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 Terrorist Tragedy
Posted at 11:02 a.m. EDT Monday, September 24, 2001

A man of wealth transformed into warrior


WASHINGTON -- The president says we're at war, but who is the enemy?

Osama bin Laden clearly is Public Enemy No. 1 on the wanted posters, but he isn't a nation we can see and march into war against.

Experts say he isn't even the only terrorist who threatens America.

But his life, or what little we know about it, serves as a window into the shadowy world of 21st Century terrorism.

The reclusive, mysterious, 44-year-old multimillionaire has certainly made his mark on the world, even as he is thought to dart between caves, accompanied by a few armed guards and some laptops.

``The most important point to keep in mind is that he has brought together a network of organizations that were already in existence,'' says Michael Collins Dunn, editor of the Middle East Journal. ``These groups were autonomous before he came along, and they will easily continue to exist after he's gone.''

``He provides overall direction, an organizational base,'' says Dan Byman, research director for the Rand Center for Middle East Public Policy in Washington. ``But it's a loose federation in which people help each other out. They have a lot of bright guys, and they have shown a remarkable capacity to learn from their mistakes.''

The Bush administration acknowledges that the problem is far more than bin Laden. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the United States is confronting a ``multiheaded'' organization that may be operating in 60 countries, including the United States.

Many of these terrorists, including bin Laden, were originally brought together and had their lives inalterably radicalized by one riveting experience.

``At the core of Osama bin Laden's group is an old boys network from the Afghan war,'' says John Voll, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University in Washington and coauthor of the book Makers of Contemporary Islam.

``It was the Woodstock for the jihad generation,'' wisecracks former CIA agent Milt Bearden, who was in Afghanistan during the war.

When the war was over, the fighters returned to their homelands to start new movements to eradicate pro-Western governments and Western influences. Some ended up joining bin Laden's al Qaeda group, but others started their own groups in Egypt and elsewhere.

``It's kind of like an alumni association,'' Voll says. ``One guy says, `Gee, I know Joe Smith. Why don't you go ask him for help with that?' ''

Soft-spoken U.S. adversary
`known as being very polite'

The man who stands at the center of this association is tall, perhaps six feet four, and soft-spoken, ``a shy man,'' according to British journalist Robert Fisk, one of the few ever to interview bin Laden.

``Bin Laden is known as being very polite . . . living a very simple life,'' says Suhail Warraich, a journalist with Jang Group, a major newspaper chain in Pakistan.

He is thought to have three or four wives and 12 to 15 children. He has a mansion in Afghanistan, but he has not lived there regularly for years. When Abdelbari Atwan, editor of the London-based newspaper al Quds, visited him in the mid-1990s, he was living in a three-chamber cave crammed with computers, fax machines, a satellite telephone and a generator.

In his sleeping quarters, ``three uncomfortable beds with thin mattresses were pushed up against raw shelving that held a library of richly bound Islamic texts,'' Atwan wrote. Dinner consisted of four fried eggs shared by 12 people.

The satellite telephone was later ditched -- out of fear that intelligence agents could use its signals to track bin Laden's whereabouts.

These days, he is thought to move about with two top associates, both veteran Egyptian terrorists.

One is Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian leader of al Jihad, a group known for participating in assassinations, including that of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Zawahri is considered bin Laden's operations chief. One of his daughters recently married one of bin Laden's sons, according to a spokesman in the United States for the Taliban, the Afghan Islamic group that controls most of the country.

The other top aide is thought to be Sheik Taseer Abdullah, a former Egyptian police officer. ``People in the region believe that he is one of the real brains of the organization,'' says Warraich, the Pakistani journalist.

Bin Laden goes everywhere flanked by Arab bodyguards, but his own radical ideas are considered so close to those of the Taliban that ``they are one and the same thing, . . . Taliban and bin Laden,'' Warraich says.

Bin Laden's al Qaeda group ``now encompasses members and factions of several major Islamic militant organizations, including Islamic Group and al Jihad from Egypt, Algeria's Armed Islamic Group, Pakistan's Harakat ul-Mujahidin, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and opposition groups in Saudi Arabia,'' said a report written by Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert for the Congressional Research Service.

