Since the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last week, one suspect’s name has been repeated: Osama Bin Laden, an elusive Saudi exile who has committed his substantial fortune to driving the United States out of the Middle East. The 41-year-old Bin Laden is reportedly worth as much as $320 million, enough to finance hundreds of Kenya bombings. He embodies the anti-George Soros: His big bucks fund a closed society. And while his fortune is much smaller than Soros’ the cost of disrupting civil society is much lower than the cost of building one.
Bin Laden is the son of a Saudi construction mogul who left an estate worth some $5 billion to his many sons. As a young man, Bin Laden used family know-how and machines to blaze roads through Afghanistan during the Afghan-Soviet war and later through Sudan. However he no longer holds a managing stake in the family business. He has not lived in Saudi Arabia since 1979, when he left for the Afghan war. In 1994, his citizenship was revoked for agitating against the Saudi government as too moderate and too accommodating to the United States. Bin Laden has three wives, a pack of sons, and anywhere from eight to 52 brothers. His brothers still hobnob with Saudi royalty, but Bin Laden is estranged from them.
Bin Laden is now holed up near the mountainous headquarters of the Taliban, the radical Islamic sect that now controls Afghanistan. The Taliban has described him as their “guest.” Bin Laden operates terrorist prep camps in Afghanistan, the Philippines, and (at least until recently) Sudan. He pays 3,000 fighters to battle for his causes in Chechnya, Egypt, Kosovo and other hot spots and maintains close ties to a global network of Islamic terrorists. He has issued a series of edicts that call for a jihad (holy war) against America. His latest edict, issued in February, aired the usual terrorist platitudes and called for the “liberation” of mosques in Mecca and Jerusalem from control by “the Americans and their allies.”
From his remote Afghan nest, Bin Laden uses Western tools to help him attack the West. A satellite telephone, fax machine, and possibly even the Internet help him stay in touch with his global followers. Lest organizing and recruiting followers prove too difficult from Afghanistan, Bin Laden also keeps an office in London, though he himself is banned from England.
Even in the murky business of terrorism, evidence mounts high against Bin Laden. He claims credit for an attempt to bomb U.S. troops in Yemen in 1992. The following year, rocket launchers and men purportedly supplied by Bin Laden helped shoot down U.S. helicopters in Somalia. The architect of the 1994 World Trade Center bombing was captured in a Pakistan guesthouse financed by Bin Laden for Afghan war veterans and Bin Laden’s address was in his wallet. Another terrorist, who planned a two-day bombing bonanza against dozens of U.S. airlines in 1994, has also claimed ties to Bin Laden (who acknowledges the bond). Bin Laden applauds the 1996 bombing at the Saudi Arabian Khobar Towers base that killed 19 U.S. servicemen, but denies financing the operation.
A Manhattan-based jury is looking into Bin Laden’s criminal involvement in the World Trade Center bombings and other terrorist operations. But even if he is indicted, CIA action will be tough: Plucking a well-guarded terrorist from hostile, remote soil is no simple operation, and might run afoul of international law. Some U.S. agents have taken the hunt to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s southern neighbor, but nothing has come of it. ABC News had better luck: A gutsy correspondent tracked down Bin Laden’s agents in Pakistan and was invited to the Afghan mountain den for an exclusive interview last June.
Could Bin Laden have masterminded last week’s bombings? His cash could easily finance such an operation and his followers are pumped with years of indoctrination. Of course there are many groups throughout the world with an interest in punishing the U.S. But after the FBI and CIA agents finish crawling through the debris of last week’s bombings, they just might descry a shadowy Saudi behind the evidence.
This item was written by Kate Galbraith.