This is the most authoritative book written on Osama bin Laden as of 2009.
Peter Bergen simply copies and pastes the testimony of people who personally
met with Osama (including himself). The power of the book is that it disposes
of both the anti-USA conspiracy theories and of the USA propaganda (the USA
has a long tradition of demonizing enemies, from Ho Chi Minh to Khomeini, not
all of which turned out to be such evil creatures).
A Pew poll of march 2004 found that Osama bin Laden is viewed favorably by the majority of people in several Islamic countries (including Pakistan and Jordan). In no country a strong majority of people viewed him as a criminal. In every poll taken in the Islamic world Osama consistently beat USA president Bush. He is a lot more relevant than Bush thought because his politics (not his religion) represents the mood of the Arab, Turkish and Pakistani street.
The reason that so many Arabs consider Osama bin Laden a good man is that they share his political views (not necessarily his interpretation of Islam). Osama has consistently presented the case for an Islamic world under siege throughout the planet. Muslims are killed in India, Russia, China, Europe (Bosnia and Kosovo), and even in their own lands (Iraq). The rest of the world may think that the problem lies with the Muslims, but Muslims see it as the other way around: there is a worldwide conspiracy to blame Muslims for all evils and to persecute them. There is also a worldwide conspiracy to corrupt their dictators (mostly hated by their people precisely for being friendly to non-Islamic powers) and to engineer the disintegration of their countries. Hence an Arab statesman who entertains friendly relationships with European countries or with the USA or (worse) with Israel is viewed as a traitor by the masses. Hence the civil wars in so many Islamic countries is viewed not as the inability of Muslims to build working democracies but as caused by the interference of non-Islamic powers.
When Osama bin Laden rose to fame in the late 1980s, he simply represented both viewpoints. Unlike most Muslims, who simply talked about it, he also set out to do something about it. He became a hero during the battle of Jaji, in which he led a small army of Arab volunteers against the Soviet army. Here was (finally) an Arab who was putting his gun where his mouth was. The Arab media (and even more so the Arab street) turned him into a hero. The governments of those countries were mostly allied with the USA against the Soviet Union and saw nothing wrong with a hero fighting the Soviet Union (nor did the USA). Everything that Osama bin Laden did between then and 2001 was viewed as noble and praiseworthy by the Islamic world. After 2001 many Muslims may have had doubts that the "terrorist" actions credited to Osama were good deeds, but 1. the local media (led by Al Jazeera and the Pakistani press) spun so many conspiracy theories that created lingering doubts about those terrorist attacks; and 2. the USA and Israel have been viewed as "doing" more terrorism than Al Qaeda because of the Iraqi invasion (Al Qaeda killed 3,000 people on september 11 but the USA invasion of Iraq caused the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians, and Israel killed thousands in the short-lived invasions of Lebanon and Gaza).
Osama's political history begins in 1984, when he met the Palestinian cleric Abdullah Azzam in Saudi Arabia. The two moved to Peshawar, in Pakistan, and set up the Maktab al-Khidamat (Service Office) to recruit Muslim fighters from Europe, America, north Africa and the Middle East, and to raise money for the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. It was the fifth year of the Soviet invasion. For three years Osama and Azzam ran a simple recruiting operation. However in 1987 Osama set camp in Afghanistan, near a Soviet base. In april 1987 his Arab army attacked the Soviet army at Jaji. At that point he became a warrior, not just an organizer.
Bergen debunks the theory that the USA directly trained and funded Osama. The USA ran operations and sent money and weapons through Pakistan, but there is no evidence to support the claim (made mostly by anti-USA conspiracy theorists) that the USA directly dealt with Osama at any point in time. Osama himself and his associates have resented such speculations.
A transformation occurred in Osama's thought and actions after may 1988, when his half-brother Salem bin Laden, the head of the Bin Laden family, died in a plane accident in Texas. In august 1988 Osama split from Azzam and created Al Qaeda ("The Base"), meant to become a worldwide alliance of fundamentalist militants. Azzam had the view shared by most Muslims of the world: that Muslims have the duty to defend Muslim lands from non-Muslim aggression and to reclaim ancient Muslim lands that are "occupied" by non-Muslims (Palestine, Central Asia, Spain).
In february 1989 the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. The Islamic world interpreted it as a victory of the Muslims who fought there. In november 1989 Osama bin Laden left Afghanistan. He went first to Saudi Arabia and then to Sudan. In april 1992 the guerrillas led by Ahmad Masood dislodged the Soviet-sponsored communist regime from Kabul. Until that moment there is no evidence that Osama wanted to kill innocent civilians (of any country). In fact, he said in more than one occasion that the average USA citizen had nothing to do with the USA government. Until that moment Osama seemed to be much more interested in overthrowing the dictators of the Arab world, whom he saw as apostates. It was also the original goal of his new role model, the Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahri, the new leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad that had killed Egyptian president Sadat. Zawahri had become a hero for Osama after participating at the operation of october 1993 in Somalia that shot down three USA helicopters and killed 18 USA soldiers. During the first Gulf War, in october 1990, the USA had stationed tens of thousands of troops on Saudi soil. Osama viewed that as the ultimate affront against Islam, and declared war on both the royal Saudi family and the USA. Eventually, in april 1994, Saudi Arabia stripped Osama bin Laden of his Saudi citizenship, and the Bin Laden family disowned him. Osama also hated Arafat (another "apostate" who was not Muslim enough) and Saddam Hussein (ditto). These were his original targets. In a sense, he viewed secular leaders presiding over Islamic lands as a bigger danger for Islam than the infidels.
