Face to face with the world's most wanted man. Exclusive extract from Robert Fisk's new book

Only one Western journalist has gained access to the inner sanctum of al-Qa'ida. In this extraordinary account from his new book - serialised all next week in 'The Independent' - Robert Fisk recalls meeting the world's most wanted man

The Independent

Published: 01 October 2005

Knew it would be like this. On 19 March 1997, outside the Spinghar Hotel in Jalalabad with its manicured lawns and pink roses, an Afghan holding a Kalashnikov rifle invited me to travel in a car out of town. The highway to Kabul that evening was no longer a road but a mass of rocks and crevasses above the roaring waters of a great river. A vast mountain chain towered above us. The Afghan smiled at me occasionally but did not talk. I knew what his smile was supposed to say. Trust me. But I didn't. I smiled back the rictus of false friendship. Even inside the car, I could hear the river as it sloshed through gulleys and across wide shoals of grey stones and poured over the edge of cliffs. Trust Me steered the car carefully around the boulders and I admired the way his bare left foot eased the clutch up and down as a man might gently urge a horse to clamber over a rock.

A benevolent white dust covered the windscreen, and when the wipers cleared it the desolation took on a hard, unforgiving, dun-coloured uniformity. The track must have looked like this, I thought, when Major General William Elphinstone led his British army to disaster more than 150 years ago. The Afghans had annihilated one of the greatest armies of the British Empire on this very stretch of road, and high above me were villages where old men still remembered the stories of great-grandfathers who had seen the English die in their thousands. The stones of Gandamak, they claim, were made black by the blood of the English dead. The year 1842 marked one of the greatest defeats of British arms. No wonder we preferred to forget the First Afghan War. But Afghans don't forget. "Farangiano," the driver shouted and pointed down into the gorge and grinned at me. "Foreigners."

It had grown dark and we were climbing, overtaking trucks and rows of camels, the beasts turning their heads towards our lights in the gloom. Two hours later, we stopped on a stony hillside and, after a few minutes, a pick-up truck came bouncing down the rough shale of the mountain.

An Arab in Afghan clothes came towards the car. I recognised him at once from our last meeting in a ruined village. "I am sorry Mr Robert, but I must give you the first search," he said, prowling through my camera bag and newspapers. And so we set off up the track that Osama bin Laden built during his jihad against the Russian army in the early 1980s, a terrifying, slithering, two-hour odyssey along fearful ravines in rain and sleet, the windscreen misting as we climbed the cold mountain. "When you believe in jihad, it is easy," he said, fighting with the steering wheel as stones scuttered from the tyres, tumbling down the precipice into the clouds below. From time to time, lights winked at us from far away in the darkness. "Our brothers are letting us know they see us," he said.

After an hour, two armed Arabs - one with his face covered in a kuffiah scarf, eyes peering at us through spectacles, holding an anti-tank rocket-launcher over his right shoulder - came screaming from behind two rocks.

"Stop! Stop!" As the brakes were jammed on, I almost hit my head on the windscreen. "Sorry, sorry," the bespectacled man said, putting down his rocket-launcher. He pulled a metal detector from the pocket of his combat jacket, the red light flicking over my body in another search. The road grew worse as we continued, the 4x4 skidding backwards towards sheer cliffs, the headlights playing across the chasms on either side. " Toyota is good for jihad," my driver said. I could only agree, noting that this was one advertising slogan the Toyota company would probably forgo.

There was moonlight now and I could see clouds both below us in the ravines and above us, curling round mountaintops, our headlights shining on frozen waterfalls and ice-covered pools. Osama bin Laden knew how to build his wartime roads; many an ammunition truck and tank had ground its way up here during the titanic struggle against the Russian army. Now the man who led those guerrillas - the first Arab fighter in the battle against Moscow - was back again in the mountains he knew. There were more Arab checkpoints, more shrieked orders to halt. Then Bin Laden himself appeared, in combat uniform - and wearing shades. He carefully patted my shoulders, body, legs and looked into my face. "Salaam aleikum," I said. Peace be upon you. Every Arab I had ever met replied "Aleikum salaam" to this greeting. But not this one. There was something cold about this man. Osama bin Laden had invited me to meet him in Afghanistan, but this was a warrior without the minimum courtesy. He was a machine, checking out another machine.

IT HAD not always been this way. Indeed, the first time I met Osama bin Laden, the way could not have been easier. Back in December 1993, I had been covering an Islamic summit in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum when a Saudi journalist friend of mine, Jamal Kashoggi, walked up to me in the lobby of my hotel. Kashoggi led me by the shoulder outside. "There is someone I think you should meet," he said. Kashoggi is a sincere believer and I guessed at once to whom he was referring. Kashoggi had visited Bin Laden in Afghanistan during his war against the Russian army. "He has never met a Western reporter before," he announced. "This will be interesting." Kashoggi was indulging in a little applied psychology. He wanted to know how Bin Laden would respond to an infidel. So did I.

Bin Laden's story was as instructive as it was epic. When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Saudi royal family - encouraged by the CIA - sought to provide the Afghans with an Arab legion, preferably led by a Saudi prince, who would lead a guerrilla force against the Russians. Not only would he disprove the popularly held and all too accurate belief that the Saudi leadership was effete and corrupt, he could re-establish the honourable tradition of the Gulf Arab warrior, heedless of his own life in defending the umma, the community of Islam. True to form, the Saudi princes declined this noble mission. Bin Laden, infuriated at both their cowardice and the humiliation of the Afghan Muslims at the hands of the Soviets, took their place and, with money and machinery from his construction company, set off on his personal jihad.

