Osama bin Laden is the target of the largest manhunt in history. He is believed to be hiding out somewhere in Afghanistan. But after three years and the hundreds of millions of dollars the U.S. spent trying to track him down, we still don't know much of anything about him, where he lives, who moves with him, or how he operates. Those were some of the questions put to a collection of bin Laden's closest associates in Afghanistan three months ago.
This journey to find bin Laden began in Kabul, the bombed-out capital of the country where he has found sanctuary for the last six years. It's also where CBS News reporter George Crile managed to break into the inner circle of bin Laden, including Sheik Essa, who describes himself as bin Laden's spiritual adviser.
"He says his blood is boiling because of the cruelties of Americans. There is hardly any Muslim you'll find whose blood is not boiling against Americans," says Essa.
Sheik Essa issues a warning: if the US does not get out of Muslim countries, Americans will become targets for revenge. And he was proud, even boastful in his willingness to describe details about bin Laden's life in Afghanistan.
"He says his habit is he sleeps early but he sleeps very little," says Essa. "And then he gets up and he prays to his God and then most of the night he is with his God."
The sheik went on to describe bin Laden as a man who eats his meals on the floor, and who speaks little and with a tiny voice. A family man who keeps his four wives and children with him all these years. The Sheik says he has 18 children, all of whom live with him.
For more than three years the world's lone superpower has somehow been unable to locate a six-foot-five-inch Saudi who, the sheik says, not only moves with his huge family, but manages to receive a constant stream of visitors.
"I have seen many people coming from, Arabs, and from all over the world, people come to see him," says the sheik.
Bin Laden's ability to operate in defiance of a superpower has fueled an image of invincibility. This is a source of enormous pride for his friends.
Two Islamic activists, Aslam Sharani and Khalid Kwaja, forged their friendships with bin Laden during the Afghan war. They had met bin Laden for dinner the night before we interviewed them three months ago. Sharani says that bin Laden is not afraid of the U.S. Khalid says that contrary to rumors that he has a kidney problem, bin Laden is healthy, and rides horses every day.
"He is young man. He is five younger than me, and God willing, he's going to live long," says Khalid. "And he's very healthy. So let them be scared of him. He's happy. He's not scared of anybody."
That kind of swaggering, boastful talk from bin Laden's friends is a source of concern for CBS News' consultant Milt Bearden, who once ran the CIA's multibillion dollar Afghan campaign that helped defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.
"These men and a wide swath of everybody in that region elieve that there's an invincibility about this guy. You and I know that nobody is invincible. We'll all bleed and we'll all die. But they don't believe that, and that's the part that's scary," he says.
So how has he managed to survive? "We simply have failed in everything we have done to get, neutralize or otherwise take Osama bin Laden out of the picture," Bearden says.
His aura of invincibility has allowed Muslims in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan to assign mystical powers to him. "The most powerful nation in the history of man has come at you and missed," Bearden says. "And it has translated into these very attractive young girls saying, 'You can't kill him,' with a very pretty smile on their faces like, 'Why you silly man, you can't kill him.' That tells you one thing. It tells you that when we go after him, we can't miss."
Even bright young schoolgirls have fallen under his spell. "You cannot kill Osama," says one.
"You cannot kill a Muslim here because another will come. There are too many Osama bin Ladens over here," said another. "Everyone wants to have their brother or father or husband or their sons to be like bin Laden, or my own son to be like Osama bin Laden. I would be proud of that."
What this shows, says Bearden, is that bin Laden is seen by many Muslims not as an evil terrorist, but as a sort of Robin Hood. A fabulously rich young Saudi who gave up a life of luxury for the holy war and today, continues to dole out his fortune for charity.
Says Bearden: "Bin Laden started out in Pakistan supporting the Afghans with good deeds. I mean we got to understand what history was. He built orphanages. He built homes for widows of martyrs."
Crile saw some of that generosity first hand.
"I have seen Osama bin Laden very closely, and he is a very soft-spoken person, a very clean, very clean of heart and very clean of character," says Abdul Hai, who has known bin Laden for years. "He is sacrificing. He spends on the poor. He spends on the orphans. And believe me, he sends money to poor people, to widows."
Given U.S. accusations about how Muslim charities have been used as fronts for terror, Abdul Hai showed us how easy it is for bin Laden to move his money. "I have one hundred dollars which he sent for a widow," he says. The money comes from bin Laden's men, he says.
That's another dilemma: Wherever there is an orphanage, or school or charity, chances are there may be or has been bin Laden money helping to support it. To American authorities, that means that the most innocent of institutions have become the most suspect. One orphanage, for example, is run by a man who proudly says that he's on a terrorist watch list.
As America's forces stand poised to move on bin Laden the terrorist, the legend of bin Laden, the Islamic Robin Hood, plays on, much as it did three months ago during Crile's visit.
Asked what bin Laden meant to her, one schoolgirl answered: "He means to me a man who loves his religionwho is caring for Muslims and who wants to promote our religion and to put it on top of the world."
She continued: "I think he is not a terrorist because he is promoting our religion. He is helping Afghanistan over there. So, America thinks he is a terrorist. But they don't have any proof."
America's allies have been asking this same question. Yesterday, the United States convinced its NATO allies that it did have the proof.
What about those not satisfied with this proof?
Bearden has a ready answer: "Forget that. It's over. The issue is cleared up. Forget evidence, we're not going to give you evidence. We're not going to say we have it. We're going to say to you, 'Look at the evidence yourself.' Here is Osama bin Laden calling upon his fringe, in this perversion of Islam that he leads, to kill Americans wherever he finds them, we've heard it here... Then we show them on a split screen what happened on September 11th, that is enough, I think, for reasonable men and women, for us to say, here it is. This is shouting fire in the crowded auditorium of the world. This is what's brought to you. This is why we're going to get him. This is the only reason. No more evidence."
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