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CNN People in the News

Osama bin Laden: The Most Notorious Terrorist

Aired September 29, 2001 - 16:30   ET



MIKE BOETTCHER, HOST (voice-over): It came without warning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's coming down on me!

BOETTCHER: Swirling amid the clouds of smoke billowing from these symbols of power, the terrible question, who could be behind such a devastating act of terrorism?

While the evidence is still being examined, one name tops the list of suspects. It's a name that's been on the FBI's 10 most wanted list for years: Osama bin Laden.

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: His organization has both the suicide bombers willing to die in these kinds of attacks. It also has the pilots. It's had a history of training pilots. And also it has basically the level of kind of sophistication and coordination to bring off something like this.

BOETTCHER: The 44-year-old bin Laden, through a spokesman, has denied responsibility. But according to a Palestinian journalist, he congratulated who carried out the deadly attacks.

The ruling Taliban government of Afghanistan, the country where bin Laden is believed to be in hiding, says the Islamic extremist could not be responsible. In Western intelligence circles, bin Laden has been well known for years for this document, "A Call for Jihad," or holy war, against the thousands of U.S. soldiers now stationed in Saudi Arabia.

That call to jihad came after two bombings of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the first in Riyadh in 1995, seven dead, the second in Dhahran in 1996, 19 dead, hundreds injured.

Bin Laden discussed that call to arms in his first-ever television interview with CNN in 1997.


OSAMA BIN LADEN (through translator): We declared a jihad, a holy war, against the United States government because it's unjust, criminal, and tyrannical.


BOETTCHER: Bin Laden wants U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia. He opposes U.S. bombing campaigns in Iraq. He is against U.S. support of Israel. And he objects to U.S. backing of Arab nations he deems un- Islamic, such as Egypt.

Bin Laden has been indicted as the mastermind behind the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people in 1998. He is a prime suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole last October. That blast killed 17 U.S. sailors.

And the U.S. State Department has linked him to the first attack on the World Trade Center in February of 1993. Six people were killed and thousands injured.

ABDEL-BARI ATWAN, EDITOR, "AL-QUDS AL-ARABI" NEWSPAPER: The man is ruthless, and, you know, he believes that he should declare war against the United States. And this appeal, this kind of pull, actually appealed to many young Muslims all over the world.

BOETTCHER: A videotape circulating around the Middle East and on the Internet surfaced just three months ago. It shows bin Laden training young militants, some who seem as young as 11, for his holy war.

Bin Laden makes an impassioned plea for recruits in the two-hour tape. The videotape also hints that bin Laden is planning additional anti-American operations.

BERGEN: One thing that bin Laden does before a big attack happens is that he subtly indicates several months before, or a couple of months before, that something's in the works.

BOETTCHER: The man code-named The Contractor has used his enormous wealth to advance those militant plans. He was born the son of a multimillionaire Saudi construction magnate. The family construction business is the largest in Saudi Arabia. His family has since disowned him.

RICHARD BULLIET, MIDDLE EAST INSTITUTE, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: The discredit to their name that was emanating from this one son was very, very pronounced. They felt terrible about it. This doesn't mean that there aren't some members of the family who might sympathize with Osama, but the people who now speak for the family have disowned him, and, I think, are heartbroken at the discredit that it has brought unjustifiably upon the name of the family as a whole.

BOETTCHER: Osama bin Laden is the 17th of 52 children, some of whom have lived in the United States. His father died in a helicopter accident when he was 10. His first marriage was to a Syrian cousin at the age of 17.

BERGEN: His education took place a private (ph) university in Saudi Arabia, where he studied public administration, economics. He'd also already participated a little bit in the family business. So from a young age, he was involved in the family business. This is not an unsophisticated guy, this is somebody who came -- comes from one of the most well-connected families in Saudi Arabia, one of the richest.

BOETTCHER: There is debate over how much of that wealth he inherited. Some reports put the figure as high as $300 million. Others dispute that.

BULLIET: His father died in 1968. There were many sons, 20 is the number often quoted. Islamic law requires that each son inherit the same amount, so that if he had gotten $300 million, his father would have had to have a minimum of $6 billion. He did not have $6 billion.

The big money in Saudi Arabia comes after 1974, when the oil price increases go into effect. Spokesmen for the family in the past have said that he inherited about $1 million. Other people who know the family have told me that maybe it was $5 million.

BOETTCHER: He would later draw on the resources of his family business after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, when his life would take a radical turn.

Ahead on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS, a rare glimpse inside the camp and the mind of Osama bin Laden.




BOETTCHER: Amidst these remote mountains of Afghanistan are the various hiding places of one of the world's most-wanted men, Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden has been in Afghanistan on and off since the 1980s, when he joined the Afghan resistance in its war against the Soviet Union. At 23 years of age and deeply religious, Osama bin Laden left his comfortable life in Saudi Arabia to fight alongside thousands of volunteers from the Islamic world.

