On Trail of the Real Osama bin Laden
Had the world turned differently for Osama bin Laden, he would have used his engineering degree to construct buildings instead of plotting to blow them up.
To many top American officials, Bin Laden is the chief suspect in Tuesday’s massacres in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. He has been in this role before: He was indicted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell named him when he vowed that the United States would “rip the [terrorist] network up.”
Bin Laden was supposed to follow in the footsteps of his father, a billionaire Yemeni-born building contractor in Saudi Arabia, and use family ties to the Saudi royal family to get even richer.
But after learning the tenets of militant Islam in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan during the holy war against Soviet troops in the 1980s, he turned his anger on the United States when it sent troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to oppose Iraq.
By most accounts, Bin Laden was not a major player in the Afghan war. Nor is he known as an incisive Islamic scholar. But as he applied his wealth and organizational skills to his vision of dislodging the U.S. and its Western allies from the Middle East, he became the focus of U.S. anti-terrorism experts--and consequently a hero to many angry, disenfranchised Muslims.
Bin Laden denies involvement in Tuesday’s attacks, and some terrorist experts caution that others might have been more directly involved. They cite evidence that terrorist cells tied to other radical groups and governments could have been the organizers.
But Bin Laden’s influence stretches far beyond his Afghanistan bases. Regardless whether it can ever be determined that he ordered the attacks, his support for Islamic radicals has made him an inspiration for terrorists around the globe.
Among other names, his followers call him “the Prince,” “the Emir” or “the Director.” CIA profilers have studied every known utterance and piece of film footage of Bin Laden for clues to his motives, his health and his mental state.
Bin Laden’s ruthless radicalism actually began as a reaction to the astonishing wealth and excesses of the 1970s oil boom in Saudi Arabia, said Yossef Bodansky, who studied Bin Laden as director of the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.
Believed to have been born in 1957, Bin Laden grew up tall and lean during those profligate years. At about 6-foot-5, he towers over his associates. Some accounts of his teenage years say he was quiet and pious; other say he often flew to Beirut, then the Riviera of the Middle East, where he partied in casinos and nightclubs, chased women and sometimes let off steam in bar brawls.
His transformation into a holy warrior was, in part, fueled by a now widespread conviction in the Muslim world that U.S. support for Israel allows it to illegally occupy Palestinian territory.
Bin Laden told Qatar’s Al Jazeera television in a rare interview in 1999 that even when he was on the same side as the United States--fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan--he “always hated the Americans because they are against Muslims. . . . We didn’t want the U.S. support in Afghanistan, but we just happened to be fighting the same enemy.”
His terrorism career began the second time he was faced with prospect of a U.S. military alliance with Muslims--this time when Saudi Arabia and many other countries joined the American-led coalition against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
A Declaration of War Against the U.S. in 1996
When Saudi King Fahd agreed in 1990 to let Washington send soldiers to his nation, Bin Laden urged peaceful protest through a boycott of American goods. The royal family turned against him, and Bin Laden joined Islamists demanding far more extreme measures.
According to the indictment that accuses Bin Laden of masterminding the 1998 embassy bombings, which killed 224 people and injured thousands, his global network of terror is called Al Qaeda, which is Arabic for “the Base.”
His first base was in Sudan, where he moved after leaving Saudi Arabia. But U.S. pressure on that war-racked African country forced him to move to Afghanistan with a military transport planeload of 150 supporters in 1996. He declared war on all Americans the same year.
Since January 1996, a dozen U.S. federal agencies have been cooperating in the effort to stop Bin Laden’s jihad against Americans. But his network only expanded its reach, with allies in a long list of countries as diverse as Egypt, Somalia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Malaysia and the Philippines.
It is Bin Laden’s ability to spin such a lethal web out of loosely allied Islamist groups around the world that makes him so unique--and difficult to stop.
“He’s been singularly successful in unifying the diverse strands of terrorism in the Middle East and weaving them into a more formidable whole than it’s ever been,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of think tank Rand Corp.'s Washington office.
“This is the first truly ‘terrorist internationale,’ ” said Hoffman, a respected expert on Middle East terrorism. “Others have had pretensions, but he’s the first to be able to do it. It’s money, charisma, being in the right place at the right time--they all play a role, but fundamentally, it’s vision.”
Bin Laden, one of dozens of children from his father’s several wives, went to some of the best schools in Saudi Arabia, where he studied management and economics so that he could take over his father’s business, Bodansky wrote.
By some accounts, he earned a reputation as a fearless front-line fighter. But CIA agents who were in the region in the 1980s say Bin Laden never stood out in the Afghan war.
“Myth upon myth” has obscured the real Bin Laden, said Milton Bearden, the CIA station chief on the Afghan border from 1986, when the United States funneled the first Stinger missile to the moujahedeen forces, until 1989, when the Soviets left.