A billionaire businessman and himself a Saudi, albeit of humbler Yemeni descent, in the coming years he would be idolised by both Saudis and millions of other Arabs, the stuff of Arab schoolboy legend from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. Not since the British glorified Lawrence of Arabia had an adventurer been portrayed in so heroic, so influential a role. Egyptians, Saudis, Yemenis, Kuwaitis, Algerians, Syrians and Palestinians made their way to the Pakistani border city of Peshawar to fight alongside him. But when the Afghan mujahedin guerrillas and Bin Laden's Arab legion had driven the Soviets from Afghanistan, the Afghans turned upon each other with wolflike and tribal venom. Sickened by this perversion of Islam - original dissension within the umma led to the division of Sunni and Shia Muslims - Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia.

But his journey of spiritual bitterness was not over. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Bin Laden once more offered his services to the Saudi royal family. They did not need to invite the United States to protect the place of the two holiest shrines of Islam, he argued. Mecca and Medina, the cities in which the Prophet Mohamed received and recited God's message, should only be defended by Muslims. Bin Laden would lead his "Afghans" , his Arab mujahedin, against the Iraqi army inside Kuwait and drive them from the emirate. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia preferred to put his trust in the Americans. So as the US 82nd Airborne Division arrived in the north-eastern Saudi city of Dhahran and deployed in the desert scarcely 400 miles from the city of Medina - the place of the Prophet's refuge and of the first Islamic society - Bin Laden abandoned the corruption of the House of Saud to bestow his generosity on another "Islamic Republic": Sudan.

Our journey north from Khartoum lay though a landscape of white desert and ancient, unexplored pyramids, dark, squat Pharaonic tombs smaller than those of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus at Giza. "The people like Bin Laden here," Kashoggi said, in much the way that one might comment approvingly of a dinner host. "He's got his business here and his construction company and the government likes him. He helps the poor." I could understand all this. He had just completed building a new road from the Khartoum-Port Sudan highway to the tiny desert village of Almatig in northern Sudan, using the same bulldozers he had employed to construct the guerrilla trails of Afghanistan; many of his labourers were the same fighters who had been his comrades in the battle against the Soviet Union. The US State Department took a predictably less charitable view of Bin Laden's beneficence. It accused Sudan of being a "sponsor of international terrorism" and Bin Laden himself of operating " terrorist training camps" in the Sudanese desert.

But when Kashoggi and I arrived in Almatig, there was Osama bin Laden in his gold-fringed robe, sitting beneath the canopy of a tent before a crowd of admiring villagers and guarded by the loyal Arab mujahedin who fought alongside him in Afghanistan. Bearded, silent figures, they watched unsmiling as the Sudanese villagers lined up to thank the Saudi businessman who was about to complete the road linking their slums to Khartoum for the first time in history.

My first impression was of a shy man. With his high cheekbones, narrow eyes and long brown robe, he would avert his eyes when the village leaders addressed him. He seemed ill at ease with gratitude, incapable of responding with a full smile when children in miniature chadors danced in front of him and preachers admired his wisdom.

Kashoggi put his arms around Bin Laden, and Bin Laden kissed him on both cheeks. Jamal Kashoggi must have brought the foreigner for a reason. That is what Bin Laden was thinking. For as Kashoggi spoke, Bin Laden looked over his shoulder at me, occasionally nodding. "Robert, I want to introduce you to Sheikh Osama," Kashoggi half-shouted through children's songs. Bin Laden was a tall man and he realised that this was an advantage when he shook hands with the English reporter. "Salaam aleikum". His hands were firm, not strong, but, yes, he looked like a mountain man. The eyes searched your face. He was lean and had long fingers and a smile which - while it could never be described as kind - did not suggest villainy. He said we might talk, at the back of the tent where we could avoid the shouting of the children.

Looking back now, knowing what we know, understanding the monstrous beast-figure he would become in the collective imagination of the world, I search for some clue, the tiniest piece of evidence, that this man could inspire an act that would change the world for ever - or, more to the point, allow an American president to persuade his people that the world was changed for ever. Certainly his formal denial of "terrorism" gave no hint. The Egyptian press was claiming that Bin Laden had brought hundreds of his Arab fighters with him to Sudan, while the Western embassy circuit in Khartoum was suggesting that some of the Arab "Afghans" whom this Saudi entrepreneur had flown to Sudan were now busy training for further jihad wars in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt. Bin Laden was well aware of this.

"The rubbish of the media and embassies," he called it. "I am a construction engineer and an agriculturalist. If I had training camps here in Sudan, I couldn't possibly do this job." The "job" was certainly ambitious: not just the Almatig connection but a brand-new highway stretching all the way from Khartoum to Port Sudan, a distance of 1,200km on the old road, now shortened to 800km by the new Bin Laden route that would turn the distance from the capital into a mere day's journey. In a country that was despised by Saudi Arabia for its support of Saddam Hussein after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait almost as much as it was by the United States, Bin Laden had turned the equipment of war to the construction of a pariah state.

I did wonder why he could not have done the same to the blighted landscape of Afghanistan, but he refused at first to talk about his war, sitting at the back of the tent and cleaning his teeth with a piece of mishwak wood. But talk he eventually did about a war that he helped to win for the Afghans whom the Americans and the Saudis - and the f Pakistanis - all supported against the Russians. He wanted to talk. He thought he was going to be interrogated about "terrorism" and realised that he was being asked about Afghanistan and he wished to explain how his experience there had shaped his life.

