Muslim leader warns of a new assault on US forces

Eastern Afghanistan - From his guerrilla redoubt high in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Ossama Bin Laden - regarded by Washington as the West's most dangerous Muslim fundamentalist enemy - has warned Americans of a renewed onslaught against their forces in Saudi Arabia.

In an interview with The Independent, the 44-year old billionaire Saudi dissident who led an army of Arab fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, claimed that he had now secured the support of thousands of Pakistanis for his jihad - holy war - against US troops in the Gulf. He also acknowledged for the first time that his guerrillas had fought street battles against US forces during the ill-fated UN mission to Somalia.

He had, he said, sent faxes to King Fahd and all main departments of the Saudi government, informing them of his determination to pursue a jihad against the Americans; he even claimed that some members of the Saudi royal family agreed with his demand to expel the Americans from the Gulf - an allegation that will only heighten US suspicions that some leading figures in the kingdom covertly support the dissident movement.

I spent the night in Bin Laden's guerrilla camp 8,000 feet up a frozen mountain in south-east Afghanistan as his Arab mujahedin, wearing camouflage jackets and cowled in kuffiah scarves, patrolled the perimeter ridges armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles. The road to the camp had been gouged out of the cliffs and precipices by Mr Bin Laden's followers during their earlier jihad against the Soviet army; a few metres from me, a 20-foot high air raid shelter - cut for hundreds of metres through the rock of the mountainside - provided protection against aerial bombing.

Mr Bin Laden himself, dressed in a white turban and green robes with a Kalashnikov assault rifle beside him, sat on the floor of a tent lit only by a sputtering gas lamp. He heaped praise upon the bombers who slaughtered 24 Americans in the Saudi bombings at Riyadh and Al-Khobar - "a great act in which I missed the honour of participating" - and spoke in a chilling, almost inaudible monotone of his hatred for the American "occupiers" of his country. His claim of Pakistani assistance in his "holy war" will cause deep concern to Americans in Saudi Arabia, where tens of thousands of Pakistanis live as immigrant workers.

Astonishingly - in view of his previous threats against British and French troops in the Gulf - Mr Bin Laden claimed that the armies of both countries now provided only a "symbolic presence" in Saudi Arabia, at one point praising Britain for not occupying the Arabian peninsula during the First World War.

He claimed that European nations were now distancing themselves from US policy towards Israel, singling out the European vote against Israel in the UN Security Council debate on the new Jewish settlement on occupied Arab land outside Jerusalem.

But if British and French troops in the Gulf can now sleep a little easier in their beds - in itself a doubtful premise - the Americans appear to face another spate of bombings. "This is the first time in 14 centuries that the land of the two shrines [Mecca and Medina] has been occupied by non-Islamic forces," he said.

"In the past, the Americans didn't meet with real resistance from Muslims because scholars working for the Saudi government misled the people by saying the Americans were providing them with protection. But now, the Muslim nation understands the truth and Pakistanis have allied themselves with us to expel the Americans; Pakistani religious thinkers are issuing fatwa against them."

If Mr Bin Laden's view of America bordered on the eccentric - at one point, he suggested that individual US states might secede from the Union because of Washington's support for Israel - his historical perspective was deeply disturbing. "We believe that God used our holy war in Afghanistan to destroy the Russian army and the Soviet Union - we did this from the top of this very mountain upon which you are sitting - and now we ask God to use us one more time to do the same to America, to make it a shadow of itself.

But he was confident. "We also believe that our battle against America is much simpler than the war against the Soviet Union, because some of our mujahedin who fought here in Afghanistan also participated in operations against the Americans in Somalia - and they were surprised at the collapse of American morale. This convinced us that the Americans are a paper tiger."

Interview, page 14

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