Cocktail Napkin Primer: Osama Bin Laden

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Who is Osama Bin Laden?

He is a Saudi financier who recruited and led Arab volunteers for the jihad (holy war) against the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan. Since that war, he has sent his "Arab Afghans" to fight in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and other conflicts involving Muslims. But he also declared a jihad against the United States, and has been accused of authoring a number of bloody attacks on Americans, most notably the 1998 embassy bombings in east Africa. He's also a prime suspect in the attack on the USS Cole.

What does Bin Laden want?

Bin Laden believes Muslim countries should be ruled according to Islamic sharia law, thus pitting him against the pro-Western regimes all over the Middle East. U.S. support for these regimes and for Israel, as well as the presence of "infidel" American forces in Saudi Arabia, are the reasons he offers for his jihad against the U.S. Bin Laden wants to drive the U.S. out of Arab lands, overthrow the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and destroy Israel.

Who are Bin Laden's operatives?

Bin Laden's own organization, Al Qaida, is believed to be a loose network of some 3,000-5,000 men, most of them Arab volunteers who fought in Afghanistan and were either unwilling or unable to return home. They maintained training camps in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere, where they trained fighters for Islamist armies as far afield as Chechnya and western China.

The Afghan jihad also established links between volunteers from Islamist opposition groups in countries ranging from Algeria to South Africa and the Philippines, and Bin Laden has moved — together with key leaders of Egypt's influential Islamist movement — to establish himself at the center of a kind of Islamist International. Their goal has been to link organizations spawned by local grievances all around the world into a global jihad against the U.S. and to foster cooperation among these groups.

Where are they based?

Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bosnia, the Philippines, even possibly New Jersey. Pockets of Bin Laden supporters have been unearthed wherever foreign veterans of the Afghan war are to be found, and they are believed to have created cells in some 50 countries. Last week, a New York court convicted Ali Mohammed, a sergeant in the U.S. Army and a former Egyptian army major of doing intelligence work for Bin Laden's networks. And the Algerians arrested last December for allegedly smuggling explosives into the U.S. from Canada are suspected of working with Bin Laden, even though they were ostensibly supporters of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, which has not traditionally targeted the U.S. That suggests a growing tendency toward cooperation between distinct local groups, which considerably widens the base of potential threats against the U.S.

How do Bin Laden's networks differ from other terrorist groupings in the Middle East?

Before the Bin Laden group emerged, terrorist organizations in the Mideast depended on states to sponsor their activities. The notorious PLO dissident Abu Nidal, for example, might carry out attacks on behalf of Syria, Libya or other sponsors, as would the Venezuelan "Carlos the Jackal," currently in prison in France. Similarly, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia has depended on backing from Iran and a nod and a wink from Syria. Hezbollah, of course, has primarily waged a guerrilla war against Israel in southern Lebanon, but it has also been a suspect in terrorist attacks both inside Lebanon and abroad. But unlike Bin Laden's group, Hezbollah tends to remain focused on home ground.

The most notorious Palestinian terrorist group in the '90s has been Hamas, which has killed scores of Israeli civilians in suicide bombing attacks inside Israel. Based in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas opposes Yasser Arafat and the peace process, but it is not known to have mounted attacks outside of Israel and the Palestinian territories. A worrying development for Israel has been growing ties between Hamas and Hezbollah. Thus far, though, Israeli security officials believe that Osama Bin Laden's forces have not for the most part directly targeted Israel.

Bin Laden's network, by contrast, is more like a state unto itself. Bin Laden's personal fortune of hundreds of millions guarantees its liquidity, and when the hospitality of a government is withdrawn, as happened in the Sudan, he is able to simply move his headquarters to another location, preferably a friendly or failed state.