"What I lived through in two years there," he said, "I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere. When the invasion of Afghanistan started, I was enraged and went there at once and I went on going back for nine years. I felt outraged that an injustice had been committed against the people of Afghanistan. It made me realise that people who take power in the world use it under different names to subvert others and to force their opinions on them."

With his Iraqi engineer Mohamed Saad, who was now building the highway to Port Sudan, Bin Laden blasted massive tunnels into the Zazai mountains of Paktia province for guerrilla hospitals and arms dumps, then cut a mujahedin dirt trail across Afghanistan to within 25km of Kabul, a remarkable feat of engineering that the Russians could never destroy. But what lessons had Bin Laden drawn from the war against the Russians? He was wounded five times and 500 of his Arab fighters were killed in combat with the Soviets - their graves lie just inside the Afghan border at Torkham - and even Bin Laden was not immortal, was he?

"I was never afraid of death," he replied. "As Muslims, we believe that when we die, we go to heaven." He was no longer irritating his teeth with the piece of mishwak wood but talking slowly and continuously, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees. "Before a battle, God sends us seqina - tranquillity. Once I was only 30 metres from the Russians and they were trying to capture me. I was under bombardment but I was so peaceful in my heart that I fell asleep. We beat the Soviet Union. The Russians fled ... My time in Afghanistan was the most important experience of my life."

But what of the Arab mujahedin whom he took to Afghanistan - members of a guerrilla army who were also encouraged and armed by the United States to fight the Russians, and who were forgotten by their mentors when the war was over? Bin Laden seemed ready for the question. "Neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help," he said. "When my mujahedin were victorious and the Russians were driven out, differences started so I returned to road construction in Taif and Abha [in Saudi Arabia]. I brought back the equipment I had used to build tunnels and roads for the mujahedin in Afghanistan. Yes, I helped some of my comrades come here after the war." How many? Bin Laden shook his head. "I don't want to say. But they are here with me now, they are working right here, building this road to Port Sudan."

What did he think about the war in Algeria? I asked. But a man in a green suit calling himself Mohamed Moussa - he claimed to be Nigerian although he was a Sudanese government security agent - tapped me on the arm. "You have asked more than enough questions," he announced. So how about a picture? Bin Laden hesitated - something he rarely did - and I sensed that prudence was fighting with vanity. In the end, he stood on the new road in his gold-fringed robe and smiled wanly at my camera for two pictures, then raised his left hand like a president telling the press when their time was up. At which point Osama bin Laden went off to inspect his highway.

Two months after I met Bin Laden, gunmen burst into his Khartoum home and tried to assassinate him. The Sudanese government suspected the potential killers were paid by the CIA. Saudi Arabia stripped him of his citizenship later that year. In early 1996, he was permitted to leave for the country of his choice - and that was bound to be the one refuge in which he had discovered so much about his own faith.

And so it was that one hot evening in late June 1996, the telephone on my desk in Beirut rang with one of the more extraordinary messages I was to receive as a foreign correspondent. "Mr Robert, a friend you met in Sudan wants to see you," said a voice in English but with an Arabic accent. I thought at first he meant Kashoggi, though I had first met Jamal in 1990, long before going to Khartoum. "No, no, Mr Robert, I mean the man you interviewed. Do you understand?" Yes, I understood. And where could I meet this man? "The place where he is now," came the reply. I knew that Bin Laden was rumoured to have returned to Afghanistan but there was no confirmation of this. So how do I reach him? I asked. " Go to Jalalabad - you will be contacted."

5 JULY 1996. "CLACK-CLACK-CLACK." It was as if someone was attacking my head with an ice-pick. " CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK-CLACK." I sat up. Someone was banging a set of car keys against the window of my room in the Spinghar Hotel. "Misssster Robert," a voice whispered urgently. " Misssster Robert." He hissed the word "Mister." Yes, yes, I'm here. "Please come downstairs, there is someone to see you." It registered only slowly that the man must have climbed the ancient fire escape to reach the window of my room. I dressed, grabbed a coat - I had a feeling we might travel in the night - and almost forgot my old Nikon. I walked as calmly as I could past the reception desk and out into the early afternoon heat.

The man wore a grubby, grey Afghan robe and a small round cotton hat but he was an Arab and he greeted me formally, holding my right hand in both of his. He smiled. He said his name was Mohamed, he was my guide. "To see the Sheikh?" I asked. He smiled but said nothing.

I followed Mohamed all the way through the dust of Jalalabad's main street until we arrived next to a group of gunmen in a pick-up truck in the ruins of an old Soviet army base, a place of broken armoured vehicles with a rusting red star on a shattered gateway. There were three men in Afghan hats in the back of the pick-up. One held a Kalashnikov rifle, another clutched a grenade-launcher along with six rockets tied together with Scotch tape. The third nursed a machine gun on his lap, complete with tripod and a belt of ammunition. "Mr Robert, these are our guards," the driver said quietly, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to set off across the wilds of Afghanistan's Nangarhar province under a white-hot afternoon sun with three bearded guerrillas. A two-way radio hissed and crackled on the shoulder of the driver's companion as another truckload of Afghan gunmen drove up behind us.

We were about to set off when Mohamed climbed back down from the pick-up along with the driver, walked to a shaded patch of grass and began to pray. For five minutes, the two men lay half-prostrate, facing the distant Kabul Gorge and, beyond that, a far more distant Mecca. We drove off along a broken highway and then turned on to a dirt track by an irrigation canal, the guns in the back of the truck bouncing on the floor, the guards' eyes peering from behind their chequered scarves. We travelled like that for hours, past half-demolished mud villages and valleys and towering black rocks, a journey across the face of the moon.

