Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden is seen in this April
1998 picture in Afghanistan.
bin Laden operate?
years of study have produced
a picture of this shadowy terrorist
27 — Over the last few
years the spectacles of terrorist bombings have put Osama bin
Laden’s name on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. But
this mysterious terrorist leader is not easy to track and his
actions are difficult to anticipate. NBC producer Robert Windrem
has extensively interviewed U.S. security and intelligence
officials, and compiled a picture of what the U.S. knows about
this shadowy man. Windrem answers frequently asked questions
about bin Laden, his organization and methods.
||WHERE IS OSAMA bin
Most recently, bin Laden has
been seen near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. He moves three or more
times a week, living in mud huts, tent cities, and caves. He is
accompanied by an entourage, which includes heavily armed bodyguards as
well as anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks. Often, multiple sites are
set up for his use and he chooses a site at the last minute. He is
believed to have about 400 operatives in Afghanistan, most of whom
arrived with him from Sudan in 1996.
How does U.S. intelligence know
where he is?
In recent months, U.S. intelligence
has improved its grasp on how bin Laden operates and where.
“We are getting better at finding
him. There are days and days where we don’t know where he is,” said
one American official. On other days, the U.S. has “different degrees
of specificity as to where he is.” At the time of the double U.S.
embassy bombings in Africa, the U.S. had no idea where he was.
What is the relationship between
bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and Algerian terrorists?
Bin Laden is believed to have both
trained and financed Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, which is thought
to be responsible for a minimum of 100,000 deaths this decade. His first
contact with Algerian Islamists probably came in Afghanistan when bin
Laden financed the recruiting and organization of the so-called “Afghan
Arabs,” who fought side-by-side with U.S.-financed Afghan fighters
against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Among the first “students” at
his Sudanese terrorist training camps beginning in January 1994 were
Algerians from the GIA. In December 1995, British authorities were able
to track wire transfers from bin Laden’s then- headquarters in
Khartoum, the Sudan, to a London cell of the GIA.
U.S. officials also believe the
1995 Paris subway bombings had the support of bin Laden.
How does the Al-Qaeda network
Bin Laden is closely involved
in the plans. The operations are meticulous, with some plans in the
works for years. For instance:
The World Trade Center bombers cased the twin
towers multiple times, analyzing security and determining positions from
which an explosion could do the most damage.
The East Africa embassy bombers phoned in threats
to the embassy, and then observed the embassy response prior to the
The 1995 attempt to assassinate Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia was based on surveillance of Mubarak’s
security arrangements in Ethiopia two years earlier. Similarly, bin
Laden operatives videotaped security arrangements at President Clinton’s
1994 visit to Manila, knowing he had already committed to visiting the
Philippine capital for an Asian-Pacific summit two years later.
How long is an operation in the
planning stages and how are operational responsibilities divided?
The minimum planning time appears
to be four to six months, with some plans evolving over years. The
surveillance of the East Africa embassy bombings began in 1993, five
years before the bombing was carried out.
Each operation has a
planning cell and an execution cell, with the execution cell arriving on
the scene in some cases only weeks before the attack is carried out.
In most cases, an outsider recruits
locals, usually no more than 10, to operate as a cell. Bombers, planners
and operators are generally under the age of 30.
Plans are made in one location, and
the bomb is made in another. This was the case for both the World Trade
Center bombing and the embassy bombing in Nairobi.
How much do these operations
cost and how much of the money comes from bin Laden’s own riches?
The total cost of the World
Trade Center bombing was about $18,000, including purchase of equipment,
rental of the van used in the bombing, purchase of a car, rental of two
apartments, a garage and the storage space as well as plane tickets. Not
included in the cost: $6,000 in unpaid phone bills. Bin Laden’s wealth
is thought to be in the tens of millions, somewhat less that previously
thought, but certainly more than adequate. “Terrorism is not an
expensive sport,” said a senior Treasury Department official who
tracks terrorists’ money.
Does bin Laden focus on one
target at a time or simultaneously plan various attacks?
