The notice appeared in an Arabic newspaper in London last February. "The ruling to kill Americans and their allies--civilians and military is a duty for every Muslim. We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim to kill the Americans." Islamic extremists make outrageous statements every day in the Arabic-language press, most of which go unnoticed. But this one, a fatwa (religious order), alarmed government officials around the world. Within days U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Pakistan were threatened with attack. Government buildings in Washington, D.C., went on a rare "high security alert." Vehicles entering the Pentagon were searched.
Financier of Terror
U.S. officials took the death threat seriously, sources tell Reader's Digest, because of the reputation of the main signatory: Osama Bin Ladin. This former Saudi businessman was virtually unknown to Western intelligence agencies until just a few years ago, but today the U.S. State Department considers him a significant sponsor of world terrorism. Evidence points to his connection to persons suspected of numerous acts of violence, including:
• The 1993 bombing of New York City's World Trade Center.
• Attacks on American servicemen in Somalia, which prompted the withdrawal of our peacekeeping troops.
• The bombings of a Saudi National Guard training center in Riyadh in 1995 and of Khobar Towers, an apartment complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in 1996. Two dozen Americans died in these attacks.
Bin Ladin is a pariah in many Islamic countries, but he operates with impunity from a base in Afghanistan. Using huge financial resources, he supports international terrorist networks, encouraging others to act while never pulling a trigger or detonating a bomb himself. Tall and thin, with a full beard, Osama Bin Ladin wears long, flowing Arab robes fringed with gold, and wraps his head in a traditional red-and-white checkered headdress. Those who have met him say he is soft-spoken and extremely courteous. Despite his apparent humility, he has become an almost mythic figure in the Islamic world because he has dared to stand up to two superpowers.
Bin Ladin, now about 43 years old, is one of some 65 children of a Saudi construction magnate. When family patriarch Mohammad Bin Ladin died in the late 1960s, his children inherited a financial empire that today is worth an estimated $10 billion. The Saudi Bin Ladin Group is now run by Osama's family, which has publicly said it does not condone his reported activities.
In November 1996 Palestinian journalist Abdelbari Atwan visited Bin Ladin in the mountains of Afghanistan, expecting to find the lavish camp of a man of wealth. Instead, he spent two nights sleeping next to Bin Ladin in a cave. "It was freezing," Atwan says. "I reached under my camp bed hoping to find an extra blanket. Instead, it was crammed with Kalashnikov rifles and mortar bombs." What drove Bin Ladin to take up arms? Those who know him agree: a burning faith that sees the world in simplistic terms as a struggle between righteous Islam and a doomed West. It is a worldview taught to many young Saudis. But the teachings struck a particular chord in Bin Ladin, reverberating with his seeming passion for danger. The "Afghan Arabs" Enraged when the Soviet Union invaded Muslim Afghanistan in December 1979, Bin Ladin went there to aid the mojahedin freedom fighters, providing food and weapons, much of it with family money. A Saudi official says Bin Ladin helped to recruit thousands of Arabs who volunteered for the jihad (holy war) against the Soviets. Early in the war the mojahedin were getting slaughtered by Soviet helicopter gunships as they tried to bring in supplies on mules across the mountain passes of northern Afghanistan. Bin Ladin volunteered the services of the family construction firm to blast new roads through the mountains. "He brought huge bulldozers," says London-based Khaled Fuawaz, a former Bin Ladin associate. According to Fuawaz, when Bin Ladin could not find drivers willing to face the Soviet gunships, he drove the bulldozers himself. One time he was attacked by Soviet helicopters and wounded. Bin Ladin poured millions of dollars of his family's cash into the war, with the blessing of the Saudi government. He also personally led a contingent of Arab troops, winning a key victory against the Soviets in 1986. By the time the Soviet Union had pulled out of Afghanistan in February 1989, Bin Ladin was leading a fighting force known as "Afghan Arabs," which numbered nearly 20,000. "Bin Ladin was like a head of state," says a Saudi dissident. "The Afghan Arabs had a romantic image of him."
Hero to Outlaw
Bin ladin viewed any Western presence in the Middle East as a threat to Islam. After Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Reader's Digest has learned, Bin Ladin met with Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan to offer his services to the Desert Storm operation&emdash;but only if the United States were not involved. "Bin Ladin spread out maps in front of Prince Sultan," a Saudi official says. "He had all kinds of plans for how to defeat the Iraqis without American help. Prince Sultan asked what he planned to do about the Iraqi tanks, aircraft and chemical and biological weapons. Bin Ladin said, 'We will defeat them with our faith.' " The Saudi government declined his offer, and Bin Ladin later moved to Sudan&emdash;but not before he cashed out of the family business, receiving an estimated $260 million. It is this fortune that he uses today to prime the terrorist pump.
In 1992 Bin Ladin's attention appears to have been directed against Egypt. That year, Reader's Digest has been told, an extremist group with financial ties to Bin Ladin sent a fax to Egypt threatening the government of President Hosni Mubarak, America's closest Arab ally.
