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AMERICA ATTACKED | FOREIGN ENTANGLEMENTS

On Trail of the Real Osama bin Laden

Profile: Prime suspect in Tuesday's attacks could have been a builder instead of an avowed destroyer. His hatred of America runs deep.

September 15, 2001|PAUL WATSON and TYLER MARSHALL and BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Had the world turned differently for Osama bin Laden, he would have used his engineering degree to construct buildings instead of plotting to blow them up.

To many top American officials, Bin Laden is the chief suspect in Tuesday's massacres in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. He has been in this role before: He was indicted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell named him when he vowed that the United States would "rip the [terrorist] network up."

Bin Laden was supposed to follow in the footsteps of his father, a billionaire Yemeni-born building contractor in Saudi Arabia, and use family ties to the Saudi royal family to get even richer.

But after learning the tenets of militant Islam in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan during the holy war against Soviet troops in the 1980s, he turned his anger on the United States when it sent troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to oppose Iraq.

By most accounts, Bin Laden was not a major player in the Afghan war. Nor is he known as an incisive Islamic scholar. But as he applied his wealth and organizational skills to his vision of dislodging the U.S. and its Western allies from the Middle East, he became the focus of U.S. anti-terrorism experts--and consequently a hero to many angry, disenfranchised Muslims.

Bin Laden denies involvement in Tuesday's attacks, and some terrorist experts caution that others might have been more directly involved. They cite evidence that terrorist cells tied to other radical groups and governments could have been the organizers.

But Bin Laden's influence stretches far beyond his Afghanistan bases. Regardless whether it can ever be determined that he ordered the attacks, his support for Islamic radicals has made him an inspiration for terrorists around the globe.

Among other names, his followers call him "the Prince," "the Emir" or "the Director." CIA profilers have studied every known utterance and piece of film footage of Bin Laden for clues to his motives, his health and his mental state.

Bin Laden's ruthless radicalism actually began as a reaction to the astonishing wealth and excesses of the 1970s oil boom in Saudi Arabia, said Yossef Bodansky, who studied Bin Laden as director of the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.

Believed to have been born in 1957, Bin Laden grew up tall and lean during those profligate years. At about 6-foot-5, he towers over his associates. Some accounts of his teenage years say he was quiet and pious; other say he often flew to Beirut, then the Riviera of the Middle East, where he partied in casinos and nightclubs, chased women and sometimes let off steam in bar brawls.

His transformation into a holy warrior was, in part, fueled by a now widespread conviction in the Muslim world that U.S. support for Israel allows it to illegally occupy Palestinian territory.

Bin Laden told Qatar's Al Jazeera television in a rare interview in 1999 that even when he was on the same side as the United States--fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan--he "always hated the Americans because they are against Muslims. . . . We didn't want the U.S. support in Afghanistan, but we just happened to be fighting the same enemy."

His terrorism career began the second time he was faced with prospect of a U.S. military alliance with Muslims--this time when Saudi Arabia and many other countries joined the American-led coalition against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

A Declaration of War Against the U.S. in 1996

When Saudi King Fahd agreed in 1990 to let Washington send soldiers to his nation, Bin Laden urged peaceful protest through a boycott of American goods. The royal family turned against him, and Bin Laden joined Islamists demanding far more extreme measures.

According to the indictment that accuses Bin Laden of masterminding the 1998 embassy bombings, which killed 224 people and injured thousands, his global network of terror is called Al Qaeda, which is Arabic for "the Base."

His first base was in Sudan, where he moved after leaving Saudi Arabia. But U.S. pressure on that war-racked African country forced him to move to Afghanistan with a military transport planeload of 150 supporters in 1996. He declared war on all Americans the same year.

Since January 1996, a dozen U.S. federal agencies have been cooperating in the effort to stop Bin Laden's jihad against Americans. But his network only expanded its reach, with allies in a long list of countries as diverse as Egypt, Somalia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Malaysia and the Philippines.

It is Bin Laden's ability to spin such a lethal web out of loosely allied Islamist groups around the world that makes him so unique--and difficult to stop.

"He's been singularly successful in unifying the diverse strands of terrorism in the Middle East and weaving them into a more formidable whole than it's ever been," said Bruce Hoffman, director of think tank Rand Corp.'s Washington office.

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