Wealthy Arab who hates the US - is he the man behind the bombs?

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THE NIGHT was freezing. In the claustrophobic tent, the oil lamp sputtered while Osama bin Laden talked. "We are still at the beginning of our military action against the Americans," he said. No, he added with contempt, he was not the "terrorist" whom the American secret services claimed him to be. But US forces must withdraw from Saudi Arabia.

"If liberating my land is called terrorism, this is a great honour for me," he said.

When he talked to me at his mountain camp in Afghanistan - less than 18 months ago - he was careful in his words, dissociating the Europeans from the "sins" of the Americans.

A tall, thin man with a greying beard, bin Laden was one of the great "mujahedin" (holy warrior) heroes of the war against the Soviet army, using his fleet of bulldozers and his army of Arab fighters to blast tank and ammunition trails through the bleak grey mountains of Afghanistan to fight the Russians. Then, he was one of the Good Guys. I slept that night of our interview beside a massive air-raid shelter cut into the living rock of the mountainside by his Saudi, Syrian, Kuwaiti and Algerian guerrillas.

So could this be the man - now, so the Americans tell us, one of the Bad Guys - who planned the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam? Yesterday the number of dead in the two bombings reached 155 in Nairobi and 10 in Dar es Salaam. Bin Laden would not, I am sure, have condemned this slaughter, aimed so directly - even if at such cost to civilians - at the American administration.

But when he discovered I had just come from Beirut and had the local Lebanese newspapers in my bag, he sat in the corner of his tent reading the reports of Iran's new demarche towards Saudi Arabia, of Israel's increased settlement activity on the occupied West Bank and of Turkey's treaty with Israel.

If this was a "mastermind of world terrorism" - according to the predictably anonymous sources of western journalists - then he was woefully out of touch with the world he was supposed to be terrorising.

True, his family is immensely wealthy. At least one of his brothers - there are more than 40 by several of his father's wives - is at Harvard.

Two of his three wives are with him in Afghanistan, where the Saudi-paid Taliban militia protect him.

"We believe the Taliban are sincere in their attempts to enforce Islamic religious law," he told me in Afghanistan last year. "We saw the situation here before and after, and have seen an obvious improvement." Bin Laden, it should be said, would have no objections to the beheading of supposed criminals. His Saudi Arabia - should he ever see the Kingdom of his dreams - will be a republic of harsh Islamic law. As for the Americans, they must go.