Public Enemy No 1 - a title he always wanted

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The Independent Online
IN THE spring of last year Osama bin Laden was a lonely, isolated man. Though he had called for a holy war against the United States, the Americans had largely ignored him. Saddam Hussein was flavour of the year in the American hate stakes. How Mr bin Laden must have been delighted, then, when Bill Clinton this week called him "Public Enemy Number One".

Infantile though the title is - Hollywood and Washington now seem to replicate each other - the US President had at last bestowed on the Saudi dissident the accolade he has always sought. Mr Clinton had now recognised the titanic struggle that Mr bin Laden was prepared to wage against the world's most powerful nation.

An hour before the Americans launched their cruise missiles at Afghanistan, Mr bin Laden had sent a message to a Pakistani journalist in Peshawar, a satellite call in which an Egyptian doctor - whom I last saw sitting beside Mr bin Laden in Afghanistan - said the Saudi was not responsible for the attacks on the US embassies in Africa but invited all Muslims to join his jihad (holy war) against "the Americans and the Jews".

He denied the bombings in Africa just as he once denied to me his responsibility for the bombing of a US base in Dhahran that killed 19 Americans. He is, it would seem, a warrior who does not go to war, all cloak and no dagger.

True? Perhaps. But Mr bin Laden's record as a guerrilla - rather than the world's latest super-terrorist - is a real one. Initially unwilling to discuss his battle against the Soviet occupation army in Afghanistan - he became one of the war's guerrilla heroes - he told me, when I first met him in Sudan in 1993, that God had given him peace of mind during combat.

"Once I was only 30 metres from the Russians and they were trying to capture me," he said. "I was under bombardment but I was so peaceful in my heart I fell asleep. This experience has been written about in our earliest books. I saw a 120mm mortar shell land in front of me, but it did not blow up. Four more bombs were dropped from a Russian plane on our headquarters but they did not explode. We beat the Soviet Union. The Russians fled."

Little wonder, perhaps, that Mr bin Laden feels he can force the Americans to leave Saudi Arabia, the campaign he has been espousing for three years. Did he not help to drive the Russian army out of Afghanistan, even if at terrible cost in life? "I was never afraid of death," he told me in Sudan. "As Muslims, we believe that when we die, we go to heaven. Before a battle, God sends us seqina, tranquillity."

Is that how he feels today, in the aftermath of Bill Clinton's 60-missile strike against the old CIA camps in which the Americans once trained Mr bin Laden's fellow guerrillas?

He always denied any involvement with the Americans. "Personally, neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help. When my mujahedin [holy warriors] were victorious and the Russians were driven out, differences started [between the Afghans]..."

It was disgust at this factional fighting that persuaded him to travel to Sudan where he stayed until his eviction, at America's request, in 1996. Already, Egypt had accused him of involvement in attacks on Egyptian police, using his Arab fighters from Afghanistan.

He had taken them there - in their thousands - from the first days of the Russian-Afghan war in 1979, using his road construction equipment (the business which made him a multi-millionaire) to blast massive tunnels into the Zazi mountains of Bakhtiar province for guerrilla hospitals and arms dumps. "I fought there but my fellow Muslims did much more than I," he told me. "Many of them died. But I am still alive."

Bill Clinton might have wished Mr bin Laden was among Russia's victims. Or would he really wish that? In American's search for "public enemies", Mr bin Laden looks the part; dark-skinned, sharp-eyed, dressed in robes, cleaning his teeth with a piece of stick during conversations, constantly threatening the US and Israel. Who would the Americans strike at if Mr bin Laden did not exist? And who would Mr bin Laden hate if the Americans packed up and went home?

"What I lived in two years there [in Afghanistan]," he once said to me, "I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere." That must be truer now than when he first used those words almost five years ago. Today, he could not be better known - or more reviled by his enemies.