HUNTING BIN LADEN
Airdate: September 13, 2001
Produced and Directed by
Lowell Bergman and Martin Smith
NARRATOR: Late Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and the attack on the Pentagon, the CIA and FBI briefed political leaders in Washington that their search for the terrorists was focusing on one name above all others.
And as the rapidly unfolding investigation has identitied the hijackers, federal officials now say the suicide bombings were carried out by followers of that man”Islamic militant, Osama Bin Laden.
LARRY JOHNSON: In the history of terrorists no one has come up with the vision of destruction and the willingness to carry it out like him.
NARRATOR: For years this one man has taunted, threatened and frustrated the United States. But who is he? The U.S. government has tried to link him to nearly every act of Islamic terrorism against Americans in the 90s: from the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, to the bombings of U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia, to the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa.
Pres. BILL CLINTON: The United States launched an attack this morning on one of the most active terrorist bases in the world.
NARRATOR: He has survived retaliation.
REPORTER: Did you kill bin Laden? Is bin Laden dead, do you know?
NARRATOR: and eluded the US counterintelligence net.
SANDY BERGER: We have no idea where bin Laden’s whereabouts-
NARRATOR: To re-emerge this week, his followers named as the chief suspects, in the worst terrorist attack in history.
JUDITH MILLER: I think the enormity of the strike, designed to amaze the world, a strike to astonish the world. I think that’s always one of his goals.
NARRATOR: Tonight? Americ long frustrating hunt for Osama bin Laden.
This special edition of FRONTLINE, a co-production with the New York Times, is anchored by Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Good evening.
The search for the victims continues tonight. The grieving has hardly begun. It’s not possible now even to imagine the consequences still to come from the vicious, coldblooded, and devastatingly successful terrorism that virtually brought America to a standstill this week.
Who did it? Who could inspire, direct, and link such a complex operation Who had the resources, the network, the money, and the motive to pull it off?
So far the most conspicuous suspects are followers of Osama Bin Laden. This is a familiar name because bin Laden had already become the symbol of hatred toward America.
Two years ago FRONTLINE investigated the world of Osama Bin Laden. Two bombs had struck another pair of American targets. We’re updating that FRONTLINE report, because once again Americans want to know, who is this man, bin Laden?
NARRATOR: The bombers set off in the morning for downtown Nairobi. Their target, the United States embassy, was located at one of the busiest intersections in the city. Their truck was carrying 2,000 pounds of TNT. Two hundred and thirteen people died, five thousand were wounded.
Four minutes later, 600 miles away in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, another bomb. Another 11 people died, another 85 wounded. The question was why, and to what end?
U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell:
PRUDENCE BUSHNELL, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya: For two nights after the bombing, I was plagued with the question: What’s the point? Really, what is the point? And since then I have heard what the point is, because Mr. Bin Laden explained the point. The point, he says, is, "I hate Americans, and I’m going to kill you."
If that’s the point, it certainly is the wrong point, but it’s the point of one man, one renegade, somebody who certainly doesn’t have his feet in the kind of reality I deal with every day.
NARRATOR: Osama bin Laden, the man the U.S. government calls a renegade, is today the most wanted man on earth, with a $5 million bounty on his head. But who is this man? Is he just one lone renegade?
AHMED SATTAR: The American government don’t get it.
LOWELL BERGMAN: They don’t get it?
AHMED SATTAR: They don’t get it. No.
NARRATOR: Ahmed Sattar is a close associate of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Five years ago the sheik was arrested, tried and convicted for conspiring to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations headquarters and the Holland Tunnel.
AHMED SATTAR: You can kill Osama bin Laden today or tomorrow. You can arrest him and put him on trial in New York or in Washington or whatever. Is this will end the problem? No. Tomorrow he will get somebody else.
It’s not a secret, but the American government, you know, has one enemy, is the Islamic movement all over the world, whether it’s armed struggle or peaceful- or by peaceful means. I mean, you can see it. You can see it from Algeria to Afghanistan.
LOWELL BERGMAN: The United States is at war?
AHMED SATTAR: Yes, to a certain extent. Yes.
LOWELL BERGMAN: With Islam.
AHMED SATTAR: Yes.
NARRATOR: For the vast majority of Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace. But in mosques around the world, many clerics talk about Islam being under attack and about how they must unite and fight back. It is what Muslims call jihad, the obligation to defend Islam from any and all enemies.
