September 17th, 2008
04:18 PM ET

My trip to the bin Laden mansion

Video from Yemen TV shows burnt cars and blood on the ground following an attack on the U.S. Embassy.
Video from Yemen TV shows burnt cars and blood on the ground following an attack on the U.S. Embassy.

Peter Bergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN National Security Analyst

After al Qaeda blew up the USS Cole in October 2000 killing seventeen American sailors, I visited Yemen to check out Osama bin ­Ladens’s ancestral village in the Hadramaut region, in the south of the country. His father, Mohammed, left there as a teenager in 1931 to seek his fortune in what is now Saudi Arabia.

I traveled through Wadi Doan, a 100 ­mile-­long valley in which the road is not much more than a rocky path. Black-­robed women flitted like wraiths down the alleys of the wadi towns, avoiding eye contact with foreigners. Out in the fields, women harvested crops while completely swathed in black, wearing distinctive conical hats made of straw. Attempts to photograph the Hadrami women produced such a volcanic explosion of rage by my local driver that I abandoned the enterprise.

The bin Laden village is tucked into the shade of honey-­colored cliffs that tower above the valley floor by a couple of thousand feet. It is a compact place, filled with laughing children who wander the streets between the high-­walled mud-­brick houses. The village is called al-Rubat ­Ba’eshn. There is a Bin Laden Street and a crumbling bin Laden mansion. There are even some bin Laden cousins who told me that they were not happy that the Americans on the Cole had been killed because they were “guests” of Yemen.

Peter Bergen outside the bin Laden family village in Yemen.

That, of course, represents the views of most Yemenis, yet Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, has been an important center of al Qaeda activities for more a decade. A group with ties to al Qaeda kidnapped 16 western tourists in 1998, four of whom died in the “rescue” operation. (Memo to self: In the event of a kidnapping never get rescued by a Third World army.). That was followed in January 2000 by al Qaeda attempting to sink an American warship, the USS The Sullivans. That effort was unsuccessful and was followed nine months later by the Cole attack where suicide attackers piloting a bomb-laden boat blew a hole the size of a small house in the destroyer.

Since 9/11 the Yemeni government has attempted to crack down on its militants but this effort has been hampered by the fact that the central government is weak and doesn’t really control its own rugged, mountainous territory. Emblematic of that fact is that militants imprisoned for their roles in the Cole attack have escaped from Yemeni prison not once, but twice! Yemeni terrorists have also attacked ships off the coast of their country such as the attack on the French oil tanker, the Limburg, in 2002. In July 2007, terrorists killed eight Spanish tourists in the east of the country

Now comes the attack today at the U.S. Embassy, which is almost certainly the work of al Qaeda given the suicidal nature of the assault on the embassy compound which featured a car bomb and shooting by six militants who killed themselves and ten other Yemeni bystanders, but no Americans.

It is precisely this kind of attack in which Muslim civilians die that has led al Qaeda to lose much of it support in countries across the Islamic world. It will be interesting to see if a similar reaction now takes place in Yemen.

Filed under: Global 360° • Peter Bergen • T1 • TV
soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. Nicole

    Oh my god to make a general comment like "all muslims are mentally ill and trained to kill" is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard!!!
    I will not stand for terrorists of any race or religion. The hatred in that comment makes one realize the reason why some other cultures hate America. I am not from America and I have nothing against America. I am just as mad and upset as any American when terrorists, such as Al Queada attack and kill thousands of innocent people like they did in 9/11. I think America is doing the right thing in fighting back againsts terrorists (notice I did not generalize that to say muslims), and we would all be in big trouble if they weren't. God bless all those who are risking their lives to protect our freedom.

    Nicole, Canada

    September 17, 2008 at 10:32 pm |
  2. Jim

    Thanks for the great report. I look at Bin-Laden and his family with complete disgrace. Your family name and it's heritage will forever be denounced as associated with death and destruction. Remember one very important fact that everytime a radio transmission or television broadcast is made it leaves our plant and essentially travels thru space for eternity. Please fellow Bin-Ladens, temper your brother, for if you live on in the afterlife with your virgins you will forever be taunted with your own horrible family name.

    September 17, 2008 at 10:15 pm |
  3. unk

    how does the public "know" Al Qaeda committed an attack? Or do we "The Public" only knoiw what the media reports to us? The administration can manipulate the media. Just ask "Fox News" fair and balanced..yeah right!

