Bin Laden in a Nutshell
A TIME.com primer on the Saudi 'superterrorist' BY TONY KARON
Thursday, May. 31, 2001
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
He is a Saudi financier who recruited and led Arab volunteers for the ‘jihad' against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. Since that war, he has sent his "Arab Afghans" to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and other conflicts involving Muslims. But he also declared a 'jihad' against the United States, and has been accused of authoring a number of attacks on Americans, most notably the 1998 embassy bombings in east Africa. He's also a prime suspect in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
What does Bin Laden Want?
Bin Laden believes Muslim countries should be ruled according to Islamic sharia law, thus pitting him against the pro-Western regimes all over the Middle East. U.S. support for these regimes and for Israel, as well as the presence of "infidel" American forces in Saudi Arabia are the reasons he offers for his 'jihad' against the U.S. Bin Laden wants to drive the U.S. out of Arab lands, overthrow the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and destroy Israel.
Who are Bin Laden's operatives and how does his network function?
Bin Laden's own organization, Al Qaida, is based primarily on Arab volunteers who fought in Afghanistan and were either unwilling or unable to return home. They maintained training camps in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere, where they trained fighters for Islamist armies as far afield as Chechnya and western China. Many of these operatives were also trained and deployed to create the infrastructure for and execute terrorist actions against targets associated with the U.S. all over the world.
The Afghan 'jihad' also established links between volunteers from Islamist opposition groups in countries ranging from Algeria to South Africa and the Philippines, and Bin Laden has moved ¡ª together with key leaders of Egypt's influential Islamist movement ¡ª to establish himself at the center of a kind of Islamist International. Their goal has been to link organizations spawned by local grievances all around the world into a global 'jihad' against the U.S. and to foster cooperation among these groups.
Security experts believe Bin Laden's networks are not tightly or vertically linked. Instead, any number of smaller cells and loosely affiliated organizations receive support from and carry out operations on behalf of the Saudi financier and his immediate lieutenants.
Where are they based?
Bin Laden remains holed up in Afghanistan, where he enjoys the protection of its ruling Taliban militia. But structures linked with Bin Laden have been identified in Yemen, Bosnia, the Philippines, even New Jersey ¡ª pockets of support have been unearthed in most places where foreign veterans of the Afghan war are to be found. Earlier this year, a New York court convicted a former Egyptian army major of doing intelligence work for Bin Laden's networks ¡ª Ali Mohammed had also been a sergeant in the U.S. Army. And the Algerians arrested last December for allegedly smuggling explosives into the U.S. are suspected of working with Bin Laden, even though they had been linked with Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front ¡ª a group that has not traditionally targeted the U.S. That suggests a growing tendency towards cooperation between distinct local groups, which considerably widens the base of potential threats against the U.S.
How do Bin Laden's networks differ from other terrorist groupings in the Middle East?
Before the Bin Laden group emerged, terrorist organizations in the Mideast depended on states to sponsor their activities. The notorious PLO dissident Abu Nidal, for example, might carry out attacks on behalf of Syria, Libya or other sponsors, as would the notorious Venezuelan "Carlos the Jackal," currently in prison in France. Similarly, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia has depended on backing from Iran and a nod and a wink from Syria. Hezbollah, of course, has primarily waged a guerrilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon, but it has also been a suspect in terrorist attacks both inside Lebanon and abroad. But unlike Bin Laden's group ¡ª and the equally cosmopolitan Abu Nidal ¡ª Hezbollah tends to remain focus on home ground, and on lending its support and expertise to Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza.
The most notorious Palestinian terrorist group of the past decade has been Hamas, which has killed scores of Israeli civilians in suicide bombing attacks inside Israel. Based in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas opposes Yasser Arafat and the peace process, but it is not known to have mounted attacks outside of Israel and the Palestinian territories. Thus far, Israeli security officials believe that despite their animosity to the Jewish State, Osama Bin Laden's forces have not for the most part directly targeted Israel.
The Osama Bin Laden Nobody Knows
A 'plot' to assassinate the President is the latest chapter of an oft-misunderstood saga. TIME.com's Tony Karon separates the Bin Laden myth from reality. BY TONY KARON
Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2001
That It Boy of international terror, Osama Bin Laden, is back in the news. Headlines from just the past week: "Russians Reveal Bin Laden Plot to Kill Bush at G8 Meeting." "Bin Laden Video Claims Responsibility for Cole Bombing." "Yemen Foils Bin Laden Plot to Kill U.S. Investigators." "Bin Laden Group Planned to Blow Up U.S. Embassy in India? Vile acts and wretched conspiracies reported all over the world appear to carry the imprimatur of the Saudi terror tycoon skulking in the hills of Afghanistan, his name now the globally recognizable shorthand for Islamist terror in the same way that "Xerox" has become for "photocopy."
