Bin Laden, a ‘Master Impresario’

By Michael Dobbs

The Washington Post

For the past few months, a videotape has been circulating in the Middle East showing Osama bin Laden appealing to his followers to join a “holy war” against the United States. Wearing white robes and a Yemeni dagger, the fugitive Saudi millionaire goes on to thank Allah for the “destruction” of a U.S. warship in Aden, Yemen.

The 100-minute videotape, a mixture of militant rhetoric and rambling theology, offers insight into the propaganda methods of a man whom U.S. officials have depicted as the leading suspect in Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Although he openly rejoices in last October’s bombing of the USS Cole, and calls for more “blood and destruction” in the months ahead, he stops short of claiming responsibility for the incident.

Since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, bin Laden has used his public statements to create an image as the leader of a religious struggle on behalf of the disgruntled and the dispossessed of the Islamic world. At the same time, he has maintained an air of mystery about his involvement in specific terrorist acts and his degree of control over a worldwide network of supporters known in Arabic as al Qaeda (“The Base”).

“He is a master impresario and manipulator of the media,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert for the Rand Corp., a research center in the Washington area. “There has been a consistent pattern of him making statements and issuing threats ahead of time, but not taking responsibility afterward. He alternates between the psychological campaign and acts of death and carnage.”

Bin Laden’s statements in the period leading up to Tuesday’s multiple terrorist attacks seem to fit into a well-established routine. Interviewed last month in the mountains of southern Afghanistan by a London-based Arab journalist, he boasted – without going into detail – that he and his followers were planning “a very big one.” The day after the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, however, al Qaeda spokesmen denied involvement in the attacks but expressed support for them.

One reason for bin Laden’s reticence, according to U.S. officials, may be a deal struck with the Islamic fundamentalist rulers of Afghanistan, where he has been based since 1996. Known as the Taliban, the Afghan fundamentalists have responded to repeated U.S. demands for bin Laden’s extradition by depicting him as a Saudi political fugitive. Taliban leaders deny knowledge of any evidence that he has been involved in terrorism.

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By seeking sanctuary in Afghanistan, bin Laden has returned to the source of his political inspiration. Bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate, was born in 1957 and is the 17th of 52 children. Bin Laden was an early supporter of the mujaheddin resistance movement formed to oppose the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “I was enraged,” he has said. “I went there at once.”

At first, his role was limited to fundraising activities in Pakistan. Toward the end of the war, he moved to Afghanistan and took part in several battles against the Soviet army.

At the time, the Afghan mujaheddin were receiving financial and logistical support from the United States and other Western governments. Bin Laden, however, saw little difference between the United States and the Soviet Union. In his view, both superpowers were equally culpable: For geopolitical reasons, the United States might be temporarily supporting “freedom movements” in Afghanistan, but it was on the side of the “oppressive forces” back home in Saudi Arabia.

According to former associates of bin Laden, his anger at the United States grew after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and the decision to station thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia. In a lengthy 1996 statement outlining his philosophy, bin Laden denounced the “occupation” of the Arab Holy Land by “American crusader forces,” which he described as “the latest and greatest aggression” against the Islamic world since the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632.

“He sees himself as continuing the jihad, first against the Soviets and then against the Americans,” said David Schenker, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“He looks at the world in very stark, black-and-white terms,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University who has studied bin Laden’s early career. “For him, the U.S. represents the forces of evil that are bringing corruption and domination into the Islamic world, and particularly to Saudi Arabia, the holiest land in the world for Muslims.”

Kept under house arrest in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, because of his opposition to the Saudi alliance with the United States, bin Laden fled the country in April 1991, moving first to Afghanistan and then to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. A fundamentalist Islamic government had just come to power in Sudan and was permitting Muslims to enter the country without visas, opening the doors for hundreds of suspected terrorists and former mujaheddin.

According to a former associate, Jamal Fadl, now in a witness protection program in the United States, bin Laden used his stay in Sudan both to set up legitimate businesses and to prepare for a terrorist war against the United States.

“In some ways, his organization resembles a government,” said Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University who worked in the Clinton White House. “As in the government, people were often told only what they needed to know. There was almost a classification system for information.”

According to U.S. officials, bin Laden financed several terrorist training camps in northern Sudan and Yemen, and appeared interested at one time in acquiring nuclear and chemical components. U.S. investigators also have established financial and logistical links between bin Laden and Ramzi Yousef, organizer of the February 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Sudan expelled bin Laden and most of his supporters in 1996 after the United States mounted political and diplomatic pressure. He moved back to Afghanistan and set up training camps in the mountains. According to Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian thought to have been trained by bin Laden who was arrested on the Canadian border in December 1999, the camps offered training in areas such as “rocket-launching, urban warfare, assassination and sabotage.”

Ressam, who told a New York court in July that he planned to disrupt millennium celebrations by bombing Los Angeles International Airport, said that later classes focused on how “to blow up the infrastructure of a country.” But he also suggested that many of the operations were semiautonomous. He said his cell was given leeway to choose its own targets, and to raise funds by robbing banks in Canada.

Last year, a U.S. court found evidence of links between bin Laden and the organizers of the August 1998 bomb attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The United States responded to the attacks by bombing suspected training camps in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan linked by the CIA to the production of chemical agents.

Soon after the attacks, U.S. officials warned Afghan authorities that they risked further retaliation if they continued to give safe haven to bin Laden, who had been charged by a New York grand jury with “conspiracy to attack the defense utilities of the United States.” But Taliban officials made clear they were unwilling to surrender their guest.

According to U.S. terrorism experts, the Taliban appears to have reached an arrangement with bin Laden. In return for providing him sanctuary, they have received financial and military support for their efforts to gain control over the entire country. Some experts believe that bin Laden’s followers may have played a role in the reported assassination earlier this week of Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the last remaining resistance to the Taliban.

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