U.S. officials note that the
embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were to be accompanied by other,
near simultaneous bombings in other world capitals. One in Tirana,
Albania, was foiled days before it took place. A series of coordinated
attacks is well within his operational capabilities. ”(Bin Laden) is
planning several hits and at some point he’s going to break through,”
said one U.S. official.
How important is operational
security to al-Qaeda?
Officials say bin Laden’s
operations are rigid, and subject to cancellation if there is a
suspected breech of security. If operatives encounter something
unexpected, they will “go back to square one,” said an official who
tracks the movement. “There is little autonomy, little spontaneity in
operational matters and changes in plans must be approved at higher
levels.” In most cases, bin Laden’s people will trade time for
security, and it may take up to six months to re-start the operation.
Has the U.S. had any success
against his operations?
Without providing details, George
Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has publicly
testified that the CIA has disrupted “several” terrorist attacks
against Americans. U.S. officials confirm those disruptions have
involved planned attacks by bin Laden.
More than 100 of his operatives
have been arrested worldwide since the embassy bombings in August 1998
on every continent but Australia and Antarctica. Five men accused of
conspiring in the embassy bombings are in U.S. custody, awaiting trial
in Manhattan. Another is awaiting extradition in London. The U.S. has,
it believes, thwarted a planned attack on U.S. facilities in London in
early 1999 and an attack on FBI Headquarters in Washington last summer.
Even so, a Pentagon official said
bin Laden’s organization continues to regenerate and improve. “We
keep stopping him; he keeps coming back,” the official said.
Are his operations limited to
bombings or does he have aspirations in the nuclear, biological and
Bin Laden appears to be branching out — planning assassinations
using “contact poisons,” obtaining “rudimentary” chemical and
biological materials, and trying to acquire radioactive material. One
Pentagon official says bin Laden has been obtaining “contact poisons
— KGB-like pellets” that could be used in assassinations. Some are
difficult to detect in an autopsy. He added that public U.S.
intelligence reports on bin Laden’s training camps have noted that the
network has instructed terrorists in assassination and kidnapping.
Bin Laden’s German operation was
hit in a sting operation as it tried to buy highly enriched uranium on
Russia’s black market in 1993. Russian intelligence says that bin
Laden has been working with Chechen rebels to obtain materials for a “dirty
bomb” that would spray deadly radioactive materials over a small area.
However, the network’s efforts to
obtain these materials so far do not strongly suggest a pattern or a
specific plan. And officials cautioned that there is “no sense of a
technical sophistication” in bin Laden’s camp.
Why hasn’t the U.S. tried to
The U.S. says it is serious about
capturing bin Laden, However, any such operation depends on getting
real-time information on his whereabouts. “We are serious about going
after him,” said one senior administration official. “He is serious
about going after us. If we can nail his ass, we will. But it is going
to be action and reaction for a long time.”
How is bin Laden’s health?
A senior counter-terrorism official
said the latest CIA analysis is that bin Laden is “a hypochondriac,”
a condition that could simply reflect bin Laden’s stressful lifestyle.
However, he is known to have an enlarged heart, chronically low blood
pressure and is missing toes on one foot from a battle wound suffered in
Afghanistan. He is regularly attended by a physician.
Is there any indication bin
Laden works with governments in the Middle East?
Bin Laden has long-standing ties
with the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, including some possible family
The U.S. alleges that on two
occasions in the early 1990’s, a senior religious leader from Iran met
with bin Laden’s representatives in Khartoum to discuss cooperating
against western interests. Bin Laden is a Wahabi Muslim, while Iran is
Shi’ite Muslim. However, there is no evidence to suggest any joint
operations were ever planned or carried out.
However, U.S. officials believe
that bin Laden is involved with Kashmiri Muslim rebels in India and
Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, its semi-autonomous military
intelligence agency. In the 1980s, the U.S. used the ISI to fund, train
and arm the Afghan mujahedin, including bin Laden, in its fight against
the Soviet Red Army.
The U.S. is troubled by Pakistan’s
use of rebel insurgents in Kashmir, the subject of three wars between
Pakistan and India. Muslim fighters, financed by the ISI but trained by
bin Laden, have been operating in the Indian part of Kashmir.