TOPICS > World

Who is Osama Bin Laden?

August 20, 1998 at 6:05 PM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Hours after the strikes, Afghanistan’s ruler said Osama bin Laden and his followers were safe. In Sudan, state-run television carried these pictures showing fires and damage to buildings. The country’s information minister said U.S. warplanes hit a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, not a chemical weapons plant. He called the attack “a criminal act.” Damage was still being assessed and there was no word on casualties. Phil Ponce has more on the specific terrorist network that was the target of the American attacks.

PHIL PONCE: That network is believed to be headed by Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi multi-millionaire and Islamic extremist. bin Laden makes his base in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, the ultra conservative Islamic militia that controls most of the country.

He reportedly operates from a cave equipped with state-of-the-art communication technology. His headquarters is heavily guarded by troops and rugged mountain terrain. It’s considered the command center for bin Laden’s network. Earlier this year bin Laden issued a call for a holy war against the United States.

U.S. intelligence believe he’s already been involved in numerous attacks on American installations, including the 1996 truck bomb in the Khobar barracks in Saudi Arabia. That attack killed 19 U.S. soldiers. bin Laden has denied being involved in that particular attack.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

Strike BriefingMARGARET WARNER: For more on what led to today’s strikes and their likely impact, we get two views: Robin Wright is a correspondent with the Los Angeles Times and Larry Johnson served in the State Department’s Office of Counter-Terrorism, and is now a security consultant. Robin, what gave the United States such high confidence, as the president put it, that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network was behind the embassy bombings?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, the United States has been tracing bin Laden since February. A lot of red flags went up in the intelligence community when he began forming a new group and issuing new fatuas against American interests. The pace of activities and threats escalated through the spring. And when Afghanistan indicated it was not going to clamp down on them, the United States knew that it had no real recourse. This investigation-after the East African bombings-really was unusual in that intelligence and forensic evidence, the FBI and the CIA aspects of the investigation, really came together quickly, and very early on pointed to bin Laden. Then they had someone trapped in Pakistan, a Palestinian who had come in from Nairobi flown out just before the bomb went off, and pointed the finger at bin Laden. So they had icing on the cake.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you like to add to that?

bin LadenLARRY JOHNSON: bin Laden didn’t really surface until 1995, and as far as becoming this financier behind this, and when he was expelled from Sudan in 1996, he had already erected an infrastructure in Sudan, and it was in that period that Sudan went on the list of state-sponsored terrorism. So we weren’t just hitting bin Laden; we’re going after a Sudanese network that allows it. They’ve been basically the Hotel Europe for terrorists, Club Med of terrorism. And the United States in hitting Sudan. It’s not just Osama. Think of Osama as a white supremacist Christian. He’s that version in Islam. He’s full of hatred, and he’s full of religion, and that’s what’s driving him.

MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying these also should be considered strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan.

LARRY JOHNSON: Yes. Because they are harboring these individuals. The real break in going after bin Laden this year where they’re able to link all these different activities together has come from a defector in Osama’s organization, and that individual brought out a treasure trove of intelligence that the intelligence community is exploiting, and that’s what makes this individual target number one. It’s not just a reactionary. The United States is looking for a convenient fall guy. This is not “Wag the Dog”. This is going after a serious threat. This individual alone is responsible for almost every major terrorist attack against the United States in this decade.

MARGARET WARNER: Go back then to Afghanistan and Sudan and would you agree that they are absolutely key participants, both the regimes and bin Laden’s networks, within those countries, in worldwide terrorism?

bin LadenROBIN WRIGHT: Well, bin Laden is clearly the major security threat to the United States and probably to the western world. He has been harbored for five years by Sudan and by Afghanistan. These are both countries that at the moment are going through wars of their own, that have been anarchic to a certain extent in certain regions, make it very difficult to crack down on anyone. Yes. Sudan and Afghanistan are probably at the outer limits of what the United States can deal with, and it’s quite clear that in terms of the new Islamic movement of the 1990s that these were the last holdouts. Virtually every place else, even in Lebanon, you see the Islamic groups participating by ballot, rather than bullet. This was the last group in the world that had money, motive, hatred of the United States. And so on a number of different fronts bin Laden fit the bill of the threat in the 1990’s.

MARGARET WARNER: And why do these two particular countries harbor him?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, they’re both militant Islamic governments.

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, they also harbor because they are not effective central governments, and the situation is very chaotic. His money-money still buys influence, even in places like Afghanistan and Sudan. And I think that brings some considerations for next steps. One of the things the United States ought to do now is put something as much as $10 million on the head of bin Laden. The other thing is you go after his money and any country that is allowing a bank for that money to pass through it should be shut down.

bin LadenMARGARET WARNER: Do you think the fact that this wasn’t at least officially state-sponsored terrorism in a way makes it easier to launch a strike like this? I mean, we’ve accused Iran, for instance, of sponsoring terrorism, but we don’t launch air strikes on Iran.

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, Iran has never sponsored this kind of attack against the United States. The closest one we come to is Libya. And I think, frankly, some serious consideration needs to be given that if Libya does not turn over the individuals who blew up Pan Am 103, and-an act of war against the United States-that similar measures ought to be considered, because you cannot allow these attacks to go unanswered. And I was around in ’93, when the retaliation was plotted for the attack, the attempt to assassinate President Bush, and I must say that I think the Clinton administration this time has done-they’ve learned a lot in the last five years, and they’ve done a magnificent job.

