Bin Laden Profiled

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Exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden is shown in Afghanistan

Who is Osama Bin Laden?

He is a Saudi financier who recruited and led Arab volunteers for the 'jihad' 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, declaring it the duty of all Muslims to kill American soldiers and civilians. Bin Laden, of course, has no religious standing, and his religious rationalization of terrorism is fiercely rejected by mainstream Islam. The fugitive Saudi has been accused of authoring a number of attacks on Americans, most notably the 1998 embassy bombings in east Africa. He's also a prime suspect in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.

What does Bin Laden Want?

[an error occurred while processing this directive]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 and how does his network function?

Bin Laden's own organization, Al Qaida, is based primarily on Arab volunteers who had fought the Russians in Afghanistan with the support of the CIA and Arab intelligence agencies, 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. Many of these operatives were also trained and deployed to create the infrastructure for and execute terrorist actions against targets associated with the U.S. all over the world.

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.

Security experts believe Bin Laden's networks are not tightly or vertically linked. Instead, any number of smaller cells and loosely affiliated organizations receive support from and carry out operations on behalf of the Saudi financier and his immediate lieutenants.

Where are they based?

Bin Laden remains holed up in Afghanistan, where he enjoys the protection of its ruling Taliban militia. But structures linked with Bin Laden have been identified in Yemen, Bosnia, the Philippines, even New Jersey — pockets of support have been unearthed in most places where foreign veterans of the Afghan war are to be found. Earlier this year, a New York court convicted a former Egyptian army major of doing intelligence work for Bin Laden's networks — Ali Mohammed had also been a sergeant in the U.S. Army. And the Algerians arrested last December for allegedly smuggling explosives into the U.S. are suspected of working with Bin Laden, even though they had been linked with Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front — a group that has not traditionally targeted the U.S. That suggests a growing tendency towards 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 notorious 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 — and the equally cosmopolitan Abu Nidal — Hezbollah tends to remain focus on home ground, and on lending its support and expertise to Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza.

The most notorious Palestinian terrorist group of the past decade 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. Thus far, Israeli security officials believe that despite their animosity to the Jewish State, Osama Bin Laden's forces have not for the most part directly targeted Israel.