Reporting The Bin Laden Beat

Lawrence Wright speaks with David Martin about his Pulitzer prize winning book "The Looming Tower" and his extensive knowledge on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. CBS

Lawrence Wright is a member of an average bar band that plays in Austin, Tex. - average in all respects except Wright, the keyboardist, probably knows more about Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda than any American in or out of government, with or without a top secret clearance.

Wright's book - "The Looming Tower, Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11" (Vintage paperback) - won this year's Pulitzer Prize, and he's now turned it into a one-man play.

"I thought it would be interesting to open up a dialogue in a more intimate fashion with the American people about who these people are, why they attacked America," he told CBS News correspondent David Martin.

Before 9/11, Wright was a bored reporter-turned-Hollywood screenwriter. In 1998 he co-wrote a movie called "The Siege," which in some respects creepily anticipated the events of 9/11. It was about terrorism in New York and what would happen to our country if terror came to the United States.

"It was a box office failure, but it was the most rented movie in America after 9/11," Wright said. Despite marquee names like Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis, the movie bombed, Wright said, because "Muslim and Arab protestors picketed the theaters. They were furious at being stereotyped as terrorists."

Lost in the headlines about al Qaeda's bombing of two American embassies in August 1998, was another explosion in a restaurant in Capetown, South Africa.

"A radical Islamist group claimed credit for this bombing at Planet Hollywood, which cost the lives of two British tourists. A little girl lost her leg. And they said they were protesting the trailers that were in the theaters for 'The Seige' in America. And that really, really upset me," he said.

Then came 9/11, which Wright watched on television from his home in Austin.

"People said, 'You know, it looks like a movie,' and I was thinking, 'Yeah, it looks like my movie,'" Wright said.

A few days later Wright read a brief obituary for John O'Neill, the one-time head of counterterrorism for the FBI who had become the director of security at the World Trade Center and died in the 9/11 attack.

"I thought, 'Here's a story,'" Wright said. "The man who was in charge of getting Osama bin Laden didn't get bin laden; bin Laden got him."

To get that story Wright needed to succeed where the CIA and FBI had failed. He set out to penetrate al Qaeda.

"I trust the reporting profession," he said. "I mean, the rules of journalism, and try to talk to everybody and be as fair as possible. And I spent, you know, nearly five years talking to everyone I could, and I would always ask them who else I should talk to."

To find people who knew bin Laden, he went to work at a local newspaper in Saudi Arabia. He would break his search down by the individuals who know bin Laden, like his first wife Najua. He would find out everything he could about her and jot the information down on note cards.

Compare Wright's study to the operations centers the U.S. government has constructed in its so far fruitless effort to track bin Laden. His strategy was somewhat old-fashioned.

"I feel like a 1960s graduate student," Wright said. "I still work on note cards. I've never found a better system."

He traveled to 12 countries, interviewed more than 600 people and compiled 82 legal pads - about 4,600 pages - of handwritten notes, all meticulously indexed. He eventually produced a book that is now called "the Bible" by intelligence agents and analysts still pursuing bin Laden.

His first break came in Egypt, home of bin Laden's deputy Ayman al Zawahiri.

"I had no idea when I went there how key Zawahiri was," Wright said. "He seemed to be the Colonel Parker to bin Laden's Elvis. But turns out as I began to investigate him, I realized that he was really the key ideologue and the organizer of al Qaeda."

Zawahiri played a minor role in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadar and was put on trial with the other plotters. A physician by training, Zawahiri spoke English and became their spokesman.

In Saudi Arabia Wright started filling in the details of bin Laden's life, a portrait at odds with the urban myths put out by the CIA.

"If you could take your mind back to the kinds of things that we thought we knew about bin Laden back then, that he was, you know, a billionaire as the CIA said, that he was a physical giant, that he had kidney disease, none of those things is true," Wright said. "I talked to everybody who knew him. I'd say, 'How tall is he?' within a centimeter or so. His closest friends say he was a little over six feet."

The reason he looks so tall, Wright said, is because he surrounds himself with shorter Yemeni bodyguards who make him look as tall as 6'5".

Wright was frequently accused of being a spy, an accusation which cost another reporter, Daniel Pearl, his life. Wright says he was too busy juggling the dual roles of reporter and American citizen to be a spy.

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