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Monday, 17 September, 2001, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Bin Laden connection: The BBC's John Simpson
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US President George W Bush has vowed to hunt down and punish those responsible for Tuesday's atrocities against his country.

Many believe the attacks have been masterminded by the US's most wanted terrorism suspect: Saudi dissident Osama Bin Laden.

Osama Bin Laden lives in Afghanistan. The country's rulers, the Taleban, say they will consider extraditing him if there was any evidence against him.

The announcement has been received with scepticism, as the Taleban has consistently maintained that allowing Mr Bin Laden to remain in the country was a matter of honour.

Who could masterminded this attack? What did they hope to achieve?

The BBC's World Affairs editor, John Simpson, has recently returned from Afghanistan. He joined us for a live forum from Pakistan.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Carl Downing, Cardiff, UK asks: Having met Bin Laden yourself and had him threaten your life, do you think by taking him out the problem would resolve itself given that there appears not to be anyone as well connected to take his place.


John Simpson:

I don't think it's enough just to take one person out - I don't think this is just all about one person. He is obviously the leader - having seen him, I can vouch for the fact that he is an impressive character. But it isn't enough just to do that. If the Americans want to stop what Osama Bin Laden represents they are going to have to take out that entire kind of tendency there - they are going to have to destroy that and it won't be very easy at all. But that's what they will have to do. I simply think that if one person goes, somebody else will take his place. They have just got to make it impossible for that kind of terrorism to exist if indeed that is a possibility.


Newshost:

Amina Khan in Islamabad asks: If it is proved that Osama Bin Laden is behind this evil and barbaric act then what will be the consequences for countries like Pakistan, if the USA decides to take retaliatory military action?


John Simpson:

We remember what happened last time the US took action against Afghanistan, flying its missiles over Pakistani territory. There was a great explosion of anger and a lot of Western property and Western people threatened. I don't think that would actually do Pakistan a great deal of good under the present circumstances. Nevertheless, I assume that there will be that kind of anger in a lot of places, not just in Pakistan but right across parts of the Middle East, places that will see Osama Bin Laden as some kind of representative of their own feelings. So we must brace ourselves for quite a difficult time ahead - in Pakistan perhaps more than anywhere else.


Newshost:

Simon Anthony, Munich, Germany asks: In 1998, Bin Laden said in an interview with ABC News "Our religion forbids us from killing innocent people such as women and children". Bin Laden says he is motivated by his religious beliefs. If Bin Laden was connected to the American attack, how can he then justify going against his own belief by killing innocent women and possibly children?


John Simpson:

When he was answering in that way he was giving, as it were, the kind of official line whereby you just simply take on, as it were, the soldiers of the other side and they are pretty acceptable targets - as for women and children, that's completely unacceptable. Well, of course, you can't possibly carry out an indiscriminate policy of bombing in cities and bombing civilians and not kill innocent women and children. I think the line got looped up somewhere there and there's no way around the logic of that.


Newshost:

Kyrie in the United States asks: What are the chances that this could spark a Holy War between anti-Western Islamic fundamentalist states and the Western world and could this eventually have a knock-on effect on Pakistan and India and also possibly China, Russia and the Middle East?


John Simpson:

I don't think it really is like that. What we are actually seeing is something else rather different. I think we are seeing the United States going around the countries of the world and saying to them - whose side are you on in this - and we have seen in the last day or so some remarkable realignments. We've seen Libya and Iran both saying - no, we are on your side in this particular battle, we don't believe in the policies of terrorism.

On the other hand, I think in a sense there is a kind of religious war on a very low level being fought out as we watch. We are seeing it in Israel, we are seeing the knock-on effects here - we might see it in Pakistan if the Americans attack Afghanistan. It is not a war in the sense that I think you mean, involving entire nations, but nevertheless I think there is a low level guerrilla war which is being conducted and I don't know that that's going to be very easy to stop at all.


Newshost:

Patricia Smith, Montreal, Canada asks: The last time the US tried to take out Bin Laden they used cruise missiles, so this time they will have to use considerably more force to be sure of success. Can they achieve this without hitting civilians in Afghanistan?


John Simpson:

I suppose the answer to that is no, I don't think they will be able to do that. But I am not sure that that's really what they will do. I think it's going to be very difficult to take control of Afghanistan without putting in ground troops and whether the Americans or anybody else has the appetite to do that, I really am not certain at all. But what is a possibility of course is to try to take on the Taleban - the government of Afghanistan - the people who are the hosts of Osama Bin Laden and perhaps destroy their power. Having done that, it will make it very difficult for Osama Bin Laden to carry on his free existence in Afghanistan and frankly there's nowhere else he can do it. So I think that maybe what the Americans are starting to think about. The consequences could be pretty serious for civilians.


Newshost:

Philip Jeffs, Norwich, England Do you think any retaliation by America in the form of a military strike against the Taleban will be tolerated by the other Muslim countries, or will they see it as an act of aggression against their combined religion and be forced to react?


John Simpson:

I think it depends partly how it is done. Everybody understands that a crime as terrible as the bombings in New York and Washington are so terrible that it isn't simply enough for any country on earth to just sit back and say - well, that's that, we are not going to take any retaliatory action. It's the quality and the extent of the retaliation that will, I think, decide whether people in a wider area in the Islamic countries but beyond the Islamic countries too, feel that it is acceptable. They will have to decide for themselves whether they feel it is proportionate - it is the proportionality of the response which I think is the key to this. If the Americans go in very, very heavily and kill large numbers of civilians then I am sure a lot of people will say - well what's the difference, they killed civilians, you killed civilians. I think the Americans will have to be very, very careful indeed about that.


Newshost:

Martyn Day, London How many people are in Bin Laden's organisation? They seem to be operating throughout the globe. Does Bin Laden deserve this Fu Manchu-like reputation?


John Simpson:

He is a very inspiring leader which is why he has got the reputation that he has. The best figures that I have come across are that he has got about 2,000 people, or perhaps a little more, under training in Afghanistan. Most of them are Arabs - many of them from countries like Algeria and Egypt and some of them simply go on to fight in Afghanistan's war or in the fighting in Kashmir and so on. But the really bright ones get brought into these kinds of activities of his in other countries. It is certainly true that he has sympathetic groups in most major countries - he has them in Britain, he has sympathisers in the United States and in very many other countries as well. He has got quite a large number of sympathisers to call on and a pretty intensive and, as I understand it, quite impressive operation in Afghanistan itself.


Newshost:

Martyn Day goes on to ask: The Taleban did not immediately dismiss the possibility of extraditing Osama Bin Laden, as they had many times before. Do you think the Taleban have responded like this because they are scared of what America will do in retaliation? Are they playing for time?


John Simpson:

I think they are getting nervous about that. When I was there the other day - it is impossible to be certain about this - but I did feel that there was an atmosphere in which they felt that to have Osama Bin Laden might be a price that was going to be too heavy for them to want to pay. Whether that offer of theirs to hand him over if the Americans could produce the right kind of evidence, whether that constitutes any kind of concession, I frankly rather doubt because they said the same thing three years ago after the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. I don't think they meant it then but I think they meant to seem as though they were leaning a little bit towards the international or the American position and away from Osama Bin Laden to some extent.

But there are many voices in the Taleban, it is not just one clear organisation that speaks with one voice - many different voices, many different approaches.

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