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Prime suspect
Osama Bin Laden
Prime Suspect

For three years, Panorama has been investigating Osama Bin Laden. He's on the FBI's most wanted list with a $5m price on his head. Jane Corbin reports on the Saudi-born dissident turned terror mastermind.

Eight years ago, the World Trade Center became a focus for Osama Bin Laden's hatred against America. His henchmen bombed it in 1993 but failed to bring it down. Now it seems he has succeeded.

A shocked US administration has confirmed that he is the prime suspect behind the wave of hijackings and the destruction of the heart of New York and the Pentagon.

The big question is why? Why does a man who is personally mild, polite, as well as being hospitable to strangers in the tradition of the Muslim world, hate America so much?

The answer lies in his own history and that of his country.

US soldiers in the Gulf
Bin Laden did not welcome the presence of US forces during the Gulf War
Mr Bin Laden was born the seventeenth son of a wealthy Saudi family. But he rejected his heritage to become a Mujahideen freedom fighter in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

In 1991, Mr Bin Laden was enraged by what he saw as the occupation of his country by American forces during the Gulf War.

He accused them of propping up the corrupt rulers of the desert kingdom and bringing infidel ways to Saudi Arabia, where some of the most sacred sites in the Muslim world are situated.

This, with Arab anger at America's support for Israel against the Palestinian people and the suffering of the Iraqi people under United Nations sanctions, was the holy cause he built his movement on.

Mr Bin Laden began to establish a revolutionary organisation called Al Qaeeda or "the base". He established camps in Afghanistan, training volunteers from many countries to use explosives and weapons - and to establish secret cell like structures, almost impossible for spy agencies to penetrate.

Today, Mr Bin Laden lives in the mountain stronghold of Afghanistan. He is constantly moving - his own people never know where he will spend the night.

Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden's video shows him at target practice
He is said not to use a telephone or have any electrical equipment near him, for fear of a hidden bomb or electronic signals giving away his whereabouts.

He has told his followers he is living on borrowed time and there have been at least five attempts on his life. The Americans plotted to send in a commando squad to snatch him, but aborted the plan at the last minute for fear of suffering too many casualties.

They regretted that decision when in 1998, a massive truck bomb destroyed the US embassy in Nairobi, killing more than 212 people. It was followed within minutes by the destruction of the US embassy in neighbouring Tanzania.

It sent a chilling message. Mr Bin Laden could organise massive simultaneous attacks using his underground network.

Panorama travelled to East Africa, from the slums of Nairobi to a sleepy village on the beach of Mombassa, to piece together how the cell-based terror network works.

One of the main conspirators was a Jordanian man who spent years blending into the community as a fisherman before receiving the call to activate the bomb. In a seedy hotel room in Nairobi, he met others who had flown in to build the bomb and plan its detonation.

In the wake of the Nairobi bombing, the Americans pounded Mr Bin Laden's Afghan training camps with cruise missiles, but this may only have made him more of a hero in the Islamic world.

He never claimed responsibility for the bombing, he never does. But young men flocked to him inspired by what they called his "devotion", even though many millions of Muslims reject his violent ways.

'Double standard'

Mr Bin Laden has made his own videos and they have been widely spread amongst the Muslim community, including in Britain. They show him brandishing a Kalashnikov at target practice and contain footage of the suicide bombing of the warship USS Cole in Aden, which killed 17 sailors last October.

The bombing is intercut with images of the suffering of the Palestinian people, coffins in rows and bloodied corpses. It emphasises Mr Bin Laden's belief that the West has a double standard when it comes to the death of Arabs.

Now the world holds it breath as America decides what to do. But stopping the movement that Mr Bin Laden has created will be extremely difficult, even if he himself is killed.

Some believe that even in death he may still inspire others to take up arms under his rallying call of "Death to America".

Panorama Special


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