The film, “In the Footsteps of bin Laden” will be aired on Wednesday, August 23, with repeats on Saturday and Sunday, August 26 and 27.
The two-hour film, reported by Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, constructs an account of Osama bin Laden’s life based on dozens of worldwide interviews, 21 of which were with people who had direct contact with him, including childhood friends, university classmates, fellow jihadists and a former English teacher.
“When there is somebody like bin Laden who’s done what he’s done, there’s the natural reaction of pigeonholing, making him the monster. But I think it’s interesting to try to know more about them,” Amanpour said in a recent interview.
“You can never understand them, if understanding means sympathising. But in battle you have to know your enemy.”
In trying to comprehend the “fatal switch” that turned bin Laden from what Amanpour calls a “comfortably off, establishment person” into an extremist, the CNN documentary sidesteps armchair analysis.
“I think that gets inside that he’s a really rabid anti-Semite. I didn’t take that seriously enough. I don’t think we can make that mistake this time around”
Peter Bergen, terrorism expert.
There are details that carry the potential for such scrutiny: bin Laden, the son of the late Saudi construction magnate Mohammed bin Laden, lived apart from the sprawling family that included his father’s 22 wives and 54 sons and daughters.
But the CNN special avoids theorising about bin Laden’s personal demons, Amanpour said.
“It’s tempting and there may be other kinds of histories written about him that try to psychologically profile him. But I personally was very clear in my mind that wasn’t what I was going to do … until we can talk to him, or talk to more people, I just felt it was inappropriate,” she said.
The facts themselves paint a striking picture, Amanpour said. One particular element that came into focus was how bin Laden used international media to communicate his plan of attack.
“Every time he’s progressively ratcheted up his attacks and his hatred he’s telegraphed it along the way. … I wonder if it was obvious to people before,” she said.
Bin Laden’s intrigue
Bin Laden has become an icon
Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert, who in 1997 obtained the first TV interview with bin Laden for CNN, found two elements of his research on the man particularly intriguing and unexpected.
One was the sharp criticism from within al-Qaeda that bin Laden faced after September 11, initially seen as a tactical error. Bin Laden thought it would drive the United States to withdraw from involvement in the Middle East; instead, it fuelled attacks on his group and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Iraq war, which Bergen said reinvigorated al-Qaeda and its terrorist efforts, ultimately reversed its attitude towards the attack on America.
Bergen also was struck by another, more intimate, detail about bin Laden. He named a daughter Safia, after a woman from the prophet Muhammad’s time who was known for killing Jews.
“Just the kind of mental state of calling your infant daughter after such a figure is striking,” Bergen said.
“I think that gets inside that he’s a really rabid anti-Semite. I didn’t take that seriously enough. I don’t think we can make that mistake this time around.”