The following Special Report by Kenneth R. Timmerman was originally published in the July 1998 issue of Reader’s Digest.
The notice appeared in an Arabic newspaper in London last February. “The ruling to kill Americans and their allies–civilians and military–is a duty for every Muslim. We–with God’s help–call on every Muslim to kill the Americans.”
Islamic extremists make outrageous statements every day in the Arabic-language press, most of which go unnoticed. But this one, a fatwa (religious order), alarmed government officials around the world. Within days U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Pakistan were threatened with attack. Government buildings in Washington, D.C., went on a rare “high security alert.” Vehicles entering the Pentagon were searched.
Financier of Terror
U.S. officials took the death threat seriously, sources tell Reader’s Digest, because of the reputation of the main signatory: Osama bin Laden. This former Saudi businessman was virtually unknown to Western intelligence agencies until just a few years ago, but today the U.S. State Department considers him a significant sponsor of world terrorism. Evidence points to his connection to persons suspected of numerous acts of violence, including:
* The 1993 bombing of New York City’s World Trade Center.
* Attacks on American servicemen in Somalia, which prompted the withdrawal
of our peacekeeping troops.
* The bombings of a Saudi National Guard training center in Riyadh in 1995 and of Khobar Towers, an apartment complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996. Two dozen Americans died in these attacks.
bin Laden is a pariah in many Islamic countries, but he operates with impunity from a base in Afghanistan. Using huge financial resources, he supports international terrorist networks, encouraging others to act while never pulling a trigger or detonating a bomb himself.
Tall and thin, with a full beard, Osama bin Laden wears long, flowing Arab robes fringed with gold, and wraps his head in a traditional red-and-white checkered headdress. Those who have met him say he is soft-spoken and extremely courteous. Despite his apparent humility, he has become an almost mythic figure in the Islamic world because he has dared to stand up to two superpowers.
bin Laden, now about 43 years old, is one of some 65 children of a Saudi construction magnate. When family patriarch Mohammad bin Laden died in the late 1960s, his children inherited a financial empire that today is worth an estimated $10 billion. The Saudi bin Laden Group is now run by Osama’s family, which has publicly said it does not condone his reported activities.
In November 1996 Palestinian journalist Abdelbari Atwan visited bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan, expecting to find the lavish camp of a man of wealth. Instead, he spent two nights sleeping next to bin Laden in a cave. “It was freezing,” Atwan says. “I reached under my camp bed hoping to find an extra blanket. Instead, it was crammed with Kalashnikov rifles and mortar bombs.”
What drove bin Laden to take up arms? Those who know him agree: a burning faith that sees the world in simplistic terms as a struggle between righteous Islam and a doomed West. It is a worldview taught to many young Saudis. But the teachings struck a particular chord in bin Laden, reverberating with his seeming passion for danger.
The “Afghan Arabs”
Enraged when the Soviet Union invaded Muslim Afghanistan in December 1979, bin Laden went there to aid the mujahideen freedom fighters, providing food and weapons, much of it with family money. A Saudi official says bin Laden helped to recruit thousands of Arabs who volunteered for the jihad (holy war) against the Soviets.
Early in the war the mujahideen were getting slaughtered by Soviet helicopter gunships as they tried to bring in supplies on mules across the mountain passes of northern Afghanistan. bin Laden volunteered the services of the family construction firm to blast new roads through the mountains. “He brought huge bulldozers,” says London-based Khaled Fuawaz, a former bin Laden associate. According to Fuawaz, when bin Laden could not find drivers willing to face the Soviet gunships, he drove the bulldozers himself. One time he was attacked by Soviet helicopters and wounded.
bin Laden poured millions of dollars of his family’s cash into the war, with the blessing of the Saudi government. He also personally led a contingent of Arab troops, winning a key victory against the Soviets in 1986. By the time the Soviet Union had pulled out of Afghanistan in February 1989, bin Laden was leading a fighting force known as “Afghan Arabs,” which numbered nearly 20,000. “bin Laden was like a head of state,” says a Saudi dissident. “The Afghan Arabs had a romantic image of him.”
Hero to Outlaw
Bin Laden viewed any Western presence in the Middle East as a threat to Islam. After Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Reader’s Digest has learned, bin Laden met with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan to offer his services to the Desert Storm operation–but only if the United States were not involved.
“Bin Laden spread out maps in front of Prince Sultan,” a Saudi official says. “He had all kinds of plans for how to defeat the Iraqis without American help. Prince Sultan asked what he planned to do about the Iraqi tanks, aircraft and chemical and biological weapons. bin Laden said, ‘We will defeat them with our faith.’”
The Saudi government declined his offer, and bin Laden later moved to Sudan–but not before he cashed out of the family business, receiving an estimated $260 million. It is this fortune that he uses today to prime the
In 1992 bin Laden’s attention appears to have been directed against Egypt. That year, Reader’s Digest has been told, an extremist group with financial ties to bin Laden sent a fax to Egypt threatening the government of President Hosni Mubarak, America’s closest Arab ally.
