Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Osama bin Laden: High Priest of Terror

On American Soil

Ramzi Ahmed Yousef
Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (AP)

On February 26, 1993, the first major international terrorist attack on U.S. soil was made when a massive truck bomb exploded in the underground garage of the World Trade Center in New York, killing six people and injuring more than a thousand. Within weeks, the FBI had tracked down four of the bombers.  All were militant Muslims, most of whom had fought in Afghanistan and had ties to Osama bin Laden. The leader of the bombing party was believed to be bin Laden associate Ramzi Yousef, who had left the country shortly after the blast.

The FBI set up a special task force to track down the remaining bombers and the organization they represented. Starting with Yousef, the FBI traced bank accounts that had been used to purchase bomb components. They traced the money from an ATM in Jersey City that Yousef had used to withdraw funds.  The trail would eventually lead to Afghanistan via a circuitous route through Detroit, London and Pakistan. At that stage, the authorities had no idea who Yousef worked for, but their investigation eventually uncovered a link between Yousef and another organization that was funded by bin Laden.

Before this attack, his first known action against the U.S. was a bomb attack against U.S. troops en route to Somalia in 1992.  That attack failed, and two tourists were killed instead.  The two Yemeni militants responsible for the attack were later arrested and told investigators that they had been trained in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden's operation continued to gain strength until a 1995 car bomb attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was attributed to his organization.  Following the attack, the Sudanese government came under intense international pressure when the U.S. government named the country a "state that sponsors terror."  The government agreed to oust bin Laden and reluctantly asked him to leave.  In mid-1996 he left Sudan and returned to Afghanistan, setting up operations outside of Jalalabad in the east.

Khobar Towers after bombing
Khobar Towers after bombing (CORBIS)

Soon after his arrival, the Khobar Towers, a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia, was bombed, and 19 servicemen were killed. The Saudi Ministry of the Interior later confirmed the job was the handiwork of a group of Arab Afghans with links to bin Laden.

Several months after the Khobar attack, bin Laden announced a "formal coalition of terror groups" and issued a 12-page document that was effectively a declaration of war against the U.S.A.  The following is an excerpt:

"Muslims burn with anger at America. For its own good, America should leave [Saudi Arabia] ... There is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land ... The presence of the USA Crusader military forces on land, sea and air of the states of the Islamic Gulf is the greatest danger threatening the largest oil reserve in the world. The existence of these forces in the area will provoke the people of the country and induces aggression on their religion, feelings and prides and pushes them to take up armed struggle against the invaders occupying the land ... Due to the imbalance of power between our armed forces and the enemy forces, a suitable means of fighting must be adopted, i.e. using fast-moving, light forces that work under complete secrecy. In other words, to initiate a guerrilla war, where the sons of the nation, and not the military forces, take part in it. 

"As for their accusations of terrorizing the innocent, the children, and the women, these are in the category of 'accusing others with their own affliction in order to fool the masses.  The evidence overwhelmingly shows America and Israel killing the weaker men, women and children in the Muslim world and elsewhere. A few examples of this are seen in the recent Qana massacre in Lebanon, and the death of more than 600,000 Iraqi children because of the shortage of food and medicine which resulted from the boycotts and sanctions against the Muslim Iraqi people, also their withholding of arms from the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina leaving them prey to the Christian Serbians who massacred and raped in a manner not seen in contemporary history. Not to forget the dropping of the H-bombs on cities with their entire populations of children, elderly, and women, on purpose, and in a premeditated manner as was the case with Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Mullah Omar
Mullah Omar (TG5)

In late 1996 the Taliban, a hard-line religious group of former Islamic students, took control of Jalalabad, and their leader, Mullah Omar, informed bin Laden that he would be protected under the new regime.

In 1997 bin Laden learned that the Saudis were planning another attempt on his life, which forced him to leave Jalalabad for the much safer Taliban-controlled city of Khandahar.

By this stage, his following was large, well organized and made up of large numbers of mujahedeen and loyal Arab followers.  After a meeting with Mullah Omar, bin Laden committed his troops and other resources to the Taliban cause. 

In part of a BBC Panorama program, Paul Bremmer described the alliance:

"I think the support is very, very strong from the Taliban, and we know that bin Laden provides troops that fight alongside the Taliban in their fight with the Northern Alliance, which is the group trying to overthrow the Taliban in the north of the country.  So there's a clear, tight relationship here between the Taliban and bin Laden, which goes far beyond simply saying,  'Make yourself at home in Jalalabad.'"

In early 1997, bin Laden gave his first interviews and publicly expressed his anti-American views. He vowed retaliation for the U.S. "invasion" of his homeland.  In one such interview with CNN correspondent Peter Bergen he said:

"We declared jihad against the U.S. government, because the U.S. government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical. It has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous and criminal, whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation."

