U.S. Hard Put to Find Proof Bin Laden Directed Attacks
By Tim Weiner
- April 13, 1999 (NYTimes.com)
American commandos are poised near the Afghan border, hoping to capture Osama bin Laden, the man charged with blowing up two American embassies in Africa eight months ago, senior American officials say.
But they still do not know how to find him. They are depending on his protectors in Afghanistan to betray him — a slim reed of hope for one of the biggest and most complicated international criminal investigations in American history.
Capturing Mr. bin Laden alive could deepen the complications. American officials say that so far, firsthand evidence that could be used in court to prove that he commanded the bombings has proven difficult to obtain. According to the public record, none of the informants involved in the case have direct knowledge of Mr. bin Laden’s involvement.
For now, officials say, Federal prosecutors appear to be building a case that his violent words and ideas, broadcast from an Afghan cave, incited terrorist acts thousands of miles away.
In their war against Mr. bin Laden, American officials portray him as the world’s most dangerous terrorist. But reporters for The New York Times and the PBS program ”Frontline,” working in cooperation, have found him to be less a commander of terrorists than an inspiration for them.
Enemies and supporters, from members of the Saudi opposition to present and former American intelligence officials, say he may not be as globally powerful as some American officials have asserted. But his message and aims have more resonance among Muslims around the world than has been understood here.
”You can kill Osama bin Laden today or tomorrow; you can arrest him and put him on trial in New York or in Washington,” said Ahmed Sattar, an aide to Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric convicted of inspiring the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. ”If this will end the problem — no. Tomorrow you will get somebody else.”
Interviews with senior American officials and knowledgeable observers of Mr. bin Laden in Pakistan, Sudan and elsewhere suggest that there is widespread support among ordinary people in the Muslim world for his central political argument: that American troops should get out of Saudi Arabia. The embassy bombings, they note, took place eight years to the day after the G.I.’s were ordered onto Saudi soil.
The interviews also raise questions about key assertions that have been made by the Government about Mr. bin Laden. Senior intelligence officials concede that their knowledge of him is sketchy.
”We can’t say for sure what was going on” with him from 1991 to 1996 — most of the years covered in the indictment — one senior official said.
His Affluence Seems Overstated
Present and former American officials and former business associates of Mr. bin Laden say he appears to control only a fraction of the $250 million fortune that the American Government says he possesses.
”Clearly, his money’s running out,” said Frank Anderson, a former senior Central Intelligence Agency official who maintains close Middle Eastern contacts.
Larry Johnson, the State Department deputy counterterrorism director from 1988 to 1993, said Administration officials had ”tended to make Osama bin Laden sort of a Superman in Muslim garb — he’s 10 feet tall, he’s everywhere, he knows everything, he’s got lots of money and he can’t be challenged.”
Milton Bearden, a retired senior C.I.A. official who ran the agency’s war in Afghanistan and retired in 1995, said the Government had ”created a North Star” in Mr. bin Laden.
”He is public enemy No. 1,” Mr. Bearden said. ”We’ve got a $5 million reward out for his head. And now we have, with I’m not sure what evidence, linked him to all of the terrorist acts of this year — of this decade, perhaps.”
Political leaders in Sudan and Pakistan who have met Mr. bin Laden describe him as intelligent, soft-spoken, polite. They also say he is deadly serious about his violent brand of radical politics and capable of killing in God’s name.
Mr. bin Laden was born into the ruling class of Saudi Arabia. His father was the favorite construction magnate of the Saudi royal family, who gave Mr. bin Laden’s family huge contracts to renovate the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and build palaces for Saudi princes.
American officials calculated Mr. bin Laden’s fortune by estimating the family fortune at $5 billion and dividing by 20, the number of male heirs. But business associates of Mr. bin Laden said his family cut him off years ago and are managing his share of his inheritance for him as long as he is disowned. Business associates say that Mr. bin Laden has been living on a generous allowance from his eldest brother and that his assets in Saudi Arabia are now frozen.
In 1980, at 22, Mr. bin Laden left Saudi Arabia and moved to the Afghan frontier. In Peshawar, Pakistan — working alongside, but never directly allied with, the C.I.A. — he used his money and his machines to help the Afghan rebels fight the Soviet Army invaders.
