The enemy with a thousand faces

In Osama bin Laden, the U.S. is confronting one of the most stealthy and formidable foes in its history.

Published September 14, 2001 1:37AM (EDT)

While Bush administration officials refuse to state with certainty who was responsible for this week's terrorist offensive against the U.S., Osama bin Laden, the millionaire Saudi exile who is based in Afghanistan, is clearly their top suspect. His terrorist organization, al-Qaida, is one of the only ones in the world, if not the only one, with the resources, experience and sophistication to carry out such an attack, experts say.

There is some evidence, though sketchy, linking bin Laden to the attack. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said U.S. officials learned of an intercepted telephone conversation between two bin Laden associates "who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit." Bin Laden's followers also warned an Arab-language newspaper by telephone three weeks ago that a major attack on the West was coming soon, according to a London-based Arab journalist.

The New York Times reported that bin Laden made a two-hour videotape that was delivered to a Kuwaiti newspaper in June. On that videotape, which was widely disseminated in the Arab world, bin Laden exulted in his power to strike at the United States, saying, "With small capabilities, and with our faith, we can defeat the greatest military power of modern times. America is much weaker than it appears." He also appeared to call for a suicide attack in the United States, saying to supporters, "You will not die needlessly. Your lives are in the hands of God."

The complexity and coordination of the attacks, with four planes hijacked within a short time of each other, pointed to the Saudi fugitive, officials and experts said. "This apparently was well-planned over a number of years -- planned by real pros and experts," Hatch said Tuesday. "[Our] belief is, at least initially, that this looks like Osama bin Laden's signature."

Bin Laden, who has been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List since 1993, is thought to have masterminded the attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, last year's attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, and the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. He is also known to have bankrolled terrorist and radical fundamentalist groups throughout the world.

For most of his career, bin Laden's primary goal has been the ouster of American troops from the Arabian Peninsula. Lately, however, his statements have given more emphasis to supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israel. He has considerable support among sectors of the Arabic world, particularly its most disaffected and impoverished elements -- as witnessed by the cheers that greeted the announcement of the attacks in Palestinian refugee camps.

Al-Qaida is an umbrella organization that includes about 20 Islamist groups, including Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and the Armed Islamic Group, with operatives in many countries. The exact number of his followers is unknown: Estimates range from a few hundred to 3,000 or more. How many of these are commandos prepared to die in suicide missions is unknown.

Bin Laden has always denied responsibility for the attacks he has been accused of perpetrating. Associates close to him, and his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan, denied that he was involved in the latest attack. But his denials carry little weight with terrorism experts like Michele Zanini, who see him as representative of a new breed of terrorists who see no reason to avow their acts because they have no single political goal.

According to an anonymous source close to bin Laden who gave extensive information to the PBS program "Frontline" for a documentary on him, bin Laden was born in 1957, the seventh son of 50 children born to a Yemeni father who made millions running construction projects in Saudi Arabia. His father was a fairly devout Muslim, and young Osama was also religious.

It was not until after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, however, that he became a zealot. Bin Laden traveled to Afghanistan numerous times, providing resources to the mujahedin resistance and ultimately becoming a military leader himself. While in Afghanistan, he and his organization, al-Qaida, may have received training and financial assistance from the CIA, which, as detailed in Mary Anne Weaver's article "Blowback"in the May 1996 Atlantic, provided more than $3 billion to seven Afghan resistance groups, helping create a hard-line Islamic Frankenstein from which the U.S. would later recoil. The "Frontline" source denies that bin Laden received any aid or training from the CIA. But in any case, the so-called "Afghan Arabs," battle-hardened, often virulently anti-Western and fundamentalist mujahedin, were to become a far bigger problem for the West than the futile imperialist graspings of the declining Soviet empire. Some "Afghan Arabs" went on to fight in Chechnya and Bosnia; others remained in Afghanistan; others dispersed throughout the world.

The decisive and traumatic event in bin Laden's relationship to the West was the 1990 stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia before the 1991 Gulf War. For bin Laden, the fact that the godless United States, the best friend of Israel, was profaning the soil of the country housing two of the three most sacred Islamic sites was intolerable. Bin Laden quickly became too radical for his native country and was expelled from Saudi Arabia because of his anti-government activities; he is suspected of involvement in the deadly 1995 and 1996 car bombings in Riyadh and Dharan. (Bin Laden denied involvement in the bombings, but told CNN, "I have great respect for the people who did this action. What they did is a great job and a big honor I missed participating in."

After his expulsion from Saudi Arabia, bin Laden moved to Sudan, where he lived for five years. When U.S. pressure forced Sudan to expel him, he returned to Afghanistan, where he is currently based.

In August 1996, bin Laden issued a fatwa, or religious decree, authorizing his followers to kill U.S. military personnel. In a 1997 CNN interview with Peter Arnett -- which was played before the jury trying four men accused of bombing the U.S. embassies in Africa -- bin Laden explained that "We declared jihad against the U.S. government, because the U.S. government is unjust, criminal, and tyrannical."

Bin Laden said he issued the fatwah because of American support for Israel, which occupies territory claimed by the Palestinians, and in reaction to the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia. "It is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country," he said.

Railing against the United States, bin Laden said it "wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose on us agents to rule us based not on what God has revealed." He added, "If American presence continues, then it is natural for reactions to continue against this."

