How Bin Laden Spooked the U.S. in Kosovo

A NATO raid on a Saudi charity — though it comes up empty — shows that Washington isn't taking chances.

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The prime threat to the safety of U.S. troops in Kosovo may come not from renegade Serbs or ultra-nationalist Albanians, but from Osama bin Laden. At least that seems to be the thinking behind a raid by NATO military police on the headquarters of the Saudi Joint Relief Committee, an Islamic charity operating in the war-ravaged territory. The BBC reported Tuesday that although the raid netted no evidence to back the claim, U.S. officials believe the group — which is partly funded by the Saudi government — may be linked with Bin Laden, and names two former officials as associates of the alleged super-terrorist. "Although they won't discuss it on the record, the use of charitable Islamic organizations as fronts for potential terrorists has been a concern among U.S. national security officials ever since the Bosnia war," says TIME Washington correspondent Massimo Calabresi. "They believe that in many cases the charities don't even know they're being used as fronts."

Islamic fundamentalist mujahedeen warriors from Afghanistan, Iran and the Mideast played a significant role in keeping Bosnia afloat in the early years of the war there, when sanctions maintained by the West left the republic almost defenseless against Serbia and Croatia. But Kosovo played out very differently, and would be a tough nut for Bin Laden to crack. "Nobody ever found any Bin Laden links to the KLA in Kosovo," says Calabresi. "Both the KLA and the Albanian government were aggressive about keeping the mujahedeen out of the conflict because of Washington's concerns. Although Bin Laden might find a sympathetic ear among some of the more hard-line ethnic-Albanian nationalists unhappy with the outcome in Kosovo, he hasn't had much access, and although they're Muslims, Albanian culture doesn't easily lend itself to Bin Laden's fundamentalist brand of Islam." But the undertow of discontent on Capitol Hill about the open-ended U.S. troop commitment in the troubled region may be prompting Washington to turn over every rock, just in case.