America's No 1 enemy

OSAMA BIN LADEN: Robert Fisk says that President Bill Clinton has taken on a dangerous foe: a fire-breathing preacher who damns secular governments and won't do deals
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OSAMA BIN LADEN once stayed in Park Lane. He doesn't remember the name of the hotel his Saudiparents had checked into, but he recalls "the trees of the park and red buses". He might be forgiven fornot remembering which of his brothers he was staying with; there are more than 40 in the Bin Ladenfamily by his father's several wives. One is at the Harvard Business School in Boston and flies aircraft asa hobby.

OSAMA BIN LADEN once stayed in Park Lane. He doesn't remember the name of the hotel his Saudiparents had checked into, but he recalls "the trees of the park and red buses". He might be forgiven fornot remembering which of his brothers he was staying with; there are more than 40 in the Bin Ladenfamily by his father's several wives. One is at the Harvard Business School in Boston and flies aircraft asa hobby.

But if the Bin Laden construction company made his family into millionaires, its convoys of earth-movingtrucks, bulldozers and quarrying equipment took him to war. The Afghan conflict against the Russiansmoulded Bin Laden, taught him the meaning of his religion, made him think. Anyone who wants tounderstand the man whom Bill Clinton has dubbed "America's Public Enemy Number One" should studythis moment in his life. The West regarded him as a hero. In those days the young Arabs whom hebrought to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation army - around 9,000 at a conservative estimate -were treated as heroes; the Times used to call them "freedom-fighters". Few noticed - or bothered to study- the theological implications of the West's support for the mujahedin.

One of the reasons Leonid Brezhnev was persuaded to send his troops into Afghanistan was the reportsthat large areas of the countryside had fallen under the sway of Muslim fundamentalists. Governmentschoolteachers, installed by the Communist regime in Kabul, were being assassinated. Even when themujahedin were shooting at civil airliners with British-made Blowpipe missiles, they were not called"terrorists".

Bin Laden saw his comrades die in their hundreds, while he, miraculously, survived Russian kidnapattempts - the Soviets understood Bin Laden's importance even then - and mortar fire. With theroad-building equipment he had brought across the border from Pakistan, he carved a highway throughthe mountains to within 15 miles of Soviet-occupied Kabul. In the later stages of the war he drovecaptured Russian tanks up this same road. Into the sheer face of a mountain, he built a 25ft-high air-raidshelter, reached by perilous stone trails hacked into the rock."What I lived in two years there," he was torecall later, "I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere."

Bin Laden was sickened by the factional fighting among the Afghans that followed the departure of theRussians - it was a period of bitter disillusionment for the Saudi - and he moved to Sudan, using hispersonal wealth to finance road construction projects in the desert north of Khartoum. It was while he washere, in the years that followed the Afghan war, that reports came from Egypt and Algeria of Arabsreturning home in Afghan clothes, many of them deeply religious, contemptuous of the corruption ofsecular governments, doctrinal to the point of self-righteousness.When I first met Bin Laden in 1993, hewas building a highway to connect the remote village of Almatig to Khartoum for the first time in itshistory, shaking hands with the grateful villagers, worshiped by the local sheikh. "We have been waitingfor this road through all the revolutions in Sudan," he said. "We waited until we had given up oneverybody - and then Osama bin Laden came along."

Narrow-faced with a long pepper-and-salt beard and sharp, penetrating eyes, Bin Laden shook handswith each man, watched by the young Arab fighters (without weapons on this occasion) and clearlyenjoying the adoration. There is something of the evangelist about Bin Laden; not the friendly apostle butthe fire-breathing preacher, a hermit of such conviction that argument is out of the question. For theAmericans, his epic certainties constitute his greatest danger. Bin Laden is not a man who does deals.

