Original article can be found here.
Osama Bin Ladin is not an easy man to find, and he plans on keeping it that way. A multi-millionaire from Saudi Arabia, he is considered by the U.S. government to be “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world.” Law enforcement officials from a half-dozen nations would like to question him about his possible role in at least nine terrorist conspiracies. More recently, bin Ladin’s name has surfaced in connection with last week’s bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He is “high on the list” of suspects, says one White House official. So maybe it’s not surprising that, since 1996, bin Ladin has taken refuge in one of the most inaccessible regions in the world: southern Afghanistan.
If you wish to meet with him, as one of us did for an interview that aired on CNN back in May of 1997, you must first get hold of an intermediary–like Khaled al-Fauwaz, a spokesman for a Saudi opposition group, called the Advice and Reformation Committee. Al-Fauwaz lives far from the tumult of the Middle East, in the quiet North London suburb of Neasden. Serving flavored coffee and a plate of dates in his modest 1940s Tudor-style home, he is at pains to make clear that he does not work for Bin Ladin. Nor does he necessarily condone all of Bin Ladin’s views. But, if you can assure him that you are not an agent of the CIA, well, then he may find a way to put you in touch with the shadowy Saudi.
And so the journey begins. Al-Fauwaz directs you to Peshawar, Pakistan, where you are to await further notice. Several days after your arrival, one of Bin Ladin’s followers makes contact and instructs you to make your way across the winding Khyber Pass into neighboring Afghanistan. You arrive in the border town of Jalalabad and settle into a rundown hotel. And then you wait.
A week passes. Finally, late one afternoon, a curtained van arrives. You are bundled inside and the van sets off toward the mountains, along the Kabul road. Suddenly the van stops, and you are given blindfold-like dark glasses to wear as you change to a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the drive up rough mountain tracks. Several times during the journey, heavily armed men emerge from the darkness shouting for your convoy to stop. At one point you are told that, if you are carrying any type of tracking device, now is the time to say so. Later discovery of such a device, it is suggested, will not be pleasant for you. At the final checkpoint the guards run a beeping scanner over you and your bags to make sure you’ve been telling the truth.
At long last, your vehicle pulls into a rock-strewn valley about 5,000 feet above sea level — just below the snow line. It is near midnight. The air has a cold bite to it, and the ground crunches underfoot as you are led to a small mud hut lined with blankets. At one o’clock in the morning, Bin Ladin enters the room. You are told you have an hour to speak with him before he moves on. He does not like to remain in the same place for very long.
At first glance, Bin Ladin does not look like a master terrorist with a core of several thousand committed followers at his command and up to $250 million in his bank account. He is dressed simply — wearing a white turban and robe under a camouflage jacket and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle across his shoulder. But he is a tall man with an aquiline nose and an aristocratic demeanor. His followers treat him with the utmost deference, which he seems to take as his due. And, though he speaks in a near whisper, his talk is of bitter injustice and merciless revenge. The United States, he said in that CNN interview, “has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal” by supporting Israel and imposing sanctions on Iraq. But it is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the land of Mecca and Medina, “the holiest place of the Muslims,” that most outrages Bin Ladin — this, he says, is why he has declared a jihad on the United States.
Is this the man behind the carnage in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam? So far, no evidence links Bin Ladin to the bombings. And there are plenty of other possible suspects to consider — including a Somali and a handful of Sudanese and Iraqis recently rounded up for questioning in Tanzania. However, the coordination with which the two attacks were carried out suggests a well-financed and experienced group — the kind often connected to the Middle East.
And, among those with such connections, Bin Ladin is certainly a credible suspect. Last February, as the United States seemed primed to launch strikes against Iraq, Bin Ladin joined with several other leading Islamist radicals, speaking on behalf of the World Islamic Front, in calling on Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies–civilian and military.” Significantly, the CIA Counterterrorist Center issued a statement saying: “These fatwas are the first from these groups that explicitly justify attacks on American civilians anywhere in the world … this is the first religious ruling sanctifying such attacks.”