The Afghan war shaped Mr. bin Laden, those who know him say. ”He is an ordinary person who is very religious,” said President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan, who met Mr. bin Laden often from 1992 to 1996. ”He believes in the rule of Islam and where possible the establishment of an Islamic state. The time that he spent in Afghanistan led him to believe that this might be achieved through military means.”
Legend has it that Mr. bin Laden fought bravely against Soviet troops. But former C.I.A. officers say he was a financier, not a warrior — ”a philanthropist supporting a number of health care, widows-and-orphans charity operations in Peshawar for Afghan refugees,” as Mr. Anderson put it.
He also helped create a headquarters called Al Qaeda, the Base. It was a way station in Peshawar where Egyptian and Saudi volunteers rested before setting off for battle in Afghanistan. Its name became a kind of flag uniting Mr. bin Laden’s followers. American officials call it a global terrorist network.
When the Soviet forces left Afghanistan in 1989, Mr. bin Laden went home to Saudi Arabia. He soon set his sights on the last remaining superpower.
”He himself was very much wary about America,” said Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi exile living in London, who worked as a surgeon for wounded Afghan fighters, ”very skeptical about America and the Saudi regime.”
He found a new enemy on Aug. 7, 1990, when the United States began sending half a million soldiers to Saudi Arabia, preparing for war against Iraq.
”One of the stories put out by bin Laden is that he went to King Fahd and promised that he would raise holy warriors who would protect Saudi Arabia,” said Mr. Anderson, who was the chief of the C.I.A.’s Near East operations in the mid-1990’s. ”His violent opposition to the Saudi royal family began when King Fahd denied or rejected that offer.”
Americans Painted As New Crusaders
To Mr. bin Laden the deployment of Americans in the land of Mecca and Medina smacked of the Crusades, the Christian religious wars against Islam that began nine centuries ago. His rage transformed him into a stateless outlaw.
In November 1991, Saudi intelligence officers caught Mr. bin Laden smuggling weapons from Yemen, his father’s homeland. They withdrew his passport. Soon afterward he made his way to Sudan, which had decreed its borders open to all Muslims, with or without passports or visas.
Veterans of the Afghan jihad, or holy war, against Moscow followed Mr. bin Laden, under Al Qaeda’s banner. But ”when Al Qaeda was moved to Sudan, it lost around 70 percent of its members,” Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, accused of being an associate of Mr. bin Laden, said during an interrogation by the German police after his arrest in September.
”This group didn’t have a purpose except to carry out the jihad,” Mr. Salim said, ”and since nobody carried out the jihad, it lost a lot of its members.”
He Lived As an Investor
There were three kinds of men in Al Qaeda, he said. First, ”people who had no success in life, had nothing in their heads and wanted to join just to keep from falling on their noses.” Second, ”people who loved their religion but had no idea what their religion really meant.” And third, ”people who have nothing in their heads but to fight and solve all the problems in the world with battles.”
Mr. bin Laden lived in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, ”as an investor,” said President Bashir. ”With his money, he was adventurous, and probably he gained this mentality by his experiences as a fighter.”
The indictment against Mr. bin Laden says he provided training camps in Sudan where Afghan war veterans prepared for terrorist missions. But a senior American intelligence official contradicted that, saying, ”There was never a bin Laden-financed training camp in Sudan.”
The official added: ”In 1993, ’94, ’95, he’s managing and building up his legitimate business presence there in Sudan. I won’t pretend we’ve got a good intelligence base on this period, but we think he was laying the groundwork for Al Qaeda.”
In 1995 two C.I.A. officers were stalked by teen-age followers of Mr. bin Laden in the streets of Khartoum. ”Bin Laden was approached by us and was told that this would not be tolerated,” said Ghazi Salaheldin, the Sudanese Information Minister. Sudan expelled the teen-agers.
In the face of such perceived threats — though some were mirages, based on a slew of false C.I.A. reports — the United States withdrew from Sudan in late 1995. The absence of American diplomats and spies in the country diminished Washington’s ability to know what Mr. bin Laden was doing at the very moment he stepped up his political war.
