But a long silence since afterwards has fuelled rumours that bin Laden is unwell, or dead, though the US fears that the al-Qaeda network he founded is rebuilding its base in Pakistani tribal lands, and has forged ties with affiliates in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Ibrahim said: “He was good in math, [a] good soccer player – he kept himself. [He] was very religious and was a pacifist.”
Bin Laden is wanted in connection with the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in which more than 200 people died.
He is also a suspect in many other attacks, including those in the US in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, that killed more than 3,000 people.
What kind of man is he?
|“Everybody the West hates, there’s always a story [that]pops up … I’m sure he’s alive and I don’t think he’s desperately ill”
Robert Fisk, Middle East correspondent, The Independent
Journalist Robert Fisk is one of a handful of reporters who have met him on several occasions.
Fisk, a correspondent for the UK newspaper The Independent, said: “When he spoke, he was very interesting in the sense that, he’s probably the only Arab figure I’ve met who doesn’t say the first thing that comes into his mind.
“I’d ask a question of bin Laden and he’d sit on the ground and think about how he wanted to reply and he’d get a piece of miswak wood and start cleaning his teeth.
“And I’d sit there just sort of, watching this tooth-cleaning operation, waiting for the words of bin Laden.”
There have been more than 30 tapes purporting to be from bin Laden or his close associates in the past five years – many of them received and broadcast first by Al Jazeera.
In that time, the al-Qaeda mastermind has visibly aged. But Fisk is convinced he is fit and very definitely still alive.
Describing his physique, Fisk said bin Laden was a “very thin, slim, I thought very agile man – he used to walk like a cat”.
Fisk said: “I don’t believe by the way, he has kidney failure and all this other stuff. Everybody the West hates, there’s always a story pops up saying they’re dying of cancer or kidney failure or something. I’m sure he’s alive and I don’t think he’s desperately ill.”
Bin Laden’s been a world figure for a quarter of a century. In the 1980s in Afghanistan he used some of his own fortune to drive out the Soviet superpower.
In Africa his battle was for hearts and minds, building a road and winning over locals in Sudan.
Now his enemy is the superpower the US which, despite all its resources, continues to be out-witted.
Reporting from the tribal areas, Al Jazeera’s correspondent, Kamal Hyder, said the US hunt for bin Laden and his close lieutenants may be “getting desperate”.
|Many civilians have been killed in the
US-led hunt for Osama bin Laden
The US has failed to capture or kill him on numerous occasions, but in Pakistan several civilians have died in US-led operations.
The frontier region was once a frontline between two superpowers, when American-backed Afghan and Arab fighters attacked Russian forces inside Afghanistan.
Hyder said: “Locals fear that it is the Pakistani side of the border that is now in the crosshairs of the United States.”
Ali Jan Aurakzai, governor of North West Frontier province in Pakistan, said: “Even after five years of operations, what has been achieved? Osama bin Laden is still there, al-Qaeda is still there.
“In fact, it is spreading – it’s a global phenomenon.”
The hunt for bin Laden is narrowing to a stretch of territory that falls on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border, an area that is a challenge for any army and cuts through tribes and villages, Hyder said.
“No ones knows where Osama is but [the] tribes believe it is their way of life and their necks that are on the line.