Where will the first battleground be?
Almost certainly in Afghanistan. American intelligence officers believe Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the U.S. terrorist attacks, has been living somewhere in the war-torn nation’s mountainous countryside since 1996. The U.S. has been trying to catch bin Laden for years, but he has been shielded by his cozy relationship with the fundamentalist Islamic regime known as the Taliban, which controls 95 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. Taliban leaders say bin Laden had nothing to do with the New York City and Washington, D.C., attacks, but the Bush administration says retaliation is coming unless the Taliban hands over bin Laden.
Who is Osama bin Laden?
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Bin Laden, 44, is a leader of a loose network of militant, fundamentalist Muslims determined to rid the Muslim world of outside influences. He began his “holy war” in 1979 by raising money for mujaheddin fighters trying to push the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. In 1984 he joined the fighters to help them build roads, trenches, and military outposts. In 1996 he called on Muslims to take every opportunity to kill U.S. soldiers in the Arabian peninsula, and in 1998 he broadened the directive to include American soldiers and civilians all over the world. He has financed his anti-Western campaign with his share—initially as much as $300 million—of a family construction-business fortune. Experts believe bin Laden has spent or lost much of that fortune over the last two decades.
Why don’t we just go get him?
Bin Laden reportedly moves every few days, and has an endless number of hideouts deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. He sometimes holes up in caves or makeshift tent compounds, and lets only his closest lieutenants know when and where he will move next. Pakistani intelligence reported that he moved to a new hiding place within minutes of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Can’t we just blast him with missiles?
We tried that once, and he got away. In 1998, after the deadly bombings at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. intelligence intercepted a satellite telephone call in which bin Laden congratulated the group that had staged the attack. American missiles quickly rained down on training bases bin Laden had set up in Afghanistan. Even if bin Laden had been there, many of the facilities included underground bunkers that could withstand virtually anything short of a nuclear bomb. The U.S. even helped finance and build them when it was trying to aid rebels in fighting off Soviet soldiers at the end of the Cold War. Bin Laden no longer uses his satellite phone, communicating instead through couriers to avoid detection.
Why is our government pressuring Pakistan?
Pakistan is one of just three countries that recognize the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. The two countries share a porous, 1,125-mile border, which bin Laden and his supporters have crossed freely in the past. Pakistani intelligence is probably the most reliable source of information on the movements of bin Laden and his Taliban hosts. Getting them to tell all they know will not be easy. The country’s leader, President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup last year, has vowed to modernize Pakistan and attract foreign aid, and cooperating with the U.S. will help him on that score. But his grip on power is tenuous. If he helps the U.S. capture bin Laden, he risks angering a powerful fundamentalist Muslim minority, including armed rebels. The U.S. certainly does not want to help topple a relatively moderate leader in Pakistan and put its nuclear weapons in the hands of insurgent fundamentalists.
How important is bin Laden?
Bin Laden is the most visible terrorist leader, but he has many allies in an international network of small terrorist cells. These small groups are semi-autonomous, but share bin Laden’s hatred of the U.S. and of Western influence in the Arab world. Many have trained in camps bin Laden has set up in Afghanistan and Sudan. The men stay long enough to learn terrorist techniques, such as bomb making, and then leave to establish themselves in other countries. “It’s like a bunch of grapes. Pick one grape and the bunch remains,” a Western intelligence officer told The Christian Science Monitor. “Each is a segment unto itself, but they’re talking with each other. They’re training together. They’re working for the same causes. Yet there’s a protection in being separate.”
What terrorist cells are affiliated with bin Laden?
His network, al Qaida, has ties to some 20 militant Islamic groups, loosely governed by a multinational council. The largest group is Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for killing Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Some others are Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria. Bin Laden’s organization is estimated to number between a few hundred core members and 3,000 to 5,000 adherents operating in up to 60 nations worldwide.
Do all of them have the same goals?
Specifically, no; generally, yes. Harakut ul-Mujaheddin, for instance, is fighting for the independence of Kashmir, in India. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is trying to overthrow the president of the former Soviet republic. Bin Laden himself is mainly concerned with obliterating Western influence from the Arabian peninsula. But all members of al Qaida are dedicated to plotting the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism. By providing money, equipment, and training, al Qaida is able to serve as a central clearinghouse of sorts for the grievances of many different constituencies.
