Feature

Osama bin Laden’s war on America

Four men linked to Osama bin Laden were convicted recently of deadly 1998 bombings at two U.S. embassies in Africa. U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf are on maximum alert after receiving threats of a new attack. What does Osama bin Laden want?

Who is Osama bin Laden?

He is a Saudi-born heir to a construction-company fortune who has dedicated his life to driving Western influence out of the Arab world. He was one of 53 children born to the 10 wives of Muhammad bin Laden, whose close ties to the royal family secured him contracts to build palaces, roads, and mosques, and helped swell his Bin Laden Group’s worth to $5 billion. The elder bin Laden was a devout Muslim and strict father who insisted that his children follow a rigid religious and social code. By most accounts, Osama bin Laden was fairly pious as a youth, although some say he indulged a wild streak on occasional hard-drinking trips outside his strict homeland. His Muslim beliefs intensified when his family’s construction business rebuilt two mosques when he was a teen. In 1979, shortly after his graduation from university with a degree in civil engineering, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. “I was enraged,” bin Laden would later tell interviewers. He dropped everything to go there to help push the Soviets out of the Muslim nation.

How did bin Laden come to target the U.S.?

Bin Laden was incensed when the Saudi royal family welcomed the United States

on Saudi soil during the 1991 operation to push Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait. He turned his back on his homeland and moved to the Sudan, where his network of Islamic extremists began targeting the U.S. and its allies in the region. He declared a jihad, or holy war, against the U.S. in 1996. A fatwa—a directive issued by a Muslim cleric—has been attributed to bin Laden, saying, “We with God’s help call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.” U.S. government intelligence has identified bin Laden as one of the biggest financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world.

How does the bin Laden network operate?

Bin Laden established a construction company and other businesses in the Sudan. He has used the profits, as well as his $300 million inheritance, to finance attacks on what he perceived to be the enemies of Islam. Terrorism experts believe fighters trained in bin Laden’s camps fought alongside Somalis against U.S. soldiers participating in Operation Restore Hope. These fighters are believed to have participated in the infamous October 1993 Mogadishu battle in which 18 Americans were killed and 73 were wounded. Bin Laden allegedly used his Afghanistan operation, called al Qaida, or “the Base,” to train men at remote camps and provide them with a support network. Investigators believe al Qaida agents participated in numerous attacks, possibly including the 1996

bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Dhahran that killed 19 and a similar 1995 bombing in Riyadh that killed five. Investigators also traced a money trail from the World Trade Center bombers to bin Laden, although he has denied participating in that plot.

What other terrorist acts may he have committed?

The most deadly attacks the U.S. blames on bin Laden are the nearly simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. Four men with ties to bin Laden were convicted of bombing and conspiracy charges in New York last month. Mohammed Sadiq Howaida, a bin Laden aid convicted in the bombing conspiracy, implicated his boss, although National Security Agency phone intercepts already indicated that bin Laden had been involved. The FBI has posted a $5 million reward for information leading to bin Laden’s arrest and placed him on the nation’s list of most-wanted fugitives. After the embassy bombings, the U.S. fired 75 cruise missiles at bin Laden’s training bases in Afghanistan.

Why is U.S. fear of bin Laden so intense?

The bin Laden network seems to have limitless resources—and ambition. Since 1993, intelligence gatherers believe, bin Laden has been trying to get his hands on nuclear weapons. Authorities believe bin Laden is one of the most likely terrorists to attempt to smuggle a nuclear suitcase bomb into the U.S. They believe he tried to buy a black-market Russian warhead but failed. New attacks and plots are being linked to him all the time, including last year’s boat-bombing of the USS Cole; a bombing thwarted last month at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi; and assassination plots against the pope, Bill Clinton, and most recently, President Bush.

Why can’t the U.S. catch bin Laden?

He has moved his headquarters back to Afghanistan, where the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban movement that has taken over the country refuses to give him up. But that doesn’t mean bin Laden is safe. In 1997, two bombs exploded in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in what many believe were assassination attempts against bin Laden. In response to the embassy bombings in 1998, the U.S. fired Tomahawk missiles at bin Laden’s training camps in remote areas of Afghanistan, although several journalists reported he had left the Khost camp an hour before the missiles hit and killed 34 people. Bin Laden reportedly relies increasingly on go-betweens to distance himself from his organization’s activities. The Indian government reports he stopped using his satellite phone for fear foreign governments could trace its signal back to him. He moves from place to place, mirrored by bodyguard decoys traveling in similar luxury cars. Despite the complications of leading his network while on the run, the Central Intelligence Agency reports that bin Laden remains capable of striking without warning.

Attacks the U.S. blames on bin Laden

    1992: Aden, Yemen—A team that allegedly trained in bin Laden camps bombs a hotel, killing a tourist but missing by hours a group of U.S. military personnel heading to Somalia.
    1993: Mogadishu, Somalia—Fighters believed to have trained in the same camps provide arms and combat assistance to Somali tribesmen who kill 18 Americans participating in a humanitarian mission.
    1995: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia—Another bombing team kills five U.S. servicemen.
    1996: Dhahran, Saudi Arabia—A truck bomb explodes outside an apartment building housing U.S. military personnel, killing 19. Bin Laden connection is suspected, but last month 13 Saudis and one Lebanese were indicted for allegedly staging the attack under Iranian government direction.
    1998: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Nairobi, Kenya—More than 200 people die in nearly simultaneous truck-bomb explosions at two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
    2000: Aden, Yemen—A boat loaded with explosives rams the USS Cole, blowing a hole in the ship and killing 17 American sailors.

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