While America only recently declared war on terrorism, bin Laden has formally been at war with the United States for more than 2 1/2 years.

On Feb. 23, 1998, he issued a fatwa, or judgment, cosigned by radical leaders in Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan, that was a direct declaration of holy war, or jihad: ``We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money.''

Members are distant
from infamous relative

While he has taken this radical anti-Western stance, most of his family has been enjoying the comforts of modern living. One of bin Laden's brothers attended Harvard Law School. Another owns four condos, including one worth $777,000, in an upscale Boston development.

The family, which has formally separated itself from Osama, has donated $2 million through its business to Harvard University.

It's not clear how much Osama bin Laden himself is worth. ``There is a remarkable amount about bin Laden that we do not know,'' says Byman of the Center for Middle East Public Policy. ``In terms of the scope and scale of his operation, he often offers surprises to us. In three months, I think we're going to laugh at what we know now.''

Most profiles of bin Laden say that he is worth $300 million, but the origins of that figure are murky.

``I've heard $50 million to $800 million,'' says Larry Johnson, former deputy director of the State Department's counterterrorism office. ``Nobody knows for sure.''

Some Arab experts guess that the figure may be far less, either because bin Laden has already spent much of his inheritance or because the Saudi government froze his assets in 1994.

One of the conspirators in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa complained that he couldn't get $500 to pay his wife's maternity bill. An Algerian bomber in Canada, part of a failed global plot to attack millennium 2000 New Year festivities, is reported to have supported himself with petty credit-card frauds.

``Most accounts seem to suggest he's no longer relying on inherited wealth,'' says Dunn of the Middle East Journal. The funding now may be coming from donations by wealthy supporters.

Certainly bin Laden's life in caves is a big comedown from the opulence of his childhood. His father, who had started as a poor Yemeni laborer in the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah, developed a vast construction business that made him one of the wealthiest men in the country, a close friend of the Saudi royal family.

Afghan war against Soviets
gave him sense of purpose

Osama was one of more than 50 children produced by his father's many wives. According to some British publications, he married for the first time when he was 17, to a Syrian woman.

He received an engineering degree from Saudi Arabia's King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah in 1979, just as the Soviet Union was invading Afghanistan. The war gave the young college graduate a new sense of purpose.

``I was enraged and went there at once,'' he told journalist Fisk later. ``What I lived in two years there, I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere.''

A different version is related by Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, published by Yale University Press.

Rashid reports that bin Laden's arrival was tied indirectly to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which supported efforts of the Pakistani intelligence wing, the ISI, to recruit Muslim fighters from other countries. ``Washington wanted to demonstrate that the entire Muslim world was fighting the Soviet Union.''

The ISI particularly wanted a Saudi prince, Rashid wrote, as a public demonstration of the commitment of the royal family and as a way to ensure royal funds for the anti-Soviet forces. The agency failed to get royalty, but Prince Turki Bin Faisal, the head of the Saudi Intelligence Service, was able to come up with Osama of the wealthy bin Laden family, which was good enough for the ISI.

Bin Laden -- and his family's construction company fortune -- proved valuable to the war effort. He later boasted to Fisk that he directed construction of a highway and blasted tunnels into the mountains to serve as guerrilla hospitals and arms dumps.

He also boasted of his role as a warrior. ``Once I was only 30 meters from the Russians and they were trying to capture me. I was under bombardment, but I was so peaceful in my heart that I fell asleep. . . . I saw a 120mm mortar shell land in front of me, but it did not blow up. Four more bombs were dropped from a Russian plane on our headquarters, but they did not explode. . . .

``No, I was never afraid of death. As Muslims, we believe that when we die, we go to heaven. Before a battle, God sends us seqina, tranquillity.''

Camps said to have bred
`future Islamic radicalism'

Bin Laden earned the respect of many Muslim fighters because he was a rich man willing to sleep on the ground and carry a rifle, but he was not alone.

Much as the Spanish Civil War attracted leftist idealists in the 1930s, the Afghan war of the 1980s drew idealistic young Muslim men from all over.

Journalist Rashid estimates that 35,000 Muslim radicals came from other countries. ``The camps became virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism,'' he says.

Talking with one another, the radicals reaffirmed, even intensified, their beliefs -- and their hatred of what they viewed as the modern Western world.