By dusk, we had reached a series of cramped earthen villages, old men burning charcoal fires by the track, the shadow of women cowled in the Afghan burqa standing in the alleyways. There were more guerrillas, all bearded, grinning at Mohamed and the driver. It was night before we stopped, in an orchard where wooden sofas had been covered in army blankets piled with belts and webbing and where armed men emerged out of the darkness, all in Afghan clothes and soft woollen flat hats, some holding rifles, others machine guns. They were the Arab mujahedin, the Arab "Afghans" denounced by the presidents and kings of half the Arab world and by the United States of America. Very soon, the world would know them as al-Qa'ida.

They came from Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait. Two of them wore spectacles, one said he was a doctor. A few of them shook hands in a rather solemn way and greeted me in Arabic. I knew that these men would give their lives for Bin Laden, that they thought themselves spiritually pure in a corrupt world, that they were inspired and influenced by dreams which they persuaded themselves came from heaven. Mohamed beckoned me to follow him and we skirted a small river and jumped across a stream until, in the insect-filled darkness ahead, we could see a f sputtering paraffin lamp. Beside it sat a tall, bearded man in Saudi robes. Osama bin Laden stood up, his two teenage sons, Omar and Saad, beside him. "Welcome to Afghanistan," he said.

He was now 40 but looked much older than at our last meeting in the Sudanese desert late in 1993. Walking towards me, he towered over his companions, tall, slim, with new wrinkles around those narrow eyes. Leaner, his beard longer but slightly flecked with grey, he had a black waistcoat over his white robe and a red-chequered kuffiah on his head, and he seemed tired. When he asked after my health, I told him I had come a long way for this meeting. "So have I," he muttered. There was also an isolation about him, a detachment I had not noticed before, as if he had been inspecting his anger, examining the nature of his resentment; when he smiled, his gaze would move towards his 16-year-old son Omar - round eyes with dark brows and his own kuffiah - and then off into the hot darkness where his armed men were patrolling the fields. Others were gathering to listen to our conversation.

Just 10 days before, a truck bomb had torn down part of the US Air Force housing complex at al-Khobar in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and we were speaking in the shadow of the deaths of the 19 American soldiers killed there. US Secretary of State Warren Christopher had visited the ruins and promised that America would not be "swayed by violence", that the perpetrators would be hunted down. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who had since lapsed into a state of dementia, had foreseen the possibility of violence when American military forces arrived to "defend" his kingdom in 1990. It was for this very reason that he had, on 6 August that year, extracted a promise from then President George Bush that all US troops would leave his country when the Iraqi threat ended. But the Americans had stayed, claiming that the continued existence of Saddam's regime - which Bush had chosen not to destroy - still constituted a danger to the Gulf.

Osama bin Laden knew what he wanted to say. "Not long ago, I gave advice to the Americans to withdraw their troops from Saudi Arabia. Now let us give some advice to the governments of Britain and France to take their troops out - because what happened in Riyadh and al-Khobar showed that the people who did this have a deep understanding in choosing their targets. They hit their main enemy, which is the Americans. They killed no secondary enemies, nor their brothers in the army or the police in Saudi Arabia ... I give this advice to the government of Britain." The Americans must leave Saudi Arabia, must leave the Gulf. The "evils" of the Middle East arose from America's attempt to take over the region and from its support for Israel. Saudi Arabia had been turned into "an American colony". Bin Laden was speaking slowly and with precision, an Egyptian taking notes in a large exercise book by the lamplight like a Middle Ages scribe. "This doesn't mean declaring war against the West and Western people - but against the American regime which is against every American." I interrupted Bin Laden. Unlike Arab regimes, I said, the people of the United States elected their government. They would say that their government represents them. He disregarded my comment. I hope he did. For in the years to come, his war would embrace the deaths of thousands of American civilians. "The explosion in al-Khobar did not come as a direct reaction to the American occupation," he said, "but as a result of American behaviour against Muslims, its support of Jews in Palestine and of the massacres of Muslims in Palestine and Lebanon - of Sabra and Chatila and Qana - and of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference."

But what Bin Laden really wanted to talk about was Saudi Arabia. Since our last meeting in Sudan, he said, the situation in the kingdom had grown worse. The ulema, the religious leaders, had declared in the mosques that the presence of American troops was not acceptable and the government took action against these ulema "on the advice of the Americans." For Bin Laden, the betrayal of the Saudi people began 24 years before his birth, when Abdul Aziz al-Saud proclaimed his kingdom in 1932. "The regime started under the flag of applying Islamic law and under this banner all the people of Saudi Arabia came to help the Saudi family take power. But Abdul Aziz did not apply Islamic law; the country was set up for his family. Then after the discovery of petroleum, the Saudi regime found another support - the money to make people rich and to give them the services and life they wanted and to make them satisfied." Bin Laden was picking away at his teeth with that familiar twig of mishwak wood, but history - or his version of it - was the basis of almost all his remarks. The Saudi royal family had promised sharia laws while at the same time allowing the United States " to Westernise Saudi Arabia and drain the economy." He blamed the Saudi regime for spending $25bn (£14bn) in support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and a further US$60bn in support of the Western armies in the 1991 war against Iraq, "buying military equipment which is not needed or useful for the country, buying aircraft by credit" while at the same time creating unemployment, high taxes and a bankrupt economy. But for Bin Laden, the pivotal date was 1990, the year Saddam invaded Kuwait. "When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia, the land of the two Holy places, there was a strong protest from the ulema and from students of sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops. This big mistake by the Saudi regime of inviting the American troops revealed their deception. They were giving their support to nations which were fighting against Muslims."

