Important Note: I'm a loyal American. I don't admire the enemies of my country; but I do respect them, even knowing they wouldn't return the favor. I believe some of their grievances against the U.S. are legitimate. And while I'm sure some of our enemies are no better than thugs, I think the leaders are brave men, sincere in their beliefs, who perceive themselves as being in the right.

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It's cold here, Osama bin Laden realized. Like Afghanistan at this time of year.

Then another thought struck him. I'm losing touch with reality. How can anything about John F. Kennedy International Airport remind me of Afghanistan?

He wasn't destined to see much of the airport. He had time for exactly four breaths of icy outdoor air--which he found bracing--as he was whisked off the plane and hustled into the rear compartment of a small armored truck. A dozen fierce-looking guards piled in with him, probably more than the space was meant to hold.

There was nowhere to sit but on the floor, and that was where he found himself, with guards packed around him and an M-16 poking him in the ribs. Two grim-faced men stayed on their feet, locked and bolted the rear hatch, and positioned themselves against it.

He suspected he wasn't the only one who felt a surge of claustrophobia.

This compartment was lighted, so he trusted it was also ventilated. But it still made him think of the cargo containers in which the Northern Alliance had transported Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners. Hundreds had suffocated.

One of the guards found the intercom and exchanged a few words with the unseen driver. The truck lurched, then began to roll.

Bin Laden closed his eyes and visualized the mountains of Afghanistan.

He tried not to dwell on the fact that he'd never see them again.

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Whatever else might be said about America, its good roads made for an easy ride. Bin Laden's head ached, his back ached, and he hadn't been allowed to get any rest on the plane. He was exhausted. A part of him wanted nothing more than to curl up on the floor and go to sleep.

But that was out of the question. He was determined not to show any sign of weakness.

In front of anyone.

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He knew the airport was a longish drive from the city. Lost as he was in thought, it took him a while to realize that the progress of this truck couldn't be American-normal.

It was going fast. Even without being able to see the scenery whiz by, he knew it was exceeding any reasonable speed limit.

And it wasn't stopping for anything, wasn't even slowing down. Not for red lights, not for merging traffic at intersections or at highway on- and off-ramps.

He'd heard motorcycles. A police escort? That made sense--and proved the truck wasn't soundproof. But not once had he heard a honking car horn.

There's no one else on the road!

His pulse began to race.

He'd known that his being here couldn't be kept secret. And also, that the American leaders--much as they might wish him dead--didn't want him murdered by an enraged populace.

But he hadn't expected them to go this far, to take the threat this seriously. They'd actually cleared the roads!

Where are the people?

He knew he was still outside New York. He wasn't curious about its suburbs. But what about people? Were they lining the road, silent but seething? Or had the leaders made a sudden decision to impose a curfew, treating their own citizens the way the Israelis used to treat the Palestinians?

He got his answer when the first projectile hit the side of the truck.

That one hit with a soft splat. Not a snowball--at the airport, at least, he hadn't glimpsed any snow. So it was probably an egg. It was followed by others that might have been rocks, and silence gave way to catcalls. He couldn't make out words, perhaps because his knowledge of English didn't extend to obscenities.

He braced himself for grenades. But the locals apparently weren't grenade-throwers. Maybe they knew as well as he did that this vehicle was built to withstand them.

The truck didn't speed up. He realized it was already going so fast that it was probably being hit by only a small percentage of the objects thrown. That was another reason no one was wasting grenades.

There will be more people in New York. It won't be so easy to get by them. A single city with more people than Israel...

He tried to wrap his mind around that, and couldn't.

Tried to think about New York. Or even about Israel.

But his thoughts kept drifting back to Afghanistan. He imagined himself riding a mule through a mountain pass...climbing over a rugged peak, proving himself as agile as younger and healthier men...bedding down with friends in a cave at the top of the world, laughing at the enemy's inability to find them.

I never knew how much I loved that place. Loved that life, wild and free.