Rejecting the American characterization of him as a terrorist, bin Laden said, "With a simple look at the U.S. behaviors, we find that it judges the behavior of the poor Palestinian children whose country was occupied: if they throw stones against the Israeli occupation, it says they are terrorists whereas when the Israeli pilots bombed the United Nations building in Qana, Lebanon while it was full of children and women, the U.S. stopped any plan to condemn Israel. Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world."

In the interview, bin Laden denied he was linked to Ramzi Yousef, the chief conspirator behind the 1993 World Trade Center attack. (In an article that appeared in the winter 1995-96 issue of the National Interest, terrorism expert Laurie Mylroie wrote that a "very persuasive case can be made that Ramzi Yousef is an Iraqi intelligence agent, and that his bombing conspiracies were meant as Saddam Hussein's revenge for the Gulf War.")

But bin Laden did make clear in that interview that American civilians would be future targets. "We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets in this fatwah," bin Laden said.

If this dedicated enemy of America does indeed prove to be guilty of planning the monstrous attacks of this week, how can the U.S. bring him to justice? Here the problems become far more complex and difficult than the bellicose table-pounding of some pundits would suggest.

Bin Laden has apparently used the Internet as a tool for communicating with his widespread terrorist organization. In February, USA Today reported that bin Laden uses digital encryption tools to hide messages in typical Web pornography and sports chat discussions. These messages may very well include plans for upcoming terrorist attacks.

American intelligence specializes in high-tech surveillance, so if bin Laden's organization is using computers to communicate, it could be its Achilles' heel. But failing a major electronic intelligence breakthrough -- which would be highly unlikely to give his actual location in any case -- locating and wiping out bin Laden's operation will be extraordinarily difficult. First is the issue of dispersal. Bin Laden operates more as a venture capitalist of terror than a military leader, disbursing funds to a loose network of terrorists and operatives scattered around the world. Command structures, such as they are, are set up in classic terrorist "cell" fashion, in which each operative knows only a few others.

Killing or capturing bin Laden himself could be possible, although his constant movements within Afghanistan may make it necessary to send in ground troops. And his elimination could severely hurt his organization -- not least by stemming a key source of funds. But the fact remains that radical anti-American Islamist terrorist operations would probably carry on without him. This makes direct military action, whether "surgical," low-risk operations like cruise missile strikes or full-bore assaults using ground troops, problematic -- how do you hit a "target" that consists of a few men lurking in the alleyways and bazaars of Peshawar or Kabul -- or the streets of Boston or Santa Monica?

And not just there. Bin Laden's operatives are found throughout the world. An article in Jane's Intelligence Review reported that Al-Qaeda "is a conglomerate of groups spread throughout the world operating as a network. It has a global reach, with a presence in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Syria, Xinjiang in China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Mindanao in the Philippines, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Dagestan, Kashmir, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Uganda, Ethiopia, and in the West Bank and Gaza."

As for infiltration, the CIA simply lacks the resources, training and willingness to place agents within the shadowy groups in which terror attacks are planned. In "The Counterterrorist Myth," an article by former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht that appeared in the July/August Atlantic, Gerecht argues that American intelligence agencies have almost no Arabic-speaking agents of Arab extraction, and that few operatives would be willing to undertake such dangerous work. He quotes a former senior Near East Division operative as saying, "The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing." A younger case officer boils the problem down even further: "Operations that include diarrhea as a way of life don't happen."

Earlier this year, there were reports, which have proven false, that Afghanistan's Taliban rulers might be willing to turn over bin Laden in exchange for a lifting of the international sanctions against Afghanistan. In fact, bin Laden and his followers may be enjoying greater freedom of action in Afghanistan: A recent video shows them firing weapons and assaulting buildings in military exercises, activities supposedly banned by his hosts.

Finally, there are major geopolitical and strategic risks involved in military operations against bin Laden. As Jonathan Broder pointed out in a 1998 Salon article, Clinton's cruise missile strikes against bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan missed the terrorist leader, but succeeded in radicalizing many Muslims who had previously been moderates -- and turned bin Laden himself into a hero. Enraged voices in the United States are calling for immediate military action against ill-defined "enemies," but it will be scant satisfaction to destroy Kabul if 500 new suicide bombers arise from its ashes.

In an article in Wednesday's New York Times, Clyde Haberman asked rhetorically, from the Israeli perspective, "Do you get it now?" -- using the question to tacitly defend the much-criticized Israeli practice of assassinating or "eliminating" Palestinian leaders. Israel has indeed experienced an endless flood of suicide bombers, young men willing to kill themselves to cut down Israelis, and America may indeed "get it now" -- but if our ill-considered actions lead more sectors of the Arab world to hate America as much as they hate Israel, we may get it even more in the future.

Without diplomacy and significant movement on the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the single issue that most drives the Arab world's hatred of the U.S. -- military actions that kill innocent people in Islamic countries could end up reaping the whirlwind.

And yet, after the unspeakable evil America has experienced, not to move against bin Laden, if he is indeed guilty, would be as unthinkable as not to move against Hitler.

The decisions that face American strategists and military planners in the months ahead are daunting.

Anthony York contributed to this story.

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Osama bin Laden: A guide to Web resources

There are a number of good background pieces and interviews with bin Laden available on the Web. Frontline dedicated an entire special to the hunt for bin Laden,which included a biography of him as well as an interview by Jeff Taylor.

Another good backgrounder on bin Laden is from APB News. MSNBC has compiled a helpful bin Laden FAQ.

The Anti-Defamation League also has a backgrounder on bin Laden, who has called for the elimination of the state of Israel.

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This story has been corrected.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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