Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Osama bin Laden

First known to the CIA as one of the Arabs fighting on our side against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden became America's No. 1 nemesis a decade later. The malcontented son of a wealthy Saudi construction magnate, bin Laden found meaning in the Afghan war. When it was over, he organized its Arab veterans into a global network of terrorists seeking to overthrow governments to create fundamentalist theocracies. He named the movement the foundation, as in the base of a building—in Arabic, al-Qaeda. Bin Laden provided the seed money, the organizational ability and the charismatic personality necessary to catalyze the global movement. He galvanized disparate organizations in dozens of countries into one network, sharing a vision, logistics and Afghan training camps. In the early 1990s it started to become clear to me and others working in counterterrorism that a series of nuisance-level threats had become united, and now posed a major security challenge for countries throughout the world. And bin Laden, we gradually realized, was at the heart of this danger.

As the U.S. became the world's only remaining superpower, bin Laden made it his main target. He blamed the U.S. for propping up corrupt Arab governments, occupying Arab lands with infidel soldiers and backing Israel against the Palestinians. His ideology and boldness resonated with disaffected Muslims in many nations, prompting many wealthy Arabs to launder millions of dollars into al-Qaeda's coffers.

Bin Laden personally approved the details of major terrorist attacks such as those on the East African embassies, the U.S.S. Cole and on New York City and Washington in September 2001. After the U.S. placed forces in Afghanistan in 2001, bin Laden appeared to be cut off from his global network. Al-Qaeda then morphed from a highly hierarchical organization into a multiheaded hydra, with independently operating cells raining terror upon Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Russia, Indonesia and Spain.

President Clinton authorized the CIA to use lethal force against bin Laden and his deputies, but the U.S. was unable to kill him for two years before and for almost three years after the attacks of 2001. Even had he been killed by 1999, bin Laden's influence and accomplishments would have been enough by then to have launched the global, radical Islamist movement. In death he will become a martyr and further inspiration to radical Islamists — until someone offers an effective ideological or religious counterweight.

Clarke is the former head of counterterrorism for the National Security Council

From the Archive
On Osama bin Laden's Trail: Searching the badlands for the world's most-wanted terrorist