Terrorist Leader 'Safe,' Afghan Hosts Declare
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 21, 1998; Page A01
QUETTA, Pakistan, Aug. 20Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born Islamic militant whose terrorist network was the target of U.S. missile strikes today in central Afghanistan, has spent the past 15 months living about 200 miles south of the site of the attacks, using as his base a fortified and heavily guarded hilltop compound outside the city of Kandahar.
A spokesman for the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement that now controls virtually all of Afghanistan, said tonight that bin Laden was not injured in the strike, but U.S. officials said they could not confirm that. The Taliban spokesman did not say where bin Laden was during the raid, only that he "is safe and no damage has been done to any of his companions."
As recently as last Friday, bin Laden reportedly appeared at a mosque in central Kandahar for prayer services. Two Taliban militia members encountered this week on the streets of Quetta -- 120 miles from Kandahar in west-central Pakistan -- told a reporter they had "prayed together" with bin Laden on Friday, shortly after returning from fighting anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan. But in general, they added, he and his foreign disciples rarely mingle with Afghans in Kandahar.
Bin Laden's first sojourn in Afghanistan began shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1979, when he spent years helping train and organize Arabs who had volunteered to fight alongside Afghan Islamic guerrillas against the Soviets and their puppet government in Kabul. Later, he developed close ties with the Taliban, and now he is once again headquartered in Afghanistan -- this time as the Taliban's honored guest.
Last week, as rumors swept Pakistan and Afghanistan that an American military assault against bin Laden was imminent, Taliban officials were quoted in the Pakistani press as saying bin Laden had tripled the security forces around his compound and was sleeping in a different location every two nights.
"He has his own people," said a Taliban militiaman in Quetta. "He has 1,000 to 1,500 personal guards; they are Arabs, too." The militiaman, who gave his name as Abdulquibir, wore a long black beard and flowing green robes, and a healing bullet wound was visible on one of his legs. Asked his opinion of bin Laden, Abdulquibir grinned and said: "He is our guest, so we must protect him. But he has come as a refugee this time. What can he do for us?"
Bin Laden, whom U.S. officials today implicated in the Aug. 7 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 263 people -- including 12 Americans -- long has been considered a leading sponsor of terrorism directed against U.S. interests. Dedicated to a purist vision of Islam and a campaign to rid Islam's holy sites of Israeli, U.S. and other Western influences, bin Laden is believed to have at least 3,000 followers throughout the Arab world, many of whom he met and trained during his stay in Afghanistan more than a decade ago.
Despite his ideological affinity with the Taliban, bin Laden has caused the Afghan regime increasing public relations problems by calling for attacks on the United States -- and by evidence linking him to a series of armed attacks against American targets. These include a firefight in Somalia in 1993 in which 18 American servicemen died; a car bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1995 that killed five Americans and two Indians; and now the embassy bombings in East Africa.
Still, just hours before the U.S. missile attack, bin Laden reportedly telephoned a Pakistani journalist and declared: "I have nothing to do with the bombing of American embassies in Africa, but I urge Muslims all over the world to continue their [war] against the Americans and Jews."
Taliban officials have said repeatedly that they would not allow bin Laden or anyone else to launch terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Last night, news agencies quoted the supreme Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar, as saying from Kandahar: "There is no camp of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. . . . We have already closed his camps." According to the Reuters news service, Omar added: "We can never hand over Osama to America."
Bin Laden inherited a fortune estimated at up to $300 million from his father, a Saudi construction magnate. While relatives say he no longer has anything to do with the family firm, he is known to control businesses of his own. He was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, after criticizing the ruling family there, and moved to Sudan -- the other target of U.S. raids today. Sudan expelled him in 1996 under the threat of U.S. sanctions, and he shifted his base of operations to Afghanistan, protected by Taliban leaders who had been his comrades in the struggle against the Soviets.