I thought I was making heroic sacrifices for the cause, when in fact I loved every minute of it.

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There were indeed more people in New York.

A sea of them, from the sound of it, milling into the road and being forced back by police. The noise level became almost intolerable, and progress slowed to a crawl.

The guards looked nervous.

Bin Laden set himself the task of keeping his own expression serene.

They've never liked me here, he thought wryly. He'd first been indicted in New York way back in 1998, in connection with the African embassy bombings. And since September 2001, he'd been demonized.

Will we be going near the World Trade Center site? Right past it, perhaps?

He tried to summon up some emotion--any kind of emotion--about the Trade Center attack. But he couldn't. From his point of view, it had been a strike on a legitimate target, infrastructure vital to the enemy's economy, in a war that was already under way. The civilian death toll was nothing compared to the deaths the U.S. had caused in Iraq, those its ally Israel had caused in Palestine.

He remembered reading that even though Zacarias Moussaoui had been tried for "conspiracy"--a ridiculous charge--in Virginia, his captors had found an excuse to bring him here, had let him look at the ruins.

Moussaoui had laughed.

And even though he was a French citizen with absolutely no obligation to love the United States, that laugh had been used against him in court.

Unbelievable.

He thought of Moussaoui, a foot soldier he didn't recall ever meeting. Still young, a brilliant man with a Master's degree. Doomed to rot in prison for the rest of his life.

He thought of Abu Zubaydah.

Of Abu Zubaydah...and of the Americans' brief, disastrous experiment with military tribunals. After they'd caught on that their prize captive was feeding them nothing but disinformation, they'd rushed to try him before a secret tribunal and execute him.

Al-Qaida's retaliation had been swift and deadly. Its success had sent George W. Bush's popularity plummeting, wrecked his Presidency.

As a result, the U.S. no longer dared to execute any al-Qaida prisoner.

That was something we had to do. We couldn't let Brother Abu Zubaydah's death go unavenged. Forcing a change in U.S. policy, for all the world to see, was a major victory.

The downside, of course, is that any true mujahid would prefer a dramatic martyrdom. I'm sure Brother Zacarias Moussaoui envies Zubaydah.

He's not alone.

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The truck had stopped moving.

And the mob attacked, a mass of shrieking humanity slamming into the passenger side. The vehicle tipped dangerously. The driver somehow righted it, but the attackers hurled themselves at it again and again. Their shrieks became bestial howls.

Did they hope the driver would panic, make a break for it and leave his passengers in the lurch? If so, it was probably a vain hope.

But there's a chance they can overturn it, bin Laden realized. Everyone in here could be badly hurt in a rollover.

There's also a chance they can pry or shoot or blast the rear hatch open. Especially if the truck's damaged, maybe even if it's not.

He heard scattered gunshots, but none seemed aimed at the truck. Police? Firing rubber bullets--or real ones, into the air?

The shooting stopped. Was it possible rioters had taken out all the nearby police?

The guards were breathing hard. They were trying to keep their weapons trained on the hatch, but bin Laden had no trouble reading their decidedly mixed emotions.

He felt no fear. He'd looked death in the face many times, always calmly accepting that the time and manner of his demise were in God's hands.

Not being able to see the enemy, though, was eerie. He tried to picture them. But...an American mob, rioting in the streets of an American city? That was beyond his powers of visualization.

His mind's eye persisted in seeing another mob, swarming through a faraway city, in an apparently very different mood.

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"Hundreds of thousands of people!" The Al-Jazeera reporter had to shout into his mike to be heard. "It looks like every man and boy in the city--some of the women too!"

The crowd spotted him and surged toward the camera. They themselves could scarcely be seen through their forest of placards, all bearing the image of one man. "We want Osama," they chanted. "We want Osama! WE WANT OSAMA!!!"

"He's overstating the size of that crowd," bin Laden said uneasily. He turned away from the TV. "It may be a trick, even a trap--"

Then he realized his comrade was on the phone, and stopped talking.

