The Ominous New Warnings

After masterminding two deadly attacks on US embassies in Africa, the FBI (America's top crime-fighting agency) recently added him to the top of their "Ten Most-Wanted" list and placed a $5 million reward on his head.

But in the Muslim world, Osama bin Mohammed bin Laden is widely considered a hero. His popularity amongst Islamic fundamentalists is evidenced by the growing number of parents across the Middle East naming their baby boys "Osama." And now, bin Laden's legendary status is sure to soar with the revelation he may have acquired nuclear weapons.

It is a nightmare scenario depicted in movies for years - a wealthy, reclusive villain subjecting the world to nuclear blackmail. But when Yosef Bodansky, an expert on terrorism, introduced his new book on bin Laden recently, he disclosed that the rich, secluded mastermind of anti-Western terrorism has purchased anywhere from a "handful" to twenty nuclear devices. These are thought to include lower-yield tactical nukes known as "suitcase bombs," as well as several chemical and biological weapons.

Bodansky serves on the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare in the US Congress and, like many others in Western intelligence, has followed the movements of bin Laden with increased urgency. In a new book titled "The Man who Declared War on America," Bodansky describes bin Laden as a dangerous, committed and very influential Muslim radical who has used his huge fortune to establish a vast intelligence and military procurement system that now spans - and threatens -- the globe.

Osama bin Laden was born in Riyadh around 1957, the son of a wealthy contractor of Yemenite descent. He left a life of affluence in his native Saudi soil in 1978 to join the fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, even engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Comrades described him as fearless.

Some of his earliest connections in the world of Islamic terrorism were with Palestinian elements of the mujahadeen (Muslim holy warriors). In the mid-1980's, bin Laden joined forces with Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdullah Azzam to channel money and men to the Afghan resistance. His international recruitment efforts enabled thousands of Islamic mercenaries to enter paramilitary training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including 5000 Saudis, 3000 Algerians and a large number of Egyptians. He also won popular support in Muslim countries by building hospitals and investing in domestic resistance movements, especially in Egypt.

Returning to Saudi Arabia with a vision to liberate Muslims worldwide, bin Laden continued to support opposition movements in the Hijaz - an activity for which he eventually was stripped of his Saudi citizenship.

In recent years, bin Laden has developed one of the most impenetrable terrorist networks ever known. He is suspected of involvement in the 1995 attempt on the life of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while attending an African conference in Addis Ababa. (Mubarak fingered Sudan as well, while other informed sources questioned why PLO chairman Yasser Arafat cancelled -- just hours beforehand -- a scheduled meeting with Mubarak the same day, in the same vicinity.)

Intelligence sources also charge bin Laden's network with the 1995 bombings of US and Saudi military facilities in Riyadh and Dhahran which claimed more than 25 lives, and with plotting attacks on US servicemen in Yemen, on their way to serve with "Operation Restore Hope" in Somalia. Bin Laden has been connected as well with the murder of dozens of tourists in Egypt, and over 20 Egyptians in a bombing at that country's embassy in Karachi in 1995. He also is linked to a number of bomb threats against US and other airlines.

But it was the simultaneous explosions last year at US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, which claimed over 220 lives, that catapulted him to the fore. US officials blamed bin Laden and targeted his hideout, a cave in the mountains of Afghanistan, with cruise missiles. Bin Laden escaped harm and has been evading detection ever since. In recent months, official alerts have warned he is planning fresh attacks on other targets worldwide, and the US and Britain closed seven and three African embassies respectively as a result.

What is behind this jihad on America and the West? Besides the creeping influence of Western culture in the Muslim world, the answer may lie in the Islamic tradition holding that, on his deathbed, the Prophet Mohammed uttered the words: "Let there not be two religions in Arabia." Thus, not just Mecca and Medina, but the entire Arabian peninsula is holy to Muslims, with other faiths forbidden.

In modern times, economic ties have again brought foreigners to Arabia. But the presence of American troops on Saudi soil to defend against the Iraqi threat has caused many Muslims to see them as infidel invaders. Bin Laden has made their expulsion his most immediate cause.

Bodansky's warnings of bid Laden's nukes must be taken seriously. Bodansky has co-authored an expansive work entitled "Terrorism in America." Among other intelligence coups, his Task Force was behind the 1994 disclosure that Iran possessed as many as four nuclear warheads, purchased from Kazakhstan before its arsenal was returned to the Russian Republic. He also is credited with tipping US authorities on the activities and movements of a key Hamas operative living in Virginia, information that led to his arrest. (He later was deported to Jordan.)

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Pakistan has been selling both bin Laden and the Saudi government various nuclear devices. Bodansky says: "We have no indication that they are going to use it tomorrow but they have the capability, the legitimate authorization and the logic for using it. One does not go into this tremendous amount of expenditures, effort to have something just kept somewhere in storage for a rainy day."

Nor would bin Laden's arrest, promised by the Taliban government, or capture make the world a safer place. Bodansky warns there is a long line of people across several continents eager to fill his shoes. He believes the Clinton administration has oversimplified the problem of Middle East terrorism by seeking to personify the phenomenon first with Saddam Hussein, and now with bin Laden. Bodansky also dismisses the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring states, noting that Pakistan a key player in the bin Laden saga is not even named.

"The bin Ladens of this world wouldn't have been able to carry out a single spectacular operation without the sponsoring states," says Bodansky. "They support him because it serves their interests, not because they think he's the greatest guy on earth."

Among other factors, Bodansky attributes bin Laden's grassroots popularity to his ability to present to ordinary people a lucid, appealing message, "well-grounded in Koranic and other writings," that speaks to them in their situation. "He provides a clear answer to the frustrations of the individual," he said, offering struggle and possibly martyrdom as a "tempting escape" from life's woes. Bin Laden preaches: "In our religion there is a special place in the hereafter for those who participate in jihad."

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