Does that include the Palestinians?
Bin Laden recently provided some support for the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, preferring it to Yasser Arafat’s more secular Palestine Liberation Organization. Many Palestinians say they support a U.S. war on terrorism—but only if the definition of terrorism includes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Many Palestinians consider terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to be liberating forces that will help them destroy Israel. Arafat keeps his public distance from terror groups, though Israelis say he privately supports them.
How does Iraq figure into the equation?
Iraq is considered by the State Department to be a state sponsor of terrorism; it has also offered to assist Afghanistan in any conflict with the U.S. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein publicly gloated when the World Trade Center towers fell, with state TV announcing, “The American cowboys are reaping the fruits of their crimes against humanity.” Bush administration officials say that so far there is no evidence linking Iraq to the attack. But Jane’s Intelligence Digest, as well as some Israeli analysts, says that a link to Hussein may yet be found, especially in regard to “financing and logistical support.” For all his resources, bin Laden may have needed powerful state assistance to pull off such an audacious attack.
What is the role of Iran?
The State Department lists Iran as the most active sponsor of terrorism, providing aid and support to a host of organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah. The U.S. broke ties with Iran over the 444-day hostage crisis of 1979–80, and has charged that bin Laden and his associates are allied with key Iranian government officials. Currently, Iran is caught between the ultraconservative clerical forces of its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the reform-minded President Mohammed Khatami. Khatami responded to the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by saying, “Terrorism is denounced, and the international community must identify it and take fundamental steps for rooting it out.” His government is in conflict with Afghanistan over the 1.4 million Afghan refugees along their 580-mile border. The two nations almost went to war in 1998 when Taliban soldiers killed 10 Iranian diplomats.
Is Libya a cause for concern?
In recent years, as U.N. sanctions have cut into his economy, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi has tried to shed his outlaw image. He surrendered the two major suspects in the 1988 destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. He also cooperated in a French investigation that led to the conviction of six Libyans for the 1989 bombing of a French airliner over Africa. Some analysts feel that Qaddafi may simply be moving away from state-sponsored terrorism, while still harboring its private practitioners.
What can we expect from Syria?
Many terrorist groups are headquartered in Syria, including Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Syria also supports Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, a country over which Syria has de facto control. For 29 years, the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad conducted a U.S. policy that mixed cooperation with vehement criticism. His son and successor, Bashar, is largely an unknown factor. So far, he has promised support for the U.S.-led antiterror coalition, and suppression of all internal dissent has kept bin Laden–type fundamentalism from gaining a foothold.
Can we count on Saudi Arabia?
Not entirely. Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally that also recognizes the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. It has condemned the airline assaults and pledged cooperation in finding whoever was behind the plot, but its relations with the U.S. have lately been strained. Some Saudi leaders feel we have been too pro-Israeli in the current Palestinian conflict, and the U.S. is disturbed that many of last week’s suicide bombers were Saudi or had Saudi connections. The Saudis are concerned about neighboring Iraq, against whom they took a leading role in the Gulf War. And they know that their native son, Osama bin Laden, hates them because they continue to host U.S. military forces.
How do other Arab nations view Afghanistan?
Very uneasily. Many of them might secretly welcome the U.S. deposing the Taliban, which supports extremists within their borders. “If the U.S. hits Afghanistan,” one Western diplomat told the Financial Times, “parts of the Arab world will even be delighted because it has been the base of networks that have tried to destabilize Arab regimes.” But extending the war on terrorism to those same regimes could have disastrous effects. “If an Arab country is hit,” said another diplomat, “everyone in the Arab world will rally around it.” To succeed in its stated goal of eliminating terrorism, the U.S. must combine almost surgical military operations with complex diplomacy and the penetration of terrorist networks by intelligence agents.
Where are the terrorist groups?
Some of the major known Islamic terrorist organizations associated with al Qaida and Osama bin Laden are:
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