We all like a hug at times. So does Osama.
AAP | Wednesday, 22 October 2008
'WELL-LOVED': Osama bin Laden was polite and shy when he visited an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2001, but was always warmly received, an Australian who was there says.
It wasn't until explosions and bullets erupted, heralding the arrival of Osama bin Laden into the mountain camp, that something clicked.
Jack Thomas, by his own admission, realised then he was not just at any old military camp in Afghanistan, but an al-Qaeda camp.
There was a festive atmosphere when bin Laden visited, which he did on three occasions during 2001 when the 35-year-old Melbourne man was at the camp.
Rocket-propelled grenades were launched into the side of mountains, explosions and anti-aircraft fire clouded the air, bullets were fired.
And Thomas got close enough to bin Laden to observe the al-Qaeda leader was polite and shy, didn't mind a hug, but wasn't so fond of kissing.
"He was definitely well loved," Thomas said of Bin laden in an interview with Australian TV network ABC which was played in court last week.
"(He) was very polite and humble and shy.
"He didn't like too many kisses. He didn't mind being hugged, but kisses he didn't like."
Thomas said bin Laden "seemed to float across the floor".
The former Melbourne taxi driver revealed the insights into the goings-on at the al-Farouk camp, an al-Qaeda training base in Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks, in two interviews for the ABC current affairs programme Four Corners in 2005.
The raw footage in which Thomas is interviewed by ABC journalist Sally Neighbour was played to a jury in the Victorian Supreme Court last week.
Thomas, from Werribee, is standing trial for receiving funds from al-Qaeda and possessing a falsified passport.
He has pleaded not guilty to both charges.
In the interview, the Muslim convert told Ms Neighbour that at the camp he felt "like a king, Robin Hood, as part of a band of merry men".
The court also heard from Fairfax Media journalist Ian Munro, who interviewed Thomas in 2006 for an article published in February of that year, called Islam's Warrior.
Thomas told Mr Munro he went to Afghanistan in March 2001 because he wanted to help bring about peace in the country and aid in the creation of a Muslim state.
At the time, Afghanistan was in the throes of a civil war between the governing Taliban and the Northern Alliance.
Thomas intended to go to a Kurdish camp to train to fight on the frontline, but told Mr Munro he was redirected to al-Farouk.
Thomas admitted to Ms Neighbour he didn't know the camp he ended up at was operated by al-Qaeda.
"(I) later found out the camp to be an al-Qaeda camp," he said in the ABC interview.
Asked if he knew it was one of bin Laden's camps, Thomas replied: "At the start, no, not until he arrived on the first occasion."
The third time bin Laden visited, Thomas said the al-Qaeda leader told the camp "something big was going to happen".
At the time, the camp trainees were evacuated to the mountains every night and there was a fear the "something big" was an attack on Afghanistan, Thomas said.
Asked by Ms Neighbour whether he thought bin Laden's reference to "something big" was to September 11, Thomas responded: "In hindsight."
Thomas said when he learnt about the attacks on New York's World Trade centre buildings on the BBC he felt shock and disbelief.
He escaped into Pakistan after the attacks and it was during his time there that the prosecution alleges Thomas accepted US$3,500 ($A5,000) cash and a plane ticket home to Sydney from al-Qaeda operative, Khaled bin Attash.
But Thomas' defence counsel Jim Kennan SC argued there was no proof bin Attash was a member of al-Qaeda.
The court heard in the weeks before Thomas attempted to leave Karachi in January 2003, bin Attash approached him with a message from bin Laden, who wanted an Australian to work for him.
Thomas said bin Attash commented that Australia needed an attack like those in Tanzania and Kenya, referring to attacks on embassies in those east African countries, and he could provide US$10,000 (NZ$16,400) to anyone willing to carry out a similar operation.
Thomas told both Neighbour and Munro that the money and plane ticket given to him was organised by Pakistanis sympathetic to the Taliban.
He said bin Attash "hijacked" the situation, claiming he had organised the money and ticket.
As Thomas planned his return to Australia, he had a Taliban visa in his passport substituted with a Pakistan visa, because, he told Mr Munro, he felt a Taliban visa was a "one way ticket to Guantanamo Bay".
But the ploy failed and when he was arrested as he tried to leave Karachi airport in January 2003, his fears of being detained were realised.
He was held in Pakistan for almost six months and mistreated, including being hooded, handcuffed and chained to the bars of a "doghouse-like cell", Mr Kennan told the court.
Thomas told Ms Neighbour he was strangled, suffocated, refused water and threatened with execution by Pakistanis while American officials were present.
Ms Neighbour told the court under cross-examination that Thomas became extremely agitated, anxious and emotional when talking about these events, and the pair had agreed to cover them in a second interview.
Thomas was a picture of all of those emotions as he sat in the court dock, watching the footage of himself from three years ago.
The onscreen image was a slimmer, healthier version of Thomas than the figure in the dock.
During the trial, the neat beard present in the interview had gone, Thomas appeared several kilos heavier, with bags under eyes and his forehead creased into a worried frown.
He often sat with his head or his chin resting in his hands and regularly wrote notes delivered with earnest to his solicitor.
The frown lifted only when Thomas' wife or friends walked past the dock, prompting a smile and mouthed greeting.
Both the prosecution and defence agree Thomas did not intend to use the accepted funds for a terrorist act, he was simply desperate to get back to Australia.
Regardless, he stands accused of the offence of receiving funds from a terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda, and the jury will shortly decide whether or not he is guilty.
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