He became a potentially hostile blip on the U.S. intelligence radar screen as early as 1991, when he arrived in Sudan. He said he had come to build roads, but according to a former Sudanese intelligence agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity, he also set up pan-Islamist camps where recruits from countries like Bosnia, Chechnya, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Somalia were given military training.
His blip intensified in the early 1990s, when his name came up in the international manhunt for Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani who shot up the CIA’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters. It grew stronger still in 1996, during the probe of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. He would call the perpetrators of that act ”heroes.”
Though both CNN and ABC have interviewed him in the past 17 months, it’s only in the wake of the August 7 East African embassy bombings that the name Osama bin Laden has become widely known to Americans. In the worldwide Muslim community, however, bin Ladin has been a controversial figure for several years. Some, like his followers, now venerate him with the title ”sheik,” even though he is not a cleric. Others, like Salah Obdidallah of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, consider him a criminal who kills and ”hides behind a beautiful religion.” (The New York office of the FBI tends toward Obdidallah’s view; according to reports, Gotham-based agents are arguing they should direct the Kenya and Tanzania cases based on substantial but uncorroborated information tying bin Ladin to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as well as the thwarted plan to blow up other city buildings and tunnels.)
Though the government and the fourth estate have a notorious history of jumping the gun when it comes to blaming ”Middle East radicals” for big explosions (recall Oklahoma City and TWA Flight 800), fingering bin Ladin for a role in the embassy bombings is by no means unreasonable — and not just because one of the reportedly confessed bombers has admitted to being a follower. Not only does bin Laden have the motive, means, and opportunity, but in light of his personal jihad, the bombings are thoroughly understandable. While bin Ladin is neither a mainstream Muslim nor the paragon of sanity (one consulting CIA psychologist’s assessment holds that he is a ”malignant narcissist” who views people as objects either to be killed or protected), if he is responsible for the bombings, it’s imperative, Middle East experts say, that his actions and motivations be examined not just in terms of a terrorist threat, but in the context of current Arabian politics, U.S. foreign policy, and Islamic theology.
”If this was done by bin Ladin — who is definitely a fringe character — part of what we should be focusing on is what the bombings are reflective of in the Islamic world vis-a-vis the U.S. right now,” says Sam Husseini, former spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. ”I think these bombings will cost him many people’s sympathies. But before August 7, I think he was beginning to achieve folk-hero status in some parts of the Middle East, because he’s doing what no one else is — standing up to the U.S. over some very legitimate grievances.” And the fact that bin Ladin has successfully stood up to and beat another superpower — the USSR, in Afghanistan — gives him a resolve not necessarily found in other terrorists.
One cannot understand bin Ladin without understanding his relationship to his native Saudi Arabia — arguably the center of a concentric circle of Islamist angst. In various interviews, bin Laden has described himself not as a terrorist, but as a defender of the true faith against a corrupt Saudi monarchy that has committed sacrilege by allowing an (infidel) U.S. army presence in sacred Muslim land. ”After the Americans entered the Holy Land, many emotions were roused in the Muslim world — more than we have seen before,” bin Ladin recently told ABC News. Indeed, it has not been lost on terrorist experts — and Bin Laden watchers in particular — that the bombings came on the anniversary of the first U.S. Desert Shield troop deployment inside Saudi Arabia.
While many secular Saudis don’t necessarily share bin Ladin’s angry zeal, they do simmer with resentment at the Saudi elite’s hypocrisy and the American presence, says Scott Armstrong, a national security expert who has conversed with figures sympathetic to bin Ladin. And they have a point. As one former State Department foreign service officer candidly characterized the situation in a 1996 interview, ”The role of the U.S. military presence there is to make sure the Saudis can defend themselves in a pinch, but still be reliant on us for real defense. [Saudi Arabia] is a strategic position we don’t want to withdraw from.” The officer also said that, despite public pronouncements, many Saudi elites privately flout Islamic rules against indulging in Western vices such as alcohol and Baywatch.
To bin Ladin this amounts to a sellout and blasphemy by the Saudi upper crust. That same ruling class, in one of the many ironies of bin Laden’s life, have indirectly financed his terrorist operations. The 17th of 52 children sired by Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest construction magnate, Osama controls $250 million of the $5 billion Bin Laden family kitty — money made largely by building homes, offices, and mosques for the House of Saud. But since the age of 16, when he became involved with radical religious groups, bin Laden has been less interested in making money than using it in defense of his concept of Islam.
Truly radicalized by the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, bin Ladin, then 22, became one of the early founders and financiers of what became the Mujahadeen, the Afghan rebellion. Not only did he build safe houses, roads, and tunnel complexes for these insurgents, but he bankrolled training camps and arms purchases. And he did it all alongside another group pursuing its own jihad against the Soviets — the Central Intelligence Agency, which is now charged with tracking him down.
Not content to merely be an underwriter of the resistance, bin Ladin also fought in some particularly fierce battles, including the siege of Jalabad, which marked the end for the Soviets in Afghanistan. This was, for bin Ladin, a defining and empowering moment, which cements his faith to this day. As he told CNN, it destroyed ”the myth” of the invincible superpower.