Bin Laden paused to see if I had listened to his careful if frighteningly exclusive history lesson. "The Saudi people have remembered now what the ulema told them and they realise America is the main reason for their problems ... the ordinary man knows that his country is the largest oil-producer in the world yet at the same time he is suffering from taxes and bad services. Now the people understand the speeches of the ulemas in the mosques - that our country has become an American colony. What happened in Riyadh and al-Khobar is clear evidence of the huge anger of Saudi people against America. The Saudis now know their real enemy is America." The overthrow of the Saudi regime and the eviction of US forces from the kingdom were one and the same for Bin Laden. He was claiming that the real religious leadership of Saudi Arabia - among whom he clearly saw himself - was an inspiration to Saudis, that Saudis themselves would drive out the Americans, that Saudis - hitherto regarded as a rich and complacent people - might strike at the United States. Could this be true?

Bin Laden sometimes stopped speaking for all of 60 seconds - he was the first Arab figure I noticed doing this - in order to reflect on his words. Most Arabs, faced with a reporter's question, would say the first thing that came into their heads for fear that they would appear ignorant if they did not. Bin Laden was different. He was alarming because he was possessed of that quality which leads men to war: total self-conviction.

Bin Laden had asked me - a routine of every Palestinian under occupation - if Europeans did not resist occupation during the Second World War. I told him no Europeans would accept this argument over Saudi Arabia - because the Nazis killed millions of Europeans yet the Americans had never murdered a single Saudi. Such a parallel was historically and morally wrong. Bin Laden did not agree. "We as Muslims have a strong feeling that binds us together ... We feel for our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon ... When 60 Jews are killed inside Palestine" - he was talking about Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel - "all the world gathers within seven days to criticise this action, while the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children did not receive the same reaction." It was Bin Laden's first reference to Iraq and to the United Nations sanctions that were to result, according to UN officials themselves, in the death of more than half a million children. " Killing those Iraqi children is a crusade against Islam," Bin Laden said. "We, as Muslims, do not like the Iraqi regime but we think that the Iraqi people and their children are our brothers and we care about their future." It was the first time I heard him use the word "crusade" .

But it was neither the first - nor the last - time that Bin Laden would distance himself from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Much good would it do him. Five years later, the United States would launch an invasion of Iraq that would be partly justified by the regime's "support" for a man who so detested it. But these were not the only words which Bin Laden uttered that night to which I should have paid greater attention. For at one point, he placed his right hand on his chest: "I believe that sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia and that the war declared by America against the Saudi people means war against all Muslims everywhere," he said. "Resistance against America will spread in many, many places in Muslim countries. Our trusted leaders, the ulema, have given us a fatwa that we must drive out the Americans."

For some time, there had been a steadily growing thunderstorm to the east of Bin Laden's camp and we could see the bright orange flash of lightning over the mountains on the Pakistan border. But Bin Laden thought this might be artillery fire, the continuation of the inter-mujahedin battles that had damaged his spirit after the anti-Soviet war. He was growing uneasy. He broke off his conversation to pray. Then, on the straw mat, several young and armed men served dinner - plates of yoghurt and cheese and Afghan naan bread and more tea. Bin Laden sat between his sons, silent, eyes on his food.

I said to Bin Laden that Afghanistan was the only country left to him after his exile in Sudan. He agreed. "The safest place in the world for me is Afghanistan." It was the only place, I repeated, in which he could campaign against the Saudi government. Bin Laden and several of his Arab fighters burst into laughter. "There are other places," he replied. Did he mean Tajikistan? I asked. Or Uzbekistan? Kazakhstan? " There are several places where we have friends and close brothers - we can find refuge and safety in them." I told Bin Laden he was already a hunted man. "Danger is a part of our life," he snapped back.

He began talking to his men about amniya, security, and repeatedly looked towards those flashes in the sky. Now the thunder did sound like gunfire. I tried to ask one more question. What kind of Islamic state would Bin Laden wish to see? Would thieves and murderers still have their hands or heads cut off in his Islamic sharia state, just as they do in Saudi Arabia today? There came an unsatisfactory reply. "Islam is a complete religion for every detail of life. If a man is a real Muslim and commits a crime, he can only be happy if he is justly punished. This is not cruelty. The origin of these punishments comes from God through the Prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him." Dissident Osama bin Laden may be, but moderate never. I asked permission to take his photograph, and while he debated this with his companions I scribbled into my notebook the words I would use in the last paragraph of my report on our meeting: "Osama bin Laden believes he now represents the most formidable enemy of the Saudi regime and of the American presence in the Gulf. Both are probably right to regard him as such." I was underestimating the man.

Yes, he said, I could take his picture. I opened my camera and allowed his armed guards to watch me as I threaded a film into the spool. I told them I refused to use a flash because it flattened the image of a human face and asked them to bring the paraffin lamp closer. The Egyptian scribe held it a foot from Bin Laden's face. I told him to bring it closer still, to within three inches, and I physically had to guide his arm until the light brightened and shadowed Bin Laden's features. Then without warning, Bin Laden moved his head back and the faintest smile moved over his face, along with that self-conviction and that ghost of vanity which I found so disturbing. He called his sons Omar and Saad and they sat beside him as I took more pictures and Bin Laden turned into the proud father, the family man, the Arab at home.

