The day began with no hint of the horror in store. It was Aug. 7, a Friday morning, and staffs at two U.S. embassies in East Africa were looking forward to the weekend. People came and went as usual, but then the routine was punctuated by gruesome double booms. Car bombs parked near the American compounds in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the capitals of Kenya and Tanzania, exploded with immense power, killing 224 people and wounding 4,500. For days afterward, investigators from three countries mounted an intense hunt for clues about the culprits behind such a shocking attack. Before a week was out, the face of one man appeared in newspapers around the world: Osama bin Laden.
He looked as if he might have been Hollywood Central Casting's idea of an Arab terrorist, with brooding visage and upper lip seemingly twitched in a sneer. False as such stereotypes are, however, this image represented an adversary all too real for U.S. intelligence agents, who tagged bin Laden as the likely mastermind of the bombings. Termed by Washington "the pre-eminent organizer and financier of international terrorism," the millionaire son of a Saudi Arabian construction magnate abruptly leaped off the pages of counterterrorism files to become a household name. His reputation reached Fu Manchu-like dimensions when the White House ordered cruise missile strikes against his sanctuary in Afghanistan along with a Sudanese factory suspected of chemical weapons work and links with bin Laden. But his Tomahawked encampment reportedly suffered only minor damage, and a frustrated U.S. Justice Department posted a $5 million reward for his capture.
The notoriety is deserved, according to sleuths who have tracked his movements. With a fortune estimated at $300 million, the 41-year-old Saudi exile sits atop a loose network of perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 allies or associates around the world. Bin Laden's hand has been suspected in killings of 18 American peacekeeping troops in Somalia, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in Manhattan and plots to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Pope John Paul II and U.S. President Bill Clinton. In all events, this leader of jihad on many fronts has emerged as the most formidable Middle Eastern holy warrior. With the depth of his pockets, the geographical span of his reach and the broad appeal of a man who cares more for his faith than his money, bin Laden is a kind of Abu Nidal cubed: a terrorist who makes the Palestinian skyjackings of the 1970s seem almost quaint in retrospect.
The factors that led him down the road to holy war are also what make him such a danger to his foes. Born in Riyadh, he is the son of a building contractor from Yemen who made a fortune from his friendship with King Abd al-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. No sooner had Osama finished college with a business degree than the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Bin Laden volunteered to aid the mujahedin cause, at first driving a bulldozer to construct fortifications and later taking up a Kalashnikov to fight. By all accounts, he acquitted himself bravely and earned equal respect for his religious fervor. Later, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the thousands of U.S. troops who poured into Saudi Arabia provoked him to denounce the desecration of the Prophet's homeland by infidels. He began agitating against the Saudi monarchy and the West.
Nowadays, he is a stateless outlaw, but his influence is all the greater. Having fled to Sudan in 1991, then back to Afghanistan when Khartoum expelled him under U.S. pressure, he enjoys the tacit protection of the Afghan Taliban leaders, ardent holy warriors as well. His far-flung investments and business empire have remained almost entirely beyond Washington's reach, and the sundry movements he helps sponsor, including the "International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders," have confederates in many countries. According to U.S. intelligence, his aims are nothing less than defeat of the West and establishment of a global Islamic caliphate.
What comes next is anyone's guess, but suspicions are strong that bin Laden is planning another strike. Reputedly, some of his operatives have shopped around former Soviet states for an assembled nuclear warhead, only to buy some bogus goods. But his networks are picking up pointers all the time, plugged into the Internet and following events on CNN. Oddly, Washington's campaign against him seems to be in part self-defeating, having enhanced the man's prestige and influence in the Muslim world. The prominent Saudi dissident Saad Fagih remarks, "What Clinton is saying is there are two superpowers again: the United States and Osama bin Laden." If the superfoe hits back, the West can only hope that it will not be with a superweapon.