Pubdate: Sun, 06 Dec 1998 Source: Indian Express (India) Copyright: 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. Contact: http://www.expressindia.com/about/feedback.html FAX: + 91-11-6511615 Address: C-6, Qutab Institutional Area, New Delhi-110016, India Website: http://www.indian-express.com/ Author: Jason Burke, The Observer HEROIN IN THE HOLY WAR 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.