The US says this was a weapons plant. Sudan says it made drugs. Who's right?

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The Independent Online
THE UNITED STATES says it has "compelling evidence" that it knows who exploded two bombs at its Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassies, and that this lay behind its missile attacks on Thursday.

Yet it has not so far produced any evidence at all, leaving some strange questions hanging over the episode.

These centre on Osama bin Laden, the man who has suddenly been elevated from a "shadowy figure" in the netherworld of radical Islam to the status of "the pre-eminent organiser and financier of international terrorism in the world today," as President Bill Clinton described him on Thursday.

Not a scrap of evidence has been produced against him; and America insists he was not the target of the attacks.

Nor was evidence produced to show the factory in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, that was destroyed by Tomahawks, produced chemical weapons. The Sudanese government insisted it could prove that the factory was used specifically for pharmaceutical production and that it produced half the country's medicines. A Sudanese opposition leader said he had consulted scientists familiar with the factory, who he said had been suspicious about the size of its sterilisation and filling equipment.

The President listed four reasons for attacking the sites in Afghanistan. There was "convincing evidence" the groups present at the camps there had played a key role in the bombings of US embassies in East Africa; these had conducted a number of attacks in the past; they were planning new attacks; and they were seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Each allegation centred on Mr bin Laden.

There is no doubt that he is a dedicated enemy of both the US and Israel. He has repeatedly warned America that unless it withdrew from Saudi Arabia, there would be attacks on its forces. And he has been at the centre of a coalescence of previously separate groups, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Group.

But the first curious paradox of the attacks is that they were not, apparently, directed at Mr bin Laden at all.

"We were not going directly after Osama bin Laden," said General Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Thursday. The targets were the infrastructure, and, apparently, the leaders of other groups who were to be present that day, he said.

"We don't know where bin Laden is," a senior intelligence official said on Thursday, once the cameras were turned off.

Yet Mr bin Laden was, according to Mr Clinton, indirectly responsible for a vast number of terrorist attacks: the killing of German tourists in Egypt, at least six attempted bombings of US airliners over the Pacific, an assassination attempt on the Pope, another on the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, attacks on American, Belgian and Italian peace-keepers in Somalia, and more.

This is a trail that goes back years and apparently links Mr bin Laden to virtually everything bad that has happened in the world in the past decade. Yet if he is so bad, why has the US waited this long to strike?

"This [Afghan] camp has been known for many years," said the senior intelligence official. "Why didn't the US strike sooner?" asked a reporter. "I can't answer that question," the official responded.

The evidence linking the embassy bombings to Mr bin Laden was left unsaid, and it seems remarkable that in a scant two weeks, there could be conclusive proof of Mr bin Laden's guilt. Louis Freeh, director of the FBI, said yesterday that the raids were, contrary to earlier statements, not directly linked to the embassy bombings.

"Many people in a number of places" could have been responsible for the attacks in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, he said. While there was "compelling evidence," the US preferred to stress that the attacks were really intended to head off another, future outrage.

Perhaps the most curious part of Thursday's statement is the charge which America did not lay at Mr bin Laden's feet: the two bombings of US facilities in Saudi Arabia, including Khobar Towers.

In private, US officials have been saying for years that he was the man behind the attacks. But Saudi Arabia has resisted allegations that the bombings were an internal affair, preferring to stress an external threat.

"Is he connected to Khobar Towers?" a reporter asked the senior intelligence official. "I don't have anything about Khobar," the official responded.