiz, an Afghan dress, but not for an interview. He is fond of perfume but avoids Western varieties. Instead he prefers traditional Arab perfumes.

He smiles when told that the Americans would get him one day.

"Death comes when it has to come, not one day before or after," is the answer he gives.

Bin Laden always keeps his gun, often an AK-47 assault rifle, with him. He keeps it close during the interview, takes it with him if he has to leave the room and brings it back when with him. He holds his gun even while sharing a meal with his guests.

Fond of traditional Arab and Afghan food, he invites his guests to the table but unlike other Arabs he does not insist that they eat when they say they have had enough.

He loves riding and loves also to show off his horses to his guests. He has his own stable in Kandahar, near the Taliban headquarters in southwestern Afghanistan, which he opened last year. He keeps expensive horses, including some Arabians.

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.