"Bin Ladin focused on Egypt," says a former spokesman for President Mubarak, Mohammad Abdul Moneim, "because he knew that if Egypt fell to the Islamists, the whole Arab world would fall." Bin Ladin, says the U.S. State Department, was the key financier behind a camp providing terrorist training to the Egyptian group. Its members, whose spiritual leader was the blind Egyptian cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, opposed not only Mubarak but also Westerners&emdash;particularly Americans.
Members of the group slaughtered 58 foreign tourists visiting a temple at Luxor in November 1997. A U.S. diplomat in Cairo told Reader's Digest that the planner of the attack "would have loved to get Americans" but failed. Most of those killed were Swiss. Bin Ladin hasn't limited his efforts to the Middle East. There is evidence linking him to Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and to other terrorists who planned attacks on American soil. Sources tell Reader's Digest that the federal government is investigating Bin Ladin's involvement.
Edwin Angeles, a leader of a radical Islamic group in the Philippines who became a government informant, says that Yousef and Bin Ladin were linked at least as long ago as 1989. In that year, Yousef went to the Philippines and introduced himself as an emissary of Osama Bin Ladin, sent to support that country's radical Islamic movement. One of Yousef's main contacts in Manila, according to Angeles, was Saudi businessman Mohammad Jamal Khalifah, Bin Ladin's brother-in-law. After participating in the Trade Center bombing, Yousef returned to the Philippines, where he plotted to plant bombs aboard U.S. passenger airliners in 1995.
In New York City, Sheik Rahman and others plotted attacks on major bridges and tunnels. During Rahman's 1995 trial, prosecutors included Bin Ladin on a list of nonindicted persons who "may be alleged as co-conspirators," though Bin Ladin has not been charged.
While living in Sudan, Bin Ladin established a construction company employing many of his former Afghan fighters. In the spring of 1996, according to Pakistani government officials, one of Bin Ladin's bodyguards attempted to assassinate him. After the attempt failed, Bin Ladin flew to Afghanistan on board his unmarked, private C-130 military transport plane. There, according to Pakistani officials, Bin Ladin established a base southwest of Jalalabad, under the protection of the Afghan government. A few weeks after the attempt on Bin Ladin's life, a powerful explosion ripped through the Khobar Towers complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen. Bin Ladin, who called this "a laudable kind of terrorism," publicly denied participating. But a knowledgeable Saudi dissident in London has told Reader's Digest that the six men whom the Saudi government arrested for the bombing all trained in Afghanistan. "If they trained there," declared the dissident, "they have a connection to Bin Ladin." In August 1996, and later in November, Bin Ladin announced that he and his followers would stage terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia to force an American withdrawal. The Digest has learned that after Bin Ladin called for this jihad, as many as eight attacks against U.S. military targets in the Middle East were attempted. These were foiled by an intense Saudi intelligence effort, which included enticing a top financial aide to Bin Ladin to defect.
Today, the State Department says, terrorist organizations that have received support from Bin Ladin continue to operate around the world. In March 1998 Brussels police arrested seven men and confiscated a cache of explosives. The men are believed to be part of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which is responsible for the slaughter of thousands in Algeria over the last six years. One knowledgeable source says GIA has received financial support from Bin Ladin. In May, eight suspected GIA members were arrested in London.
Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammad, a religious scholar in London with ties to Bin Ladin, told The Digest that Bin Ladin is funding armed Muslim groups in Albania, Chechnya, Bosnia, Nigeria and Algeria. "We are sending British and American Muslims to train in camps run by Bin Ladin," Bakri says. "This is an international army&emdash;Mohammed's army&emdash;to combat occupying governments."
The Coming Crusade The groups obeying Bin Ladin are hard to track down and difficult to penetrate. "These small groups, which may be just five or ten persons, can never be eradicated," says Saad al-Faghi, a Saudi dissident living in London. "They believe they belong to the jihad, not by command but by faith. They are very dangerous." Today Bin Ladin lives in Afghanistan with three wives and 42 other Arab families in a 30-house complex. Reader's Digest has been told that Bin Ladin has bought heavy weapons on the black market and is training new fighters at his camp in the north. He is also seeking to widen his alliances. The February 1998 London fatwa against Americans was issued under the banner of the International Islamic Front and signed by radical Islamic leaders in Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Bin Ladin's coldblooded invitation to murder is taken seriously by American diplomats. "If they want to attack us, they can," says a U.S. diplomat in Pakistan. "We're all soft targets." But U.S. officials are not the only ones at risk. In November 1997, for example, four American oil-company workers were gunned down in Pakistan. The murders were just two days after the conviction in a Fairfax, Va., court of Pakistani Mir Aimal Kasi, who went on a 1993 shooting spree outside CIA headquarters, killing two CIA employees. For more than a decade, Bin Ladin has reached across the world, funding terrorism. As his money flows, so does innocent blood.
"Having borne arms against the Russians in Afghanistan," Bin Ladin has declared, "we think our battle with the Americans will be easy by comparison. We are now more determined to carry on until we see the face of God." "Bin Ladin has plenty of manpower and explosives," declares Saad al-Faghi. And the world has learned that when a pronouncement is uttered in the name of Osama Bin Ladin, the threat is anything but idle.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight and author of The French Betrayal of America, just released from Crown Forum.