Pubdate: Sun, 06 Dec 1998
Source: Indian Express (India)
Copyright: 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.
FAX: + 91-11-6511615
Address: C-6, Qutab Institutional Area, New Delhi-110016, India
Author: Jason Burke, The Observer


The fields of the eastern Afghan district of Shinwar look empty now. The 
summer's heat has left them dry and brown, and the seeds recently sown in 
their dusty soil have yet to shoot. In six months, Shinwar will be a riot 
of pink and white as the spring crop bursts into flower. The crop will be 
opium and the farmer will be Osama bin Laden, the most wanted terrorist in 
the world. Bin Laden, accused by the United States of bombing two of their 
embassies in East Africa this summer and a string of other attacks, sees 
heroin as a powerful new weapon in his war against the West, capable of 
wreaking social havoc while generating huge profits, according to sources 
in eastern Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

In the past six weeks -- the opium planting season -- bin Laden is reported 
to have approached, through intermediaries, major opium and heroin dealers 
and big landowners in opium-growing districts of Afghanistan. Last week one 
Pakistan-based landowner with a large opium farm south of the eastern 
Afghan city of Jalalabad told The Observer that bin Laden's men had offered 
to buy up "all the opium he could grow".

Western narcotics experts in Pakistan say that bin Laden, again through 
middlemen, has also been negotiating with Pakistani drug barons in the 
lawless hills along the border with Afghanistan. "To these guys waging a 
Holy War and making money at the same time is a pretty attractive 
option....He is not going to have any trouble recruiting," one said.

Another points out that bin Laden already has a highly motivated, secure 
international network of contacts which could easily be turned to 
drug-running. According to the United Nations Drugs Control Programme, 
Afghanistan produced between 2,000 and 3,000 tonnes of raw opium this year.

Much of the crop is refined into heroin in some 60 laboratories in the 
south east and east of the country, from where it is smuggled through 
Pakistan, Iran and then Turkey, or through Central Asia to the West. Enough 
opium to make a kilo of heroin -- worth US$35,000in London or twice that in 
New York -- costs as little as US$350 at the farm gate in Afghanistan.

The move towards drugs is just one of a number of changes forced on bin 
Laden since the US launched 75 cruise missiles against him in late August. 
The attacks did little damage -- killing around 30 men whose links with bin 
Laden were tenuous, and damaging a few buildings -- but recent police 
operations aimed at the Saudi-born terrorist's financial empire appear to 
have met with some success.

Though donations from across the Muslim world have been pouring in, bin 
Laden's Al-Qaida group are looking for new sources of revenue. Bin Laden 
recently sent representatives to a major religious conference in Pakistan 
to discuss fundraising with delegates from Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist 
organisation, and other extremist groups.

The attacks have also forced bin Laden, aged 41, to take stringent security 
precautions. His 200 bodyguards -- mainly Arab followers -- have been 
replaced by a far smaller group ofhand-picked retainers. And bin Laden -- 
who has five children from four wives -- is also relying increasingly on 
his eldest son, Mohammed.

The 14-year-old has been with his father almost without break since August. 
Bin Laden now rarely sleeps in the same place for two nights and shifts 
rapidly between fortified caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and 
his two homes in Kandahar, the headquarters of the Taliban Government in 
the south. His future -- and US hopes of bringing him to trial -- largely 
depend on the Taliban.

Though they have been under huge international pressure to expel him, 
senior figures in the hardline Islamic movement maintain that bin Laden is 
a guest. They have, however, made concessions. After August's missile 
strikes the Taliban revealed that they had told bin Laden not to interfere 
in the affairs of other countries and in October they appointed a senior 
Islamic judge to investigate his alleged involvement in terrorism, 
appealing for all with evidence against him to comeforward. Two weeks ago 
Maulana Noor Mohammed Saqib, the chief justice, found bin Laden innocent.