Then, on May 26, Bin Ladin held a press conference that, in the words of a State Department advisory, implied “that some type of terrorist action could be mounted within the next several weeks.” And on June 21, according to Abdul-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, members of the groups that signed the fatwa met in Peshawar, Pakistan, to set upon an undisclosed plan of action. In a June advisory on the fatwa, the State Department affirmed that “we take these threats seriously, and the U.S. is increasing security at many U.S. government facilities in the Middle East and South Asia.” Africa was not mentioned.
That Bin Ladin’s call to holy war is greeted with such gravity is a measure of his unique status in the world of terrorism. His was a privileged youth — the kind you would expect for the seventeenth of 52 children born to the founder of the Bin Ladin’s Group, a Saudi Arabian construction company worth an estimated $5 billion. Though by the tender age of 16, Bin Ladin had already become involved with Islamist political groups in his native Saudi Arabia, it was the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that radicalized him. Only days after it began, Bin Ladin, then in his early twenties, flew to Afghanistan to help organize the first Islamist guerrilla fighters — young idealists like himself who flocked to the war from all over the Muslim world.
Bin Ladin eventually became a key leader of these “Afghan Arabs,” whose numbers reached about 20,000. He financed housing for them in Peshawar, Pakistan. He bankrolled the Ma’sadat Al-Ansar military camp in Afghanistan, which trained both local and international volunteers. And Bin Ladin himself fought in many battles, including the 1989 siege of Jalalabad — a key contest with the Soviets. The USSR’s subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan made a profound impression: as Bin Ladin said in the CNN interview, “In this jihad the biggest benefit was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed.”
Bin Ladin returned to Saudi Arabia a hero. But he quickly became disillusioned with the ruling House of Saud, which he characterizes as spendthrift, corrupt, insufficiently Islamic, and — most objectionable of all — subordinate to the United States. Soon he was at odds with the authorities, and in 1991 he and his immediate family — that is, his four wives and an unknown number of children — left for Sudan.
Sudan’s ruling National Islamic Front (NIF) gave Bin Ladin a warm welcome, but it never quite trusted him, assigning military intelligence agents to keep tabs on their Saudi guest. Ironically, after working closely with Bin Ladin for four years, one of these agents — who has since left his post — became an admirer. According to the ex-agent, for a time Bin Ladin and the NIF “had a convergence of interest.” The NIF has tried to expand the reach of political Islam into black Africa, and it has backed Islamist and even Christian extremist groups against the neighboring states of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
Bin Ladin, however, may have even bigger aspirations. According to the ex-Sudanese agent, “his strategy is to form an international organization to head toward what he calls the Khalifa.” An important concept in Islam, the Khalifa refers to a leader chosen by the most knowledgeable Muslims to lead the umma, or worldwide Muslim community. A Bin Ladin associate suggests it’s unlikely that Bin Ladin aspires to be the Khalifa himself. Instead, he hopes to create the conditions for the Khalifa to emerge by uniting the most radical Islamist forces.
Toward this end, beginning in 1990, even before his own arrival, Bin Ladin brought hundreds of veterans from the Afghan war to Sudan. These holy warriors first came to help the NIF fight non-Muslim rebels in southern Sudan. Later they made up Bin Ladin’s personal security force. According to the State Department, they also helped run at least three military training camps that Bin Ladin created and financed.
Bin Ladin’s Sudanese camps soon became important centers for international terrorists. According to the ex-Sudanese agent, groups came to train there from Algeria, Tunisia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Somalia. In his CNN interview, Bin Ladin said that he has also dispatched his own followers to equally far-flung places — Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, and Somalia — while financing extremist groups in Algeria and Egypt.
The first successful attack on Americans that Bin Ladin is believed to have been involved in came in Somalia in 1993 — where a total of 30 U.S. soldiers were killed in several incidents. In his interview with CNN, Bin Ladin said that some of the men involved in at least one of those operations were “Arab holy warriors who were in Afghanistan” — men who looked to him as a leader. The ex-Sudanese intelligence agent confirms this account, adding that the men had been trained at Bin Ladin’s Sudanese camps and that “they set up a base in Somalia and smuggled weapons to it from Ethiopia.” Does the United States believe bin Ladin was responsible? Philip Wilcox, the State Department’s then-chief counter-terrorism official, has said, “We take him at his word.” And Wilcox has added that there is solid evidence that bin Ladin forces also attempted to bomb U.S. servicemen in Yemen while they were on their way to the Somalia operation. A State Department report even claims bin Ladin admitted to the bombing, which killed two people but no U.S. soldiers.