Having helped vanquish the Soviet colossus, he returned home a celebrated hero and leader of the opposition movement to the House of Saud, charging the regime with moral turpitude. But when the Saudis allowed U.S. troops to deploy in the land of the Two Most Holy Places — Mecca and Medina — bin Ladin abandoned Saudi Arabia for a more like-minded country: Sudan, where the radical National Islamic Front (NIF) had taken control in 1989.
Even before he moved to Sudan, bin Ladin was already backing the NIF. In 1990, he arranged for hundreds of Mujahadeen veterans to travel to Sudan in order to fight alongside the NIF against non-Muslim guerrillas. According to an ex-Sudanese intelligence agent who knew bin Laden, hundreds more came over in the next few years. Many became instructors at training camps he financed. During his five years in Sudan, bin Ladin’s camps trained hundreds of recruits from places like Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Somalia. The course of instruction, says the ex-agent, focused on three major areas. One was the fabrication of travel documents. The second was low-tech covert communications — from basic encryption to use of invisible ink. In light of recent events, however, it is the third area that may be most interesting: the use of small arms and explosives.
According to the ex-agent, bin Ladin dropped $15 million on one shipment of Chinese and Iranian arms — as well as explosives from Czechoslovakia, most likely Semtex. While several terrorist outfits have access to the plastic explosive, which is believed to have been used in the embassy bombings, bin Ladin was much more likely to use it because of his multinational intelligence network. According to the ex-agent, while in Sudan, bin Ladin set up an ”advisory council” of at least 43 separate Islamist groups. Many of them are active worldwide, and bin Ladin admitted on CNN that he has sent Islamist combatants to places as far-flung as Bosnia and Tajikistan.
During his years in Sudan, the government came under increased international criticism and pressure. By 1996 the U.S. was indirectly backing anti-Muslim rebels in the southern and eastern parts of the country. The Clinton administration also pressured Sudan to expel bin Ladin. But instead of couching its criticism of Sudan in terms of its human rights record, which is reviled the world over, the U.S.’s approach reinforced bin Ladin’s view that it was gunning for Islam.
At about the same time the Saudi government started to bring its financial and political power to bear on the Sudanese NIF to at least rein bin Laden in, if not expel him. ”When they insisted initially that I should keep my mouth shut, I decided to look for a land in which I can breathe a pure, free air to perform my duty in enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong,” bin Laden told CNN last year. His destination: his old stomping grounds in Afghanistan, now controlled by the ultra-conservative Taliban. He remains holed-up there to this day, still directing various Islamist military activities.
In interviews with both Arabic-and English-speaking journalists, bin Laden has often cited the U.S. approach to Sudan as an example of the assault on global Islam — a situation, he says, that justifies his sending followers to fight in such far-flung places as Chechnya, Bosnia, and Somalia. He also frequently condemns the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq, as well as U.S. support of Israel. ”His main focus is Saudi Arabia, but he doesn’t have enough Saudis or Afghans to accomplish what he wants,” says Armstrong. ”He wants to see Islamist states left alone to be Islamist states. And within the Islamist world, he’s willing to join in any coalitions to get critical mass.”
The extent of his involvement, however, varies, and just how active a role he takes in certain actions isn’t entirely clear. In the case of a 1995 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, bombing — in which five American servicemen were killed — a federal grand jury in Manhattan continues to probe his suspected role. And he was never indicted in the World Trade Center bombing, though several current and former intelligence officials indicate they strongly suspect he had some connection. One of the convicted bombers, for instance, fled to Pakistan after the incident, where he hid out in a house for Islamist radicals that bin Laden had funded. Additionally, bin Ladin and Wali Khan, a convicted conspirator on another bombing, are ”good friends” according to bin Ladin, who fought alongside Khan in Afghanistan.
As far as other actions are concerned, ”Someone might suggest something and bin Ladin might say, ‘yeah,”’ says a former CIA Middle East analyst. ”A lot of these [terrorist acts] are cooked up ad hoc. And while I believe some of bin Laden’s communications have been intercepted, part of what makes him so dangerous is that he’s so low-tech and his people are so scattered. Communications for the planning of this were probably innocuous channels–letters, innocuous-sounding phone calls from relatives’ houses.”
The apparent confession in the embassy bombings appears to have clarified things considerably, however. According to Monday’s Washington Post, Mohammed Sadiq Howaida — picked up for using a phony passport on a flight in from Kenya — has not only confessed to a role in the bombing, but has told authorities he was acting for bin Ladin. Larry Barcella, an ex-assistant U.S. attorney who specialized in terrorist cases, predicts relatively quick indictments for bin Ladin and his associates.
There is, however, the issue of apprehending bin Laden, whose remote location in Taliban territory does not lend itself to easy warrant service. In the meantime, national security expert Armstrong offers a suggestion: ”The CIA might do better to figure out what the U.S. could do to support our friends without making regimes so ostentatiously corrupt that they end up giving credence to bin Ladin.”