Ayman al-Zawahiri wasn't talking either--just listening, wide-eyed. After another minute he took the cell phone away from his ear and held it out. "This man is actually in Riyadh," he said in an awed voice. "I don't think it's a trap, Osama."

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The New York mob gave its mightiest heave yet, jolting bin Laden back to the present.

The truck still didn't go over.

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Any true mujahid would prefer a dramatic martyrdom.

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They tried again. All the men inside were sent toppling, landing in a tangle of flailing limbs.

When bin Laden extricated himself from the pile, his back ached worse than before.

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"I don't think it's a trap, Osama."

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A wild idea began to take shape in his mind.

I may have walked into a trap in Riyadh, but I'm not handcuffed or shackled, am I?

My guards are focused on protecting me from assassins. The last thing they expect is that I might do something outrageous, in the heart of Manhattan.

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Any true mujahid would prefer a dramatic martyrdom.

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Just grab a rifle. It won't take much to get that hatch open from the inside. A few quick shots at it, and I'll be out in the street before the guards realize what's happened.

Hah. I'll probably land on top of a bunch of rioters, and they'll be so terrified that when they get out from under, they'll run away! But that's not how they'll tell the story to their grandchildren.

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The mob made another assault. The men were again sent tumbling.

This time bin Laden resettled himself with his left hand--the dominant hand--inches from the butt of an M-16, and his legs in a position that would let him spring to his feet in one easy bound.

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"I don't think it's a trap, Osama."

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Others will close in when the cowards run away. Not that they'll be much braver. The only difference will be that they'll have had time to realize I don't stand a chance.

Should I do any shooting? No. People might imagine I was trying to get through the crowd and go underground in New York, and failed. I don't want to be remembered that way. Throw the gun down, stand there with arms outstretched and let them take me.

Will they beat me to death? Tear me limb from limb? Drag what's left of me through the streets, glorying in what they think is their triumph?

It doesn't matter. The real victory will be mine, because the choice was mine.

I wonder what Paradise will be like...

No, I don't have to wonder. I know. Paradise will be very like Afghanistan.

And Ayman will give me a funeral pyre such as--

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That thought brought him up short. What would Ayman do? What revenge might he take on New York?

Bin Laden recalled the blackest hour of his life, when he'd been wracked by fear that his Egyptian friend had made a horrific mistake. Was it possible Ayman hadn't learned the lesson to be drawn from that episode?

Yes. All too possible.

And the whole mad plan began to collapse, like a house of cards.

What am I thinking? I was always a restraining influence on Ayman. The one who held him back after our brother Zubaydah's death, didn't let him go too far. Now I may drive him to destroy New York, and al-Qaida along with it.

And...that's not the only problem. If I leap out of this truck and give the rioters what they want--give myself what I want--it won't be a sacrifice for any greater good. Won't be martyrdom.

It will be suicide, a sin in the eyes of God.

He pulled his hand away from the M-16 as if it had burned him. Glanced around quickly, and found no one looking at him. If his face had reflected what he was thinking, the other men had been too preoccupied to notice.

We really aren't getting enough air. It was lack of oxygen that caused me to have such bizarre thoughts.

But despite having come up with that explanation, he began silently praying for forgiveness.

The mob struck again, and he was flung against the wall with such force that he blacked out.

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Sirens were blaring.

He managed to sit up, and realized he'd probably only been out for a few seconds. In the general confusion, no one had noticed.

Incredibly, the truck was still upright.

Not so incredibly, his headache was once again worse than his backache.

Another sound, closer, drowned out the sirens. A mighty roar...

Water! The police, National Guard or whoever, had returned with hoses!

The assault on the truck was over. The screams of soggy New Yorkers receded into the distance and died away.

Bin Laden wondered if there had been any casualties. He tried to think, I hope not, and mean it. But he was really too tired to care.

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The truck began moving again.

Bin Laden fought the depression that threatened to engulf him.

