ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Osama bin Laden has told his chosen biographer that Afghanistan's Taliban regime has as much right to weapons of mass destruction as the United States and that he has "purchased a lot of dangerous weapons, maybe chemical weapons," for the regime that shelters him.
Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist picked by the alleged terrorist mastermind to write his biography, said he confronted bin Laden about Russian news reports that he was trying to acquire chemical and nuclear weapons allegedly stolen from Soviet arsenals after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"He didn't confirm or deny, ... [but] Osama bin Laden told me that if America has the right to have these weapons, then the Taliban have the right as well - and to get them however they can," said Mir, editor of the Islamabad newspaper Daily Ausaf.
Mir got to know bin Laden in two meetings over six days and through scores of hand-delivered messages over the past 4 1/2 years.
Mir said he last heard from bin Laden late on Sept. 11, the day of the attacks on New York and Washington. An envoy, sent on a six-hour overland journey from Afghanistan, arrived breathless at Mir's office just before midnight to deliver a message: "I didn't do it."
Over the years, Mir said, he has asked bin Laden if he was responsible for other attacks that Washington has blamed on him. The only one that he claimed responsibility for was the killing of 18 American soldiers in Somalia in 1993. Bin Laden said he was aiding Somali warlord Mohammad Farah Aidid, according to Mir.
Mir said bin Laden justified the attack by saying, "It was war. They killed our people, and we killed their people."
The biographer said that bin Laden denied any role in the bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 Americans, or the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed more than 200 people and injured about 5,000, saying: "I am not involved, but I praise the people who did it."
Bin Laden said nothing when Mir asked him if he was behind the attack that killed 17 American sailors on the USS Cole last year.
The Sept. 11 message was the latest in a series of enigmatic contacts that Mir has had since March 1997 with the elusive bin Laden. In February 1997, after publishing an interview with Taliban ruler Mullah Mohammad Omar, Mir was approached by a shadowy Algerian who asked him why he wasn't writing about bin Laden, too. Mir said he would if he could meet him.
A month later, Mir and his photographer were taken to a hideout near the Afghan city of Jalalabad. Bin Laden arrived, pulled out a thick file and began flipping through a collection of Mir's interviews with prominent figures.
"Then he began telling me all the secrets of my life. He read out my bank account number, my national ID card, my in-laws' home phone number," Mir recalled with a shudder. "He was conveying to me, `I know many things about you, and if you betray me, the consequences are very serious,'" Mir said.
In May 1998, they met for four nights and three days of interviews in a hideout near Kandahar airport. During that visit, bin Laden asked Mir to write his biography.
Mir said he told bin Laden he would only do it if "I could write what I think." Bin Laden agreed, on the condition that Mir not distort the facts. For instance, bin Laden said, he has only three wives, not the five reported in some accounts.
Since then, Mir said, the two men have communicated only through secret envoys carrying written messages, saying bin Laden does not have access to a phone or the Internet. Mir's first go-between, a well-known Pakistani cleric, was killed in October 1998, and Mir lost contact with bin Laden for months before an Afghan messenger materialized one day at his door.
Mir describes bin Laden as "a very simple man - cool, calm, but suspicious." He said bin Laden resisted questions about his personal life, saying only that he has three wives and 16 children, and 25 brothers - though he could remember the names of only 20.
Mir called bin Laden "the main beneficiary" of Muslim fury over the United States' perceived blind support for Israel against the Palestinians, transforming him into a cult hero.
"He is not only a threat to America and the West. He is a threat to real Islam," because he endorses killing innocents, Mir said. "In Pakistan, no big religious leader has the courage to speak up against him."
Mir hopes to publish his 300-page book, which bin Laden approved six months ago, next month. Mir insists that his book is an honest and critical assessment of bin Laden and that he has not distorted any facts.
"The book is history," he said with a shrug. "I hope he will not be angry with me."