United States transforming Osama into a hero of Muslim world
From JEHANGIR KHATTAK
WASHINGTON - While the US mad "get-Osama" pursuite continues in the trecherous mountains of Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world, experts here worry that the Clinton administration's focus on Osama as the nation's number one terrorist enemy may have raised his profile in the Islamic world and increased the likelihood of attacks by him and his followers.
"He's become a charismatic leader like Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst and terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.
"This is what worries me. Osama is the only one who's holding to this maximalist view: pan-Islamic and hard-core, no compromise with Israel, no compromise with the U.S., no compromise with Egypt. And he can back it up with force," The Washington Post quoted him as saying in a detailed report published here on Thursday.
Quoting terrorism experts inside and outside the US government the paper reported that Osama's global terrorist network had been constantly pressured and repeatedly compromised in the year since the fugitive Saudi dissident allegedly masterminded the deadly truck bombings of two US embassies in Africa.
The twin truck bombs that detonated minutes apart outside the embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Aug. 7, 1998, killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and wounded more than 5,000.
Osama and 16 alleged associates, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman al Zawahiri, have since been indicted by a New York grand jury on charges of plotting the embassy attacks. According to the report, US officials note with obvious satisfaction that Osama's network has not injured a single American in the past year - a record they attribute to intensive US intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic efforts. "We haven't killed him off," said Robert Oakley, a former State Department ambassador for counter-terrorism.
"But we've clearly reduced his ability to do things." While some Clinton administration officials favour more aggressive attempts to attack Osama's hideouts in the mountains of Afghanistan, Oakley has counseled against it.
"The risks of hitting the wrong place are very, very high - and you've got to assume it is going to be very heavily defended," he said. Unwilling or unable to kill bin Laden, the U.S. government has sought to isolate and harass his organization, known as al Qaeda, Arabic for "the Base." Counterterrorism centers at the FBI and CIA - working closely with law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the globe - have detained, questioned or arrested dozens of suspected Osama's operatives from Albania to Uruguay.
An alleged top Osama lieutenant, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, was arrested last fall by German authorities and is one of five embassy bombing defendants in custody in New York.
Another, Mohammad Saddiq Odeh, was apprehended by officials in Pakistan, and a third, Mohammad Rashed Daoud al Owhali, was arrested in Kenya.
Authorities in London have three other defendants in custody. The State Department, meanwhile, has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to bin Laden's arrest, and the FBI in June added him to its "10 Most Wanted" list - a reflection not only of the threat he poses but also of the FBI's increasingly international focus.
It now has 1,383 agents assigned to counterterrorism in the United States and overseas. Three weeks ago, President Clinton also banned commercial dealings between the United States and Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, accusing the hardline student militia of harbouring the renegade millionaire. Until then, leaders of the Taliban had denied knowing Osama's whereabouts.
Two days after the sanctions went into effect, they admitted that he was living in the portion of Afghanistan under their control. "If we're able to keep the pressure on him - following this diplomatic, political strategy - Osama will ultimately make a mistake," The Washington Post quoted one senior Clinton administration official as saying.
"Something will break." But others contend that the government, in its quest to hound bin Laden, has turned him into a rallying point for anti-Western sentiment. "I have clearly told the Americans that they have ... made Osama a great hero in the Islamic world with these pressures and economic sanctions," the paper quoted Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, the Taliban's chief representative at the United Nations, as saying.
Former CIA official Milt Bearden, who ran the agency's covert campaign to arm the Afghan mujahedeen fighting Soviet troops in the 1980s, agrees. "One should go to the refugee camps throughout Pakistan and find out how many boy children have been named Osama since last August," he said.
"That's scary." A year of harassment by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies may have weakened bin Laden's ability to strike, said Katzman, "but he's stronger in popularity," which presumably helps al Qaeda raise funds and recruit supporters.
And there are signs that he still could strike at any time. "If his cells are surveilling our embassies in Africa," asked Katzman, "how constrained is he?" Indeed, the government's campaign against Osama is now highly defensive, involving expensive efforts to harden US diplomatic posts against attacks and a willingness to shut them down on a moment's notice.
In late June, the State Department temporarily closed embassies in six African nations - Madagascar, Gambia, Togo, Liberia, Namibia and Senegal - because of indications that they were under surveillance by members of Osama's network.
All told, the State Department has closed embassies and consulates more than 60 times in the year since the African bombings. Even the FBI halted public tours of its headquarters in Washington this month after receiving what it considered credible information about a potential attack by bin Laden operatives to mark the anniversary of the embassy bombings, according to a senior FBI official.
By far, the most chilling threat presented by al Qaeda involves its possible acquisition of chemical weapons. The government's indictment against bin Laden and 16 other defendants in the embassy bombings case states that he has "made efforts to obtain the components of chemical [and] nuclear weapons."
Katzman, citing numerous news reports, said he believes "we have to assume that he has some rudimentary chemical capability." One U.S. official said that Osama has "actively sought to acquire chemical weapons, and it is possible that he could conduct some type of [small-scale] chemical attack."
But no evidence exists, the official added, to suggest that bin Laden's network has "weaponized" nerve gas or other chemical agents in a form that could kill large numbers of people.
Once, only the state sponsors of terrorism - a short list that includes Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria and North Korea - were thought capable of organizing chemical attacks.
But a year after the embassy bombings, Osama has eclipsed all of the state sponsors in the eyes of those in the US government responsible for combating terrorism. Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., wonders whether such preoccupation is wise.
"This is a recurring pattern - we fixate on one individual, and chasing bin Laden becomes close to a single-minded pursuit: If we could only nail Osama, it would solve the problem," Jenkins said.
"Well, there was somebody before Osama, and there will be somebody after Osama." The report comes in the backdrop of US media reported early this week that most of American cities were least prepared for a chemical weapon attack.
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