MARGARET WARNER: How compelling, Robin, do you think is the assertion that the U.S. government was pretty darned sure that this network was planning immediate additional attacks?

ROBIN WRIGHT: There was evidence that bin Laden’s group was planning to attack embassies in Albania, Jordan, Uganda, and elsewhere in the very near future. The interesting thing is despite the diversity within the administration, you had unanimous approval and agreement that it was time to act and it was time to act decisively and soon.

MARGARET WARNER: And when we saw that the U.S. Government had pulled all kinds of embassy personnel out of several embassies worldwide, a very unusual move, is that obviously related here? Do you think those were the likely targets, some of them?

ROBIN WRIGHT: They were targets, but also in the case of Pakistan, it’s adjacent to Afghanistan, this is a place that Osama bin Laden may have tried to target in retaliation. So this was a precaution as well.

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, and they also pulled them out last week, recognizing that the military strikes were likely this week based on the evidence they had. This operation wasn’t planned in the last 24/48 hours. It’s been underway for a while.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, speak to another assertion made by Secretary Cohen and General Shelton today that this-that bin Laden was imminently involved in this pharmaceutical plant, which was also making precursor chemicals for chemical weapons. I would think many Americans would be stunned to know that an individual can actually be in the business of developing chemical weapons. Is that happening?

bin LadenLARRY JOHNSON: We saw it in Japan, Aum Shin Rykio, Shoko Asahara-he had $100 million-he set up a chemical lab, a bio lab. Fortunately he wasn’t very effective in producing the agent. So some of bin Laden’s money-it’s not impossible and unfortunately pharmaceuticals that could be used to produce legitimate medicines also can be used to produce precursor chemicals. And in this case, when you have armed guards outside “an aspirin” factory, that’s a dead giveaway that you’re not dealing with vitamin C.

MARGARET WARNER: Has U.S. Intelligence known this for a while, that bin Laden was actually connected to this kind of development of chemical weapons?

ROBIN WRIGHT: I think there’s been a fear for a long time, not only of bin Laden but other groups, that this was a new threshold that anti-American groups were about to cross. As Larry mentioned, it happened in Japan. It could happen again very quickly. This is the kind of thing anyone can make-a good chemist can make in a bathtub.

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, I’d take issue with that. It’s not that easy, and even people with money have a tough time, but it’s a threat you need to take seriously.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s talk about the likely impact. First of all, the impact obviously that the administration hopes for and the president talked about, this will interrupt, hobble bin Laden’s network and terrorism in general.

LARRY JOHNSON: It may. We’re likely to see some attempts at retaliation. It’s going to be difficult to put together large operations, such as embassy bombings, small low-level attacks, tourists that are easy, accessible targets. I think we can see that in the coming weeks or month, but this has sent a very important message, it’s put the world on notice, we’re not going to tolerate or support any country which gives safe haven and protection to individuals that are committed to hatred and killing innocents.

bin LadenROBIN WRIGHT: It was a strong statement, but at the same time it was a limited military action, and the impact is likely, as a result, to be limited. After all, these are people who’ve absorbed tons, hundreds of tons of explosives and bombs and missiles for very sophisticated Soviet aircraft and from each other over the last 20 years. One afternoon of strikes is not going to discourage them. This is likely to be something that is going to challenge us again, and once we’ve crossed the threshold of responding with force, it’s going to be probably-there will probably be a great deal of pressure to use it again.

MARGARET WARNER: So get back to what-how you think the message will be received. I mean, if you’re bin Laden, does it make you change tactics? Does it makes you lie low, lay low, lie low?

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, it’ll be both. There will be a shift in tactics. I mean, we’ve seen this in the past. They will look for some other way to go, but it’s going to make it a more difficult operating environment. People outside Afghanistan who will have to provide support are going to be a little more leery. So there’s a trade-off. But I think, given the options of doing nothing and being a punching bag, or doing something and incurring future risk, doing something is the right step, as Robin clearly said. This is not a knockout blow. This isn’t the end of the fight. But at least we’re now saying he’s declared war on the United States, and we have to treat it as such.

MARGARET WARNER: Will it make Sudan and Afghanistan any less likely to continue to give refuge to him and harbor his activities?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, Sudan did expel him in 1996 under pressure from the United States and with the added incentive of the Saudi financial carrot. Afghanistan has reached a really interesting political juncture. The Taliban has consolidated control over the vast majority of the country, for the first time really effectively closing and maybe even ending 20 years of civil war. It desperately now wants recognition from the outside world. It wants the seat at the United Nations. So the U.S. does have a little bit of leverage over it. Whether it’s enough to force them to abandon someone is a very separate question, but it’s going to be a very interesting diplomatic minuet the next few weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: But the fact that Sudan expelled him, bin Laden, himself, according to the United States they’re still allowing bin Laden to operate-

LARRY JOHNSON: Not just bin Laden-Abu Nidal, Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There are a whole host of terrorist groups still there operating. That was a symbolic gesture by Sudan. They still have not responded to several U.S. resolutions that condemn them for the role in harboring the assassins and attempted assassins of President Mubarak of Egypt. Sudan is not out of the doghouse and has a long way to go to get there.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And the impact of this strike on them in terms of their own thinking about this?

LARRY JOHNSON: It’s a wake-up call. They don’t have a limitless source of money, and they’re going to have to make a choice now, but they’re not going to be able to go out and dramatically escalate terrorist attacks. They’re going to have to choose whether they want to be completely isolated or get back into the civilized group of nations.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both very much.