Facing the house of Allah in Mecca, devout Muslims around the world submit to their god five times a day. Mecca is at the heart of Islam, in Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. It is also the homeland of Osama bin Laden.
The country is ruled by a monarchy that bin Laden says is a corrupt and repressive puppet of the United States. FRONTLINE wanted to come here to inquire about bin Laden, but reporters with cameras are not welcome, and anyone who speaks out here risks their freedom. So we went to London to talk to exiled Saudi dissidents.
London is home to half a million Muslims and sanctuary for Islamic dissidents from all over the world. A prominent Saudi physician, Saad al-Fagih, heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia. He says he opposes the use of violence, but he knows a lot about bin Laden and his views.
SAAD AL-FAGIH, Saudi Dissident: He’s a product of a new social structure, new social feelings in the Muslim world where you have strong hostility not only against America, but also against many Arab and Muslim regimes who are allying to America.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Who are the bin Ladens?
SAAD AL-FAGIH: The bin Laden family is very interesting. His father came from a family from Hetremout, South Yemen, who are famous to be successful merchants and businessmen by talent- probably by their genes as successful businessmen.
NARRATOR: So successful were the bin Ladens that they amassed a multi-billion dollar fortune in the construction business. It helped that the father had close ties to the king, who, says al-Fagih, issued a decree that all government contracts had to go to the bin Laden construction company.
Osama bin Laden is the 17th son of 52 children, presumed to be heir to a $300 million fortune. But Osama bin Laden wasn’t all that interested in money or the family business.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Some people have told us that in the 1970s he was lost. He didn’t really have a career or direction until he went to Afghanistan.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: Exactly. He was a student in the university, and then he was taken by the news of Afghanistan, and he moved there. Even the first three or four years in Afghanistan, nobody noticed that he was there.
NARRATOR: For Muslims, the war in Afghanistan against godless communist Soviet invaders was a religious duty, a holy war or jihad. Thousands of Muslims flocked to Afghanistan from all over the world. Saad al-Fagih came as a surgeon.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What was the attraction to go to Afghanistan?
SAAD AL-FAGIH: Well, it was a golden opportunity to live the life of jihad because you could not practice jihad in Saudi Arabia. You cannot practice jihad in the Gulf. You cannot practice jihad in Arab, any other country. So the only way to practice actual jihad in its full-scale sense is you carry a weapon and fight the enemy, the enemy of Islam.
NARRATOR: For Americans, the Afghan war was a chance to weaken the Kremlin. The U.S., along with its chief ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, pumped in $6 billion of not-so-covert guns and ammunition in order to defeat the Russians.
Milt Bearden was the CIA field officer charged with overseeing the agency’s operations.
LOWELL BERGMAN: How important was the Afghan war as an event for the Arabs and for the United States?
MILT BEARDEN, CIA, 1964-1994: It’s a very big deal. A small Islamic nation of 15 million people stood up to the Soviet Union with assistance from others and forced that entity called the Soviet Red Army to withdraw. It’s the first of a great moment in resurgent Islam.
NARRATOR: This is bin Laden in Afghanistan. At age 22 he came here and used his family name and influence to help raise money for the cause.
MILT BEARDEN: Bin Laden actually did some very good things. He put a lot of money in a lot of right places in Afghanistan. He never came on the screen of any Americans as either a terrific asset or someone who was anti-American.
NARRATOR: Bearden was familiar with the Arabs that came to Afghanistan. He says the idea that Osama bin Laden led a force of freedom fighters through bloody and heroic battles with the Soviets is pure myth, as is the idea that bin Laden was a creation of the CIA.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What you knew of Osama Bin Laden at the time was as a fund-raiser, not as a fighter?
MILT BEARDEN: Oh, not as a fighter. There were no Arabs who had what I would call major role in fighting the war. I think there was one battle, one battle in the spring of ’87 that bin Laden was engaged in, and that’s it.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: That’s not true. He was involved to the bone in fighting in Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: Al-Fagih and members of the Saudi opposition tell of a different bin Laden. They recount a leader among soldiers.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: And people who work with him or live with him like him a lot because he’s having the two characters for people to be liked- the charisma, the aura, on one side, and also the humbleness and being simple and being generous and soft on the other side. The people who lived with him very closely, they told me that you are taken by his personality, and you are forced to have strong affection towards him, and respect.
NARRATOR: When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, victory over the Red Army left bin Laden and his followers extremely confident.
