"Our target was terror. Our mission was clear."
-- President Clinton, Aug. 20, 1998
To the litany of terrorist acts that President Clinton laid at the feet of renegade Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden in justification of his cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and the Sudan last week, the administration has now alleged a murky plot to assassinate the president as well.
The alleged plot against Clinton was to have taken place when he was to have visited Pakistan. The anonymous intelligence sources that have made such an industry in bin Laden revelations this week acknowledge that the plot never went beyond the coffee-shop talking stage.
But the charge helped to reinforce the president's claims that bin Laden is "perhaps the preeminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today," and that there was "compelling" -- if unrevealable -- evidence that a network of terrorist groups he controlled was planning "further attacks against Americans and other freedom-loving groups."
At a time when presidential veracity is at an all-time low, one might have wished that the president and his national security advisors had laid out in detail just what was the "compelling evidence" that led the United States to launch some 75 missiles at two sovereign nations.
As it is, the public, both here in the United States and in the more critical world at large, is being asked to take a giant Kierkegaardian leap of faith in the president's claims. Given Clinton's recent track record in the "trust me" department, this is a lot to demand.
For while there is little doubt that bin Laden is a sworn enemy of the United States with the financial means to put some teeth in that enmity, his exact role in anti-American terrorism is unclear. The administration's claims are based more on conjecture -- mostly bin Laden's own braggadocio and the bad company he apparently keeps -- than hard and convincing evidence.
Clinton and his security staff have now blamed bin Laden for being behind almost every terrorist act in the past decade -- from plotting the assassinations of the pope and the president of Egypt to the planned bombing of six U.S. jumbo jets over the Pacific, with massacres of German tourists at Luxor and the killings of U.S. troops in Somalia, fatal car bombings of U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia and this month's truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam thrown in. Not since the '70s heyday of the terrorist Carlos has there been such a Prince of Darkness, if the allegations are to be believed.
But so far, for all of the accusations, no government, not even that of the United States, has established enough credible evidence against bin Laden to conclusively prove his direct participation in, much less leadership of, any of the ugly plots and acts he stands accused of. To date no formal request for his extradition has ever been made, either to the Sudanese government that once housed him or to his current hosts, Afghanistan's Taliban leaders.
Though it was suddenly leaked this week that a federal grand jury's continuing investigation into the World Trade Center bombing in New York City in 1993 had belatedly handed up a sealed indictment against bin Laden in June, the indictment is understood to be only for "sedition," that is, incitement to violence, not the violence itself. That is the same charge under which the Unites States previously convicted Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the Trade Center bomber's spiritual leader.
The only link between bin Laden and the World Trade Center bombing seems to be the fact that the mastermind of the bombing, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, was eventually detained by U.S. agents while living in a guest house in Pakistan reportedly rented by bin Laden. The Saudi was also implicated in a failed 1994 plan to blow up American jumbo jets over the Pacific because the plot mastermind, Wali Khan Amin Shah, reportedly was a "close friend" of bin Laden's.
If bin Laden's fingerprints were to be found on any terrorist acts of the last decade, they should have been on the two attacks against U.S. military personnel carried out in the years when he was still living in his Saudi Arabian homeland. Bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi engineering graduate who became a radical Muslim after joining the war against Russia's occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, became virulently anti-American after U.S. troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Gulf War.
To him the American presence in Saudi Arabia, home of the holy Islamic sites Mecca and Medina, is a sacrilege he has vowed to reverse, along with toppling the "corrupt" Saudi royal family that has allowed it. Thus, when a car bomb exploded at a Saudi National Guard office in Riyadh in 1995, killing five Americans, and another blew up at the Khobar Towers Barracks in Dhahran a year later, killing another 19, bin Laden seemed the most likely suspect.
But neither the FBI, the CIA nor the Saudi intelligence services has ever been able to establish bin Laden's links to those crimes after years of trying. What evidence that has emerged from those ongoing investigations points the finger at dissident Saudi Shiites, perhaps with the logistic support of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization, or even Iran.
Though much has been made of the fact that from his safe-houses in Afghanistan bin Laden has forged a loose alliance with perhaps a dozen different Islamic groups in the Muslim world from Algeria to Bangladesh, he seems to be more of a spiritual leader and financier than the sort of terrorist mastermind being alleged.
"Bin Laden is a true believer and a funder of Islamic causes, rather than a planner and active participant," says Professor Shibley Telhani, a Middle East scholar from the University of Maryland who has followed his career. "His real influence is not as a mastermind of terrorism but as a person who is using a personal fortune to encourage others to wage war against the American interests in the Middle East he finds so objectionable."
Indeed the sealed federal indictment just handed up, it would appear, is not based on any evidence directly linking him to either of those plots or others. Instead, it seems to have been motivated by a public call to arms against Americans that bin Laden published in the London Arabic newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi last February. Issued as an Islamic Fatwa, or holy order, even though bin Laden has no religious authority whatsoever, the broadside by bin Laden and other signers from various Islamic groups called for Muslims to "kill Americans and their allies, civilians and military" wherever they find them.
These are strong words indeed. But they are words, not deeds. And though it is all too likely that those words have inspired others to such actions as the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam last month, bin Laden himself is unlikely to have personally ordered those bombings or carried them out.
Unless the Clinton administration can come up with some hard evidence that bin Laden is in fact calling the shots of a vast new anti-American terrorist network, all the present allegations and faceless intelligence-source leaks claiming facts too secret and explosive to be revealed should be taken with a grain of salt.
Bin Laden may be a dangerous anti-American zealot with a mouth as big as his bankroll. But the evidence so far does not support him being a cerebral Islamic Dr. No moving an army of terrorist troops on a vast world chessboard to checkmate the United States.