Pubdate: 28 Dec 1999
Source: Herald, The (UK)
Copyright: 2001 The Herald
Author: Ian Bruce


The world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, has been offered sanctuary in 
Iraq if his worldwide terrorist network succeeds in carrying out a campaign 
of high-profile attacks on the West over the next few weeks.

Intelligence sources say the Saudi dissident believed responsible for the 
bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and a US military 
barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1998, is running out of options for a safe haven.

He is now thought to have overcome his initial rejection of Saddam Hussein, 
whom he regarded as an exploiter of the Islamic cause rather than a true 
believer, and is considering the offer of a bolt-hole from which he can 
continue to mastermind terrorism on a global scale.

A US counter-terrorist source said yesterday: "Our State Department issued 
a worldwide warning on December 11. We have solid information that many of 
the groups operating under bin Laden's patronage are planning 
'spectaculars' to coincide with the period leading up to and through the 
millennium celebrations.

"They want to inflict maximum loss of life in return for publicity. Now we 
are also facing the prospect of an unholy alliance between bin Laden and 
Saddam. The implications are terrifying.

"We might be looking at the most wanted man on the FBI's target list 
gaining access to chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons courtesy of 
Iraq's clandestine research programmes."

The US intelligence community has been squeezing bin Laden's finances 
steadily for several years. His personal fortune of anything up to UKP500m 
has been whittled down to single figures, although funds continue to flow 
into the coffers of his Al Qaeda - Arabic for "The Base" - organisation 
from wealthy individuals in the Middle East.

These include members of the Saudi royal family opposed to American 
involvement in the region and rich businessmen in the Gulf States hoping to 
buy themselves immunity if bin Laden's Islamic revolution ever manages to 
overthrow their governments.

But the bulk of his income comes from acting as middleman and fixer for the 
Afghan opium producers. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan 
supplies 75% of the world's opium and its heroin derivatives in a 
narcotics' trade worth an estimated UKP4bn to UKP6bn a year.

The Taleban religious fanatics who control 85% of Afghanistan need the cash 
to fund their never-ending civil wars. They gave bin Laden refuge because 
he had connections with the Chechen and Russian mafias and their access to 
money-laundering in the West.

According to Middle Eastern intelligence sources, bin Laden rakes off 
anything up to UKP500m a year from his pivotal role in the drugs' trade. It 
is more than enough to underwrite the cost of mujahideen training camps in 
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan and the provision of weapons for bin 
Laden's personal war against the US and its allies.

Up to 20 Islamic extremist groups operate under the loose control of Al Qaeda.

They include Algeria's GSPC, responsible for the casual murder of civilians 
in the country's Kabylie region, and a network for recruiting Muslim 
volunteers to fight in the Balkans and Chechnya.

Al Qaeda's tentacles spread across Europe and the Middle East, including 
the United Kingdom. Up to 2000 young Muslims a year were enlisted in 
Britain between 1995 and 1998 to fight militant Islam's cause.

They received basic survival and unarmed combat training in Britain, and 
were then flown to various camps in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to be 
instructed in the use of firearms and explosives. A few were involved in 
combat in the latter stages of the Bosnian conflict.

The spread of bin Laden's influence has spawned some strange alliances.

Israel's Mossad agency is currently helping the Russians identify known 
fundamentalist militants in Chechnya. British, Italian and US agents 
reportedly co-operated with Slobodan Milosevic's regime to root out 
veterans of the 1979-89 Afghan-Russia war while they were themselves on 
opposite sides in Bosnia.

The Americans have also resorted to hi-tech destabilisation. Various 
agencies inserted "sniffer" software programmes into the banking systems of 
Europe and the Middle East from the mid-1990s onwards.

These were targeted on known or suspected accounts for bin Laden's front 
men in Holland, Britain, Switzerland, Italy, the US and the Caribbean.

When large amounts of cash were moved around, the programmes flagged up the 
transactions. Computer experts then transferred or deleted the cash 
electronically to starve Al Qaeda of funding.

Bin Laden has almost outstayed his welcome in Afghanistan. Despite the 
Taleban's public declaration of protection for a "guest", the regime is 
suffering from international sanctions as long as it harbours him.

The Americans have a continually updated plan for a special forces' team to 
snatch him from his mountain lair in the Hindu Kush.

But they look back to a Soviet raid in the same area in April, 1986, when 
three battalions of elite Spetznaz commandos went in after a local Afghan 
commander. Few came back.

Bin Laden is understood to have selected Yemen, his father's birthplace, as 
a first alternative. But the Yemenis could not protect him from the wrath 
of the West or Saudi Arabia. Chechnya was his second choice, but the 
province is being ground under Russia's military jackboot.

That leaves Iraq, and the potential for an alliance which would be everyone 
else's nightmare.