He embarked on another construction; a new motorway that would cut the distance between Khartoumand Port Sudan by 300 miles. By now, Egyptian newspapers were claiming that Bin Laden was helpingto organise an Islamist resistance to President Hosni Mubarak's rule from "training camps" in Sudan."The rubbish of the media and the embassies," Bin Laden retorted.He kept a home in Khartoum, only asmall apartment in his native Jeddah. His four wives lived with him in Sudan. Three of them were later tofollow him back to Afghanistan, along with his two sons; for months they lived in three small tents besidea row of trees east of Jalalabad.

He had watched his beloved Afghanistan torn apart by greedy men who had forgotten their religion. Nowhe saw corruption in Egypt, in all the Arab nations that had adopted a facade of Western life; above all, inSaudi Arabia. For Bin Laden, the betrayal of the Saudi people began 24 years before his birth, whenAbdul Aziz al-Saud proclaimed his kingdom in 1932. "The regime started under the flag of applyingIslamic law and under this banner all the people of Saudi Arabia came to help the Saudi family takepower," he was to tell me later in Afghanistan. "Abdul Aziz did not apply Islamic law; the country was setup for his family...

"When the American troops entered Saudi Arabia [after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait], the land of the twoholy places [Mecca and Medina], there was a strong protest from the ulema [religious authorities] andfrom students of the sharia law all over the country against the interference of American troops. This bigmistake by the Saudi regime of inviting the American troops revealed their deception. They had given theirsupport to nations that were fighting against Muslims. They [the Saudis] helped Yemen Communistsagainst the southern Yemeni Muslims and helped [Yasser] Arafat's regime fight against Hamas. After itinsulted and jailed the ulema [for objecting to the American presence] ... the Saudi regime lost itslegitimacy."

Under pressure from the Americans, the Sudanese told Bin Laden to leave and Bin Laden returned to theland where he had been a hero. Some say he travelled back to Afghanistan via Saudi Arabia; certainly, hehas many sympathisers there, including some members of the royal family as well as preachers. Which iswhy he maintains contact with his country through the Saudi embassy in Islamabad. Saudi Arabia'sTaliban army protects him; he has expressed his admiration for the "stability" they have brought toAfghanistan - his own strict interpretation of Islamic law fits in rather well with the Tali-ban's ferociousregime of punishment and anti-feminism. In those initial months back in Afghanistan, he must havedecided that if he could defeat the Russians, he could also defeat America.

Saudi Arabia, he concluded, had become "an American colony".Ordinary Saudis realised the imprisonedulemas were right: US troops had stayed on in the kingdom, despite their promise to leave. "Whathappened in Riyadh and Khobar [when 24 Americans were killed in two bombings] is clear evidence ofthe huge anger of the Saudi people against America," he told me in 1996 as we sat in an Afghan campsurrounded by his armed Arab followers. "The Saudis now know their real enemy is America." No, hesaid, he didn't organise those bombings. But he knew two of the three men beheaded by the Saudisafterwards. (The Americans suspect they were innocent, executed to cover up for important Saudiofficials.)

Did not the Europeans resist German occupation in the Second World War, Bin Laden suddenly asked. Itold him this parallel was morally wrong, that no European would accept the argument because the Naziskilled millions of Europeans; the Americans had never murdered a single Saudi. His reply was the sameas it might have been this weekend, in the aftermath of the American missile strikes. "We as Muslimshave a strong feeling that binds us together ... We feel for our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon. Theexplosion at Khobar [in Saudi Arabia] did not come as a direct result of American occupation, but as aresult of American behaviour against Muslims ... When 60 Jews are killed inside Palestine, all the worldgathers within seven days to criticise this action, while the deaths of 600,000 Iraqi children (because ofUN sanctions) did not receive the same reaction. Killing those Iraqi children is a crusade against Islam ...I believe that sooner or later the Americans will leave Saudi Arabia and that the war declared by Americaagainst the Saudi people means war against all Muslims everywhere. Resistance against America willspread in many, many places in Muslim countries. Our trusted leaders, the ulema have given us a fatwathat we must drive out the Americans."

Guilty or not of the embassy bombings in Africa - and America still has to tell us about its "compellingevidence" - President Clinton has taken on a very dangerous enemy.