On August 20 the United States launched Tomahawk missile attacks against training camps allegedly operated by Usama Bin Laden in the Khowst region of Afghanistan and against a pharmaceutical factory in North Khartoum which the United States claims had been making precursor chemicals for nerve gas. These attacks were touted by the United States as the opening salvo in a new war against international terrorism, with Bin Laden portrayed as the mastermind.
The Tomahawk raids provoked widespread criticism in the Middle East, including among friendly countries with no love for Bin Laden, and were also widely dismissed as an effort by U.S. President Bill Clinton to divert attention from his domestic scandal. That is almost certainly unfair to the U.S. military commanders and intelligence officers who chose the targets, though the timing may have been dictated by political considerations. The wisdom of the choice of targets is debatable, however; the actual nature of the challenge posed by Bin Laden may have been oversimplified and misrepresented in the heat of the initial response to the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. An understanding of the nature of the challenge is essential, both to develop a legitimate campaign against terrorism and to avoid heavy-handed actions which will alienate friendly countries in the Middle East and southwest Asia.
First, the issue of the choice of targets: there has been widespread criticism of the attack on the pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, and many have questioned whether in fact it had any connection with nerve-gas production. The official U.S. version has shifted several times, adding to the sense that the evidence may not be as solid as initially claimed. But even if the factory had done everything it is accused of doing. its connection with Bin Laden seems somewhat tenuous at best, and therefore its selection as a target may be questionable. For one thing, the Sudanese government has, in a limited way, cooperated with Western countries in the fight against terrorism. It evicted Bin Laden from Sudan, as a result of some combination of U.S. pressure and Saudi Arabian money, and it allowed France to take custody of "Carlos," who had been living in Sudan. While these two actions certainly did not transform the Khartoum government into a pro-Western ally, they did indicate that, with the proper motivation, Khartoum could work with the West. Such cooperation is less likely in the wake of the bombing of the factory.
The attack on the training camps' in the Khowst region of Paktia province along the Afghan-Pakistani border has come in for less criticism, since there is little doubt that the camps were in fact used for training fighters belonging to various Islamist groups loosely allied with Bin Laden. The effectiveness of this sort of attack, however, remains in question. Most of the training involves small arms weapons and tactics and can easily be moved elsewhere; the unmanned Tomahawk, while effective against certain hard targets, has a more dubious effect against camps like these, which consist largely of tents, shacks, caves and tunnels. Though the camps were destroyed, such camps are easy enough to rebuild, and Bin Laden can afford to rebuild them. In addition, the attack on the camps helped to reinforce the determination of the Afghan Taliban to protect Bin Laden. A fundamental principle of the pushtunwali or Pushtun code of hospitality and honor is the protection of one who has sought refuge among your tribe, even if he is a former enemy. The Taliban might have been open to negotiation about Bin Laden, but bombing him while under their protection has merely reinforced their determination to shelter him. (Reports that he is under some sort of house arrest do suggest that they plan to keep a close eye on his activities.)
This brings us to the question of the nature of the challenge posed by Bin Laden. He is a different sort of guerrilla leader from those who flourished in the Cold War era. He lacks the protection and support of a major power, and he is not himself so much a tactical planner as a financier. Unlike Carlos, always a shadowy figure, or Abu Nidal, who may actually have been more than one man at different times, Bin Laden relishes publicity. Carlos never gave interviews to CNN, ABC News, British newspapers and the like; Bin Laden has done all of these things. Rather than a reclusive mystery man, Bin Laden has been almost a media star.
When a "terrorist mastermind" appears also to be a master of manipulating the media, a certain amount of caution in analysis is called for. Some press reports, for example, spoke of Bin Laden as a billionaire, even as having a net worth of $5 billion, or $7 billion, or other huge sums. But in fact these numbers seem to refer to the wealth of the Bin Laden family of Saudi Arabia, of which Usama Bin Laden was a junior member, now disavowed by his brothers and kin. (In fact, since Usama Bin Laden became a declared enemy of the Saudi royal family, the Bin Ladens in Saudi Arabia have been at pains to demonstrate their loyalty to the kingdom.) Usama Bin Laden's personal wealth has been more credibly put in the $20 million to $30 million range. A wealthy man, yes, but no billionaire.
