Bush and bin Laden | The Nation


Bush and bin Laden

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With 7,000 employees of the Federal Bureau of Investigation working round the clock and European intelligence agencies activelycooperating with their US counterparts, it is a matter of time before the Bush Administration apprehends the perpetrators of the terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington on September 11.

About the Author

Dilip Hiro
Dilip Hiro is the author of Sharing the Promised Land: A Tale of Israelis and Palestinians (Interlink), Between Marx...

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Its ‘generosity’ toward Cairo notwithstanding, Washington has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.

The US record in such investigations is impressive. The culprits of the explosion in the World Trade Center in February 1993, which killed six, were tracked down and punished. The same fate befell four of those responsible for bombing the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, who were found guilty and given life sentences in New York in July. They were members of Al Qaeda (the Base), an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, the 44-year-old Saudi fugitive hiding in the mountain fastness of Afghanistan, a country administered by the Taliban Islamic movement according to puritanical interpretations of the Sharia (Islamic law) that most Muslims outside Afghanistan find repulsive.

While the Bush Administration pursues its official policy of arresting and trying bin Laden in a US court, however, it must also re-examine its policies in the Middle East: on the Israel-Palestine conflict, on economic sanctions against Iraq, on isolating Iran and on its stationing of US troops and military hardware on the Arabian Peninsula. That is the only sure way to prevent a recurrence of the September 11 tragedy.

In American eyes bin Laden is the epitome of evil. But, sadly and frustratingly, many Afghans and Pakistanis revere him as a veteran of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, which resulted in the expulsion of Soviet troops. He led the Arab section of foreign Muslims--the mujahedeen, based in Pakistan, who numbered 30,000 throughout the decade--in that campaign.

Working closely with the CIA--which embraced the mujahedeen to further its own cold war geopolitical aims--bin Laden collected funds for the jihad from affluent Saudi citizens, using hard cash in briefcases instead of banks, because of the poor financial infrastructure of Pakistan. These contacts remained useful to him after he was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1994.

After most of his and his front companies' cash assets were frozen in the wake of the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania--in which he was a prime suspect--bin Laden is known to have raised funds by trafficking in heroin and smuggling durable consumer goods from the Persian Gulf port of Dubai into Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran. Instead of using conventional methods of raising and transferring funds through banks, bin Laden and his associates have adopted the informal "hundi" system in vogue in South Asia. A Pakistani or Indian expatriate working in the Gulf hands over his money to a local moneylender, who has agents in Pakistani or Indian townsand villages and who communicates with them through handwritten notes or faxes in coded messages. Last year, for every $27 remitted home by Pakistani workers in the Gulf through the normal banking system, an estimated $100 was transmitted through the hundi system, for a total of $3.7 billion. The hundi system has since been extended to Pakistani immigrants in North America and Britain, thus providing Al Qaeda with greater resources to tap.

The terrorist carnage in New York and Washington gave the hunt for bin Laden greater urgency, but it was already under way. Since the 1998 embassy bombings, he has been at the center of themost thorough intelligence campaign against any individual in recent years. This campaign consists of closely monitoring Afghanistan with US satellites, deploying the most sophisticated eavesdropping equipment to record bin Laden's conversations and using supercomputers to track his bank dealings around the world.

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