They make alliances, the men who are clandestinely trying to change the Middle East. They break the rules of every intelligence agency, outfox the CIA and Mossad; they are the nightmare of every security man and every sub-editor. They lie about the extent of their power every bit as much as the spooks lie about them. Osama bin Laden is no different. He admits he knows two of three men executed by the Saudis for bombing an American military base in Al-Khobar; but he insists they were not working for him. He acknowledges his men fought American troops in Somalia; but he says they were not doing this on his behalf.
And those who wish to turn Mr bin Laden into the head of "World Terror Inc" will gift him with superhuman qualities – much to his delight. The lonely man on the Afghan mountain-top four years ago, who grabbed my Arabic newspapers to read of events he should have known all about, must have been flattered when, six months later, the Americans claimed he was the mastermind of "international terror". He needed the title, even if he didn't deserve it.
Because the bin Ladens of this world – and the intelligence agencies – feed on each other. The head of "Islamic Jihad" once told me that William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Beirut, who died – or was tortured to death after his abduction – had been drawing up lists of Muslims to be liquidated by the Lebanese authorities. The same kidnapper is now named by Israeli intelligence as a bin Laden contact in Beirut. Both claims are almost certainly untrue. But it serves the interests of both to believe it.
On Monday, the former head of Canada's Security Intelligence Service said the country was "riddled with terrorists" – 350 from 50 separate groups, he declared. But this is preposterous. Although an Algerian would-be bomber made his way across the border to the US – and may have been a bin Laden man – it would be difficult to name more than a handful of such groups in the Middle East, let alone 50 in Canada alone.
"Even if the US were to cease to exist tomorrow," ex-spook David Harris informed the world, "we [in Canada] are riddled with homicidal maniacs." Poor old Canada. Even the Israelis don't go quite that far in paranoia.
What is clear is that Arabs who fought the Russians in Afghanistan – either under Mr bin Laden or pro-American guerrilla leaders – have played a leading part in the continuation of a war against the West or pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. There is, for example, no evidence of a bin Laden link with the Algerian Islamists who, along with the army, have taken the lives of 120,000 people in Algeria. But the Pakistan embassy in Algiers has lists of thousands of Algerians who acquired visas in the 1980s to travel to Peshawar en route to Afghanistan.
Egyptian security officers investigating the massacre of foreign tourists at Luxor concluded that Mr bin Laden – though he may have been known to the killers by name – played no role in the massacre. But every "security agency" now lists the Luxor bloodbath as Mr bin Laden's work. Mr bin Laden hates Saddam Hussein, regarding the Iraqi leader as a Western-created dictator – a not entirely inaccurate description – but he is already being accused of acting hand-in-hand with the "Beast of Baghdad".
Mr bin Laden has little time for Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, yet he is supposed to have cooperated with Libyan intelligence. The Abu Sayaf group in Indonesia – a Ghaddafi creation – contains men who fought in Afghanistan, but Mr bin Laden is unlikely to have allied himself with the man whom President Reagan once described as "flakey". Repeatedly, the discovery that Arabs accused of bombings or murders fought in Afghanistan has been regarded as proof that they work for Mr bin Laden. But most of the thousands of foreigners who made their pilgrimage to Afghanistan to fight the Russians were encouraged to do so by the CIA, not Mr bin Laden.
This does not clear the Saudi dissident. His links to the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam appear to be solid. His connections with the Pakistani "jihadis" are a matter of pride to him. The German "connection" – the joint collegiate life of so many of the hijackers who took over the American airliners on 11 September – grows stronger every day.
So does the connection with Saudi Arabia, his own country. One reason why the Saudis refused to allow the FBI permission to cross-question the men accused of bombing the US base at al-Khobar – is said to be their embarrassment at discovering how deeply Mr bin Laden has penetrated Saudi society, not least the royal family.
All in all, then, it may be better to hear the evidence in court when Mr bin Laden is brought to trial; unless, of course, the Americans do not plan to give him a trial – in which case the "evidence" is being rehearsed prior to his execution.Reuse content