Then his anxiety returned. The thunder was continuous now and it was mixed with the patter of rifle fire. I should go, he urged, and I realised that what he meant was that he must go, that it was time for him to return to the fastness of Afghanistan. When we shook hands, he was already looking for the guards who would take him away. Mohamed and my driver and just two of the armed men who had brought me to these damp, insect-hungry fields turned up to drive me back to the Spinghar Hotel, a journey that proved to be full of menace. Driving across river bridges and road intersections, we were repeatedly stopped by armed men from the Afghan factions that were fighting for control of Kabul. One would crouch on the roadway in front of our vehicle, screaming at us, pointing his rifle at the windscreen, his companion sidling out of the darkness to check our driver's identity and wave us through. "Afghanistan very difficult place," Mohamed remarked.

WITHIN NINE months, by March 1997, I would be back in a transformed, still more sinister Afghanistan, its people governed with a harsh and ignorant piety that even Bin Laden could not have imagined. The Taliban had finally vanquished 12 of the 15 venal Afghan mujahedin militias in all but the far north-eastern corner of the country and imposed their own stark legitimacy on its people. It was a purist, Sunni Wahhabi faith whose interpretation of sharia law recalled the most draconian of early Christian prelates. Head-chopping, hand-chopping and a totally misogynist perspective were easy to associate with the Taliban's hostility towards all forms of enjoyment. The Spinghar Hotel used to boast an old television set that had now been hidden in a garden shed for fear of destruction. Television sets, like videotapes and thieves, tended to end up hanging from trees. "What do you expect?" the gardener asked me near the ruins of the old royal winter palace in Jalalabad. "The Taliban came from the refugee camps. They are giving us only what they had." And it dawned on me then that the new laws of Afghanistan - so anachronistic and brutal to us, and to educated Afghans - were less an attempt at religious revival than a continuation of life in the vast dirt camps in which so many millions of Afghans had gathered on the borders of their country when the Soviets invaded 16 years before.

The Taliban gunmen had grown up as refugees in these diseased camps in Pakistan. Their first 16 years of life were passed in blind poverty, deprived of all education and entertainment, imposing their own deadly punishments, their mothers and sisters kept in subservience as the men decided how to fight their foreign oppressors on the other side of the border, their only diversion a detailed and obsessive reading of the Koran - the one and true path in a world in which no other could be contemplated. The Taliban had arrived not to rebuild a country they did not remember, but to rebuild their refugee camps on a larger scale. Hence there was to be no education. No television. Women must stay home, just as they stayed in their tents in Peshawar.

Did we care? At that very moment, officials of the Union Oil Co of California Asian Oil Pipeline Project - Unocal - were negotiating with the Taliban to secure rights for a pipeline to carry gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan; in September 1996, the US State Department announced that it would open diplomatic relations with the Taliban, only to retract the statement later. Among Unocal's employees were Zalmay Khalilzad - five years later, he would be appointed President George f W Bush's special envoy to "liberated" Afghanistan - and a Pushtun leader called Hamid Karzai. No wonder Afghans adopted an attitude of suspicion towards the United States. America's allies originally supported Bin Laden against the Russians. Then the United States turned Bin Laden into their Public Enemy Number One - a post that was admittedly difficult to retain in the Pentagon wheel of fortune, since new monsters were constantly being discovered by Washington, often in inverse proportion to its ability to capture the old ones. Now the Taliban were being courted. But for how long? Could Bin Laden, an Arab whose political goals were infinitely more ambitious than the Taliban's, maintain the integrity of his exile alongside men who wished only to repress their own people? Would the Taliban protect Bin Laden any more courageously than the failed Islamic Republic of Sudan?

19 MARCH 1997. On the mountainside, the machine continued his search of the machine. We were at 5,000 feet. Lights flashed until we turned a corner past a massive boulder and there before us in the moonlight lay a small valley. There was grass and trees and a stream of water that curled through it and a clutch of tents under a cliff. Two men approached. There were more formal Arab greetings, my right hand in both of theirs. Trust us. That was always the intention of these greetings. An Algerian and an Egyptian, they invited me to tour this little valley.

We washed our hands in the stream and walked over the stiff grass towards a dark gash in the cliff face above us. As my eyes became accustomed to the light, I could make out a vast rectangle in the side of the mountain, a 6m-high air-raid shelter cut into the rock by Bin Laden's men during the Russian war. I walked into this man-made cave, the Algerian holding a torch, until I could hear my own crunching footsteps echoing softly from the depths of the tunnel. When we emerged, the moon was almost dazzling, the valley bathed in its white light, another little paradise of trees and water and mountain peaks.

The tent I was taken to was military issue, a khaki tarpaulin roped to iron stakes, a flap as an entrance, a set of stained mattresses on the floor. There was tea in a large steel pot and I sat with the Egyptian and Algerian and with three other men who had entered the tent with Kalashnikovs. We waited for perhaps half an hour.

There was a sudden scratching of voices outside the tent, thin and urgent like the soundtrack of an old movie. Then the flap snapped up and Bin Laden walked in, dressed in a turban and green robes. I stood up, half bent under the canvas, and we shook hands, both of us forced by the tarpaulin that touched our heads to greet each other like Ottoman pashas, bowed and looking up into the other's face. Again, he looked tired, and I had noticed a slight limp when he walked into the tent. His beard was greyer, his face thinner than I remembered it. Yet he was all smiles, almost jovial, placing the rifle which he had carried into the tent on the mattress to his left, insisting on more tea for his guest. For several seconds he looked at the ground. Then he looked at me with an even bigger smile, beneficent and, I thought at once, very disturbing.