He used his family wealth, construction equipment, and demolition expertise to help in the crusade. And he would become a leader of the so-called Afghan Arabs.

KHALED AL-FAUWAZ, SAUDI DISSIDENT: Because of that, a lot of people wanted to participate in jihad, and they thought that Osama is an important figure. But he was not only willing to put his money, but he's actually down there himself and fought himself and get hurt.

BOETTCHER: The Afghan war changed bin Laden. He saw a lightly armed guerrilla force defeat a superpower.


BIN LADEN: In this jihad, the biggest benefit was the myth of the superpower was destroyed, not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BOETTCHER: The Afghan war also radicalized those who fought there.

GRAHAM FULLER, FORMER CIA SENIOR ANALYST: These Saudis who went and fought became convinced that you simply didn't have to accept regimes as they were, that, as a Muslim, you could take action against a government -- a ruling government.

BOETTCHER: For the U.S., there is a sad irony to bin Laden's current holy war. American tax dollars once helped support people aligned with bin Laden. During the 1980s, via the CIA, the United States poured $3 billion into the Afghan resistance that was fighting to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

AMB. PHILIP WILCOX, FORMER COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: It is true that some remnants of those Afghan fighters, including bin Laden, have used their military knowledge and their skills to branch out into international terrorism.

BOETTCHER: Indeed, many of the Afghan freedom fighters are among the thousands of committed followers bin Laden has today throughout the Middle East.

DR. SAAD AL-FAGIH, SAUDI DISSIDENT: They are either direct followers, taking command, direct command and order from bin Laden, or they are small cells and groups who believe bin Laden is a godfather. His message is almost like a religious order.

BOETTCHER: After the Afghan war, bin Laden became disillusioned with the Saudi regime, deeming it insufficiently Islamic. HE moved to the Sudan. Five years later, under U.S. and Saudi pressure, bin Laden was expelled from the Sudan. Bin Laden took refuge in Afghanistan, perhaps the only country in the world that would accept him.

It was here in 1997 that then-CNN producer Peter Bergen caught up with him.

BERGEN: And we went to Afghanistan, to the town called -- tiny town of Jalalabad, which is in eastern Afghanistan, waited around for quite some time, finally bin Laden's media adviser came and talked to us. He said, "You can only bring your -- the clothes you're wearing. Don't bring any watches, don't bring anything that might secrete some sort of tracking device."

We took a van, a curtained van, along a road along a river. It was by now getting to be dusk. We were given kind of sunglasses which blind -- you know, basically -- they weren't blindfolds, but you couldn't see through these things. We finally got to this hut about 5,000, 6,000 feet up in the Afghan mountains. It was March, so it was pretty cold.

Suddenly bin Laden appears out of the darkness.

BOETTCHER: In our 1997 interview, bin Laden expressed why he so hates America.


BIN LADEN: The U.S. government has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal through its support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. And we believe the U.S. is directly responsible for those killed in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq.

Due to its subordination to the Jews, the arrogance of the United States regime has reached the point that they occupied Arabia, the holiest place of the Muslims, who are more than 1 billion people in the world today. For this, and other acts of aggression and injustice, we have declared jihad against the U.S.


BOETTCHER: Bin Laden said the jihad was aimed principally at U.S. government targets overseas.


BIN LADEN: We have focused declaration of jihad on striking at the U.S. soldiers inside Arabia, the country of the two holy places Mecca and Medina. In our religion, it is not permissible for any non- Muslims to stay in Arabia. Therefore, even though the American civilians are not targeted in our plan, they must leave. We do not guarantee their safety.


FULLER: When this guy delivers his statements attacking the U.S. presence or his call for jihad, he is justifying these actions in very explicit Koranic Islamic terms, with a law -- it's like a careful legal brief that he's drawn up here.

BOETTCHER: And bin Laden and his followers have backed up his call for jihad time and again. Somalia, 1992, 28,000 U.S. troops are dispatched on a humanitarian mission to a Muslim nation embroiled in famine and civil war. U.S. soldiers are caught on the crossfire. Eighteen are killed.

In his first admission to a U.S. news organization, bin Laden says Arabs who fought in Afghanistan, men who look to him as a leader, killed those U.S. troops.


BIN LADEN: Resistance started against the American invasion because Muslims did not believe the U.S. allegation that they came to save the Somalis. With Allah's grace, Muslims in Somalia cooperated with some Arab holy warriors who were in Afghanistan. Together they killed large numbers of American occupation troops.


WILCOX: He's brazenly said that his people were responsible for that. So we take him at his word.

BOETTCHER: Then there is the possibility of a bin Laden connection to two bombings in Saudi Arabia, at Riyadh in 1995 and Dhahran in 1996.