U.S. officials also have circumstantial evidence tying bin Ladin to another famous act of anti-American terrorism: the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center. After that attack, its mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he lived in a house for Islamic radicals that bin Ladin funded. In 1996, Yousef was convicted of a separate plot to blow up several U.S. passenger planes. U.S. officials say Yousef’s convicted conspirator in that plot, Wali Khan Amin Shah, served under Bin Ladin in Afghanistan.
In his CNN interview, Bin Ladin said he had “no connection” to the World Trade Center bombing but did say that Sheik Rahman is a widely respected Muslim cleric against whom the United States “fabricated” what he called “a baseless case.” Bin Ladin also insisted he had nothing to do with the bombing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia at Riyadh in 1995 and Dhahran in 1996 — though, again, he expressed admiration for those who carried out the attacks. All the same, U.S. officials would like to talk to Bin Ladin about both of these incidents as well.
Of course, at the moment it is the African bombings that are uppermost in the minds of U.S. officials. And one key reason to take a close look at Bin Ladin is that his followers are no strangers to either Kenya or Tanzania. According to a source within the Saudi opposition movement, for the past three years Bin Ladin has had a “significant presence” in both nations. What’s more, this source says, two years ago one of Bin Ladin’s key lieutenants drowned in Lake Victoria — which lies within the borders of both Kenya and Tanzania. That account is confirmed by a U.S. official who says that Bin Ladin’s “head military guy” died there in a ferry accident in May 1996. The U.S. official says that the man, a former Egyptian army officer who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Abaida al Panjshiri, gained combat experience in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
To be sure, it’s highly possible that, even if Bin Ladin is the behind the embassy bombings, he may do no more than express his “admiration” for the operation — not out of modesty but out of necessity. In 1996, the Sudanese government, under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States, finally expelled Bin Ladin. Afghanistan, which is largely ruled by the Taliban, a movement of religious-students-turned-warriors who share Bin Ladin’s extreme interpretations of Islam, may be his last refuge. And the Taliban, who are hoping for international recognition for their regime, know that enthusiastic support for Bin Ladin will only hurt their cause. So they have cut a deal with Bin Ladin: he can stay, but only so long as he promises not to participate in “political” activities in other countries.
But, although Bin Ladin has so far remained silent on the African bombings, his name has already emerged in connection with other, less circumspect groups. One organization that has come forward to claim responsibility for the bombing, the Liberation Army for the Islamic Sanctuaries, has cited the same objective that motivates Bin Ladin: namely, the desire to drive the United States from all Muslim lands, especially in the Arabian peninsula. The group explicitly told the Cairo Arabic daily al-Hayat that it was partly inspired by Bin Ladin. (Of course, all claims of responsibility in such cases should be greeted with a grain of salt.)
Bin Ladin is also associated with the one group that gave warning of attacks before the bombings. A week prior to the blasts, Egypt’s Islamic Jihad told an Arabic newspaper in London that it would strike back at the United States in retaliation for compelling Albania to extradite three Egyptian Islamic volunteers back to Egypt. The Islamic Jihad organization is one of the groups that Bin Ladin helped train in Sudan. And it joined with his organization in both the fatwa calling for retaliation against the United States last May and the meeting to discuss a more concrete plan of action last June.
Ultimately, it may turn out that Bin Ladin served not as a direct organizer of the African embassy bombings but as the inspiration for them. Bin Ladin’s message and example are reverberating throughout the Arab world. As Al-Quds Al Arabi editor Abdul-Bari Atwan explained it in a CNN interview, “Younger generations, especially those Islamic fundamentalists, are looking for a hero, and Mr. Bin Ladin fits the bill.”