Charges Filed Against bin Laden
By Michael Grunwald and Vernon Loeb
A federal grand jury in New York returned a massive indictment against bin Laden and his top military commander, Muhammed Atef, and the State Department announced a $5 million reward for information leading to their arrest and conviction. The two men are believed to be hiding in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan with the approval of the Taliban, the Muslim militia that controls that country.
Although the capture of bin Laden does not seem imminent, terrorism experts said the indictment on murder and conspiracy charges was a precursor to any effort to extract bin Laden from Afghanistan, either as the result of a deal with the Taliban or a risky military operation.
In the three months since the embassy bombings, the U.S. government has pursued bin Laden on several tracks, using military strikes and secret diplomacy as well as the most extensive overseas law enforcement investigation in American history. Cruise missile attacks on sites in Afghanistan and Sudan on Aug. 20 failed to roust bin Laden, and Taliban officials have reportedly refused to expel him without seeing evidence of his crimes.
Prosecutors have now charged five suspects with murder and conspiracy in the embassy bombings, which killed 224 people and injured more than 5,500, and they have brought conspiracy charges against four other alleged members of bin Laden's far-flung organization, al Qaida. Yesterday's indictment mostly repeats earlier allegations that al Qaida forged alliances with Iran and Sudan, supported extremists in more than 20 nations, tried to procure chemical and nuclear weapons, trained Somalis who killed 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993, and carried out the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
The new indictment superseded a sealed conspiracy indictment filed against bin Laden two months before the embassy blasts. It alleges for the first time that al Qaida shipped weapons and explosives from Sudan to the Arabian peninsula during a period that coincided with attacks on Americans in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The earlier indictment, which was made public yesterday, alleged that al Qaida "reached an understanding" with President Saddam Hussein's government of Iraq and agreed to cooperate with Iraq to develop weapons.
"Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Atef are charged with the most heinous acts of violence ever committed against American diplomatic posts," said Mary Jo White, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. "All those responsible for these brutal and cowardly acts will be brought to justice."
However, the 238-count indictment also leaves many questions unanswered. Still unclear is whether prosecutors have evidence that bin Laden directly ordered the East Africa bombings. The indictment's timeline mostly chronicles his pronouncements calling on Muslims to kill Americans and details the alleged bombers' various links to al Qaida. It also notes that one of the alleged bombers asked bin Laden for a "mission" in 1996 and then appeared with bin Laden and Atef at a news conference in Afghanistan last May.
The indictment also does little to clarify bin Laden's broader role as an alleged sponsor of global terrorism. At times, the indictment portrays al Qaida as a kind of institutional overseer for militant Islam, with well-known extremist groups operating "under its umbrella." It names as unindicted co-conspirators several notorious Muslim extremists -- including the former head of the Islamic Group, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the spiritual leader of the group that bombed the World Trade Center and plotted to blow up a series of other New York City landmarks -- but does not spell out their links to al Qaida.
The indictment also continued prosecutors' efforts to link al Qaida to the Alkifah Refugee Center, the now-defunct Brooklyn mosque dominated by Rahman and his followers during the early 1990s. It described Alkifah as an "office" of an earlier incarnation of al Qaida, but provided no details about the relationship and did not mention the World Trade Center case.
Similarly, the indictment continues to hint that bin Laden had a role in attacks against American soldiers in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but does not make the allegation directly. It simply points out that he is the leader of al Qaida and issued its "fatwas" calling for Muslims to kill Americans in those countries. It also alleges that he provided training camps and guest houses for al Qaida members, recruited Americans to work for him, ran money and guns around the world and established several front companies to procure explosives and weapons for al Qaida.
Some terrorism experts believe that bin Laden's network is much looser than prosecutors have implied and that his link to terrorists around the world is more financial than operational. Officials emphasized that the investigation into bin Laden is continuing and that prosecutors never reveal all their evidence in an indictment. "Our investigators have made significant progress, but much remains to be done," said Lewis D. Schiliro, the assistant FBI director in charge of the New York office.
Of the nine al Qaida members charged in the United States, four are in custody in New York, one is awaiting extradition from Germany, one is awaiting extradition from Britain, and three are fugitives.
Few experts expect bin Laden to stand trial in New York anytime soon. Since his expulsion from Sudan in 1996, he has been moving around the same isolated terrain he occupied as a leader of so-called "Arab Afghans" during Afghanistan's decade-long war against the Soviet army. President Clinton personally authorized covert actions against bin Laden after the embassy bombings, but a military strike against him in Afghanistan could be a nightmare, the experts said.
Milton Bearden, a former CIA official who ran the agency's covert operation to assist Afghan rebels against the Soviet army from 1986 to 1989, said yesterday that any military operation would come at a high price in American lives and would probably fail.
"The Soviet Union lost a perfectly good army in those same hills," Bearden said. "Sending in [Americans] would make Mogadishu look like a training accident. I've been in there, and you can only go in if it is coordinated with a significant number of Afghans, with the Pakistanis involved in helping out in the process -- then we can go in."
Some analysts suggest that the Taliban, which wants better relations with the United States, may ultimately be willing to hand bin Laden over to Americans or at least to force him into a third country. Any deal with the Taliban would probably also have to involve the Pakistanis, who in the past have helped American officials snare World Trade Center mastermind Ramzi Yousef as well as Mir Amal Kasi, who killed two CIA employees outside the agency's Langley headquarters.
David C. Leavy, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said U.S. officials informed the Taliban about the indictment yesterday and have been talking to Pakistanis and others about the need to bring bin Laden to trial. Leavy called the indictment "an important step" in the process, but only a step. "We have a multi-pronged strategy to deal with terrorists: judicial, diplomatic, financial and military, if necessary," he said.
Harvey Kushner, a Long Island University professor who studies terrorism, said that while bin Laden is certainly wealthy and influential, the emphasis on his arrest and trial may be overblown. He agreed that an indictment could help bring bin Laden to justice, but said it can never solve the larger problem of "why people like bin Laden get created, and why they have followers."
Grunwald reported from New York, Loeb from Washington.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company