Bin Laden has become a geopolitical Keyser Soze, an omnipresent menace whose very name invokes perils far beyond his capability. To be sure, his threat is very real ¡ª he is a financier of considerable means who maintains a network of loyalists committed to a war of terror against the U.S. And he has put his money, connections and notoriety to work in influencing Islamist movements with grievances against Washington.
If Bin Laden didn't exist, we'd have to invent him
Still, the media's picture of Bin Laden sitting in a high-tech Batcave in the mountains around Kandahar ordering up global mayhem at the click of a mouse is more than a little ludicrous. Yes, the various networks of Islamist terror have made full use of the possibilities presented by technology and globalization. But few serious intelligence professionals believe Bin Laden is the puppet-master atop a pyramid structure of terror cells. It's really not that simple, but personalizing the threat ¡ª while it distorts both the nature of the problem and the remedy ¡ª is a time-honored tradition. Before Bin Laden, the face of the global terror threat against Americans belonged to the Palestinian radical Abu Nidal. Or was it Colonel Ghaddafi? Ayatolla Khomeini, perhaps? And does anyone even remember the chubby jowls of Carlos the Jackal, whose image drawn from an old passport picture was once the icon of global terror?
Personalizing makes it seem more manageable. Bin Laden may be out of reach right now, safe in the care of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers. But by making him the root of the problem, we hold out the possibility that his ultimate removal from the scene will make the world safe from Islamist terror. A comforting thought, but a delusion nonetheless.
The dangers are real. Last Saturday, Indian police arrested a group of men allegedly planning to blow up the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and quickly turned up evidence linking the plot to Bin Laden. Two days later, an unrelated plan, involving suicide bombers killing U.S. agents investigating the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, was foiled in Yemen; their trail, too, leads back to Bin Laden. He was in the news again the following day after Western reporters were shown a Bin Laden promotional video in which he appeared to claim responsibility for the bombing of the Cole in a macabre poem.
Then there is the sublime: For sheer diabolical genius (of the Hollywood variety), nothing came close to the reports that European security services are preparing to counter a Bin Laden attempt to assassinate President Bush at next month's G8 summit in Genoa, Italy. According to German intelligence sources, the plot involved Bin Laden paying German neo-Nazis to fly remote controlled-model aircraft packed with Semtex into the conference hall and blow the leaders of the industrialized world to smithereens. (Paging Jerry Bruckheimer? The Russians, who believe a Bin Laden attack in Genoa is more likely to be carried out by their old enemy, the Chechens, have sent an advance team of anti terrorism experts (armed, we hope, with small-scale anti-aircraft weapons).
But Bin Laden's role has always been that of facilitator. That was his function in the 'Islamist International' formed, with the active encouragement of the CIA and Egyptian and Saudi intelligence, to recruit volunteers to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. His considerable wealth (and ability to raise funds from others) and his organizational expertise played a key role in helping the "Arab Afghans," as the volunteers became known, play a creditable role in the war against the Soviets. And once that war was won, he continued to play the same role, keeping its veterans together and maintaining an infrastructure to arm, train and fund Islamist warriors for deployment in Muslim armies in places as diverse as Bosnia, Chechnya, Western China and the Philippines.
He's not ducking blame, he's demanding it
Having come under the influence of radical Egyptian Islamists in Afghanistan, Bin Laden found himself in conflict with the pro-Western regime in his native Saudi Arabia. The Gulf War proved to be his breaking point with the Saudi royal family. Driven by a desire to expel the U.S. from the Gulf region and overthrow a royal family he denounced as corrupt apostates, he turned his fire increasingly against America. The World Trade Center bombers may have been motivated by similar concerns ¡ª and they may have been inspired by some of the same militant teachings of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman ¡ª but the two don't appear to have been directly linked.
Bin Laden subsequently claimed his men were behind the 1993 debacle in Mogadishu, where 17 U.S. servicemen were killed in a botched raid on a local warlord. Whether or not there's any basis to the claim, Bin Laden wants to be held responsible for that and any other attack for which the media is prepared to blame him. The reason he has spent the past decade offering assistance to a wide range of pre-existing Islamist groups is precisely because he wants to paint himself as the personification of the considerable anti-American sentiment inflaming much of the Arab world, a latter-day Salah el Din driving out the imagined Crusaders. The Western need to personalize the terrorist menace plays into his hands. Indeed, most experts agreed that President Clinton's 1998 cruise missile strikes on Bin Laden were probably the single most important PR boost in the Saudi's career.
Even when groups involved in malfeasance around the world have had dealings with Bin Laden or those close to him, intelligence experts don't believe that the Saudi financier is necessarily pulling the strings when they act. What Bin Laden may in fact personify is the coming together of diverse Islamist groups during the Afghan war, and their identification of the U.S. as their primary enemy during the decade that followed. So lop off the head, and the body continues to function, because it remains a diverse and diffuse set of groups and cells with their own internal structures, driven by a common sense of implacable grievance. That menace will remain, even if Bin Laden is removed. We may simply have to find a new name and face for it.