    September 17, 2008 at 9:44 pm |
  4. Annie Kate


    Thank you for your article. You make a good point about how al Qaeda has done things that turn even their own countrymen against them. I hope Yemen joins in the list that want to obliterate al Qaeda. It sounds like Yemen needs a better jail though so the al Qaeda members they catch and arrest stay in custody. I hope that soon al Qaeda will be past history but realistically I know that will take a lot of time and unfortunately many more will die. Take care so you don't need rescuing.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    September 17, 2008 at 9:37 pm |
  5. Emily

    You know, I had a family member killed during the US embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998. That is when the American public first became really aware of Osama bin Laden and then President Clinton tried to bomb his camps while Republicans kept shouting that THIS was distraction from Ken Starr's investigation on Monica Lewisky. Imagine, Monica Lewisky is more important then the men who blew up 2 US embassies in a single day. I never forget that was the GOP tries to make itself out to be THE party on national secrurity, especially since an US embassy is US soil. I was never political until that.

    George Bush, Jr. knew who Osama bin Laden was and what he was funding and yet spend nearly 4 months in Crawford, TX on vacation during the first months of his administration. For shame.

    September 17, 2008 at 9:37 pm |
  6. mark siegel

    I say we get out!!!Spend all this money securing our borders in the US,we'll never win over in the those crazy muslim countrys.I say drop a thermal nuke and turn the desert to glass,then come back and drill for the oil,That's why we're there isn't it?

    September 17, 2008 at 9:28 pm |
  7. Sue

    Independent of where I am on the issue, I wanted to assure Muslims who reads Susan's comment above that there are non-Muslims who read her comments about "muslims being mentally ill" and are offended. The generalization to all muslims, from some muslims who become jihadists, is a sad statement. It is those types of comments that lead to a lack of understanding of each other. There are some muslims around the world who take the Koran word for word. However, like most Christians who choose to ignore the part of the Bible that says that women should not wear jewelry and should be submisive to men there are many Muslims who ignore parts of the Koran with which they do not agree.

    September 17, 2008 at 9:25 pm |
  8. Deborah


    Good solutions do not come from blanket statements. The God you and I pray to is thought to have said, "Judge Not Lest Ye be Judged."

    I agree, "God Bless American," and I would add, "Please God Bless all peoples in our blind, and blanket judgements of each other, for we need all the help we can get!"

    September 17, 2008 at 9:06 pm |
  9. pati mc., camp hill, pa


    Your insight into the Middle East never ceases to amaze me and I thank you for your incredibly well educated insight into these matters. Honestly, it is my wish that the US Government would listen more to dedicated correspondents such as yourself and Michael Ware. They have so much to learn and you gentlemen have so much knowledge to impart. If only.

    Thankfully I have learned a great deal about Al Qaeda and terrorism by reading your books "The Osama Bin Laden I Know" and "Holy War, Inc". Please write more, I have a feeling you have so much more to say on this subject. I am very appreciative for this information.

    Thank you for you post Peter, I hope to hear more from you soon!


    September 17, 2008 at 8:36 pm |
  10. mounir hasbi

    hi thanks for you r article

    September 17, 2008 at 7:27 pm |
  11. Melissa, Los Angeles

    I agree with Wain and Heidi that nothing has been formally announced that it was Al Qaeda. Doesn't mean that I don't suspect them though.

    @ Susan I disagree with you that Muslims are mentally ill. Don't be so ignorant in lumping extremists with those who peacefully practice their religion. It would be like me calling all Christians mentally ill based off of the Jesus Camp documentary that I saw. Every religion has extremists.

    September 17, 2008 at 7:13 pm |
  12. DA

    McCain claims he knows how to get Ben Ladin but Americans need to put him in white house so he does tells us how.

    This is the most outrageous position. He is blackmaling Americans in order to get Ben Ladin, one of the most wanted enemies in the history of USA. And he calls himself patriotic. If he knew how to get Ben Ladin, whey has he not done it or bring it to current administration to date? WHY? What happen to America comes first?

    September 17, 2008 at 7:04 pm |
  13. Heather

    Thank's Peter for sharing your experiences. This has been going on for a long time. I know you like John Miller have always had the knowledge of your unique experience of being right there with Bin Laden. You have seen and followed him and his followers and you know they live in a very different world than we do. I know we will take em out. We will destroy them.

