It’s Osama bin Laden, according to Colin Powell and various unnamed sources quoted in the US media. Bin Laden is the puppetmaster who pulls the strings of sophisticated, well-trained terrorist cells in 34 nations around the world. A multi-millionaire, he has 3,000 agents on his payroll, has given millions of dollars to the Taliban in Afghanistan to ensure his own safety, and bankrolls dozens of terrorist training camps that produce foot soldiers for conflicts in Israel, Egypt, Chechnya, The Philippines, India, and Uzbekistan.
On the other hand, the Taliban swear that they have bin Laden under surveillance and have taken away his satellite phone. He only has a few bodyguards and advisors, they say, and he doesn’t have the means to organize or train pilots; his own specialty seems to be land-based, guerrilla warfare.
So who’s right?
In the past week, the Western press has been full of sketchy biographies of the infamous Osama bin Laden, which begin with a vague mention of his participation in the Afghan civil war and end with the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. They leave out a couple of important details.
Bin Laden’s father, Mohammad, was a wealthy Yemeni businessman who moved to Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and established a construction company that profited handsomely on the post-WWII oil boom. The Bin Laden Construction Group raked in cash because of patronage from the Saudi royal family, and it was selected to expand the holy sites at Mecca and Medina. Young Osama was raised within a social circle that included the sons of prominent Saudi businessmen, politicians, and royalty.
When his father died, Osama inherited millions. But that’s not the only source for his wealth. His contacts among the Saudi elite made him the perfect candidate for overseeing the flow of CIA money through Saudi Arabia to Islamic fundamentalist groups fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His estimated $400 million in net worth also consists of US taxpayer money.
Yet that money sits untouched. Most of his assets were frozen several years ago, and bin Laden has had no access to it. In fact, court records in the trial of men convicted of bombing the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania reveal that bin Laden is a stingy employer. The testimony in that trial reveals that his organization is far from the all-powerful octopus the CIA would have us believe. As Benjamin Weiser of the Associated Press wrote in May of this year: “his group, Al Qaeda, was at times slipshod, torn by inner strife, betrayal, greed, and the banalities of life that one might find in any office.”
Weiser goes on to quote Larry C. Johnson, a former deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism: “What the evidence at trial has correctly portrayed, is that it’s really a loose amalgam of people with a shared ideology, but a very limited direction.”
Weiser further says that two former aides to bin Laden claimed “Al Qaeda was also fractured over strategies and operations.”
Al Qaeda could have grown and gained focus since then, but terrorism specialists continue to caution that Osama bin Laden may not be the head honcho, if there even is one. The anonymous “well-placed sources” within the US intelligence community are careful to remind us that bin Laden was probably acting in concert with other groups, whatever that means. Most resort to a puzzled “who else could it be?” that tells us exactly the level of skill of our government’s intelligence agencies.
If they read the newspaper once in a while, maybe they’d have a clue. Agence France Presse ran an article on September 12 entitled “Osama bin Laden linked to sacked Saudi intelligence chief.” The editor of a well-respected intelligence newsletter in France reminds us that bin Laden is close friends with Turki al-Faycal, who was the head of Saudi intelligence until just last month, when King Fahd fired him for failing to get bin Laden extradited from Afghanistan. Al-Faycal headed Saudi intelligence for 25 years and worked closely with bin Laden during the 1970s and 1980s. And he risked his job to protect bin Laden.
Is it a coincidence that the FBI is uncovering connections between the hijackers and the Saudi state airline company?
Even the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has something to contribute; on September 12 it ran an article by Lisa Hoffman of the Scripps Howard News Service about the bombing of the USS Cole and the death of 17 US sailors in the port of Aden last October. She cites the fact that the Yemeni government wouldn’t cooperate with FBI agents: “FBI frustrations only grew worse as Yemeni officials refused to allow them to interview prominent Yemenis who the agents suspect are connected [to the bombers].”
Absurdly, Osama’s terrorist cells seem to include the former chief of Saudi intelligence, commercial pilots from four different countries (Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and the United Arab Emirates), prominent Yemenis, and officials in the Yemeni government.
No one has pointed out that it’s a huge leap from Ahmed Ressam and his half-assed suitcase bomb to 19 well-educated, well-connected hijackers who trained over the course of five years to carry out this attack.
In the Middle East, resentment runs deep against the US for its support of the sanctions against Iraq, for its support of repressive governments in Egypt, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, for its role in the destruction of Lebanon, and for the billions of dollars in military aid it sends to Israel. Osama bin Laden is not the only multi-millionaire or military commander who can hold a grudge.
Sources include: “Osama bin Laden, black sheep of a family close to Saudi rulers,” Agence France Presse (AFP), 9/13/01; “Suspect No. 1,” Sydney Morning Herald, 9/13/01; “Bin Laden Innocent says Taleban,” BBC, 9/13/01; “Osama bin Laden linked to sacked Saudi intelligence chief: expert,” AFP, 9/12/01; “USS Cole investigators leave Yemen,” Lisa Hoffman, Scripps Howard News Service, printed in Seattle P-I, 9/13/01, A4; and “Trial Poked Holes in Image of bin Laden’s Terrorist Group,” Benjamin Weiser, AP, 5/31/01.