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Truly radicalized by the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Bin Ladin, then 22, became one of the early founders and financiers of what became the Mujahadeen, the Afghan rebellion. Not only did he build safe houses, roads, and tunnel complexes for these insurgents, but he bankrolled training camps and arms purchases. And he did it all alongside another group pursuing its own jihad against the Soviets--the Central Intelligence Agency, which is now charged with tracking him down.
Not content to merely be an underwriter of the resistance, Bin Ladin also fought in some particularly fierce battles, including the siege of Jalabad, which marked the end for the Soviets in Afghanistan. This was, for Bin Ladin, a defining and empowering moment, which cements his faith to this day. As he told CNN, it destroyed "the myth" of the invincible superpower.
Having helped vanquish the Soviet colossus, he returned home a celebrated hero and leader of the opposition movement to the House of Saud, charging the regime with moral turpitude. But when the Saudis allowed U.S. troops to deploy in the land of the Two Most Holy Places--Mecca and Medina--Bin Ladin abandoned Saudi Arabia for a more like-minded country: Sudan, where the radical National Islamic Front (NIF) had taken control in 1989.
Even before he moved to Sudan, Bin Ladin was already backing the NIF. In 1990, he arranged for hundreds of Mujahadeen veterans to travel to Sudan in order to fight alongside the NIF against non-Muslim guerrillas. According to an ex-Sudanese intelligence agent who knew Bin Ladin, hundreds more came over in the next few years. Many became instructors at training camps he financed. During his five years in Sudan, Bin Ladin's camps trained hundreds of recruits from places like Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Somalia. The course of instruction, says the ex-agent, focused on three major areas. One was the fabrication of travel documents. The second was low-tech covert communications--from basic encryption to use of invisible ink. In light of recent events, however, it is the third area that may be most interesting: the use of small arms and explosives.
According to the ex-agent, Bin Ladin dropped $15 million on one shipment of Chinese and Iranian arms--as well as explosives from Czechoslovakia, most likely Semtex. While several terrorist outfits have access to the plastic explosive, which is believed to have been used in the embassy bombings, Bin Ladin was much more likely to use it because of his multinational intelligence network. According to the ex-agent, while in Sudan, Bin Ladin set up an "advisory council" of at least 43 separate Islamist groups.Many of them are active worldwide, and Bin Ladin admitted on CNN that he has sent Islamist combatants to places as far-flung as Bosnia and Tajikistan.
During his years in Sudan, the government came under increased international criticism and pressure. By 1996 the U.S. was indirectly backing anti-Muslim rebels in the southern and eastern parts of the country. The Clinton administration also pressured Sudan to expel Bin Ladin. But instead of couching its criticism of Sudan in terms of its human rights record, which is reviled the world over, the U.S.'s approach reinforced Bin Ladin's view that it was gunning for Islam.
At about the same time the Saudi government started to bring its financial and political power to bear on the Sudanese NIF to at least rein Bin Ladin in, if not expel him. "When they insisted initially that I should keep my mouth shut, I decided to look for a land in which I can breathe a pure, free air to perform my duty in enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong," Bin Ladin told CNN last year. His destination: his old stomping grounds in Afghanistan, now controlled by the ultra-conservative Taliban. He remains holed-up there to this day, still directing various Islamist military activities.
In interviews with both Arabic- and English-speaking journalists, Bin Ladin has often cited the U.S. approach to Sudan as an example of the assault on global Islam--a situation, he says, that justifies his sending followers to fight in such far-flung places as Chechnya, Bosnia, and Somalia. He also frequently condemns the U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq, as well as U.S. support of Israel. "His main focus is Saudi Arabia, but he doesn't have enough Saudis or Afghans to accomplish what he wants," says Armstrong. "He wants to see Islamist states left alone to be Islamist states. And within the Islamist world, he's willing to join in any coalitions to get critical mass."
The extent of his involvement, however, varies, and just how active a role he takes in certain actions isn't entirely clear. In the case of a 1995 Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, bombing--in which five American servicemen were killed--a federal grand jury in Manhattan continues to probe his suspected role. And he was never indicted in the World Trade Center bombing, though several current and former intelligence officials indicate they strongly suspect he had some connection.One of the convicted bombers, for instance, fled to Pakistan after the incident, where he hid out in a house for Islamist radicals that Bin Ladin had funded. Additionally, Bin Ladin and Wali Khan, the convicted mastermind of the bombing, are "good friends" according to Bin Ladin, who fought alongside Khan in Afghanistan.