There is no question that Bin Laden has, as charged, funded a number of terrorist operations, as well as helped train Islamist insurgent movements from a number of countries. Whether he had operational control over these activities is another question; to at least some observers he seems more to fill the role of financier and spokesman. This neither exculpates Bin Laden from the responsibility for other's acts nor suggests he is innocent of the charges against him. It does, however, suggest that we should not credit him with even greater influence than he actually has.
To some extent Bin Laden's "network" appears to be less than meets the eye. Let us take one example. The U.S. press initially made much of the so called "World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders," a movement announced in a fatwa sent to the Londonbased newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi in February 1998. This fatwa was signed by Bin Laden, who was referred to as "sheikh," thus asserting the right to issue a fatwa as a religious scholar. (Actually, the 41-year-old Bin Laden's higher education was in management and economics; his right to claim to be a religious scholar is highly questionable.) The other signatories were Ayman al-Zawahiri, "amir" of the Jihad group of Egypt; "Abu Yasir" Rifaai Ahmad Taha, a key leader of the Egyptian al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya or Islamic Group; Sheikh Mir Hamza, secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-iPakistan; and Fazlul Rahman, described as amir of the Jihad movement of Bangladesh. Some later claims have suggested another Pakistani movement and perhaps a Somali movement are members of the "Front."
The real news in the announcement of the front was not that minor, marginal groups in Pakistan, Bangladesh and perhaps Somalia had signed on, but that the two main Egyptian groups appeared to have been united under the leadership of Bin Laden. Both Jihad and al-Gamaa are key elements in challenging the Egyptian government. Although both Egyptian movements have links to Sheikh Umar Abd al-Rahman, now in a U.S. prison, they have followed rather different tactics, are based in different parts of Egypt and have not always agreed on their approach. Their coming together under Bin Laden's auspices would be the main thing that is new in the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.
Jihad's connection is not new. Its amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a longtime associate of Bin Laden and is believed to be with him in Afghanistan. Recently, a Swiss newspaper, Sonntags Blick, claimed that Zawahiri had a Swiss passport and had been given asylum in Switzerland. Only days before, journalists were reporting that Zawahiri had called them in Peshawar, Pakistan, presumably from Afghanistan, to relay threats from Bin Laden. He may have been in Switzerland in the past and certainly has many false passports, but he seems to be in Afghanistan now.
So Zawahiri's adherence to the front is no surprise. But the other Egyptian signatory, Sheikh Rifaai Ahmad Taha Musa, known by the nom de guerre Abu Yasir, though he is listed as a lieutenant of Bin Laden's in Clinton's order, has lately been denying that al-Gamaa is a member. Although he is no innocent either - he may be the overall head in exile of al-Gamaa and served five years for a role in the Sadat assassination plot - he has denied that he (or at least al-Gamaa) was a member of Bin Laden's front before the East African bombings. The European based World Wide Web page maintained by al-Gamaa and its magazine, alMurabeton, posted the "important discussion" with Sheikh Taha even before publishing it (www.almurabeton.org/home.htm). This may have been an attempt to dissociate al-Gamaa from Bin Laden early (though he explicitly said that the group "as a group" does not belong to the front, perhaps not ruling himself out of the membership).
Of course, underground movements often deny that they have links with certain groups; Hizbollah always denied links to the various fronts it used to hold hostages in Lebanon. Denial does not mean non-membership. But Taha's denial is a change from the alleged public unity of many groups in the front, and the fact that the statement was posted on the World Wide Web as a major headline and an "important" announcement, before the bombings, may suggest that Taha and alGamaa, who have been talking about a cease-fire in Egypt, do not want to be linked. The point is not that Bin Laden has no links to these groups, but that they may not be the enthusiastic allies the fatwa suggested and some foreign sources assume.
The World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders is not the only movement linked with Bin Laden. President Clinton's order blocking dealings with Bin Laden's network barred dealings with Bin Laden, with the Islamic Army, the Islamic Salvation Foundation, the Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places, the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, and the Group for the Preservation of the Holy Sites, as well as his alleged lieutenants Abu Hafs al-Masri and Rifaai Ahmad Taha Musa, who, as already noted, has disclaimed a connection. A U.S. Defense Department profile of Bin Laden's organization tended to emphasize the role of al-Qaida, the "base," founded by Bin Laden in 1988.