Bin Laden was among many Arab and other Muslim foes of the Soviet occupation who funneled as much as $20 million a month to the Afghan rebels. Bin Laden focused mostly on construction work in refugee camps, on building orphanages and homes for widows of those killed in the war, Bearden said.
“You won’t find any American official who knows Bin Laden from those days,” Bearden said. “He wasn’t on anybody’s scope. He was just one of lots of guys with money out there. He certainly wasn’t a menacing figure.”
Another former CIA agent, Reuel Marc Gerecht, said Bin Laden became the financier and logistics expert for the Maktab al Khidamat, the Office of Services, an overt organization that tried to recruit and aid a steady stream of volunteers flocking to fight the Soviets.
Gerecht said the network formed the basis for Bin Laden’s current terrorist organization.
Growing frustration with the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace process was the spark. Although most of the region’s governments accept Israel’s right to exist, Bin Laden wants the Jewish state destroyed.
“He says that Israel is part of Palestine, which is part of the Arab peninsula,” said Hamid Mir, 36, a Pakistani journalist who interviewed Bin Laden in Afghanistan in March 1997 and May 1998.
“And his point of view is that, according to Islam, the whole Arab peninsula belongs to Muslims.”
Bin Laden consistently has said his first priority is to drive out U.S. troops that have been permanently stationed in Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
For a decade, his methods as well as his message have spread throughout the region.
‘My Enemy Is Every American Man’
When supporters of warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid killed 18 American soldiers and forced the U.S. troops into a humiliating retreat from Somalia, military analysts tried to figure out how lightly armed street fighters in flip-flop sandals could shoot down U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters.
They concluded that some of Bin Laden’s fighters had slipped into Somalia and taught Aidid’s militia how to alter the fuses of rocket-propelled grenades so they exploded in midair near chopper tail rotors. The small blasts were enough to knock a Black Hawk into a spinning crash.
But Bin Laden makes little distinction between American civilians and soldiers. “You say I am fighting against the American civilians,” he told one interviewer. “My enemy is every American man who is fighting against me even by paying taxes.”
His wealth also allowed him to fund humanitarian groups to aid Afghans, left impoverished in a country ruined in a struggle born of the Cold War. Food handouts went with lessons in radical Islam, weapons training and guerrilla warfare. The classes provided the core of Bin Laden’s new army of the faithful.
By early 1998, in the bitter aftermath of the Gulf War, Bin Laden’s network had quickly spread from Pakistan and the Middle East to Africa, the Balkans and beyond. It began “a new theological process: the legitimization and authorization of an all-out terrorist jihad against the West,” according to Bodansky.
However, Bin Laden’s campaign is not founded in the teachings of Islam, Mir said.
“He is not a religious scholar. He does not know the basic principles of Islamic Sharia [law],” the Pakistani journalist said. “When he says, ‘Kill every American,’ it is against Islam.”
Still, many people who would call themselves good Muslims are willing to support Bin Laden “because they hate America--they hate American policies.”
CIA doctors, psychiatrists and analysts have studied every videotaped interview of Bin Laden.
They also look at who else appears on the tapes.
“We look to see who’s next to him, and then try to compare that to other photographs and say that looks like so and so, and he’s next to Bin Laden, so maybe he’s the new No. 2 guy,” said a U.S. intelligence official who has studied Bin Laden for years.
In one video several years ago, for example, Bin Laden sat in front of a wall map with pins marking specific sites in the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East.
“Needless to say, we did everything we possibly could to see where the pins were and determine if they were targets, or cells, or what,” said the official, who asked not to be identified as a matter of policy. The agency quickly concluded that the pins were near U.S. military facilities in the region.
In another videotape, Bin Laden walked with a cane. CIA doctors pored over the tape and debated whether he was limping, and whether he thus had a physical ailment or frailty.
“The assessment of the physicians was, ‘No, he’s using it more as a swagger stick,’ ” the official said.
Despite published reports that Bin Laden suffers from a debilitating kidney ailment, the official said, “nothing now points to anything but that he is in good health and more than able to do his dirty job.”
Ordinarily, Bin Laden “lives with his four wives and some 15 children in a cave in eastern Afghanistan,” Bodansky wrote in his 1999 biography, “Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America.”
“They have no running water and only a rudimentary heating system against the extreme cold of winter. Bin Laden is always on guard against assassins, commando raids and airstrikes.”
Long before Tuesday’s attack on the United States, Bin Laden rarely slept in the same place more than two nights in a row, London-based journalist Simon Reeve wrote in his book, “The New Jackals.”
“He would shuttle around Afghanistan in a convoy of up to 20 vehicles, with a small mobile force of men armed with small arms, rocket launchers and [U.S.-made] Stinger surface-to-air missiles to protect against air attack,” Reeve said in the 1999 book.
“When they stopped overnight Bin Laden always seemed to choose caves with the most scorpions and rats lurking in the shadows.”
When the Taliban regime refused to hand over Bin Laden in 1998, the Clinton administration reportedly secretly moved Special Forces teams into the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the Afghan border, but the mission to grab Bin Laden was aborted.