``They are definitely opposed to the American way of life because it corrupts their idea of Muslim culture,'' says Mohamed El Khawas, professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia. ``The videos, TV programs, American films -- everything about America.''

That includes the role of women. A conspirator later convicted of blowing up the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, said one reason the embassy was targeted was that the U.S. ambassador was a woman.

El Khawas estimates that this kind of radicalism is shared by ``a tiny, tiny minority of Muslims, maybe no more than 1 percent.''

But it has become a very important minority. ``These are people the United States bears some responsibility for, like Osama bin Laden himself,'' says Voll of Georgetown. ``It was not a mysterious Muslim terrorist who taught him how to make bombs. It was the CIA.''

Bearden, the former CIA agent, says that's nonsense. He spent the war teaching Afghans how to use U.S.-provided weapons such as Stinger surface-to-air missiles. He says the agency had nothing to do with the Arab radicals who came from other nations.

``We never trained any of these guys,'' he says of the non-Afghan fighters.

Bearden says that bin Laden's name never came up as a great warrior, although ``we probably knew the name as one of the fundraisers.''

Johnson, another ex-CIA agent, says that bin Laden was ``not a major player at the time.''

Certainly bin Laden gives the CIA no credit for winning the war. ``Personally, neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help,'' he told Fisk.

Bin Laden hosted radicals
at camps and guesthouses

Whatever the CIA influence might have been, during the decadelong war, bin Laden set up camps and guesthouses for visiting Muslim radicals. These became known as The Base -- al Qaeda -- which is now the name of bin Laden's terrorist organization.

After the Soviets fled in 1989, bin Laden and other radicals began looking for new targets. If they could beat one of the world's superpowers, they thought, they could beat anyone.

According to Rashid, bin Laden first wanted to set up a ``front'' in South Yemen. The Saudi rulers got wind of his plans, and for a time pulled his passport to stop him from traveling.

In 1991 came Desert Storm, the U.S. effort against Iraq. More than 100,000 American troops rushed to the Arabian peninsula.

To bin Laden, Voll says, this invasion was even worse than the Soviet Union's because Americans were occupying the holy land of Mecca and Medina, home to Islam's holiest sites. Mecca is where Islam's preeminent prophet, Mohammed, was born, and much of the Koran was revealed to Mohammed in Mecca and Medina.

Bin Laden complained loudly about the presence of the Americans -- and about the pro-Western royal family that was welcoming the soldiers. The royals were not amused. In late 1991, they asked bin Laden to leave the country.

Bin Laden took a private jet to Sudan, where a new hard-line Muslim fundamentalist government had taken charge. Rumors began spreading that he was setting up camps to train fighters to drive Westerners out of the world of Islam.

When Fisk interviewed him in Sudan, he found bin Laden sitting ``on a chair at the back of a makeshift tent, brushing his teeth in the Arab fashion with a stick of miswak wood.''

Bin Laden denied involvement in terrorist activities. He said the camps were for former freedom fighters in Afghanistan who had come to Sudan to build roads.

Bin Laden's first terrorist act may have occurred in December 1992, when a bomb exploded in a hotel in Aden, Yemen, killing two tourists. U.S. soldiers had just left the hotel for Somalia. Intelligence agents suspected bin Laden.

In February 1993 came the first attack in America -- a truck bomb exploding in the garage at the World Trade Center. It killed six people. Bin Laden's name was not immediately linked to the bombing, but later, when conspirator Ramzi Ahmed Yousef was arrested in Pakistan, it was discovered that he had stayed in a bin Laden ``guesthouse.''

In a later interview with ABC News, bin Laden said he had not known Yousef before the bombing, but the annual report on terrorism produced by the State Department linked him to operations that Yousef later hatched in the Philippines. These included plots to assassinate the pope and President Clinton, as well as a plan to have a dozen U.S. jumbo jets explode during flights across the Pacific.

As time went on, the frequency of attacks kept picking up. In October 1993, surface-to-air missiles in Somalia downed U.S. helicopters. Eighteen soldiers were killed. Bin Laden acknowledged later in an interview that he had supported fighters going to Somalia, and he gloated when the Americans pulled out quickly.

