From the archives: Osama bin Laden is dubbed ‘most dangerous man in the world’
For almost a decade, the United States considered him a virtual ally. Fellow Saudis viewed him as a philanthropist. To the West, he was a noble warrior against East Bloc communism. And Islamic governments praised him as a hero against infidel aggression.
But today, governments on four continents view Osama bin Laden, a millionaire Saudi dissident who gained fame in the 1980s for helping expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan, as the greatest individual threat to their security interests worldwide. Some even compare his fanatic hatreds and killing skills to Carlos “The Jackal,” the legendary Venezuelan-born terrorist and assassin of the 1970s.
In the embryonic first phase of the East African bombing investigations, U.S. officials are increasingly pointing to Bin Laden and his followers as prime suspects--with the strong caveat that first impressions have in the past been proved dead wrong.
Yet Bin Laden was identified as the reigning terrorist threat long before the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were reduced to shells of concrete, mangled wires and broken glass.
“Even before the East African bombings, the United States viewed him as the most dangerous man in the world,” said former CIA counter-terrorism chief Vince Cannistraro. “He’s out to kill as many Americans as he can anywhere he can get them.”
Since last February, Bin Laden’s campaign has taken yet another dramatic turn. He has merged a host of disparate Islamic forces in an umbrella group that operates under the name of the International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. This group is the formalization of a loose, long-standing alliance of Egyptians, Pakistanis, Jordanians, Lebanese, Saudis, Algerians and a smattering of other nationalities, U.S. officials say.
More ominous, senior U.S. officials say, was a new fatwa, or edict. Bin Laden revealed that an unnamed cleric ordered Muslims to strike not only the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia but also “to kill the Americans and their allies--civilian and military--in any country in which it is possible to do it.”
But as Bin Laden has charged ahead, so has the United States. U.S. attorneys this summer convened a grand jury to try to get a sealed indictment on Bin Laden--an early step along a long road in trying to get him. “He’s at war with us. He’s said it openly. And now we’re at war with him,” said a senior Clinton administration official.
Bin Laden, now in his early 40s, is an unlikely enemy. The aesthete-looking Saudi with a scruffy beard and soulful eyes is the son of a construction magnate who sired 52 children and made tens of billions of dollars off the ruling Saudi family by enlarging the holy places, courtesy of soaring oil prices in the 1970s, according to U.S. officials. Bin Laden was the 17th of 20 sons who lived royally growing up.
Ironically, Bin Laden also worked parallel to U.S. interests in Afghanistan for a decade. After dropping out of King Abdul Aziz School for Economics and Management in 1979 to join the Afghan jihad, he used a personal wealth estimated at $250 million to recruit, train, arm and support a network of Muslims brought in from outside Afghanistan.
He was more a fund-raiser and organizer than a fighter, said Milton Beardon, who ran the U.S. operation in Afghanistan for six years. “His activities have taken on mythical proportions, when, in fact, he spent more time in Pakistan with refugees, fund-raising and establishing centers for widows and orphans of martyrs in the Afghan jihad,” he said.
But Bin Laden was part of a major victory against the Soviets at Alikhel, where a group of the Arab forces held off troops with far superior equipment and training plus air power. And Bin Laden’s network of non-Afghan forces ended up at least 10,000 strong, Beardon said.
Bin Laden later said the experience shattered the myth of superpower invincibility.
The odyssey from ally to enemy is unusual in that it took its dramatic turn in 1990 as an unnoticed byproduct of Operation Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf. As a half million American troops deployed in Saudi Arabia to help liberate the oil-rich city-state of Kuwait from Iraq’s military grasp, Bin Laden saw the Gulf War not as a heroic effort to restore sovereignty but as a modern crusade in Islam’s holy places in his homeland.
“The American government has committed the greatest mistake in entering a peninsula that no religion from among the non-Muslim nations has entered for 14 centuries,” he explained to Western journalists years later. “Never has Islam suffered a greater disaster than this invasion.”
Bin Laden moved from Afghanistan to Sudan in 1991, after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan led to a civil war. From Khartoum, he and his followers shifted focus to the United States, Saudi Arabia and its allies in an ever-escalating campaign.
U.S. counter-terrorism officials now believe he played a role in bombings aimed at U.S. troops in Yemen in 1992, a 1993 attack that killed 19 American service personnel in Somalia, and a 1994 plot to blow up 11 U.S. airliners in Asia, which if successful, would have ranked as the deadliest aviation terrorism ever.
“Resistance started because Muslims did not believe that the Americans came to save the Somalis. Muslims in Somalia cooperated with some Arab holy warriors who had been in Afghanistan. Together, they killed large numbers of American occupation troops,” he later told CNN.
He is also believed to have strong direct or indirect links with World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who for three years moved in and out of guest houses in Pakistan that Bin Laden funded. In interviews, Bin Laden has denied knowing Yousef.
But U.S. investigators are convinced they had ties, notably in plans for the multiple-airline attack and possibly in the World Trade Center blast. Bin Laden’s money and international support network may have been critical in both.
He is also tied indirectly to Saudi bombers convicted of killing five American military personnel in Riyadh, the capital, in 1995. As part of their televised confessions, two of the Saudi bombers said they had been influenced by Bin Laden.
Bin Laden denies involvement in both the 1995 attack and the 1996 Khobar Towers bomb that killed 19 American service personnel. But he did laud both. “I have great respect for the people who did this. They are heroes,” he told CNN last year.
His hatred of the United States and the Saudi royal family heightened after they pressured the militant Islamic government in Sudan to deport him in 1996. He returned to Afghanistan, where he makes his headquarters in a rustic mountain compound near a cave, fully equipped with computers, satellite telephones and the latest gadgetry.
Looking back, 1996 marked another turning point, counter-terrorism experts say. The Saudi government, which had revoked his citizenship in 1994, tried to win Bin Laden back. He was offered his passport and personal property and a return to the kingdom “in dignity” in exchange for a public acknowledgment of the king and royal family. He refused.
The U.S.-Saudi move to have him deported from Sudan that year may also turn out to have backfired. “Both countries may look back on this as the stupidest move since the Germans sent Lenin back to Moscow,” said a senior former U.S. intelligence official.
Although Bin Laden was forced out, many of his followers and his business connections stayed in Sudan, which borders Kenya.
This year, the series of virulent new threats set off alarm bells in Washington, which reacted by imposing a curfew on the 5th Fleet in the Gulf and cutting off shore leaves at key Gulf ports.
In May, Bin Laden told ABC-TV’s “Nightline”: “We believe the biggest thieves and terrorists in the world are the Americans. The only way for us to fend off these assaults is to use similar means. We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians. They are all targets in this fatwa.”
Three months later, two bombs went off in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 260 people.
But counter-terrorism experts warn against giving Bin Laden too much credit.
“I’m uncomfortable with the role we’re giving him and the myths being created,” Beardon said. “I’m not saying he couldn’t have done it. He’s fully capable of evil. But he’s not a Carlos, Che Guevara and [Palestinian radical] Abu Nidal all rolled into one.”
Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson in Jerusalem contributed to this report.