    September 17, 2008 at 6:58 pm |
  14. Susan

    There is no worse deaf person than the one who doesn´t want to listen.
    Al Qaeda has a bad name because is a very notorious organization-They are terrorists.The Muslim Wold is not a "nun".It´s very well known what they are up to. Don´t you listen and watch statements made by Arab Leaders? Don´t you think they are insane?
    Muslims want to dominate the world.The Kuoran commands them to kill all "infidels" ( the rest of nonMuslim world)
    Do you fancy being killed just in the name of religion? Come on folks, give me a break.
    We are all on the line.The world is on the line.Planet Earth calllling!Wake up before it is too late.

    Muslims are mentally ill and heavily trained to kill and to make "idiots" blow themselves up to kill people around.
    Then they give money to the family and the "idiot" goes up to heaven to meet 73 Islamic "Virgins".
    Mr Wain & Heidi , I regret to inform you that you are being really naive , blind and deaf.
    Fear against an "invisible force!"? You must be really blind .Think it over and give us all the chance of keeping our lifestyle , our religions.God bless America

    September 17, 2008 at 6:47 pm |
  15. Maria

    Thanks Mr. Bergen for sharing your experience.
    According to Al-Arabiyah net, Islamic Jehad group (probably wing of Al-Qaedah) is claiming the attack and they announce they will attack British Embassies in Saudia and UAE.

    September 17, 2008 at 6:31 pm |
  16. Eugenia-San Francisco, Ca

    Humor: "Truth in an intoxicated condition"

    (Memo to self: In the event of a kidnapping never get rescued by a Third World army.).

    If you know any members of the military service, ask them who they think did the attacks on the USS Cole, I think the consesus would be as one. The USS Cole was my brother's relief ship.

    thank you for your article!

    September 17, 2008 at 6:24 pm |
  17. Surafel Melaku

    Al Qaeda? Really! Again? lol.

    It's middle east people! When did we hear peace in middle east countries, never! Keep it real. There is much more we missed and do not understand, for us to blame any one. This is not a new generation war it goes back in centuries, we won't resolve any thing, nor restore peace in that land. Unless, Israel return/give Palestinian land, and as much as we christian want our religion to be respected, we should respect Muslim and such religion. But, the thing is i don't think this will happen at all, at all, so expect more hate/bomb/attack/names and such.

    Just pray for those innocent ones who don't have any thing do to with the conflict.

    September 17, 2008 at 6:21 pm |
  18. Heidi Berg

    i have to agree with Wain on this matter.I am not saying what you see in your eyes is what your reporting but to me there is allot more behind what the human eye can see

    September 17, 2008 at 5:36 pm |
  19. Wain

    Peter – Why should I trust you, when you claim Al Qaeda did this attack? You say this without evidence but just creating a relevance in the context of overall world situation.

    There is no independent investigation for these attacks yet and no one wants to conduct them but blame Al Qaeda. May be, can I put forth a reasoning for these attacks judging it from an independent eye.

    I would argue the US itself is behind the attack. It will be easy to buy someone to do this in "one of the poorest Arab countries". So no American dies in the attack and Al Qaeda has a bad name both in the Muslim world and the West. Enabling US to continue its qwest for oil in the Middle east. Oh no that will be too outrageous.

    I dont support Al Qaeda but I see this fear mogring over and over again against an invisible force. Dont fool yourself and others. STOP.

    September 17, 2008 at 5:21 pm |
  20. Betty Ann, Nacgdoches,Tx

    I greatly admire your courageous effort to report from the tumultuous middle east.
    It seems that a small cluster of people cause rampant destruction for millions of others.
    Thank you for being there and bringing us some kind of understanding of this cluster mess.

    September 17, 2008 at 5:14 pm |
  21. Cindy

    Thanks for the great post. I hope that these senseless attacks by al Qaeda do cause more people to hate them and therefore do anything to get rid of them. That can only be nothing but good for us all.

    Unfortunately we can't get them all with one swift whack so we have to stay diligent in keeping them at bay where ever they are. If not they will definitely try more attacks on us whether here in the states or abroad.


    September 17, 2008 at 4:34 pm |