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Sunday, 16 September, 2001, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Bin Laden divides Arab opinion
Osama bin Laden poster
Osama bin Laden: Officially a non-person at home
By BBC Cairo correspondent Frank Gardner

While Osama Bin Laden still enjoys surprising popularity among many ordinary Arabs, mention his name in a Saudi shopping mall and heads will turn nervously.

The Saudi-born Islamist dissident may top the list of world terror suspects, but in his home country he is officially a non-person.

The Saudi Government stripped him of his Saudi nationality seven years ago after he openly criticised the ruling family for letting US troops be based there.

As a pariah and an exile, he is not someone to be spoken about in public. But privately, Saudis have lots to say about him, particularly now.

Understanding

In the wake of last Tuesday's attacks, many Saudis say they believe he was behind them and that they understand why he carried them out.

For years, Bin Laden has been an outspoken critic of America and the West - views that have some support amongst more religious-minded Saudis and other Arabs.

A London-based Saudi dissident explained why. Dr Saad al-Faqih told the BBC that what he called a pan-Islamic hatred of America stemmed from four causes.

He listed them as

  • Washington's unconditional support for Israel

  • its sanctions policy on Iraq

  • its stationing of thousands of troops on holy soil in Saudi Arabia

  • its alliance with "oppressive regimes" in the region

Publicly, even Islamist organisations like Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood are distancing themselves from Tuesday's terror attacks.

On Saturday the group said it supported Bin Laden's extradition to the US if he was proved to be involved.

Denial

But much of the Arab world is in denial.

It does not want to believe that Arabs or Muslims were behind the carnage in America.

In a television interview over the weekend, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak recalled the bombing in Oklahoma City six years ago, which was initially blamed on Islamic extremists.

It later proved to be the work of a home-grown American fanatic, Timothy McVeigh - and that's exactly what many people here are still hoping will be the case this time.

On Sunday, the editorial in the pro-government Egyptian Gazette said the fact that US policies were unpopular in the Middle East was insufficient reason to launch last week's attacks.

It said almost no part of the world was free from anti-US sentiment.

Chief suspect

But President Bush has already named Bin Laden as the chief suspect.

His shadowy organisation, Al-Qa'ida, is known to have large numbers of anti-Western followers from around the Middle East.

Arab governments are now embarking on a public relations exercise to distance themselves from terrorism.

But at the same time, they are calling for US restraint and for the world to refrain from seeing all Muslims and Arabs as potential terrorists.

Links to more Middle East stories are at the foot of the page.


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