By the time he returned to Afghanistan in may 1996, Osama had changed once again. It could be that in his mind his return to Afghanistan was the equivalent of Mohammed's return to Mecca after the exile in Medina. In august 1996 Osama called for worldwide attacks on USA citizens, including civilians. In his manifesto he specifically referred to crimes committed against Muslims all over the world (Israel, India, Philippines, Somalia, Chechnya, etc) and repeated the anti-USA propaganda (that had actually originated in Europe) that 500,000 Iraqi children had died because of the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Clearly, Afghanistan was getting too small for him. Afghanistan had become a convenient base though: in september 1996 the Taliban dislodged Masood's mujahedin government from Kabul and installed a fundamentalistic Muslim government, creating the first Sunni Islamic state in modern history. In february 1998 his alliance with Zawahiri and his newly-globalized mission were sanctioned by the manifesto of the "International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders". Osama's lengthy rant mentions three main facts: the "occupation" of Saudi Arabia by USA troops, one million people killed in Iraq by the USA, the "occupation" of Palestine by Israel.
After his return to Afghanistan, Osama also became obsessed with the media. He had discovered the power of CNN and Al Jazeera (founded in late 1996). In june 1998 he granted an interview to John Miller of ABC News, in december 1998 he granted an interview to Jamal Ismail of Al Jazeera, and so forth. In these interviews his tone was much harsher. He defended the killing of innocent civilians by simply pointing out that the USA had done the same in all its wars, notably when it dropped nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities where obviously thousands of women and children lived. Osama also announced that he was going to attack the USA on USA soil.
The Taliban were far from happy about Osama's new worldwide mission. They did not want to draw more attention than needed on their country. In february 1999 they confiscated Al Qaeda's satellite phones. Mullah Omar (the leader of the Taliban) was interested in creating an Islamic state in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was interested in fighting the infidels in their own countries. He was becoming an undesired guest. He had learned from three episodes: the retreat of the USA from Lebanon after the terrorist attack against the USA barracks of october 1983, the retreat of the USA from Somalia after Zawahri's operation of october 1993; and the retreat of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. After the interview of november 2000 with Ahmad Zaidan of Al Jazeera (2000), Osama told him that his plan was to draw the USA into Afghanistan and then defeat the USA the same way that the Soviet Union had been defeated. Osama had become convinced that 1. Once attacked, the USA would retaliate by invading Afghanistan; 2. The Taliban and Al Qaeda would easily defeat the USA in Afghanistan; 3. The defeat would cause the disintegration of the USA just like the Soviet Union had disintegrated.
Osama's involvement in planning the September 11 attacks has been much debated. There is evidence that he personally selected Mohammed Atta to lead the operation. There is also evidence that the man in charge of the operation was really Khalid Mohammed. In august 2001 Al Sahab, which is Al Qaeda's video production arm, released a two-hour video by Osama bin Laden in person, who announced that he was about to strike the USA. Osama bin Laden granted an interview to the Pakistani newspaper "Ummat" just two weeks after the September 11. Taysir Alouni of Al Jazeera interviewed Osama bin Laden in october 2001. In both cases Osama did not deny that he was responsible for the attacks. In the latter, Osama defended the killing of innocent civilians in retaliation for the killing of innocent Muslims. He also boasted that for the first time the Muslims were counterattacking against the infidels. In other words, he was at least proud, if not taking personally credit for the idea and implementation. Asked about the targets, Osama explains that the Twin Towers represent the economic power of the infidels. He rejects the notion that striking at USA civilians constitutes terrorism because he views it as an act of self-defense against the USA killing Muslims. He concludes "If we defend ourselves, they call us terrorists". In the videotape of november 2002 Osama proudly refers to the "conquest of New York and Washington", and not to a Zionist/CIA conspiracy. Finally in the video of october 2004 Osama says "We agreed with the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta , to perform all attacks etc etc". It doesn't sound like he believes it was only a Zionist/CIA conspiracy. It sounds like he takes full credit for it. Worse: Osama's paranoia that there was a worldwide conspiracy against Muslims has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as all the world powers have distanced themselves from any Muslim movement, no matter how much it serves their interests or how much they used to respect their cause (e.g., the USA used to support the Chechens against Russia and the Uighurs against China, but no more).