"Mr Robert," he began, and he looked around at the other men in combat jackets and soft brown hats who had crowded into the tent. "Mr Robert, one of our brothers had a dream. He dreamed that you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person. You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim." This was terrifying. It was one of the most fearful moments of my life. I understood Bin Laden's meaning a split second in front of each of his words. Dream. Horse. Beard. Spiritual. Robe. Muslim. The other men in the tent were all nodding and looking at me, some smiling, others silently staring at the Englishman who had appeared in the dream of the "brother." I was appalled. It was both a trap and an invitation, and the most dangerous moment to be among the most dangerous men in the world. I could not reject the "dream" lest I suggest Bin Laden was lying. Yet I could not accept its meaning without myself lying, without suggesting that what was clearly intended of me - that I should accept this "dream" as a prophecy and a divine instruction - might be fulfilled. For this man to trust me, a foreigner, to come to them without prejudice, that was one thing. But to imagine that I would join them in their struggle, that I would become one with them, was beyond any possibility. The coven was waiting for a reply.

Was I imagining this? Could this not be just an elaborate, rhetorical way of expressing traditional respect towards a visitor? Was this not merely the attempt of a Muslim to gain an adherent to the faith? Was Bin Laden really trying - let us be frank - to recruit me? I feared he was. And I immediately understood what this might mean. A Westerner, a white man from England, a journalist on a respectable newspaper - not a British convert to Islam of Arab or Asian origin - would be a catch indeed. He would go unsuspected, he could become a government official, join an army, even - as I would contemplate just over four years later - learn to fly an airliner. I had to get out of this, quickly, and I was trying to find an intellectual escape tunnel, working so hard in digging it that my brain was on fire.

"Sheikh Osama," I began, even before I had decided on my next words. "Sheikh Osama, I am not a Muslim." There was silence in the tent. "I am a journalist." No one could dispute that. "And the job of a journalist is to tell the truth." No one would want to dispute that. "And that is what I intend to do in my life - to tell the truth." Bin Laden was watching me like a hawk. And he understood. I was declining the offer. In front of his men, it was now Bin Laden's turn to withdraw, to cover his retreat gracefully. "If you tell the truth, that means you are a good Muslim," he said. The men in the tent in their combat jackets and beards all nodded at this sagacity. Bin Laden smiled. I was saved. As the old cliché goes, I "breathed again". No deal.

Perhaps it was out of the need to curtail this episode, to cover his embarrassment at this little failure, that Bin Laden suddenly and melodramatically noticed the school satchel lying beside my camera and the Lebanese newspapers partially visible inside. He seized upon them. He must read them at once. And in front of us all, he clambered across the tent with the papers in his hand to where the paraffin lamp was hissing in the corner. And there, for half an hour, ignoring almost all of us, he read his way through the Arabic press, sometimes summoning the Egyptian to read an article, at others showing a paper to one of the other gunmen in the tent. Was this really, I began to wonder, the centre of "world terror"? Listening to the spokesman at the US State Department, reading the editorials in The New York Times or The Washington Post, I might have been forgiven for believing that Bin Laden ran his "terror network" from a state-of-the-art bunker of computers and digitalised battle plans, flicking a switch to instruct his followers to assault another Western target. But this man seemed divorced from the outside world. Did he not have a radio? A television?

When he returned to his place in the corner of the tent, Bin Laden was businesslike. He warned the Americans of a renewed onslaught against their forces in Saudi Arabia. "We are still at the beginning of military action against them," he said. "But we have removed the psychological obstacle against fighting the Americans ... This is the first time in 14 centuries that the two holy shrines are occupied by non-Islamic forces ..." He insisted that the Americans were in the Gulf for oil and embarked on a modern history of the region to prove this.

"Brezhnev wanted to reach the Hormuz Strait across Afghanistan for this reason, but by the grace of Allah and the jihad he was not only defeated in Afghanistan but was finished here. We carried our weapons on our shoulders here for 10 years, and we and the sons of the Islamic world are prepared to carry weapons for the rest of our lives. But despite this, oil is not the direct impetus for the Americans occupying the region - they obtained oil at attractive prices before their invasion. There are other reasons, primarily the American-Zionist alliance, which is filled with fear at the power of Islam and of the land of Mecca and Medina. It fears that an Islamic f renaissance will drown Israel. We are convinced that we shall kill the Jews in Palestine. We are convinced that with Allah's help, we shall triumph against the American forces. It's only a matter of numbers and time. For them to claim that they are protecting Arabia from Iraq is untrue - the whole issue of Saddam is a trick."

There was something new getting loose here. Condemning Israel was standard fare for any Arab nationalist, let alone a man who believed he was participating in an Islamic jihad. But Bin Laden was now combining America and Israel as a single country - "For us," he said later, " there is no difference between the American and Israeli governments or between the American and Israeli soldiers" - and was talking of Jews, rather than Israeli soldiers, as his targets. How soon before all Westerners, all those from "Crusader nations", were added to the list? He took no credit for the bombings in Riyadh and al-Khobar but praised the four men who had been accused of setting off the explosions, two of whom he admitted he had met. "I view those who did these bombings with great respect," he said. "I consider it a great act and a major honour in which I missed the opportunity of participating." But Bin Laden was also anxious to show the support for his cause which he claimed was now growing in Pakistan. He produced newspaper clippings recording the sermons of Pakistani clerics who had condemned America's presence in Saudi Arabia and then thrust into my hands two large coloured photographs of graffiti spray-painted on walls in Karachi.