``Our boys were shocked by the low morale of the American soldier, and they realized that the American soldier was just a paper tiger,'' he told ABC correspondent John Miller.

In 1994, concerned by continuing reports of bin Laden's terrorist activities, Saudi Arabia froze his assets and revoked his citizenship.

After that, bin Laden focused for a while on his homeland. In November 1995, a car bomb exploded in front of a center operated by U.S. troops in Riyadh. Five Americans were killed. The Saudis beheaded four people convicted in the attack.

He settles in Afghanistan,
says bombers answered call

In May 1996, under pressure from the Americans, Sudan asked bin Laden to leave. He flew to Afghanistan ``in a chartered jet with an entourage of dozens of Arab militants, bodyguards and family members, including three wives and 13 children,'' Rashid wrote.

A month later, a massive truck bomb exploded outside the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. service members.

Later, in a 1998 interview with ABC News, bin Laden acknowledged that young men ``who responded to our call'' had carried out the attacks in Riyadh and Khobar. ``Yes, we have instigated and they have responded.''

In that same interview, he said that he knew Wali Khan Amin Shah, who had been arrested in Manila, Philippines, after setting up training camps and allegedly planning an assassination of President Clinton. ``He was a close friend, and we used to fight from the same trenches in Afghanistan.'' Bin Laden wouldn't deny that Shah worked for him.

In the ABC interview, bin Laden's main message was a justification of terrorism: ``Every civilization and culture has to resort to terrorism under certain circumstances for the purpose of abolishing tyranny and corruption. . . .

``The terrorism we practice is of the commendable kind, for it is directed at the tyrants and the aggressors and the enemies of Allah. . . .

``In today's wars, there are no morals, and it is clear that mankind has descended to the lowest degrees of decadence and oppression. . . .

``Through history, America has not been known to differentiate between the military and the civilians or between men and women or adults and children. Those who threw atomic bombs and used the weapons of mass destruction against Nagasaki and Hiroshima were the Americans.''

Bin Laden warned that Yousef's activities at the World Trade Center were just the beginning:

``America will see many youths who will follow Ramzi Yousef. . . .

``If the present injustice continues . . . it will inevitably move the battle to American soil, just as Ramzi Yousef and others have done. This is my message to the American people.''

On Aug. 7, 1998, bin Laden achieved his first big one-two punch, when truck bombs killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

In many ways, that two-prong attack was a harbinger of the Sept. 11 assault in America.

The investigation of the bombings produced much of the information now known about bin Laden's operations.

Testimony cited connection
to bombings of embassies

Testimony presented during the trial showed that the key conspirators were linked directly to bin Laden. One, Wadih el Hage, had been his secretary. Ali A. Mohamed, a former U.S. Army sergeant, reported that he had seen bin Laden look at a photo of the Nairobi embassy and show where a truck could be positioned.

Surveillance had started on the embassy in Nairobi five years before the attack. According to testimony and seized training manuals, the operation was divided among three groups that knew nothing about one another: surveillance, logistics to provide weapons and explosives, and the attack force.

Testimony revealed some al Qaeda members had trained with the Hezbollah extremist group in Lebanon in the use of explosives to destroy large buildings. Iran had provided bin Laden with bombs.

Since then, bin Laden's group has forged ahead, undaunted by its failures. A multicontinent attack planned for the start of the Christian millennium was foiled with arrests in the United States and Jordan.

In January 2000, a plot to blow up the U.S. Navy destroyer Sullivans failed in Yemen.

Ten months later, an explosives-loaded dinghy killed 17 aboard the USS Cole.

Experts are certain Muslim radicals will strike again -- probably where Americans are least expecting it.

There have been repeated reports that bin Laden's people have been trying to obtain biological and nuclear weapons. Peter Bergen, author of an upcoming book on bin Laden, Holy War Inc., reports that bin Laden's people also have been experimenting with weapons based on cyanide gas and uranium waste.

Johnson, the former counterterrorism expert at the State Department, mentions tunnels, bridges, checked luggage at airports.

``They will look for vulnerabilities,'' says Byman of the Rand center on the Middle East. ``You can be sure of that.''

Joyce M. Davis, Peter Nicholas, John Walcott and Tish Wells of The Herald Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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