“Bin Laden focused on Egypt,” says a former spokesman for President Mubarak, Mohammad Abdul Moneim, “because he knew that if Egypt fell to the Islamists, the whole Arab world would fall.”
bin Laden, says the U.S. State Department, was the key financier behind a camp providing terrorist training to the Egyptian group. Its members, whose spiritual leader was the blind Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, opposed not only Mubarak but also Westerners–particularly Americans.
Members of the group slaughtered 58 foreign tourists visiting a temple at Luxor in November 1997. A U.S. diplomat in Cairo told Reader’s Digest that the planner of the attack “would have loved to get Americans” but failed. Most of those killed were Swiss.
Bin Laden hasn’t limited his efforts to the Middle East. There is evidence linking him to Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and to other terrorists who planned attacks on American soil. Sources tell Reader’s Digest that the federal government is investigating bin
Edwin Angeles, a leader of a radical Islamic group in the Philippines who became a government informant, says that Yousef and bin Laden were linked at least as long ago as 1989. In that year, Yousef went to the Philippines and introduced himself as an emissary of Osama bin Laden, sent to support that country’s radical Islamic movement. One of Yousef’s main contacts in Manila, according to Angeles, was Saudi businessman Mohammad Jamal Khalifah, bin Laden’s brother-in-law. After participating in the Trade Center bombing,
Yousef returned to the Philippines, where he plotted to plant bombs aboard U.S. passenger airliners in 1995.
In New York City, Sheik Rahman and others plotted attacks on major bridges and tunnels. During Rahman’s 1995 trial, prosecutors included bin Laden on a list of nonindicted persons who “may be alleged as co-conspirators,” though bin Laden has not been charged.
While living in Sudan, bin Laden established a construction company employing many of his former Afghan fighters. In the spring of 1996, according to Pakistani government officials, one of bin Laden’s bodyguards attempted to assassinate him. After the attempt failed, bin Laden flew to Afghanistan on board his unmarked, private C-130 military transport plane. There, according to Pakistani officials, bin Laden established a base southwest of Jalalabad, under the protection of the Afghan government.
A few weeks after the attempt on bin Laden’s life, a powerful explosion ripped through the Khobar Towers complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen. bin Laden, who called this “a laudable kind of terrorism,” publicly denied participating. But a knowledgeable Saudi dissident in London has told Reader’s Digest that the six men whom the Saudi government arrested for the bombing all trained in Afghanistan. “If they trained there,” declared the dissident, “they have a connection to bin Laden.”
In August 1996, and later in November, bin Laden announced that he and his followers would stage terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to force an American withdrawal. The Digest has learned that after bin Laden called for this jihad, as many as eight attacks against U.S. military targets in the Middle East were attempted. These were foiled by an intense Saudi intelligence effort, which included enticing a top financial aide to bin Laden to defect.
Today, the State Department says, terrorist organizations that have received support from bin Laden continue to operate around the world. In March 1998 Brussels police arrested seven men and confiscated a cache of explosives. The men are believed to be part of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which is responsible for the slaughter of thousands in Algeria over the last six years. One knowledgeable source says GIA has received financial support from bin Laden. In May, eight suspected GIA members were arrested in London.
Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammad, a religious scholar in London with ties to bin Laden, told the Digest that bin Laden is funding armed Muslim groups in Albania, Chechnya, Bosnia, Nigeria, and Algeria. “We are sending British and American Muslims to train in camps run by bin Laden,” Bakri says. “This is an international army–Mohammed’s army–to combat occupying governments.”
The Coming Crusade
The groups obeying bin Laden are hard to track down and difficult to penetrate. “These small groups, which may be just five or ten persons, can never be eradicated,” says Saad al-Faghi, a Saudi dissident living in London. “They believe they belong to the jihad, not by command but by faith. They are very dangerous.”
Today bin Laden lives in Afghanistan with three wives and 42 other Arab families in a 30-house complex. Reader’s Digest has been told that bin Laden has bought heavy weapons on the black market and is training new fighters at his camp in the north.
He is also seeking to widen his alliances. The February 1998 London fatwa against Americans was issued under the banner of the International Islamic Front and signed by radical Islamic leaders in Egypt, Bangladesh, and
Bin Laden’s coldblooded invitation to murder is taken seriously by American diplomats. “If they want to attack us, they can,” says a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan. “We’re all soft targets.” But U.S. officials are not the only ones at risk. In November 1997, for example, four American oil-company workers were gunned down in Pakistan. The murders were just two days after the conviction in a Fairfax, Va., court of Pakistani Mir Aimal Kasi, who went on a 1993 shooting spree outside CIA headquarters, killing two CIA employees.
For more than a decade, bin Laden has reached across the world, funding terrorism. As his money flows, so does innocent blood.
“Having borne arms against the Russians in Afghanistan,” bin Laden has declared, “we think our battle with the Americans will be easy by comparison. We are now more determined to carry on until we see the face of God.”
“Bin Laden has plenty of manpower and explosives,” declares Saad al-Faghi. And the world has learned that when a pronouncement is uttered in the name of Osama bin Laden, the threat is anything but idle.