AHMED SATTAR: Well, we can do things. We can achieve things.
NARRATOR: Ahmed Sattar says the war was an inspiration to Muslims everywhere.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You mean if you can defeat what Ronald Reagan called the "evil empire"-
AHMED SATTAR: Yes. If I can defeat the evil empire, I can defeat anybody else.
NARRATOR: Said Aburish is a Palestinian-born author living in London. He says the war in Afghanistan did much more than just boost confidence.
SAID K. ABURISH, Journalist/Author: What happened is the people who went to Afghanistan became radicalized. You know, they assumed a political role above and beyond the original purpose of facing the Russians. They wanted to go back home and have a say about how things were being done in their own countries. And that is really what happened to Osama bin Laden.
NARRATOR: Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and, the story goes, he had a dream.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: When he came back to Saudi Arabia in 1989, he had a prophecy that Saddam’s going to invade Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he made this public, not only through secret, confidential letters to the king, but he was talking about it in the mosques. And then his prophecy was correct.
NARRATOR: In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, the king turned to the United States for help. Bin Laden protested.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: He said, "You don’t need Americans. You don’t need any other non-Muslim troops. We will be enough. And I can convince even Afghanis to come and join us instead of Americans."
LOWELL BERGMAN: Well, you agree with that, right?
SAAD AL-FAGIH: Well, I’m not only- not only I. A very broad spectrum in Arabia agree with that, that we don’t want American forces. We don’t want a single American soldier to step foot in our country.
NARRATOR: The arrival of American troops was bad enough, but when the troops did not leave the holy lands of Islam after the Gulf war ended, Muslims all over the world took notice. Continued U.S. presence was a religious affront, not unlike the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
AHMED SATTAR: The people especially in the Arab and Islamic world look at you same way they looked at the British and the French occupation forces.
LOWELL BERGMAN: How can you say that? We sent our troops to defend you.
AHMED SATTAR: Well, you know, yes, we really appreciate it very much you send your troops to defend us. Nobody asked for the American troops to go there. You went there to protect your own interest. You went there to protect some corrupted regimes that are working against their own people. So do not give me that you were there to protect the people. Your policy in this area has nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with the people.
NARRATOR: Muslim fundamentalists say that America’s alliance with King Fahd is akin to America’s disastrous alliance with the Shah of Iran. When King Fahd, like the Shah, is forced from power, they say, Americans will be on the wrong side of history.
OPPOSITION DEMONSTRATOR: We are here to ensure that the decadent, corrupt, vile, violent, syphilitic family in the house al Saud be taken out forever!
NARRATOR: In London we spoke to another prominent leader of the Saudi opposition, Mohammed Masari. Masari, who has had close ties to some of bin Laden’s top people, agrees the Saudi leadership lacks credibility.
MOHAMMED AL-MASARI, Saudi Dissident: There’s no planning for the future which will guarantee a reasonable survival after the end of the oil age. The oil age is coming to an end sooner or later. In 40, 50 years, there will enough energy resources that oil will become less significant than it is today. Nothing is prepared because we have a ruling group, a ruling class or clique, call it whatever you want, which does not have any vision of the reality of the future. It’s absolutely incapable and inept leadership.
NARRATOR: Already, critics of the Saudi government point out the king has managed to turn the world’s largest oil producer into a debtor nation.
SAID ABURISH: They have not used their income wisely, and they have squandered all of their reserves. And as a result, at this moment in time, the country is not only broke, they are heavily in debt. There have been very many attempts to overthrow that government and to rebel.
SAUDI OPPOSITION LEADER: [subtitles] The state is plunging into a grave crisis. Some reports talk about $160 billion in debt, but even if it’s one tenth of that there’ll be consequences.
NARRATOR: This tape of Saudi opposition leader speaking to a crowd of supporters was smuggled out of Saudi Arabia by Saudi activists. In the early ’90s, bin Laden was known to have made similar protests.
SAID ABURISH: Osama bin Laden is the product of these movements. And Osama bin Laden is much more interesting than most of them because Osama bin Laden belongs to a family which is part of the establishment, the ruling establishment of Saudi Arabia. And therefore it is an indication of how bad things have got, when a member of the establishment becomes a radical Islamist against the regime. Osama bin Laden’s first demand is that the American troops in Saudi Arabia should leave the holy soil of Islam.