"I never met him, but I know he helped [anti-Soviet guerrillas] a lot during the war. And he was not the only one; there were many others from Arab countries who supplied us with financial and military aid," said Abdul Manan, 28, a former guerrilla and devout Muslim who now cooks at an Afghan restaurant in Quetta. "They came to help us liberate our country, and many gave their lives for the glory of Islam."
On his return, bin Laden settled at first near the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, where he was described in some news reports as operating out of a remote mountaintop cave filled with high-tech communications equipment. There, it was said, he lived a Spartan life and slept with an AK-47 assault rifle next to his bed.
But in April 1997, his operations were moved to the Kandahar region, where Taliban leader Omar was based. That way, one Taliban official said at the time, "if Bin Laden wants to discuss anything with the Taliban, he can go and see the leader directly." Since then, while the secretive bin Laden has rarely been seen in the city, he has made his presence felt in other ways. Kandahar residents interviewed in Quetta this week said bin Laden had commissioned a new mosque on the site of a defunct movie theater -- now banned by the Taliban. They said also that he and Saudi associates had invested in some new apartments and commercial projects.
Among Afghans in this region, where cross-border trade and travel is common despite the rugged mountain range that divides Kandahar and Quetta, opinions of bin Laden gathered by a reporter this week were largely negative. One former anti-Soviet guerrilla called him "an enemy of humanity."
But while expressing outrage at the idea that bin Laden might be fomenting terrorist attacks from the region, many Afghans also blamed Pakistan and the United States for helping radical Islamic groups to flourish during the resistance to Soviet occupation and then washing their hands of the consequences.
"If radical terrorism has found a breeding ground in Afghanistan, it is because of outside forces," said Hamid Karzai, a former Afghan diplomat who now lives in Quetta. He said he had repeatedly warned U.S. officials that there was "tremendous outside support for the Taliban, but no one listened to us."
A number of Kandahar natives interviewed in Quetta this week said the presence of the Taliban in their once free-spirited city was oppressive. In a lengthy group interview at a private home, former educators, former high-ranking guerrillas, even an Islamic religious leader, said they disagree with the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islamic law but dare not express their opinions in public.
Instead, these longtime residents said they had retreated into silence and watched as the country's leaders shut down schools, darkened movie houses, confined women to their home unless veiled from head to foot and ordered men to wear beards and religious headgear.
"Today, there is finally peace in Kandahar, but it is like a prison," said Abdul Malik, 27, a brother-in-law of Karzai. Malik said he has dream-like memories of going to Independence Day festivities as a small boy in Kandahar, but far more vivid ones of watching a Russian convoy, attacked by rebel rockets, explode in smoke and flames. "There is nothing there for my generation, for those who want to study and grow."
Once a thriving, culturally sophisticated metropolis surrounded by green fields and bursting orchards, Kandahar was reduced to crater-pocked rubble during the war against the Soviets. Physically, according to residents and local U.N. officials who visit Kandahar often, the city is slowly beginning to rebuild with foreign donations.
One U.N. official said that when he arrived there one night last week, he was surprised to see "a light in every shop." But another said that even the main roads were still devastated from years of bombing and that electric power had been restored only recently with the repair of a major river dam.
Since May, the U.N. refugee agency has returned more than 7,000 Afghans in truck convoys to the Kandahar area, where each family has been given some money, wheat and plastic sheeting for shelter. But there are still about 120,000 refugees living in informal camps across the region, as well as tens of thousands of unofficial refugees living around Quetta.
While many secular-minded Kandahar natives have long since fled Taliban rule, the city has attracted Arab militants from other countries, some Afghans here said. In turn, the influence and money of foreign Islamic radicals such as bin Laden have further radicalized the Taliban's agenda in recent months.
"There were many wonderful people in the Taliban, many moderate and patriotic people, but the control from the outside, the interference from Pakistan and the radical Arabs made it hard for the moderates to stay there and help," said Karzai, the former Afghan diplomat.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company