8 February 1999

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The New York Times

February 8, 1999

In Islamic World, Bin Laden's Esteem Rises


Six months after the deadly bombings of two American embassies in Africa, the counterattack against the man suspected of being the mastermind, Osama bin Laden, has failed to weaken his ability to strike again but succeeded in making him a hero in the Islamic world, senior U.S. and foreign officials say.

Bin Laden's most potent political weapon, his violent oratory condemning the American presence in the Persian Gulf, is winning sympathy and support from North Africa to South Asia, U.S. officials say. That poses a growing threat to American personnel and policies abroad.

"This is a political movement," said a top American counterterrorism official. "We have to have a political and diplomatic strategy to attack him without aggrandizing him." But Washington lacks one, the official said.

The United States has aimed cruise missiles, covert operations and criminal investigations against bin Laden. It has arrested men believed to be his political associates. It has thwarted two of his plans to attack more American embassies, U.S. officials say.

But American stratagems to block his access to bank accounts, cut his connections to terrorist cells and sever his links to political supporters have not succeeded. Secure in his redoubts in Afghanistan, bin Laden could strike "at any time" against symbols of American power, CIA Director George Tenet told Congress last week.

"I don't think he's isolated, incommunicado or out of money," another senior counterterrorism official said. "And I don't think anything we've done has changed the minds of his true believers."

The sense that bin Laden has strong political support even among American allies abroad is shared within the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council.

Many officials there say their boldest counterattack on bin Laden -- firing cruise missiles at his guerrilla bases in Afghanistan and what they suspected was a chemical weapons factory in Sudan -- may have backfired.

The missiles inflicted little lasting damage but helped to make bin Laden "a revered figure" in the Islamic world, a third senior counterterrorism official said.

Bin Laden receives money and political support from princes of the Saudi royal family, whose king he has vowed to depose, and from powerful people and financial institutions in Kuwait and Qatar, where there is a strong American military presence, U.S. officials say.

Administration officials say they are continuing to press foreign governments to arrest suspected supporters and associates of his. Secret arrests and unpublicized detentions of several suspects took place three weeks ago, officials said.

But the arrests do not always stick. Seven people detained in England and Albania at the behest of the United States have been quietly released for lack of evidence in recent weeks, officials said.

Senior American officials have argued fiercely about strategies against bin Laden. "Wanted" posters went out last month, with blood-red type reading: "This is not politics. This is MURDER."

But now a different picture is gaining force in the Islamic world.

A poster of bin Laden hangs in Pakistan's oldest and largest religious school, on the old silk route to Afghanistan. He is smiling, holding an automatic rifle. The poster calls him a holy warrior.

"Osama is a hero," Sami ul-Haq, a leading Islamic politician, who runs the religious school, said in an interview. "Every young man here wants to be like him." He said he was sending hundreds of his graduates to support bin Laden's allies in Afghanistan.

This glorified image is spreading in Pakistan, the country the United States is relying on the most to help bring bin Laden to justice. "When bin Laden speaks, he is reflecting the aspirations of the people," said Naseerullah Babar, a retired general who recently served as Pakistan's interior minister.

In Pakistan, "the principal reasons for bin Laden's having popular appeal are growing," said Robert Oakley, a former American ambassador in Pakistan and a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator.

"People feel they have no voice," he said. "They look at a people with great wealth while they live in deep poverty. They resent the personal corruption of the Saudis" and the power of the United States.

American counterterrorism officials ruefully agree that bin Laden's oratory also rings true in Saudi Arabia.

His attacks on the Saudi royal family's repression and corruption are factually similar to State Department human rights reports and CIA economic analyses. But they differ sharply in blaming the United States for shoring up the House of Saud by stationing troops in the Arabian Peninsula.

Bin Laden's popular support swelled after the cruise missile attacks, American officials and allies in the region agree.

"What was served by the cruise missile attacks?" said Mohammad Siddique Kanju, the deputy foreign minister of Pakistan. "You've inflated one individual to an enormous extent. Why would you want to create more like him? Such acts only help him proliferate."

Attacking bin Laden with missiles gave him the status of a state -- a nation unto himself, as an intelligence official said -- in a war with America.

"And if we make it into a war, we lose," said Oakley, the former ambassador. "We'll swell their numbers enormously." That further increases the political threat that bin Laden presents, American officials concede.

Some officials say the United States does not yet know its enemy well enough to defeat him. The picture of bin Laden presented by the United States has been blurred by conflicting public statements at the highest levels of the government.

On Aug. 20, when the United States destroyed a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan with cruise missiles, President Clinton's most senior national security aides said it was a secret chemical weapons factory financed by bin Laden. Those same officials later conceded that they had no definitive evidence of that.

The same day, Clinton gave a speech tying bin Laden to plots to kill the pope and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. But those plots were carried out by people to whom bin Laden may have peripheral connections, if any, according to available evidence.

"He has been blown beyond all proportion," said Ghazi Salah el-Din, the information minister of Sudan, where bin Laden lived from 1992 to 1996. "I know the guy, having met him. And he's not that mighty. He's being pumped up. I can understand that in the context of trying to personify terrorism. But the United States has created a hero out of him."

American law enforcement, intelligence and national security officials are divided on some fundamental issues. For example, they disagree whether, as a federal indictment charges, bin Laden and his adherents helped train and arm the men who killed 18 American soldiers in Somalia in 1993.

Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said, "We are confident in the allegation." But senior officials, including some who served in Somalia, say they doubt the charge, which Clinton made hours after the cruise missile attacks.

Oakley, the U.S. envoy to Somalia at the time of the attack, is among the skeptics. "Nobody I've talked to, most of whom were in a good position to know, knows anything about that," he said. "We never heard anything about bin Laden."

Jonathan Howe, the retired Navy admiral who was the top U.N. official in Somalia in 1993 and is a former deputy national security adviser, shares those doubts.

"When a president makes a statement like that, there's got to be something to it," he said. "But I have no idea what it was."