I never thought it possible my life would take this turn. Ayman's life, maybe. Not mine, never mine!

They'll get me to say things I don't want to say.

I'll start making compromises, trying to convince myself it's all right to give certain things away...

No! God will watch over me, God will guide me. He won't let me be untrue to our holy cause, or to myself.

The heart of Islam is submission to the will of God. And God has decided what my path must be. I'd rather be in Afghanistan, free as the wind. I'd rather have a glorious death! But if He decrees that I face a hard future I don't want, I'll do it. With as much grace as I can muster.

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Ayman al-Zawahiri took the cell phone away from his ear and held it out. "This man is actually in Riyadh," he said in an awed voice. "I don't think it's a trap, Osama."

And some strange prescience made bin Laden reply, "There's more than one kind of trap, my brother."

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Perhaps there's also more than one kind of martyrdom?

Farewell, Afghanistan.

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The truck glided to a smooth stop at its destination. Bin Laden took a deep breath, steeling himself for what would come next.

It helped to know that he'd had a choice. That death at the hands of the enemy--however sinful a death it might have been--had been there for the taking, and he'd rejected it.

He suddenly felt better about himself. About a lot of things.

Guards opened the hatch, jumped down and fanned out, weapons at the ready. That was mostly for show. He knew his safety couldn't be absolutely guaranteed anywhere--least of all in the United States, which hadn't even been able to protect the popular President for whom New York's airport was named. But with that caveat, he had no doubt that this area was as secure as police and military could make it.

The guards were back in seconds with the all-clear.

He couldn't see TV cameras from inside the truck, but he knew they'd be there. So he declined offers of help and leapt down, to all appearances, as effortlessly as had the guards.

In reality, it took considerable skill to land with most of his weight on his left foot rather than his damaged right foot, yet not come down so hard on the left that he'd risk breaking an ankle.

Without prompting, two guards hopped back into the truck to collect his cane, his briefcase, and his laptop computer.

Someone would bring the cane along, inconspicuously. But he didn't expect to need it. He could manage without it, and without a noticeable limp, if he didn't have to do much walking. Aches and pains notwithstanding, it was important that he appear healthy and vigorous.

He ignored attempts to steer him toward a heavily guarded doorway, and strode instead to the curb. Making a quick count of armored trucks, he frowned, then relaxed as the last of the six pulled up. Like the others, it was wet but undamaged, its driver clearly uninjured.

The five decoy trucks had been empty save for the drivers, who were New York cops. But under the circumstances, bin Laden had felt responsible for the men's safety.

With his mind at ease on that point, he took a look around. There were indeed TV cameras on the scene--as well as a hundred or so reporters, calling out to him in English from behind police barricades. As for those police and military, there were so many of them that the place looked like a war zone.

He was pleased to see that a ploy of his had worked, and was, as intended, irritating his old foes. He'd thought it might be too subtle. But all the cops and soldiers whose expressions he could read were glowering at his bodyguards' M-16s. American-made rifles they'd inherited from another man's bodyguards.

Not, of course, "inherited" in the literal sense. The coup in Riyadh had been bloodless. Bin Laden took pride in that.

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If that coup had been an isolated event, the U.S. would have found a way to thwart it. But thanks to Israel, a half-dozen pro-Western regimes had fallen in the space of a month.

The supreme irony, bin Laden reflected, was that the Israelis could have gotten away with killing Yasser Arafat if they'd contrived to do it in a firefight. But when word leaked out that the elderly Palestinian chief had been beaten to death, the Arab world reacted almost as one man. No one had to issue a call to arms. Hesitant rulers fell by the wayside; the only longtime leader who got on the right side quickly enough to save his job--if not all his former power--was Egypt's canny Mubarak.

Most of the new men in charge were hotheaded youngsters. Even the U.S. had to admit, however grudgingly, that the one mature, responsible voice among them was Osama bin Laden's.

