Osama bin Laden is a workaholic who will always be one step ahead of Western intelligence, his former bodyguard has told The Daily Telegraph.
Many have claimed intimate knowledge of bin Laden over the years. But in the case of Nasser al Bahri, a bearded and slightly portly 35-year-old taxi driver who lives in Yemen, the claim is not tainted by exaggeration.
For four years Bahri fought in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda and served as bodyguard to a man he remembers affectionately as “the Sheikh”.
His experience makes Bahri of intense interest to the FBI and CIA, but they have so far failed to persuade the Yemeni authorities to deport him for questioning.
“The thing I remember most about the Sheikh is that he was very, very active,” said Bahri.
“From the start of the day before dawn when he began his prayers to late at night he was always doing something, never resting. We were not living in a comfortable environment but that did not stop him from all the time working, thinking and planning.
“After prayers came administration and after administration came meetings with distinguished visitors, sometimes secret visitors, but all day he never stopped.”
Sitting in a quiet corner of a hotel restaurant in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, Bahri shook his head at the colourful claims about his role protecting bin Laden in the late 1990s.
He did not screen bin Laden’s food for poison. He was not under orders to shoot bin Laden dead if he was about to fall into enemy hands.
Instead, he acted as an armed personal assistant, carrying his baggage, making sure his satellite communications were working and chivvying the various other members of the entourage from cooks to drivers.
“To be honest I have never killed a man,” said Bahri. “The worst moment came when a Sudanese man came for a visit and he became very rude and disrespectful to The Sheikh. I had to grab his hands and handcuff him and take him away.
“But even then the Sheikh told me to let him go.”
Like his sponsor, Bahri was born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni immigrants. He was educated to the equivalent of A Level and left school at 18.
He drifted through various jobs in his early 20s, falling in with a group of young jihadists disenchanted with pro-Western Saudi rulers.
In 1996 at the age of 23 he joined a group of “militants” who travelled to Quetta, the Pakistani city close to the Afghan border.
“From there we took jeeps and crossed the border but I could not say where,” he said. “When we arrived at the al-Qaeda training area the Sheikh heard there were a group of Arabs who had arrived so he hosted a meeting and spoke to us.
“It was very special to meet our new leader and hear his views.”
He sent for his Yemeni wife, Taysir al Qala, to join him in southern Afghanistan and their first child, Habib, was born in Kandahar.
Bahri’s time as bodyguard to bin Laden between 1996 and 2000 is perhaps of most interest to Western intelligence because it was when the al-Qaeda leader changed strategy.
“From the moment I knew him he was thinking all the time about extending the war everywhere,” said Bahri.
“He would always say we must hit America on a front that it never expects. He kept saying he wanted to fight America on a battlefield it cannot control.”
Bahri said he had no idea at the time about the September 11 attacks but that when they happened he believed they fell into the pattern bin Laden had been formulating during their time together.
Bahri left Afghanistan in 2000 because his father in law was ill with a kidney condition back in Yemen.
He flew home shortly before al-Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in late 200.
Arrested in a round up of “militants”, he convinced the Yemeni authorities that he had no role in the attack but still spent two years in jail, meaning he was under detention when the September 11 attacks took place.
So desperate was US intelligence for leads after the attacks that FBI investigators flew to Yemen to interview him in jail more than once.
He was released in 2002 and has since earned a living as a taxi driver and junior college lecturer in human resources.
While expressing no regret at his relationship with bin Laden and saying he would gladly do it again, he declined to discuss his beliefs about “jihadism”, “terrorism” and any distinction between the two.
“That would take too long,” he said politely, before picking up his spectacles and disappearing out on to the street.