Osama is probably very disappointed that the Muslim masses still doubt that he carried out those attacks against the USA. His main legacy, from his point of view, is to have been the first Islamic leader to strike the superpower of the infidels, the USA. He achieved what no other Islamic leader ever achieved, and not even Hitler's Germany or Japan or the Soviet Union could achieve during their wars against the USA. He probably feels that the September 11 attacks should gain him a permanent place in Islamic history. Any Muslim who believes the conspiracy theories blaming the Zionists or Bush for the September 11 attacks is destroying Osama's main claim to fame.
Whatever the intent, Osama's plan backfired. The USA did not launch a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, but rather of Iraq. The Taliban were removed from power in two months without any need for a massive USA invasion. And the few USA soldiers deployed in Saudi Arabia that so much angered the young Osama are now replaced by hundreds of thousands of USA soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar probably had no sympathy for Osama but 1. He was not convinced that Osama was responsible for the September 11 attacks (and the USA never showed him the evidence that they claimed to possess), and 2. He could not possibly surrender a fellow Muslim to the infidels without losing face in front of the whole Islamic world. Mullah Omar knew very little of what was going on in the world. The Taliban had banned all newspapers and television stations: it turned out that he became the main victims of that ban. Not knowing the extent of Osama's operations and the clamor caused by this latest attack, Mullah Omar probably underestimated the USA's determination to get Osama. In an interview with the Pakistani magazine "Majallah" of october 2001 Mullah Omar defends Osama's innocence and blames a Zionist conspiracy for the september 11 attacks.
It is curious, of course, that Osama has never attacked Israel (nor, for that matter, any major Jewish target).
Osama bin Laden is still extremely popular in the Islamic world, and particularly in the Arab world. That does not mean that Al Qaeda is popular, and does not mean that a lot of Muslims want to join a violent jihad against the USA. Israel, Russia, India, China, the Philippines, and all the other places where Muslims are at war with a non-Muslim state. But it does mean that Osama's political views still resonate with the Muslim masses. They too believe that Islam is under attack in all those places. They too believe that a Muslim has the duty to defend fellow Muslims. They too despise their kings and presidents who sleep with the enemy. They too think that the USA has committed more crimes against Muslims than Muslims have committed crimes against the USA. In fact, the ultimate proof that the average Muslim is a very peace-loving person is that, despite these premises, 99.99% of them do not join Al Qaeda. However, Osama remains more popular than the USA president because, quite simply, the average Muslim agrees with all of these points that form the foundation of Osama's actions. Where Osama loses prestige and credibility is as a religious leader. Nobody views him as a new prophet, and is interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith is largely discounted (many Muslims will tell you that it's the CIA that manufactures those Osama videos and documents in which Osama makes controversial religious statements).
Bergen ends his book by illustrating how Al Qaeda tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The program was run by the mysterious Abu Khabab in Jalalabad. Suleiman Abu Ghaith, Osama's spokesman, wrote an essay, "In The Shadow of the Lances" (2002), that provides the moral foundations for killing "millions of Americans". The Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir says that Osama bin Laden in person admitted that Al Qaeda has "nuclear deterrence". Mir claims to have uncovered that Al Qaeda acquired radioactive material from Russia even before 2001.
One has to wonder if Osama has any desire to launch another massive terrorist attack knowing that 1. The Muslim masses will blame a Zionist/CIA conspiracy; 2. The USA will retaliate with an even more sweeping operation, further increasing the presence of infidels in the Islamic lands; 3. An increasing number of Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghanis wants to live in peace.
In 2009 Peter Bergen also wrote a harrowing account of the Battle for Tora Bora in "The New Republic". Basically, Rumsfeld personally botched the operation by limiting the quantity and quality of USA soldiers that laid siege to Tora Bora. Osama and his lieutenants easily escaped through the mountains to Pakistan. It is difficult to believe that the same regime that was so determined to attack Afghanistan against all international laws (the USA demanded that the Taliban handed over Osama but the Taliban demanded that the USA first provided the evidence, which the USA never did) and the same regime that later attacked Iraq under even more dubious pretenses was so shy in december 2001 (just three months after the september attacks against New York and Washington) that they reined back the USA military not to offend the Afghans. Orders from Rumsfeld limited the number of USA soldiers that were flown to Tora Bora. In fact, at the peak of the battle there there were more journalists in Tora Bora than there were USA soldiers. Rumsfeld didn't have time to look into the battle of Tora Bora but in the very same days of december 2001 he asked the general in charge to look into the plan for invading Iraq. The local Afghan commanders who participated in the assault describe the USA soldiers as incompetent, inexperienced and, most of all, unwilling to fight. Obviously Rumsfeld's interest in capturing Osama was very low. Only he can say why. The other great manipulator of that regime, Dick Cheney reacted with two words to criticism that the USA had let Osama escape: "absolute garbage." However, it is now proven beyond any reasonable doubt both by Western investigations and by the testimony of former terrorists that Osama was clearly at Tora Bora. The "absolute garbage" was Cheney's and Rumsfeld's sinister maneouvres to let Osama escape.