To the Sudanese, a solitary builder Enigma: Osama bin Laden, the man the United States calls a patron of terrorists, is recalled in Khartoum as a quiet businessman.

August 26, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- The man the United States regards as the millionaire patron of an Islamic terrorist network is remembered here as an enigmatic businessman who built the road the Sudanese thought could never be built.

Osama bin Laden left Sudan two years ago for a mountain refuge in Afghanistan, the country where he first practiced holy war. Here he is remembered as the obscure figure in a turban who built Al Tahadi -- "the challenge road" -- to Sudan's remote north.

In the corridors of power, Sudanese officials offer little information about the millionaire businessman they played host to for several years, then asked to leave in 1995 under pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Bin Laden and his holy warriors have made headlines around the world, but his is a face unknown to many in this poor, rural, Islamic country.

"Most people here, including myself,don't know about the activities of Osama bin Laden and what he's doing," said Gasam Badri, the president of Afhad University, a women's college in Khartoum. "He was known as a businessman. This road to Shendi, it was built by his company. He was known to people. He had his house in Khartoum."

In the neighborhood bin Laden called home, wealthy professionals and foreigners live in walled compounds, Land Rovers travel dusty lanes and the milkman arrives on a donkey.

The iron gate to bin Laden's home in the Riyadh section of the city is padlocked. He lived in a brick-and-stucco, three-story house with four wives and lots of children, neighbors say. He traveled in 4-wheel-drive vehicles with tinted windows, accompanied by armed guards, some from Afghanistan.

A quiet man, he walked to the neighborhood mosque four times a day, a solitary figure in an Afghani robe.

"At Muslim festivals we go visiting to the houses," said one 19-year-old neighbor who asked not to give his name for fear Sudanese security agents would knock on his door. "He goes to neighbors and they come to him. He lived quietly as other people."

Abdul Rahman Abu Zayd, an Islamic scholar and retired college professor, lived not far from bin Laden. He met the Saudi contractor and attended a dinner at which bin Laden also was a guest.

He said bin Laden's notoriety is a creation of the American news media. As a result, "across the Muslim world, he's larger than life," said Abu Zayd.

"He came from Afghanistan directly here. He found sanctuary here," said Abu Zayd. "Bin Laden is certainly not an intellectual. He is an ordinary type of guy. He is a man who can't really attract attention in a group. He doesn't talk much."

The Saudi businessman invested badly needed foreign currency in Sudan, perhaps as much as $500 million, said Abu Zayd.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan el-Bashir said this week that bin Laden had no financial interest in the bombed pharmaceutical company that the United States alleges manufactured a precursor to the deadly nerve agent VX.

Bin Laden built roads and other infrastructure in Sudan, but he no longer does business in the country, according to Interior Minister Ghazi Salaheldin.

Asked if bin Laden had property in Sudan, Salaheldin replied: "No he does not."

Osama Daoud Abdalatif has a farm next door to a weekend house bin Laden owned on the banks of the Blue Nile. Bin Laden would spend weekends at the house with his family, Abdalatif said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

Abdalatif described bin Laden as a tall man with a long beard; he said his children dressed in Islamic green. "And they kept very much to themselves."

When bin Laden arrived in Sudan, he set up three training camps for Muslim fighters, according to the State Department. The Sudanese government allegedly shut them down.

Asked about allegations that bin Laden's property was used as a training camp for his followers, Abdalatif said: "I was always amused by this because as far as I could see, it was always used for a family farm."

Abdalatif said the University of Khartoum bought the bin Laden property to house the teaching staff of a local hospital.

Sudanese opposition leaders in Cairo say that bin Laden has two farms in the country.

"And he is investing in Sudan," said Gen. Abdul Rahmen Sayeed of the National Democratic Alliance. "He is moving freely in Sudan with no problem. Osama bin Laden has no other place but Sudan and Afghanistan."

Sayeed said bin Laden's best-known public project was the road to Shendi. The road many thought could never be built cuts through harsh desert terrain, shadowing the Nile past Roman ruins and temples for 260 miles.

Before its construction, it took shepherd Naim Ali Hassan five to six hours to travel by truck from Shendi to Khartoum to sell his sheep. Hassan now makes the trip in two hours.

Until this week, Hassan said he had never heard of bin Laden.

Asked if he knew who built the road, he said: "President Omar Bashir and the National Salvation Republic."

Pub Date: 8/26/98

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