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CIA's Toy Gone Awry

Ironical as it may sound, Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world and the perceived symbol of evil, received his first lessons in the art of clandestine operations and subterfuge from the CIA.

CIA's Toy Gone Awry
CIA's Toy Gone Awry
"I wake up in horror every night. We know he is going to strike. But we do not know where or when."
—Pentagon's anti-terrorism expert in a TV interview in 1999

Ironical as it may sound, Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world and the perceived symbol of evil, received his first lessons in the art of clandestine operations and subterfuge from the cia.

Rewind to the late '70s. It was at the Jawora base near Host, Afghanistan, that US intelligence set up a training ground to equip young men to fight a guerrilla battle against the erstwhile ussr. Belonging to the royal Saudi family, bin Laden was a vip student of the cia. Fired by a strong anti-Left stand, bin Laden launched his operations against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan with religious fervour. Indeed, when the then Soviet Politburo decided to send an army of 'infidels' into Afghanistan, bin Laden knew his call had come. He audaciously shifted his business from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan with hundreds of loyal workers, along with state-of-the-art construction equipment, and began to erect military lines of communication and bases of resistance there. He also teamed up with Abdullah Azam, in charge of a Palestinian organisation called the Moslem Brotherhood. It was through the Brotherhood that they set up recruitment offices all over the Islamic world.

Recalls Russian journalist Yerlan Dzhurabayev, "Thousands of volunteers, for the most part from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Pakistan and Egypt, flocked to the newly-established training camps." When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, it left bin Laden's now 10,000-strong force without any immediate work. Part of his men went home with authorities in their respective countries labelling them "undesirable" elements. Bin Laden knew that unless he engaged another big power, his elite and expensive force would lose interest. Thus was born in 1988 the Al Qaeda organisation, a pool of Afghan veterans which has grown over the years and now has a presence in about 50 countries.

The once-favoured pupil of the cia is the one man the agency now badly wants. But he has proved supremely elusive. And as the hunt takes on a new dimension following Black Tuesday, the cia can dip into its own records of this millennium's Dr No.

The world's most wanted man now lists his enemies in order of preference. No. 1, the US, No. 2, Israel, and No. 3, India. In a career spanning over two decades, bin Laden has truly emerged the global religious mercenary, operating from West Asia, Africa and Asia, all with equal ease and precision. The motivation against the US is its alliance with Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and its anti-Palestine position; Israel is on his hit-list for Zionism and India, for Kashmir. No one terrorist is known to have such a wide-ranging agenda.

Bin Laden's battle with the US took a new turn with the arrest of 17 of his supporters for staging powerful explosions at two US embassies in East Africa in 1998. The incident led to the US administration temporarily closing down its missions in six African countries. Last year, he was behind the bombing of the uss Cole off Yemen. A year later, bin Laden has managed to get the White House and Pentagon evacuated as well. Says Yosouf Bodansky, who authored a book on bin Laden: "He is the most popular man in the Muslim world today as he is the one man who has taken up issues seen by fundamentalists as being pro-Islam." Adds Larry Johnson, US anti-terrorism expert: "He has killed and maimed more Americans than anyone else in history."

As Allah willed it, one of Islam's dreaded future "warriors" was born into a large family. His father, Mohammed Awad bin Laden, a Saudi building industry king, was married 10 times and fathered 53 children. His now-infamous son was born to a Palestinian wife. Osama has not done too badly himself: three wives and 18 children. According to a profile being drawn up by intelligence agencies, since childhood bin Laden tried hard to compromise with his numerous and no less ambitious relatives, subsequently making it to the top and becoming his wealthy clan's undisputed leader. The family boasts of a $5 billion fortune of which Osama himself controls $300 million.

After graduating from Riyadh University's management school, bin Laden began to display his business acumen. His young days were not spent as a revolutionary but at Beirut's fashionable night clubs. But that was not his karma. Apart from the construction industry, he took an active interest in Islamic politics. It would, however, be some time before he switched from being a businessman to a champion of Islamic causes.

In the years after the Gulf War, Osama was a changed man. In June 1998, about 100 delegates from Arab nations, Somalia, Afghanistan and Chechnya gathered for an emergency session of the Worldwide Islamic League in Kandahar, Afghanistan. According to eyewitnesses, Osama, who presided over the session, brandished the Quran and said with barely-restrained rage: "You cannot defeat the heretics with this book alone; you must show them your fist." Those present applauded the founder of this organisation, subsequently raising the holy book in their hands as a sign of approval.

This radical grouping finalised an action plan at that session. It included action against US embassies as well as the kidnapping and murder of diplomats. The Kenya and Tanzania explosions came two months after this conference. In 1998, he told Time in a rare interview: "Hostility towards America is a religious duty and we hope it will be rewarded for by god."

Bin Laden is now cut off from the Saudi kingdom. He considers its decision to agree to US military deployment on its territory as an unforgivable sin. In bin Laden's words, King Fahd had sided with the Jews and Christians, also desecrating holy Muslim places. He told Time: "If the instigation for jehad against the Jews and Americans in order to liberate the Al Aksa mosque and the Holy Ka'aba is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Our job is to instigate and by the grace of god, we did that."

At that time, bin Laden's accusation resounded from Sudan, where he had settled after Muslim extremists had gained power. There he liberally invested a portion of his wealth into Sudanese construction companies, farms and a leather processing factory which used to export its products to Italy. He invested the income from these enterprises into the construction of a training centre for religious revolutionaries and Afghan war veterans.

In 1994, Saudi Arabia deprived him of his Saudi citizenship while the Sudanese authorities asked him to leave their country two years later. This request can be explained by the fact that the Sudanese government feared punitive actions by the US, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Consequently, bin Laden again settled down in Afghanistan where he had spent his younger days in the Afghan war.

Security agencies say bin Laden's coalition today spans continents.The so-called main organisation lacks any clear-cut and concise structure. It constitutes a veritable order of Islamic knights, a rapid deployment force capable of perpetrating terrorist acts anywhere. It is believed that Osama's secret army is well-equipped and boasts surface-to-air missiles, howitzers and armoured vehicles. If found to be involved in the horrific US bombings, the secret army, apparently, now has the service of aviation experts as well.

The big question is, how will the US track bin Laden? In mid-January 1999, US reconnaissance airplanes repeatedly invaded Pakistani airspace, particularly inside a 50-km approach zone around Karachi. Pakistani media reports say the Americans were trying to 'identify' bin Laden's Afghan bases. Afghan contacts and Pakistani officials say that bin Laden's men regularly move through Peshawar and use it as a hub for phone, fax and modem communications.

According to Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former cia operative familiar with West Asia and Peshawar, US intelligence cannot expect much help from Pakistan's isi. Says Gerecht: "No case officer stationed in Pakistan can penetrate either the Afghan communities or the North West Frontier's numerous religious schools, which feed manpower and ideas to bin Laden and the Taliban, and seriously expect to gather useful information about radical Islamic terrorism."

What makes the US task that much more difficult is that during the Afghan war, the cia did not develop a team of Afghan experts. "The first case officer in Afghanistan did not arrive until 1987, just a year-and-a-half before the war ended," says Gerecht. Robert Baer, one of the most talented case officers, suggested to headquarters in the early '90s that the cia may want to collect intelligence on Afghanistan. cia HQ replied: too dangerous, and why bother? The Cold War is over anyway and the Soviets have left! The Soviets indeed did leave but have clearly left behind a legacy which may make the Americans feel that they should have just stayed on.
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