Bomb Suspect Has Been a Target
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 13, 1998; Page A01
Even before senior Clinton administration officials named Osama bin Laden as a leading suspect in bombings last week at American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the U.S. government has been waging an escalating campaign against the renegade Saudi multimillionaire.
The government's assault has global reach, stretching from Albania, where the CIA recently participated in the arrest of four suspected bin Laden associates, to New York, where a federal grand jury is gathering evidence in an attempt to indict bin Laden for the deaths of five U.S. servicemen and two Indians in a November 1995 truck bombing in Riyadh.
U.S. officials say they put bin Laden high on their list of suspects immediately after the embassy bombings Friday in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam because they believe he had the motive, the opportunity and the means to pull off the ghastly attacks: a pronounced public hatred of the United States, an infrastructure of men and materiel in East Africa, and a fortune inherited from his late father, a billionaire Saudi construction magnate, thought to be worth at least $300 million.
"I believe Osama bin Laden is the sponsor of this operation," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of CIA counterterrorism. "And I think all of the indications are pointing that way."
Bin Laden's announcement earlier this year of fatwahs, or religious orders, calling for attacks on the United States and Israel was behind a decision by the State Department to issue a special advisory in mid-June warning Americans that "some type of terrorist action could be mounted within the next several weeks."
"We believe that the biggest thieves in the world are Americans and the biggest terrorists on earth are the Americans," bin Laden said on ABC's "Nightline" June 10, two days before the State Department issued the advisory. "The only way for us to defend [against] these assaults is by using similar means. We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians. They're all targets in this fatwah. You will leave when the bodies of American soldiers and civilians are sent in the wooden boxes and coffins. That is when you will leave."
Bin Laden is believed by officials to have had militants in place in Somalia, Sudan and Kenya. One U.S. intelligence source said a construction firm he controls maintains an office in Nairobi, where Friday's bomb blast killed a dozen Americans and more than 200 Kenyans. The office may have made it possible for him to move people and materiel, including explosives, in and out of Nairobi.
Bin Laden has a long record of attacks on U.S. interests and personnel. He claimed responsibility for an attempted December 1992 bombing of 100 U.S. servicemen in Yemen. And he has publicly said that his soldiers fought U.S. troops during Operation Restore Hope in 1993 in Somalia, where U.S. officials believe he supplied weapons that shot down American helicopters.
Four of his followers have confessed to the 1995 bombing in Riyadh that killed seven, the crime for which U.S. officials are hoping to indict bin Laden. And some U.S. officials have suspected him of involvement in financing the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Khobar Towers bombing in 1995, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen.
Said one senior U.S. intelligence official: "He's the best-known terrorist since 'Carlos the Jackal.' He's high on everyone's list of bad guys."
Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst on Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service, said bin Laden clearly has the money and the strength to have orchestrated the East African embassy bombings.
"Bin Laden is considered to be one who carries through with his threats, and these were bold threats," Katzman said.
Katzman said that he has not assumed that bin Laden is behind the embassy bombings. Bin Laden has not claimed responsibility for the attacks, and a case can be made, Katzman said, that the bombings do not bear his trademark.
"We haven't seen him operate this far south," Katzman said. "And [the bombings] didn't fit with his objective, to get U.S. forces out of the Middle East. This is not the Middle East, and it isn't against U.S. forces. His philosophy is, he wants the infidels out of the Moslem sacred ground. And to my mind, this does not accomplish that."
Harvey Kushner, a professor at Long Island University who has been studying global terrorism for 30 years, said there is logic in assuming bin Laden is involved in the East Africa bombings on some level given the critical role he plays worldwide in financing terrorist activists now that state sponsorship of terrorism is thought to be on the wane.
"If you don't have Libya as a player [financing terrorism], and you don't have Syria to support these [groups], and you don't have the Soviets supporting terrorists, a guy like bin Laden who is willing to finance this stuff becomes very important," Kushner said.
In that role, Kushner said, bin Laden also personifies the new face of "transnational" terrorism, a world in which rapidly shifting alliances may involve terrorists of numerous nationalities operating all over the globe.
Bin Laden is a one-man case study of the trend: he's a Saudi fundamentalist who, like hundreds of young Saudis, joined the Afghan resistance against the invading Soviet Union when he was 19 and never returned to Saudi Arabia to take his place in the family construction firm run by more than a dozen of his brothers, who have disavowed his actions.
Today the leading "Arab Afghan," bin Laden is closely aligned with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, one of whose leaders, Ayman Zawahri -- convicted of participating in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat -- is now with or near bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to both Cannistraro and Katzman.
Meanwhile, his forces, thought to number 3,000, have fought over the years in Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Tajikistan and Yemen, according to U.S. intelligence sources, one of whom credits bin Laden with "internationalizing and privatizing" terrorism.
The U.S. government's campaign against bin Laden dates to 1991, when he arrived in Sudan following the end of the Afghan conquest, during which he earned a legendary reputation both for physical bravery and reliable construction equipment, according to one U.S. government source. The Saudi government revoked his citizenship in 1994.
When Sudan finally complied with American demands to expel him in 1996, after the country was placed on the State Department's list of countries supporting terrorism in part for harboring him, bin Laden fled to Afghanistan, and immediately ran into more U.S. pressure there.
Bin Laden was high on the U.S. agenda when United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson in April led the first high-level U.S. delegation to Afghanistan since the early 1970s, asking Taliban officials to suppress bin Laden's threats against the United States.
Prior to Richardson's visit, the Pakistani press carried sensational reports about U.S. commandos and intelligence officials staking out bin Laden from Peshawar on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. U.S. intelligence sources refused to confirm or deny those reports, one of which contained the supposed names and passport numbers of American officials.
Continued pressure and surveillance has kept bin Laden isolated in Afghanistan, officials said.
"He's got to pretty much stay there; people are keeping track of him, if you know what I mean," said Katzman. "The intention of U.S. policy has been to bottle him up."
It's possible, of course, that such on-going harassment may have helped trigger the embassy bombings in Africa. U.S. officials are now investigating whether the CIA's role in the arrest of the four bin Laden lieutenants in Albania in June and last month may been a motivating factor in the attacks.
But with bin Laden, Kushner said, it may well be impossible to tell. Kushner said his hunch is that the perpetrators, should they ever be caught, will turn out to be a melange of terrorists from different countries and different groups.
"When people say, 'How come East Africa?' I say, 'Why not East Africa?' " Kushner said. "You blow up something around the world, it's just as good as doing it here."
That no individual or group has credibly claimed responsibility for the bombings does not surprise Kushner, or discourage his suspicion of bin Laden. "I say, [terrorists] stopped taking responsibility 10 years ago; nobody claimed Pan Am 103. Nobody claimed Khobar Towers. There's a slogan, and terrorists use it in their nomenclature: Let the target speak for itself."
Staff writer Nora Boustany and researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
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