In red paint, one said: "American Forces, get out of the Gulf - The United Militant Ulemas." Another, painted in brown, announced that " America is the biggest enemy of the Muslim world." A large poster that Bin Laden handed to me appeared to be from the same hand with similar anti-American sentiment uttered by mawlawi - religious scholars - in the Pakistani city of Lahore. As for the Taliban and their new, oppressive regime, Bin Laden had little option but to be pragmatic. "All Islamic countries are my country," he said. "We believe that the Taliban are sincere in their attempts to enforce Islamic sharia law. We saw the situation before they came and afterwards and have noticed a great difference and an obvious improvement." But when he returned to his most important struggle - against the United States - Bin Laden seemed possessed. When he spoke of this, his followers in the tent hung upon his every word as if he was a messiah. He had, he said, sent faxes to King Fahd and all main departments of the Saudi government, informing them of his determination to pursue a holy struggle against the United States. He even claimed that some members of the Saudi royal family supported him, along with officers in the security services - a claim I later discovered to be true. But declaring war by fax was a new innovation and there was an eccentricity about Bin Laden's perspective on American politics.

But this was a mere distraction from a far more serious threat. "We think that our struggle against America will be much simpler than that against the Soviet Union," Bin Laden said. "I will tell you something for the first time. Some of our mujahedin who fought in Afghanistan participated in operations against the Americans in Somalia and they were surprised at the collapse in American military morale. We regard America as a paper tiger." This was a strategic error of some scale. The American retreat from its state-building mission in Somalia under President Clinton was not going to be repeated if a Republican president came to power, especially if the United States was under attack. True, over the years, the same loss of will might creep back into American military policy - Iraq would see to that - but Washington, whatever Bin Laden might think, was going to be a far more serious adversary than Moscow. Yet he persisted. And I shall always remember Osama bin Laden's last words to me that night on the bare mountain: "Mr Robert," he said, "from this mountain upon which you are sitting, we broke the Russian army and we destroyed the Soviet Union. And I pray to God that he will permit us to turn the United States into a shadow of itself." I sat in silence, thinking about these words as Bin Laden discussed my journey back to Jalalabad with his guards. He was concerned that the Taliban - despite their " sincerity " - might object to his dispatching a foreigner through their checkpoints after dark, and so I was invited to pass the night in Bin Laden's mountain camp. I was permitted to take just three photographs of him, this time by the light of the Toyota which was driven to the tent with its headlights shining through the canvas to illuminate Bin Laden's face. He sat in front of me, expressionless, a stone figure, and in the pictures I developed in Beirut three days later he was a purple and yellow ghost. He said goodbye without much ceremony, a brief handshake and a nod, and vanished from the tent and I lay down on the mattress with my coat over me to keep warm. The men with their guns sitting around slept there too, while others armed with rifles and rocket-launchers patrolled the low ridges around the camp.

In the years to come, I would wonder who they were. Was the Egyptian Mohamed Atta among those young men in the tent? Or any other of the 19 men whose names we would all come to know just over four years later? I cannot remember their faces now, cowled as they were, many of them, in their scarves.

Exhaustion and cold kept me awake. "A shadow of itself" was the expression that kept repeating itself to me. What did Bin Laden and these dedicated, ruthless men have in store for us? I recall the next few hours like a freeze-frame film; waking so cold there was ice in my hair, slithering back down the mountain trail in the Toyota with one of the Algerian gunmen in the back telling me that if we were in Algeria he would cut my throat but that he was under Bin Laden's orders to protect me and thus would give his life for me. The three men in the back and my driver stopped the 4x4 on the broken-up Kabul-Jalalabad highway to say their dawn fajr prayers. Beside the broad estuary of the Kabul river, they spread their mats and knelt as the sun rose over the mountains. Far to the north-east, I could see the heights of the Hindu Kush glimmering white under a pale blue sky, touching the border of China that nuzzled into the wreckage of a land that was to endure yet more suffering in the coming years.

Most of all I remember the first minutes after our departure from Bin Laden's camp. It was still dark when I caught sight of a great light in the mountains to the north. For a while I thought it was the headlights of another vehicle, another security signal from the camp guards to our departing Toyota. But it hung there for many minutes and I began to realise that it was burning above the mountains and carried a faintly incandescent trail. The men in the vehicle were watching it too. "It is Halley's comet," one of them said. He was wrong. It was a newly discovered comet, noticed for the first time only two years earlier by Americans Alan Hale and Tom Bopp, but I could see how Hale-Bopp had become Halley to these Arab men in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was soaring above us now, trailing a golden tail, a sublime power moving at 70,000km an hour through the heavens.

So we stopped the Toyota and climbed out to watch the fireball as it blazed through the darkness above us, the al-Qa'ida men and the Englishman, all filled with awe at this spectacular, wondrous apparition of cosmic energy, unseen for more than 4,000 years. "Mr Robert, do you know what they say when a comet like this is seen?" It was the Algerian, standing next to me now, both of us craning our necks up towards the sky. "It means that there is going to be a great war." And so we watched the fire blaze through the pageant of stars and illuminate the firmament above us.

Extracted from 'The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East' by Robert Fisk, to be published by 4th Estate on Monday, £25. To buy the book at the special price of £22.50, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Read more exclusive extracts from The Great War for Civilisation tomorrow in The Independent on Sunday and all next week in The Independent