A variety of movements and fronts is of course typical of any underground movement; names change frequently to give the illusion of greater numbers than may really exist and to confuse those seeking to trace connections. At least some of these may be little more than "fax fronts," issuing press releases (or even fatwas), but with little other visible evidence of their independent existence. Certainly the February fatwa did not suggest a very comprehensive membership: the two main Egyptian radical Islamist groups, but only relatively small movements elsewhere. Major groups sometimes linked with Bin Laden, such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria, were not listed as members.
This is not to deny that Bin Laden has contacts with many national groups fighting to bring down their governments or that he has financed operations by several of them. The common thread always seems to be the legacy of Afghanistan. The core leaders of GIA, of the Egyptian radical groups, of some of the anti-Saudi underground and radicals in Pakistan are veterans of the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Those of Arab origin are usually referred to as "Arab Afghanis," men who learned the use of small arms and explosives fighting the Soviets, then returned to their own countries eager to impose a new Islamic order on their own society by the same means. (A younger generation has learned to fight in Bosnia, and there are said to be some young volunteers hoping to fight in Kosovo.)
The problem of the "Afghanis" is a familiar one. Like the Greek legend of Cadmus, in which the hero sows the dragons teeth and armed fighting men spring from the ground, attacking him until they begin to fight with each other, the "Afghanis" were to some extent created and trained by the very governments they now seek to topple. Egyptian officials have sometimes charged that the United States "created" Sheikh Umar Abd al-Rahman. Though an exaggeration, this reflects the fact that Abd al-Rahman, and Bin Laden, learned their techniques when they were trained to fight the Soviets. Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence was the direct channel for the aid and training, but with U.S. support and Saudi funding. Some of the camps now used by Bin Laden date from the war against the Soviets.
In fact, Bin Laden has been known to say that Islamists, having brought down one superpower, destroying the Soviet Union by their victory in Afghanistan, will next bring down the other superpower. That this perception is grossly oversimplified, exaggerates the role of Afghanistan in the fall of the USSR, and ignores the vast differences between the United States and the Soviet Union hardly needs stating. It is quite possible that Bin Laden and his followers believe it, however.
The nature of Bin Laden's network, then, seems to be a loose linkage among several "Afghani" groups in the Arab world and South Asia with a few adjuncts farther afield, held together in part by Bin Laden's funding. He probably does not have any operational control. Reports that he has offered a "bounty" for killing Americans suggests that he simply pays for what others carry out. Though his followers praise him for his personal leadership in fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan, his particular contribution today seems to be more as a source of funds than as a tactical planner.
The question then is, how does one combat the challenge of this sort of terrorism? The answer is, probably not by raining cruise missiles down on remote training camps, reinforcing the determination of Bin Laden's hosts to protect him. Actually, the policies which the United States and Saudi Arabia had been pursuing for years have had some successes. Saudi Arabia revoked Bin Laden's citizenship, blocked his funds there, and helped provide the incentives for Sudan's expelling him; the United States added diplomatic pressure. Efforts by Bin Laden to base himself in Yemen have been frustrated by Yemen's recognition that its friends in the West would hold it responsible. At the moment Bin Laden is living among the Taliban and (as in his previous stay in Sudan) probably providing considerable financial largesse to his hosts. But, as seems to have happened in Sudan, it may be possible for others to outbid him.
The horror of what happened in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam outrages civilized people of any culture; but many were outraged as well by the nature of the American retaliation. The desire to strike at Bin Laden is an understandable one, but the response delivered seems to have alienated some U.S. friends without doing any permanent damage to Bin Laden. Whether that is the best means to preventing future terrorist attacks is debatable.
If, as argued here, Bin Laden is primarily a financier, not a tactical planner, then continuing efforts to trace, block and seize his funds may do more to constrain his activities than air attacks could. Any attempt to gain Sudanese cooperation in moving against assets he owns in Sudan may have been thwarted by the attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory. His wealth is not so vast as to be invulnerable; and little of it is likely to be invested in Afghanistan. Though there are other sources of financing for radical movements besides Bin Laden, limiting his financial abilities would certainly help. Other approaches - assassination for example- might remove the immediate problem, but would merely lead to the emergence of other leaders while creating a martyr for the movement. Bin Laden is skilled at self-promotion and publicity, but there is little evidence that he has any particular genius except as a banker to various movements. Treating him as the devil incarnate and focusing on him to the exclusion of others merely enhances the legend he has created about himself. And of course there is also the old cliche, still true: if one removes the grievances which allow terrorist groups to recruit new members, these violent movements will be isolated and gradually wither away.