Our Missiles Won’t Crush This Terrorist

At least one suspect in the two U.S. embassy bombings on Aug. 7 has reportedly implicated a wealthy Saudi, Osama bin Ladin. Finally U.S. prosecutors might now have a chance to indict bin Ladin, who was linked to but never charged with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. But the Clinton administration’s unilateral cruise-missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan last Thursday have only made it harder to bring him to trial.

When it comes to making incriminating statements, bin Ladin is his own worst enemy. Unlike other radicals who tend to hide in the dark, bin Ladin threatens his enemies, namely the United States, in the glare of publicity. Just last May, he told, ABC News, “America will see many youths who will follow Ramzi Yousef” — the convicted mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing. (He fled afterwards to a safe house funded by bin Ladin in Peshawar, Pakistan.) Bin Ladin further warned, “We predict a black day for America. . . [which] will retreat from our land and collect the bodies of its sons back to America, God willing.”

Bin Ladin issued an even more ominous threat in February, when he and other Islamic fundamentalist radicals signed a declaration of holy war against the United States. Calling themselves the World Islamic Front, they declared that killing “Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim.” The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center noted that this was the first such religious decree to justify attacks against civilians.

Though bin Ladin has a steadfast following among radical fundamentalists in many countries, he is only part of a fringe element within the Islamic community worldwide. “He does not represent the values that we hold to be true,” said Salah Obdidallah of the Islamic Center of Passaic County in New Jersey. How can he “take human life with such a cavalier attitude and hide behind a beautiful religion?”

But however marginal he may be to Islam, bin Ladin is serious about attacking the United States. In many interviews, he paints a dangerously simple portrait: Muslims are struggling against non-Muslims worldwide, and he and his followers must do everything they can to support their brethren.

Bin Ladin, for one, has long done his best. It was the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan that radicalized him. Along with up to 20,000 other young idealists, bin Ladin joined the anti-Soviet resistance, which soon became known as the mujahedeen.

And he put his money where his mouth was. The 17th of 52 sons born to Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest construction magnate, Osama bin Ladin himself has about $250 million. He built roads, tunnels and training camps for the mujahedeen. Ironically, he did it alongside another (then) anti-Soviet group — the CIA, which is now trying to find him.

Bin Ladin was not content to merely finance the resistance. He himself fought in many battles, including the 1989 siege of Jalalabad — a key contest near the Khyber pass that helped compel the Soviets to finally leave Afghanistan. It left a big impression on him. “[The biggest benefit,” he told CNN last year, “was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed.” Bin Ladin, incidentally, credits the mujahedeen, not President Ronald Reagan, for crippling the Soviet Union enough to make it collapse. Now he forthrightly claims that his followers will prevail against the United States. Bin Ladin’s main demand is that the United States withdraw from all Muslim lands, especially from the Arabian peninsula. Saudi Arabia is the home of Mecca and Medina, the two most revered places within Islam, and many Saudis and other Muslims feel the same way he does. It is perhaps no coincidence that the two embassy bombings detonated on the eighth anniversary — to the day — of the first U.S. troop deployment in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm.

Before last Thursday’s Tomahawk missile strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan, authorities in Pakistan were already cooperating with the U.S.-led investigation. Sudan offered to assist the investigation as well, and there was a sense that the United States might even persuade Afghanistan’s ultra-fundamentalist Taliban regime, which seeks international recognition, to expel bin Laden.

All these joint efforts, however, are now in doubt. According to all reports, bin Ladin and nearly all of his followers survived the Tomahawk attacks. And the backlash that they have produced among key Muslim countries only makes it less likely that they will help us catch him now.