"For this and other acts of aggression and injustice, we have declared jihad against the U.S., because in our religion it is our duty to make jihad so that God's word is the one exalted to the heights and so that we drive the Americans away from all Muslim countries. As for what you asked, whether jihad is directed against U.S. soldiers, the civilians in the land of the Two Holy Places [Mecca and Medina] or against the civilians in America, we have focused our declaration on striking at the soldiers in the country of the Two Holy Places [Saudi Arabia]."

"The country of the Two Holy Places has in our religion a peculiarity of its own over the other Muslim countries. In our religion, it is not permissible for any non-Muslim to stay in our country. Therefore, even though American civilians are not targeted in our plan, they must leave. We do not guarantee their safety, because we are in a society of more than a billion Muslims.  I have benefited so greatly from the jihad in Afghanistan that it would have been impossible for me to gain such a benefit from any other chance, and this cannot be measured by tens of years but rather more than that ... Our experience in this jihad was great, by the grace of God, praise and glory be to Him, and the most of what we benefited from was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims. Slumber and fatigue vanished, and so was the terror which the U.S. would use in its media by attributing itself superpower status or which the Soviet Union used by attributing itself as a superpower."

Later the same year bin Laden learned that American Special Forces were planning a raid to kidnap him.  In response, he gave the story to the media and the raid was cancelled.

In early 1998 he made a second declaration, which included formation of an "international front" to unite Muslims throughout the world to fight against the "infidel" oppression.  The declaration was also very specific in sanctioning the killing of Americans and Jews:

"For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."

"Despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance, and despite the huge number of those killed, which has exceeded 1 million ... despite all this, the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres, as though they are not content with the protracted blockade imposed after the ferocious war or the fragmentation and devastation."

"We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim Ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson."

"The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."

US Embassy, Nairobi after bombing
US Embassy, Nairobi after bombing (CORBIS)

In July 1998, following bin Laden's interview with ABC's John Miller, the American embassies in the East African cities of Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were attacked in coordinated truck bombings.  These well-planned attacks were later determined to have occurred approximately four minutes apart and claimed the lives of 213 American and African citizens in Nairobi and 11 in Dar es Salaam. Again, bin Laden was suspected of masterminding the attacks.  In an interview with Time magazine on December 23, 1998, bin Laden was asked if he and his al-Qaeda  group were responsible.  He replied:

"The International Islamic Front for Jihad against the U.S. and Israel has, by the grace of God, issued a crystal-clear fatwah calling on the Islamic nation to carry on jihad aimed at liberating holy sites. The nation of Muhammad has responded to this appeal. If the instigation for jihad against the Jews and the Americans in order to liberate al-Aqsa Mosque and the Holy Ka'aba is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Our job is to instigate and, by the grace of God, we did that, and certain people responded to this instigation."

When asked what the U.S. could expect from his organization in the wake of the attacks in Africa he replied:

"Any thief or criminal or robber who enters another country in order to steal should expect to be exposed to murder at any time. For the American forces to expect anything from me personally reflects a very narrow perception. Thousands of millions of Muslims are angry. The Americans should expect reactions from the Muslim world that are proportionate to the injustice they inflict."

Wadih El-Hage, sketch
Wadih El-Hage, sketch (AP)

After an extensive investigation by the FBI and the U.S. State Department, it was discovered that the attacks in Africa were planned as far back as 1993 when several members of the al-Qaeda network relocated to Kenya.  One of them was believed to be Wadih El-Hage, who according to an FBI circular was "a Lebanese Christian by birth who later became a naturalized American citizen and converted to Islam."  He was later arrested in America.

Wadih and his associates were received in Kenya by another bin Laden associate, Abu Ubaida Al-Banshiri, a wealthy businessman who lived in Tanzania. Al-Banshiri, who later died in a ferry accident on Lake Victoria, was known to have been one of bin Laden's leading military advisors.

In response to the attacks, the Clinton administration approved retaliatory cruise missile strikes against bin Laden's alleged mountain stronghold and several of his known training camps.  The attacks succeeded in destroying several key targets and killed at least 20 of bin Laden's followers, but their main quarry escaped unscathed.

Paul Bremmer told the BBC's Panorama why he thought the attacks were a mistake:

"What we did was essentially engage in feckless, pin-prick attacks.  Even if they had succeeded, they would have destroyed a few mud huts that bin Laden's group could have rebuilt within a few weeks.  Those attacks symptomized what was wrong with American counterterrorism policy under the Clinton administration, which was that, in effect, when we were hit by terrorists we tried to limit our response to a sort of signal to the terrorists that we were serious.  Of course, by being feeble in our response the terrorists got the exact opposite impression, which was that we were weak."

Dr. Hassan al Tarabi described to a BBC correspondent how the retaliation only served to enhance bin Laden's position:

"Now you have developed Osama bin Laden as the champion, as a symbol of Islam for all young people in the whole Muslim world.  Anyone who wants to fight for Islam or struggle for Islam, the image is Osama bin Laden."


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