Osama's Endgame


    He's No Fool: Bin Laden, with lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri, has a well-articulated plan of action

    There is a word that gets attached to elusive international villains. The word is shadowy. Carlos the Jackal was shadowy. Abu Nidal was shadowy. One of the novelties of Osama bin Laden is that he is hardly shadowy at all. There is little mystery about bin Laden's life except his precise whereabouts now. For a terrorist ringleader, he has given a remarkable number of interviews. He has even played host at a press conference. Bin Laden has talked articulately about his history, his outlook, his strategy to defeat the U.S. What he hasn't told journalists he has laid out in fairly eloquent treatises. While the world was surprised by what bin Laden or his associates did on Sept. 11, it cannot be surprised by his intentions. These have been made clear for years by his many pronouncements.

    What's He After?
    Bin Laden's ambitions in the short run are plain. His first goal is to compel the U.S. to withdraw its military forces (today numbering 6,000) from his native Saudi Arabia. The presence of foreign troops in the cradle of Islam is, for him, "the latest and the greatest" of all infidel aggressions against the religion in its 14-century history. By their very presence, he believes, the U.S. forces defile the Muslim holy land. "Now infidels walk everywhere on the land where Muhammad was born and where the Koran was revealed to him," he lamented to TIME in a 1998 interview.

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    Because the U.S. troops are in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Saudi government, which was frightened into the move by a threat of invasion by Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1990, the Saudi regime, says bin Laden, "is fully responsible" for their presence. Thus he has called on his countrymen to overthrow the House of Saud. Still, he has targeted his attacks not on the rulers but on the Americans, noting that "the American enemy is the main cause of the situation."

    To bin Laden, the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia are the worst but not the only manifestation of U.S. ill will. Asked by CNN in 1997 whether their withdrawal would appease him, he said no. The holy war will not stop, he said, until the U.S. "desist[s] from aggressive intervention against Muslims in the whole world." Bin Laden counts as unacceptable the American military presence in other Arab states, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. He is offended by continued U.S. sanctions against Iraq as well as Syria, Sudan, Libya and Iran. And he objects to America's substantial support of Israel, which he considers a partner to the U.S. in a "Jewish-Crusader" conspiracy against Muslims.

    Bin Laden stretches his definition of American aggression further. He blames the U.S. for the killing of Bosnian Muslims by Christian Serbs because of a U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia until 1994. He even counts in this category the 1992-94 mission by U.S. troops to mostly Muslim Somalia as part of a U.N. effort to assist a famine-starved population caught between battling warlords. In bin Laden's book, the troop landing was simply a show of force by the U.S. "to scare the Muslim world, saying that it is able to do whatever it desires." He asked, "How can we believe your claims that you came to save our children in Somalia while you kill our children in all those [other] places?"--meaning Iraq, Bosnia and, through the Israelis, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

    And Then What?
    After the infidels have been expelled from the land of Islam, bin Laden, like other Islamic radicals, foresees the overthrow of current regimes across the Muslim world and the establishment of one united government strictly enforcing Shari'a, or Islamic law. This vision harks back to the age of the caliphs, the successors to Muhammad who ruled Islam's domain from the 7th century to the 13th. What might a caliphate look like today? In bin Laden's view, it would look something like the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which he has praised as "among the keenest to fulfill [Allah's] laws." Bin Laden may imagine himself to be a potential new caliph. One of the titles he uses is "emir," which means ruler. However, he swears allegiance to (and thereby ranks himself below) the Taliban ruler, Mullah Mohammed Omar, so whatever political ambitions bin Laden may have are not yet on display.

    Some bin Laden watchers speculate that he particularly has his eye on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as they possess, respectively, 25% of all proven oil reserves and the Islamic world's only known nuclear bomb. Bin Laden has referred to the Saudi oil fields as "a large economic power essential for the soon-to-be-established Islamic state." Asked by TIME in 1998 about reports that he was trying to acquire nuclear and chemical weapons, he replied, "If I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims."

    But for bin Laden, the game is not as simple as taking Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Says Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council staff member now writing a book on religious terror: "He is looking for a world in which Islam regains the dominant role, and naturally that would include oil and nukes. But to say it's about oil and nukes suggests it's not a metaphysical struggle, which it is for him. He thinks this is a big moral battle in which he's got Allah's sanction to attack the West." In a 1996 proclamation, bin Laden asked, "O Lord, shatter their gathering, divide them among themselves, shake the earth under their feet and give us control over them."

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