The man behind a network of terror Once accidental ally, Osama bin Laden now backs fight against U.S.

'We are sure of victory'

August 21, 1998|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In the 1980s, Osama bin Laden was an accidental ally of the United States, putting his fortune and organizational skill into the battle of CIA-backed Islamic freedom fighters to drive Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

Yesterday, his terror infrastructure was the target of U.S. missiles in Afghanistan and Sudan.

When the Soviet Union withdrew in defeat in 1989, bin Laden told ABC News in an interview in his Afghan hide-out in May, "it cleared from Muslim minds the myth of superpowers" and "youth ceased from seeing America as a superpower."

Soon, bin Laden had identified the United States as the new enemy of Islam. "Our battle with the Americans is larger than our battle with the Russians," he declared, adding: "We are sure of our victory."

The 17th child of 52 fathered by a billionaire Saudi construction magnate, bin Laden emerged even before U.S. officials blamed him for the embassy bombings in East Africaas the pre-eminent private sponsor of Islamic terrorism worldwide, experts said yesterday.

"In terms of threats to the United States, he's certainly the major one," said Martha Crenshaw, a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and specialist on terrorism. "There's been no one like him who has that kind of money."

Bin Laden, a multimillionaire in his mid-40s, declared a holy war in September 1996 to drive Americans from Saudi Arabia. In interviews with CNN last year and ABC in May, he broadened the threat and declared that all U.S. civilians were targets.

He is believed by Western intelligence agencies to have financed, directed or inspired many terrorist acts and plots, from the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the foiled plot to attack the United Nations that followed to two more recent attacks on U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. In interviews, he has been wary of admitting his role in specific acts.

The U.S. bombings yesterday did not kill him, according to the Afghan Taliban movement which has harbored him since 1996.

U.S. officials did not accuse the governments of Sudan and Afghanistan of ordering the attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. But terrorism experts said Sudan and Afghanistan, both ruled by radical Islamic fundamentalist regimes embroiled in civil war, have functioned as a culture dish in which bin Laden's terrorism has thrived and from which it has spread.

"These governments may not be tasking these terrorist acts," said Neil C. Livingstone, a Washington terrorism consultant and author of nine books on the subject. "But by providing bin Laden with a safe haven, they have made these actions possible."

According to intelligence sources and his own interviews, bin Laden became involved with fundamentalist Islamic groups as a teen-ager in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where his family still controls a $5 billion business empire.

Shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, he joined other young Muslims in the war to drive out the Soviets and overturn the Communist regime they had installed in Kabul.

"There are reports that he did see combat," Livingstone said. But as the scion of a wealthy and influential family, bin Laden brought far more than his services as a soldier to the mujahedeen.

He financed travel and weapons for Muslim volunteers from the Middle East. He directed the building of roads, military installations and hospitals for the troops, many of whom were CIA-backed.

"The United States became a bedfellow out of necessity with people who really didn't like us very much, and he was one of them," Livingstone said. "But I don't think you can consider him a creation of the U.S."

Asked about this period by CNN last year, bin Laden replied in language that was a mix of the practical and the religious.

"In spite of Soviet power, we moved with confidence, and God conferred favors on us so that we transported heavy equipment from the country of the Two Holy Places [Saudi Arabia] estimated at hundreds of tons that included bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks and equipment for digging trenches," he said. "When we saw the brutality of the Russians bombing mujahedeen positions, by the grace of God, we dug a good number of tunnels."

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, bin Laden returned home to Saudi Arabia, where he was at first received as a hero. But he soon became an outspoken critic of the Saudi ruling family, and in 1991 his Saudi citizenship was revoked.

Bin Laden moved to Sudan, an impoverished country of 30 million, where he had begun sending his mujahedeen troops to fight for the Islamic government against Christian and animist rebels in the south. Over the next five years, he operated at least three camps in Sudan that trained and equipped terrorists from a dozen countries.

In 1994, embarrassed by publicity about his links to terrorist acts, his family formally denounced him in Saudi newspapers. While his access to the family fortune may have been cut off, Western specialists believe he still controls a network of companies and has personal wealth of between $200 and $400 million.

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