In 1997-1998, I became aware of clearly-observable warnings of hostile terrorist intentions against America, by Osama Bin Laden.
For over eighteen months -- as part of an investigation for Reader's Digest -- I had been learning from a variety of former U.S. intelligence officers and foreign sources about a vast, world-wide network of Islamist radicals, who had emerged from the U.S.-backed war to drive the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. At their head was the shadowy Saudi renegade, Osama Bin Laden, whom his followers referred to as the "Prince of Jihad."
What made Bin Laden unusual was his background. Son of a fabulously wealthy Saudi businessman, he traded the family palaces and five-star hotels for an unheated cave in Afghanistan, renouncing catered banquets for a diet of moldy cheese and rancid eggs. The more the Digest looked at terrorist movements around the globe, the more we began to see his influence -- and especially his money. We determined to do a portrait of the man himself.
We weren't the first to report on Bin Laden, who had given interviews to a handful of Arab and Pakistani reporters in previous years. But until the Digest investigation, published just weeks before the twin Africa embassy bombings in July 1998, Bin Laden had been presented as a relic of the U.S-backed mujahedin in Afghanistan, an exotic but safely distant product of "blowback" left over from the CIA's alliance with Pakistan's much-feared Inter-services Intelligence (ISI).
As we surveyed an already-impressive record of anti-American terrorist acts -- a failed 1992 effort to target U.S. troops staying at a hotel in Aden, Yemen; the 1993 assault on U.S. peacekeepers in Mogadishu, Somalia that left 18 Americans dead; the spectacular attempt to collapse the World Trade Center towers in 1993 that left 6 people dead; and a November 1995 bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia -- we saw something far more sinister. To us, looking at the evidence we could gather as journalists, Bin Laden was an imminent threat to Americans everywhere.
From our preliminary investigation, we turned up evidence of Bin Laden's tentacles from the Philippines to a Brooklyn mosque. We found fund-raising and political support offices operating in San Diego, Ca, and in the Washington, DC area. We traced a failed 1995 plot to hijack 12 commercial airliners in the Far East and crash them against targets on the ground -- clearly the precursor of the 9/11 attacks -- from the Philippines back to a Bin Laden safe house in Peshawar, Pakistan.
We also turned up hard evidence that Bin Laden was receiving financial assistance from some of the most prominent businessmen in Saudi Arabia and from key members of the Saudi Royal family. One trusted source revealed that Bin Laden maintained accounts with Merrill Lynch in London, and owned stock in major U.S. corporations. Others described a worldwide network of Muslim charities, including the International Islamic Relief Organization, that Bin Laden was using as cover for worldwide recruiting and terrorist operations.
While known to the federal government, none of these linkages was receiving much attention from federal officials, as far as we could determine. Even the U.S. Attorney's office for the southern district of New York, which had successfully prosecuted the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, refused to discuss ties between convicted bomber Ramzi Yousef and Bin Laden, although glimpses of those connections were clear to me as I poured through thousands of pages of trial transcripts and interviewed lawyers for the defendants.
Nor could the prosecutors explain the whereabouts of Bin Laden deputy Ali Mohammad, a former U.S. Special Forces operator who testified during the trial that he had been Bin Laden's personal bodyguard while he was living in the Sudan in the early 1990s. If this was an administration that made terrorism its top priority, nobody in the Department of Justice or the FBI seemed to know it. Mohammad finally surfaced again during the Africa bombing trial in 2000. In the interim, according to his guilty plea, he had been conspiring to murder U.S. citizens and destroy U.S. buildings and property around the world.
Ultimately we were told by our Justice Department sources that something was afoot, but that it was too early for them to talk about it. When we pressed harder, they revealed that they were preparing to name Bin Laden as a conspirator in a new indictment stemming from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
I also managed to locate and interview a key Bin Laden operative named Tarik Hamdi, who appeared later with Mohammad in the Africa embassy conspiracy plot for having carried a satellite phone battery to Bin Laden in Afghanistan that was used to plot terrorist acts. Hamdi and I had lunch together in a suburban Washington, DC Olive Tree restaurant, where he offered for a fee to introduce me to Bin Laden's "fixers" in Peshawar. (I am left wondering why our federal government wasn't pursuing Hamdi and Mohammad more vigorously, instead of allowing them to operate openly in the United States.).
In February 1998, as I was preparing to depart for Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan in search of Bin Laden and his associates, the Digest got word that the seemingly shadowy Saudi had just issued a religious edict, or "fatwa," calling on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies throughout the world. He called such attacks, on civilians and military alike, "an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it."
Bin Laden's fatwa sounded like a declaration of war. And yet, when I asked U.S. government officials for a copy of the fatwa, neither the CIA nor the State Department said they had seen it. I finally obtained a copy from an alert staffer on Capitol Hill.
Here was a man with a rap sheet a mile long, a virtual army of trained followers, and a seemingly colossal personal fortune he could use to indulge his murderous fantasies. Why did no one in the U.S. government appear to have their "hair on fire"?
True enough, the State Department had taken the unusual step in August 1996 of issuing a three-page "white paper" on Bin Laden -- a product of what I learned was the CIA's "Bin Laden station" in Frankfurt, Germany. Also, in the days following Bin Laden's fatwa (February 1998), State Department officials told us that U.S. government facilities in Washington, DC had been put on "high alert."
What did "high alert" mean in practice? Hard to say. As far as I could tell, reporters, foreign dignitaries, and ordinary citizens could approach key government buildings with nominal searches.
In London, I spent hours interviewing Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammad, an open Bin Laden sympathizer, who boasted that he was recruiting jihadis to fight in a worldwide "Mohammad's Army" against America and the West. Sheikh Omar continues to preach out in the open today. I also met with Saudi dissidents who claimed to be working closely with Bin Laden, who displayed evidence of a massive, sophisticated and well-funded public relations effort on behalf of Bin Laden's anti-Western jihad.
In Egypt, government officials complained bitterly that the United States and Britain were not taking the war on terror seriously. But then, the Egyptians had just been hit hard by terrorists allied with al-Qaeda who murdered 58 foreign tourists in the 4,550 year-old temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor in November 1997, virtually ending Egypt's lucrative tourist industry. Two years earlier, Bin Laden allies had attempted to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak while he was visiting Ethiopia.
In Pakistan, U.S. diplomats acknowledged in private that they were easy prey to Bin Laden's assassins, and shared a tiny fleet of bullet-proof cars when they went out shopping in residential areas of the capital, Islamabad. Senior officials I interviewed in Pakistan's Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), openly revered Bin Laden. A former ISI chief, General Hamid Gul, served as a semi-official spokesman for the renegade Saudi with visiting reporters.
I don't doubt for an instant that our government was fully aware of all of the activities I have just described. After all, it has immense resources to gather intelligence, while I was just a reporter. Clearly, going after terrorists was not a top priority.
In July 1998, Reader's Digest published Kenneth Timmerman's report, "This Man Wants You Dead." Three weeks later -- with more than two hundred innocent civilians torn to bits by al Qaeda bombs in Nairobi and Dar Es Salam -- Bin Laden's face was plastered in newspapers around the world.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight and author of The French Betrayal of America, just released from Crown Forum.