BIN LADEN: It's no secret that during the two explosions, I was not in Saudi Arabia. But I have great respect for the people who did this. They are heroes. What they did is a big honor that I missed participating in.


BOETTCHER: The U.S. government also points to bin Laden's circumstantial ties to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.

Ramzi Youssef, mastermind of that attack, afterwards fled to Pakistan, where he lived in a guest house for Islamic radicals funded by bin Laden. Bin Laden denies this.


BIN LADEN: I don't know Ramzi Youssef. What the American government and Pakistani intelligence has been reporting isn't true at all.


BOETTCHER: The man considered the spiritual leader of Ramzi Youssef and the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, also has links to bin Laden.

The State Department says that bin Laden finances a training camp in Afghanistan for two Egyptian terrorist groups that look to Sheik Rahman as their spiritual leader.


BIN LADEN: Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman is a Muslim scholar well known all over the Muslim world. He represents the kind of injustice that is adopted by the U.S. A baseless case was fabricated against him even though he is a blind old man.


BOETTCHER: In 1998, Rahman's sons joined forces with bin Laden, showing up at a rare press conference in Afghanistan. It was then that bin Laden dropped hints of another strike at U.S. interests overseas.

BERGEN: He talked about "good news" in coming weeks.

BOETTCHER: When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues, the terrifying realization of exactly what that "good news" was.




BOETTCHER: On August 7, 1998, at about 10:30 a.m., a car bomb exploded outside the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. Nine minutes later and hundreds of miles to the south, another explosion outside another American embassy, this one in the Tanzanian capital of Dar-es- Salaam. More than 200 people were killed in the two-pronged attack.

One of the plotters, carrying a poorly forged passport, was detained at Pakistan's Karachi airport just hours after the bomb went off. He later confessed his involvement to intelligence officials. Another suspect was arrested by Kenyan officials and handed over to FBI agents. He confessed to his role in the bombing during a week of interrogations.

Bin Laden was later implicated in the attack.

BERGEN: On the embassy bombings, you've got the best law enforcement case indicating bin Laden's involvement. You have a plea bargain of one the senior members of the organization, basically saying, He sent me to Kenya in 1993 to go and photograph the embassy there, and then when I showed him the photographs, he said, That's where we can put the truck bomb. Case closed.

BOETTCHER: Thirteen days after the bombing, U.S. cruise missiles rained on bin Laden targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.


BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today I ordered our armed forces to strike at terrorist-related facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan.


BOETTCHER: But bin Laden emerged unharmed. He and his key aides had anticipated the U.S. would retaliate and vacated their main training camp in eastern Afghanistan. The unsuccessful attack elevated bin Laden to cult figure status among Muslim fundamentalists.

New Year's Eve, 2000, amid fears concerning the Y2K bug, a different kind of catastrophe was waiting to happen -- terrorist plans to attack celebrations in Seattle, bomb LAX airport in Los Angeles, sink a U.S. warship refueling in the Middle East, and bomb tourist sites in Jordan. The attacks were foiled. They were linked to followers of bin Laden.

Later last year on October 12, an attack that didn't fail. Two suicide bombers pulled a small boat alongside the USS Cole as it was refueling in Yemen. The blast blew a hole the size of a house in the hull of the Navy destroyer and killed 17 U.S. sailors.

U.S. intelligence officials say bin Laden's fingerprints are unmistakable.

During the last several years, it is believed bin Laden has been hiding out in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, a rugged terrain he knows very well. The country is dominated by the Taliban, a movement of religious students turned warriors, who have imposed their harsh interpretation of Islam.

The shadowy figure made a rare public appearance in a videotape that emerged from Afghanistan at the beginning of this year. It shows bin Laden at the wedding of his son to the daughter of a long-time aide. So far, bin Laden's elusive ways have kept him beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.

He is thought to change his residence continually, often moving at night. But he still manages to get his message out.

BERGEN: They've essentially fused two very different things. One is a sort of almost medieval reading of holy war, based on some medieval Muslim scholars, with the most up-to-date technologies available today. I mean, bin Laden and his folks use satellite phones, they use the Internet to get their message out.

BOETTCHER: Just this week, bin Laden purportedly sent a fax to a Qatar-based news channel, calling on all Pakistanis to use, quote, "all their means to resist the invasion of the American crusader forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

The propaganda recruiting video that surfaced this summer implies more action aimed against the United States.

BERGEN: On the tape, bin Laden specifically says, basically, I was responsible for these series of American -- anti-American attacks, including the Cole in Yemen. And he concludes the tape by saying, "The victory of Yemen will continue."

BOETTCHER: In his interview with CNN back in 1997, he made this chilling warning about his future plans.


BIN LADEN: You'll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.