NARRATOR: For his open opposition to the government, bin Laden had his passport taken away. But dissent inside the royal family over the direction of the kingdom was creating a base of influential support for Saudi dissidents. Bin Laden was able to arrange an escape.
In Washington practically no one had heard of Osama bin Laden. The CIA knew only that he was a vocal opponent of the Saudi regime and of U.S. troop presence, troops U.S. officials felt were a necessary defense against possible future attacks from Iraq.
FRANK ANDERSON, CIA, 1968-1995: American forces are in Saudi Arabia helping to protect Saudi interests, as well as American interests.
NARRATOR: Frank Anderson was with the CIA from 1968 to 1995 and was considered one of the agency’s leading authorities on the Arab Middle East.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What they’re saying is "It’s despoiling our holy hand to have American troops, infidel troops, in the land of Mohammed." This becomes a religious violation.
FRANK ANDERSON: And as a Christian, it’s difficult for me to get into a Muslim theological argument, but it’s bad Islam. I reject bin Laden’s criticism, as do most Muslims I know reject his criticisms.
NARRATOR: In 1991 Osama bin Laden came here, where the White and Blue Niles meet, to the ancient city of Khartoum in the Sudan. Across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, the Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world. But in 1989, radical Muslims backed by the Sudanese army formed a government dedicated to transforming the country into an Islamic utopia.
In the early ’90s, the Sudan was attracting Muslims from all over, including many of the newly radicalized veterans of the Afghan war. President Bashir remembers bin Laden.
GEN. OMAR HASSAN AHMED AL-BASHIR, President, Sudan: [through interpreter] Yes, I met him in Khartoum after he came here.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What kind of person is he?
Pres. OMAR HASSAN AHMED AL-BASHIR: [through interpreter] He’s a very normal person who is very religious. He believes in Islam and, where possible, the establishment of an Islamic state. The time that he spent in Afghanistan led him to believe that this might be achieved through military means.
NARRATOR: In the Sudan, bin Laden set up a host of businesses, among them a tannery, two large farms and a major road construction company, and he reportedly paid for 480 Afghan vets to come work with him. The Sudan liked this wealthy Saudi who was enthusiastic about investing in their fledgling Islamic state. When bin Laden finished a major road construction project, President al-Bashir treated him like a national hero.
But the FBI and the CIA were wary. They had pegged the Sudan as a haven for Islamic terrorists, and the CIA was picking up some evidence, although inconclusive, that bin Laden was now sending money to Islamic militants around the world.
LARRY C. JOHNSON, U.S. State Dept. 1989-1993: The intelligence that was being created pointed increasingly to him as someone that had to be dealt with.
NARRATOR: Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer, was deputy director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism from 1989 to 1993.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So we shouldn’t take as credible their claim that when they had Osama in Khartoum, he was basically building roads and-
LARRY C. JOHNSON: No, absolutely not. I think that’s- you know, that’s ridiculous because the fact of the matter is that if he was absolutely up to charitable works and constructive public projects, he wouldn’t have been an issue.
NARRATOR: Then came a seismic event, the World Trade Center bombing. This was the first act of Islamic terrorism on U.S. soil. The FBI investigation of the bombing conspiracy led in many directions. One led to Egyptian veterans of the Afghan war, including Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Another eventually led to this man, Ramsi Yousef, who investigators believed at the time had a financial link to Osama bin Laden.
LARRY C. JOHNSON: And when Ramsi Yousef was captured in Pakistan in 1995, in the end of January, first of February, then more information started to come out about Osama.
NARRATOR: The information was tenuous and incomplete, but it was enough to lead investigators to wonder if bin Laden might be an answer to their questions.
LARRY C. JOHNSON: And it turned out that- because there had been confusion before. Why was the World Trade Center taking place? Who was doing it? There were lots of theories, not very good intelligence. And so the intelligence community actually started generating the picture that Osama bin Laden was this, if you will, sort of the new face of terrorism. And there’s that "A-ha" moment, that "Oh, we do have a problem. We’ve actually got someone who doesn’t like us and is wanting to kill us."
NARRATOR: Over the next year, it would appear that bin Laden was, at the very least, inspiring acts of terrorism. First, in August, 1995, bin Laden wrote an open letter to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia calling for a campaign of guerrilla attacks in order to drive U.S. forces out of the kingdom.
Three months later, a bomb exploded at a U.S. military installation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing five American servicemen. There was no hard evidence that bin Laden was involved. The four men arrested for the act confessed on Saudi T.V. that they had read communiqu