By Pamela Constable
The Washington Post
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The car windows were blackened to hide the route and destination. The house was heavily guarded, and the visitor could see only the mud-walled room around him, with several bearded, turbaned men sitting on low cushions. One of them was Osama bin Laden.
Bakr Atiani, a TV reporter with the Saudi-owned, London-based Middle East Broadcasting Center, received a phone call last month inviting him to Afghanistan to meet bin Laden, the Saudi fugitive wanted by U.S. officials on charges of planning the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa and suspected of involvement in the attack on a U.S. warship in Yemen.
Bin Laden uttered only occasional pleasantries, letting aides do most of the talking during the rare three-hour meeting in his desert hideaway in southern Afghanistan, Atiani said. His reticence was apparently in keeping with his pledge to the Afghan authorities who harbor him that he will not use his Afghan base as a launching pad for political statements or foreign adventures. But his aides delivered a message that was direct, clear and chilling.
"They said there would be attacks against American and Israeli facilities within the next several weeks," recounted Atiani, who is based in Islamabad. "I am 100 percent sure of this, and it was absolutely clear they had brought me there to hear this message."
Atiani said the reclusive bin Laden, who has rarely granted interviews and has previously been reported to be in ill health, seemed healthy, calm and confident.
"He didn’t say much, but I could feel his confidence. He smiled and he looked like he had put on weight," Atiani said. Although the compound was clearly located in southern Afghanistan, the reporter said he saw only Arabs during his visit. "It felt like bin Laden had his own Arab kingdom in southern Afghanistan," he said.
The broadcast report of the meeting in late June came at a time when videotapes described as bin Laden-produced recruiting materials were circulating in the Middle East, and U.S. intelligence services were detecting evidence of suspicious activity around some U.S. embassies. As a result, all U.S. military forces in the Middle East were placed on high alert, and U.S. embassies and military facilities across the region were warned to expect attacks.
So far, no attacks have occurred, and officials of the Taliban, the Islamic militia that controls most of Afghanistan, have adamantly reiterated that bin Laden is under strict orders not to abuse the protection they provide for him.
Reports of new threats by bin Laden set off a flurry of speculation in Pakistan recently that the United States was planning a bombing raid or commando attack on Afghanistan. After the African embassy bombings, Washington retaliated with cruise missile attacks on military training camps allegedly operated by bin Laden inside Afghanistan.
In the past several weeks, U.S. officials have attempted in vain to persuade Pakistani authorities to use their influence with the Taliban to rein in bin Laden. In Washington, officials met with Pakistan’s foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, who reportedly told them Pakistan has little power over the Taliban and needs to maintain cordial relations with the group because of Afghanistan’s strategic location and long-standing friendship.