In 1995, after the Saudi Government rescinded his citizenship, he began sending scathing attacks on the royal family from Khartoum.
”Bin Laden took a chance and started doing some political activities,” President Bashir said, ”not terrorist activities, but he started issuing political bulletins and communiques and faxes” denouncing the Saudi Government as corrupt and repressive.
The United States took notice. ”There had been confusion” after the World Trade Center bombing about the nature of radical Islamic threats to the United States, said Mr. Johnson, the former senior counterterrorism official.
No Evidence To Implicate Him
”There were lots of theories, not very good intelligence, and so the intelligence community actually started generating a picture that Osama bin Laden was, if you will, the new face of terrorism,” he said.
On May 31, 1996, four Saudis were beheaded after confessing to bombing a Saudi National Guard post in Riyadh and killing five Americans. All told their interrogators that they had received Mr. bin Laden’s communiques. Only 25 days later, a truck bomb tore through a military post in Dhahran, killing 19 American soldiers.
Mr. bin Laden was blamed by American officials for instigating the attacks. But no known evidence implicates him, and the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef ibn Abdel Aziz, has absolved him. ”Maybe there are people who adopt his ideas,” Prince Nayef said. ”He does not constitute any security problem to us.”
Shortly before the Dhahran attack, Mr. bin Laden and members of his entourage left Sudan in a C-130 military transport plane. The Sudanese had asked him to leave — at the request of the United States. Mr. bin Laden landed at an American-built airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Three months later, on Aug. 23, 1996, he declared war on the United States.
”The situation in Saudi Arabia is like a great volcano about to erupt,” his declaration stated. ”Everyone talks openly about economic recession, high prices, debt” and ”the filling up of the prisons.”
How Did He Control the Bombers?
Mr. bin Laden’s criticisms of Saudi repression and corruption closely corresponded with State Department reports and C.I.A. analyses. But Mr. bin Laden blamed the United States. ”The root of the problem is the occupying American enemy,” he proclaimed, ”and all efforts should focus on killing, fighting and destroying it.”
A second, more ominous warning from him came on Feb. 23, 1998: ”To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim who is able, in any country where this is possible,” until American armies, ”shattered and broken-winged, depart from all the lands of Islam.”
Then came the embassy bombings last August. American authorities say the men who attacked the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were controlled by Mr. bin Laden. But they still have no clear idea how.
Despite efforts at the highest levels of the United States Government, Mr. bin Laden and his closest associates remain isolated in Afghanistan.
It is difficult to say precisely where the criminal case against Mr. bin Laden stands. Prosecutors have obtained unusually restrictive court orders that bar the defendants and their lawyers from communicating with virtually anyone.
The Case Runs Out of Steam
Publicly, at least, the case has lost momentum. While two men suspected of being bombers were quickly apprehended, many other suspects are still at large. The last arrest was more than six months ago. A spokesman for the United States Attorney in Manhattan declined comment.
Now the hunt for Mr. bin Laden depends on whether the Taliban, his radical hosts in Afghanistan, will betray him. The United States has little leverage with the Taliban, and little fresh intelligence on how to capture Mr. bin Laden. It has no spies in Afghanistan and little new information on precisely how he might have instigated the deadly bombings.
”I do not have a clear picture yet of what happened when,” said Prudence Bushnell, the United States Ambassador to Kenya, who was wounded in the bomb blast, which killed 12 of her colleagues. ”I may not ever have a clear picture of what happened when. None of us may.”
This article resulted from a collaboration between The New York Times and the PBS program ”Frontline,” which will broadcast a documentary tonight about Osama bin Laden that will run on most PBS stations at 9 o’clock. The ”Frontline” program was based on the work of Lowell Bergman, correspondent, Martin Smith, producer, and Orianna Zill and Ivana Damjanov, associate producers.
ON THE WEB
Past coverage of Mr. bin Laden, the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in East Africa and the American response to terrorism is available from The New York Times on the Web:
www.nytimes.com/ internationalWe are continually improving the quality of our text archives. Please send feedback, error reports, and suggestions to email@example.com. A version of this article appears in print on April 12, 1999, Section A, Page 1 of the National edition with the headline: U.S. Hard Put to Find Proof Bin Laden Directed Attacks. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe