“Expect To Be Exposed To Murder At Any Time”
Labelled “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world” Osama Bin laden has been linked to many major terrorist attacks and initiatives in recent years – including the World Trade Center bombing, plots to kill President Clinton and the Pope, and attacks on U.S troops in Saudi Arabia and Somalia. He has also used his millions to bankroll terrorist training camps in the Sudan, the Philippines and Afghanistan, sending holy warriors to foment revolution and fight with fundamentalist Muslim forces across North Africa, in Chechnya and Tajikistan, even Bosnia. Move over Carlos The Jackal!
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
He was born in Saudi Arabia in 1957, the seventeenth of 52 sons of a wealthy construction magnate with friendly links to the Saudi royal family. Personal details are hazy and often contradictory, but Bin Laden is remembered by Saudi sources as an ordinary young man whose intense religiosity began to emerge when he grew fascinated with the ancient holy mosques of Mecca and Medina that his familiy’s company was involved in rebuilding. He has either three or four wives, and, according to some reports, was partially educated in England, where he studied engineering. What is not in doubt is his fanatical hatred of the United States. Asked in late 1997 in his first-ever television interview why he had declared a jihad against the United States he replied “because the US Government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical.
(It has) transgressed all bounds and behaved in a way not witnessed before by any power or any imperialist power in the world”. His loathing of all things American extends even to a refusal to drink Pepsi-Cola. A recent fatwa issued from his Afghan stronghold called “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 wherever and whenever they find it”. More recent remarks in a Time magazine interview hinted that the self-styled “holy warrior” was in the market for chemical and nuclear weapons and warned that Americans should “expect to be exposed to murder at any time”.
How did he get started?
At the age of 19 he went to Afghanistan and joined the Mujahedeen in their war against the Russians. He fought heroically and his engineering skills proved particularly valuable. Russian intelligence had already spotted his leadership potential, although plans to kidnap him were thwarted. Ironically, the United States poured $3 billion into the Afghan resistance via the CIA. There is an apocryphal story of a Russian general who was one of the last soldiers to leave Afghanistan. “The Americans are crazy,” he is reported to have said. “They should be paying us to stay here.” The CIA believed they were using the Mujahedeen for their own needs; that the situation might in truth have been the reverse seems not to have occurred to them. In Bin Laden’s training camps the CIA’s own manuals, supplied with a view to discomfiting the Russians, are considered essential reading. More recently, former Mujahedeen commanders close to the Taliban say that, in Afghanistan, Bin Laden bankrolled the Taliban’s capture of Kabul under the leadership of the reclusive, one-eyed Mohammed Omar.
How many men does he have?
According to Mohammed Sadiq Howaida, Bin Laden has between 4-5,000 trained Islamic fanatics in Africa and the Middle East. Howaida is the chief suspect for the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. He was arrested attempting to enter Pakistan on a false passport only hours after the explosion, and agreed to cooperate with the Pakistani authorities on the condition that he was not handed over to the Americans. The Pakistanis extracted the information and then handed him over anyway. Howaida’s testimony details Bin Laden’s personal arsenal: He possesses mortars, rockets, tanks and anti-aircraft missiles, enough to “match the army of a small country”.
Bin Laden has said his International Islamic Front for Holy War only “instigated” the bombings of the US embassies in Africa in August but that he held its perpetrators in “highest esteem”.
How does he pay for all this?
He is undoubtedly extremely rich. Estimates of his personal fortune vary wildly. Figures up to $300 million have been bandied about in the press, but the truth is that nobody knows. His money came originally from the family construction business, but was augmented by fees from building projects in Sudan. Whatever the size of his fortune, it is hidden in a complex web of international accounts and controlled through a nebulous network he calls the Foundation for Islamic Salvation. His role as a financier of terrorism is pivotal because he has revolutionised the financing of extremist movements by forming and funding his own private terror network. But not everyone believes the stories of his vast wealth. One
Saudi source was quoted as saying in The Independent: “The Americans dream up these extraordinary figures, claim them to be the truth, get them printed in the press and – just like that – they have created the millionaire terrorist that they want.”
How is he regarded in the Muslim world?
In the past, America has had some success in persuading friendly Arab states not to accept him, In 1994, he was stripped of his Saudi citizenship and forced to move to Sudan. He was expelled in 1996 by the Sudanese (on pain of US sanctions). But his recent clash with the US, and president Clinton’s firm response, have sent his stock soaring. In Libya, for example, Colonel Gadaffi personally led street protests in Tripoli following the US attack on Bin Laden’s base. In Lebanon the Al-Kifah Al-Arabi newspaper scornfully accused the US of having “closed the zipper of its president and opened the buttocks of its warships to rocket Afghanistan and Sudan”.
The US missile attack against Bin Laden’s Afghan base did little damage. Bin Laden was not in the camp at the time, but even had he been there it is doubtful that he would have been hurt. According to a senior Pakistani general, Bin Laden is “a gifted qualified engineer who is an expert in building tunnels”. He proved this against the Russians, constructing ammunition dumps and hiding places deep within the mountains, their entrances protected by huge slabs of rock. These tunnels could apparently withstand even a direct hit from a cruise missile. Nor is there any possibility of the Taliban agreeing to deport him. “We will never hand Osama over to anyone,” the Taliban’s leader, Mullar Omar, has declared. “We will protect him with our lives.”
Asked by Time whether he was trying to acquire chemical and nuclear weapons, Bin Laden said: “Acquiring weapons for the defence of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so.”
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