The Taliban, which now stands accused of providing Bin Laden with crucial bases and protection, was also backed by Washington in the beginning. The Taliban’s rapid advances in 1996 made it seem the best hope of bringing peace and stability--and a lucrative oil and gas pipeline--to a ruined country.
But the Clinton administration turned sharply against the Taliban after the 1998 embassy bombings, when the regime refused to hand over Bin Laden for trial because he was “a guest” in Afghanistan.
By taking on the West, and allegedly ordering some of history’s most horrific terrorist attacks, Bin Laden has become a hero to the young and disaffected in the Muslim world. Potential recruits idolize Bin Laden much as many young Americans made a pop cultural icon out of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara in the 1960s.
Hoffman said the U.S. government and media’s obsession with personalities have only helped Bin Laden build his legend.
“We lionized his power and because he is so clever, he has been able to portray himself as David against Goliath. He’s been very effective,” Hoffman said.
“All over the world, he’s on matchbook covers, the back side of phony $50 bills, on wanted posters with a $5-million reward. It shows how he’s the master manipulator. . . . He takes these things we do and turns them against us. In the Muslim world, he’s managed to turn us from victim to aggressor.”
In his book, Bodansky said Bin Laden “is not a ‘Lone Ranger,’ but rather a principal player in a tangled and sinister web of terrorism-sponsoring states, intelligence chieftains and master terrorists.”
“Together they wield tremendous power throughout the Muslim world and wreak havoc and devastation upon their foes.”
Some Say Estimates of Wealth Far Too High
The Taliban insists that he doesn’t have the means to carry out such well-planned and coordinated terrorist strikes.
“All means of communication have been taken from Osama, like fax, Internet facility, satellite phone, etc.,” Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to neighboring Pakistan, said in Islamabad on Friday. “He is not able to contact anyone elsewhere in the world.”
For several months, Pakistani newspapers have reported that the Taliban was trying to negotiate a deal with the U.S. that would place monitors from Organization of the Islamic Conference to make sure Bin Laden wasn’t talking to terrorists overseas.
Bin Laden’s worth is usually reported at about $300 million. But American officials reached that figure by estimating the family fortune at $5 billion and dividing by 20, the number of supposed male heirs. Some officials are highly skeptical, or suggest that he has been disowned by his family. In any case, some officials say he lost much of his fortune when he was forced out of Sudan and has little money left.
Intelligence officials say that Al Qaeda has a core group of only a few hundred members but that it can call on several thousand followers around the world. Overall, it links about two dozen separate militant Islamic groups, all nominally controlled by a council headed by Bin Laden.
CIA officials say the underground network frequently crosses into gangsterism. One official cites “ample evidence” that Bin Laden’s group uses profits from the drug trade to finance its campaign. Followers also have been tied to bank robberies, holdups, credit card fraud and other crimes.
The group also raises money from wealthy citizens and charitable groups that operate as fronts in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states, among other nations. The CIA also has obtained evidence indicating that Bin Laden has funneled money through banks in two Persian Gulf nations, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Some U.S. officials acknowledge that the New York trial of Bin Laden associates in the embassy bombings in 1998 created the impression of a “gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”
“They had defections; they had money problems,” said one official. “It looked like a crumbling Mafia group.”
Officials such as former CIA chief R. James Woolsey have expressed doubts that Bin Laden could have orchestrated Tuesday’s attacks without at least some assistance from a government.
However, another U.S. intelligence official who has studied Bin Laden for years argues that the militant doesn’t need sophisticated technology and that his followers were perfectly capable of carrying out Tuesday’s attacks.
“Our sense is he uses various forms of communication now,” including telephone, fax, computer and other electronic means, said the official. But Bin Laden also uses encryption technology and code words that are not easily deciphered by outsiders.
“Plus a lot is, if not literally by mule, by personal meetings,” the official said. “People travel to see him, then take instructions back.”
In Tuesday’s attacks, he said, plans probably were made long ago. “It could be hatched around the campfire in Afghanistan, then people are sent out to case targets, enroll in flight schools and whatever. It takes a while, so even communication by mule is OK. At the end, all you need is a go or no-go order, and that can be in code.”
The official said he is convinced that Bin Laden’s followers were capable of planning and conducting the terrorist attacks without any outside support.
“I am confident that this operation was well within the ability of the Al Qaeda organization,” the official said. “You don’t need Iraq or Iran to get people into the United States, to get knives and cardboard cutters, to read airline schedules, to move people around.”
Hoffman said he can see why Bin Laden would top the list of suspects in Tuesday’s attacks.
But, he added, it is difficult to know whether Bin Laden was directly involved as “a field marshal issuing orders, or whether he plays impresario role, a kind of spiritual guide providing an umbrella for others to act under.”
Watson and Marshall reported from Islamabad. Drogin reported from Washington.