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His blip intensified in the early 1990s, when his name came up in the international manhunt for Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani who shot up the CIA's Langley, Virginia, headquarters. It grew stronger still in 1996, during the probe of the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen. He would call the perpetrators of that act "heroes."
Though both CNN and ABC have interviewed him in the past 17 months, it's only in the wake of the August 7 East African embassy bombings that the name Osama Bin Ladin has become widely known to Americans. In the worldwide Muslim community, however, Bin Ladin has been a controversial figure for several years. Some, like his followers, now venerate him with the title "sheik," even though he is not a cleric. Others, like Salah Obdidallah of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, consider him a criminal who kills and "hides behind a beautiful religion." (The New York office of the FBI tends toward Obdidallah's view; according to reports, Gotham-based agents are arguing they should direct the Kenya and Tanzania cases based on substantial but uncorroborated information tying Bin Ladin to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as well as the thwarted plan to blow up other city buildings and tunnels.)
Though the government and the fourth estate have a notorious history of jumping the gun when it comes to blaming "Middle East radicals" for big explosions (recall Oklahoma City and TWA Flight 800), fingering Bin Ladin for a role in the embassy bombings is by no means unreasonable--and not just because one of the reportedly confessed bombers has admitted to being a follower. Not only does Bin Ladin have the motive, means, and opportunity, but in light of his personal jihad, the bombings are thoroughly understandable. While Bin Ladin is neither a mainstream Muslim nor the paragon of sanity (one consulting CIA psychologist's assessment holds that he is a "malignant narcissist" who views people as objects either to be killed or protected), if he is responsible for the bombings, it's imperative, Middle East experts say, that his actions and motivations be examined not just in terms of a terrorist threat, but in the context of current Arabian politics, U.S. foreign policy, and Islamic theology.
"If this was done by Bin Ladin--who is definitely a fringe character--part of what we should be focusing on is what the bombings are reflective of in the Islamic world vis-à-vis the U.S. right now," says Sam Husseini, former spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "I think these bombings will cost him many people's sympathies. But before August 7, I think he was beginning to achieve folk-hero status in some parts of the Middle East, because he's doing what no one else is--standing up to the U.S. over some very legitimate grievances." And the fact that Bin Ladin has successfully stood up to and beat another superpower--the USSR, in Afghanistan--gives him a resolve not necessarily found in other terrorists.
One cannot understand Bin Ladin without understanding his relationship to his native Saudi Arabia--arguably the center of a concentric circle of Islamist angst. In various interviews, Bin Ladin has described himself not as a terrorist, but as a defender of the true faith against a corrupt Saudi monarchy that has committed sacrilege by allowing an (infidel) U.S. army presence in sacred Muslim land. "After the Americans entered the Holy Land, many emotions were roused in the Muslim world--more than we have seen before," Bin Ladin recently told ABC News. Indeed, it has not been lost on terrorist experts--and Bin Ladin watchers in particular--that the bombings came on the anniversary of the first U.S. Desert Shield troop deployment inside Saudi Arabia.
While many secular Saudis don't necessarily share Bin Ladin's angry zeal, they do simmer with resentment at the Saudi elite's hypocrisy and the American presence, says Scott Armstrong, a national security expert who has conversed with figures sympathetic to Bin Ladin. And they have a point. Asone former State Department foreign service officer candidly characterized the situation in a 1996 interview, "The role of the U.S. military presence there is to make sure the Saudis can defend themselves in a pinch, but still be reliant on us for real defense.[Saudi Arabia] is a strategic position we don't want to withdraw from." The officer also said that, despite public pronouncements, many Saudi elites privately flout Islamic rules against indulging in Western vices such as alcohol and Baywatch.
To Bin Ladin this amounts to a sellout and blasphemy by the Saudi upper crust. That same ruling class, in one of the many ironies of Bin Ladin's life, have indirectly financed his terrorist operations. The 17th of 52 children sired by Saudi Arabia's wealthiest construction magnate, Osama controls $250 million of the $5 billion Bin Ladin family kitty--money made largely by building homes, offices, and mosques for the House of Saud. But since the age of 16, when he became involved with radical religious groups, Bin Ladin has been less interested in making money than using it in defense of his concept of Islam.