Not that the U.S. abandoned Israel. It gave its pesky little ally what support it could in its war against the entire Arab League. But the U.S. was still bogged down in its quagmire-in-the-mountains in Afghanistan. And Israel found, for the first time, that better guns and tanks and aircraft wouldn't stop a foe angry enough to sacrifice any number of lives, to send more and more of an inexhaustible supply of men.

So the Israelis made the worst conceivable move...

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One of bin Laden's bodyguards nudged him, and he decided it was time to head inside. Thus reminded of duty, he dug out his cell phone and turned it on. He felt a twinge of guilt for having left it off so long. But his aides back home hadn't given him a minute's peace while he was airborne. They still hadn't learned that not every minor fire, power outage or computer breakdown was a national emergency.

Reporters were clamoring for his attention. So he overruled the protesting guard and walked over to the barricade. He spread his hands apologetically and said in careful English, "Little English. No translate."

He was capable of doing much better than that. And his driver--unlike the others, a staffer from the Consulate--could interpret in a pinch. But the man wasn't a professional interpreter, and bin Laden didn't want to risk misunderstandings.

As he was about to turn away, however, a woman called out in Arabic, "Is it true the Arab League plans to demand Israel be reduced to the borders proposed by the U.N. in 1947?"

Bin Laden could have said, "No comment." But he decided a straightforward question deserved an equally straightforward answer. Pitching his voice loudly enough to reach the person who'd asked, he said in Arabic, "That's one suggestion being considered. It would make for a small, oddly shaped country. But the Jews who were there in 1947 were initially willing to accept those borders. It would be fifty-five percent of the west-of-Jordan part of historic Palestine. And contiguous, except for two short, narrow corridors through it to connect segments of the Palestinian state.

"I'm still not convinced of the morality of acknowledging any State of Israel. But this formula would give the Palestinians twice as much territory as anyone's dared to hope for, realistically, since 1948. Perhaps accepting or rejecting it should be their choice.

"I don't know what's going to come out of these negotiations. No one knows at this point. But at least we'll be talking."

Then he did turn away, hoping for her sake that the reporter was bilingual. She was about to be mobbed by colleagues asking, "What did he say?"

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Only a few weeks before, that proposal would have been unthinkable.

Then Israel had all but signed its death warrant. By using a nuclear weapon against Syria.

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To bin Laden, that made no strategic sense. When he learned of the attack, he'd gone through a hellish period of wondering whether Ayman had done it, hoping to frame the Israelis, and was destined to be caught. He'd almost fainted from sheer relief when Israel acknowledged it had carried out the strike.

The whole world had condemned Israel's first use of nukes. Virtually all of Western Europe had entered the war--on the side of the Arabs. The U.S., which hadn't back-pedaled fast enough from its alliance with Israel, found itself at least theoretically at war with Britain and France.

Did you get the message, Ayman? Do you understand now that nukes must be an absolute last resort, if only because the world will turn against the user?

I hope so, my brother.

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As he headed back toward the building, he felt a rush of optimism.

At least we'll be talking...

Perhaps not only about Israel. Who knows what may ultimately be on the table?

Maybe I'll be able to get Brother Zacarias Moussaoui and others like him out of prison.

Maybe I'll even be able to get Ayman out of the mountains, and into a coalition government in Egypt. That's where he belongs.

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He was met at the door by a functionary who tried to assume a welcoming expression, while his eyes held pure loathing.

Ah, an American. Probably a New Yorker. Polls show they're the only ones who still feel this strongly.

The man swallowed hard and said, "This way, um, um--"

Bin Laden saw the problem. He allowed himself a thin, frosty smile.

But he didn't move. He wouldn't let this American off the hook.

I didn't want this. But since I'm stuck with it, you're going to show proper respect. For my country, not for me.

The man's Adam's apple bobbed up and down, and his face turned a succession of interesting colors. But at last he got the words out.

"This way, Your Majesty."

And King Osama of Saudi Arabia swept regally into U.N. Headquarters.

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The End