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How does bin Laden operate?

Through extensive discussions with intelligence and security officials, NBC producer Robert Windrem has compiled a picture of what the U.S. knows about this shadowy, and dangerous man.
/ Source: NBC News producer

Over the last few years the spectacles of terrorist bombings have put Osama bin Laden’s name on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. But this mysterious terrorist leader is not easy to track and his actions are difficult to anticipate. NBC producer Robert Windrem has extensively interviewed U.S. security and intelligence officials, and compiled a picture of what the U.S. knows about this shadowy man. Windrem answers frequently asked questions about bin Laden, his organization and methods.


Most recently, bin Laden has been seen near Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. He moves three or more times a week, living in mud huts, tent cities, and caves. He is accompanied by an entourage, which includes heavily armed bodyguards as well as anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks. Often, multiple sites are set up for his use and he chooses a site at the last minute. He is believed to have about 400 operatives in Afghanistan, most of whom arrived with him from Sudan in 1996.

How does U.S. intelligence know where he is?

In recent months, U.S. intelligence has improved its grasp on how bin Laden operates and where.

“We are getting better at finding him. There are days and days where we don’t know where he is,” said one American official. On other days, the U.S. has “different degrees of specificity as to where he is.” At the time of the double U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, the U.S. had no idea where he was.

How does bin Laden communicate?

Bin Laden’s biggest problem remains communications. Bin Laden previously used Inmarsat phones until the U.S. began intercepting his signals off the Inmarsat-3 satellite over the Indian Ocean. U.S. officials intercepted a congratulatory phone call in the days after the embassy bombings. A U.S. official says bin Laden has since stopped using satellite phones.

Bin Laden makes extensive use of couriers, who sometimes carry encrypted floppy disks and meet in third countries with couriers from target nations. He has also used faxes from remote locations and in some cases, e-mail. Al-Qaeda has used various code words and aliases to disguise identities. Bin Laden has been described in al-Qaeda communications as “the Sheik,” “Hajj,” “Abu Abdullah,” and “the Director.”

Can he travel outside Afghanistan?

Bin Laden is believed to have access to several planes at his disposal, the ownership of which is unclear. He traveled around the Muslim world in charter jets for years prior to his exile in Afghanistan. He also owns a private jet, according to intelligence officials.

How is bin Laden’s network, al-Qaeda, structured?

Bin Laden is the undisputed leader, called “emir” or “prince” by his followers who must take a sworn oath to him, violation of which is punishable by death.

Beneath him is the “shura al-majlis” or “consultative council,” which includes his top lieutenants. His two aides are Egyptians: Ayman al-Zawahiri, a physician and leader of al-Jihad, the violent Egyptian group responsible for the Luxor tourist massacre in 1995, and Muhammed Atef, his military commander who also served in al-Jihad. A “fatwah” committee of the council makes the decisions to carry out terrorist attacks.

Where does al-Qaeda operate?

Al-Qaeda is believed to have operations in 60 countries, active cells in 20, including the United States, Kosovo, the Philippines and Chechnya. It is believed to operate training centers in both Afghanistan and Sudan, the first beginning operations in 1994 with representatives from Egyptian, Algerian, Tunisian and Palestinian extremist groups.

What is the relationship between bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and Algerian terrorists?

Bin Laden is believed to have both trained and financed Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, which is thought to be responsible for a minimum of 100,000 deaths this decade. His first contact with Algerian Islamists probably came in Afghanistan when bin Laden financed the recruiting and organization of the so-called “Afghan Arabs,” who fought side-by-side with U.S.-financed Afghan fighters against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Among the first “students” at his Sudanese terrorist training camps beginning in January 1994 were Algerians from the GIA. In December 1995, British authorities were able to track wire transfers from bin Laden’s then- headquarters in Khartoum, the Sudan, to a London cell of the GIA.

U.S. officials also believe the 1995 Paris subway bombings had the support of bin Laden.

How does the Al-Qaeda network operate?

Bin Laden is closely involved in the plans. The operations are meticulous, with some plans in the works for years. For instance:

The World Trade Center bombers cased the twin towers multiple times, analyzing security and determining positions from which an explosion could do the most damage.

The East Africa embassy bombers phoned in threats to the embassy, and then observed the embassy response prior to the actual attacks.

The 1995 attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia was based on surveillance of Mubarak’s security arrangements in Ethiopia two years earlier. Similarly, bin Laden operatives videotaped security arrangements at President Clinton’s 1994 visit to Manila, knowing he had already committed to visiting the Philippine capital for an Asian-Pacific summit two years later.

How long is an operation in the planning stages and how are operational responsibilities divided?

The minimum planning time appears to be four to six months, with some plans evolving over years. The surveillance of the East Africa embassy bombings began in 1993, five years before the bombing was carried out.

Each operation has a planning cell and an execution cell, with the execution cell arriving on the scene in some cases only weeks before the attack is carried out.

In most cases, an outsider recruits locals, usually no more than 10, to operate as a cell. Bombers, planners and operators are generally under the age of 30.

Plans are made in one location, and the bomb is made in another. This was the case for both the World Trade Center bombing and the embassy bombing in Nairobi.

How much do these operations cost and how much of the money comes from bin Laden’s own riches?

The total cost of the World Trade Center bombing was about $18,000, including purchase of equipment, rental of the van used in the bombing, purchase of a car, rental of two apartments, a garage and the storage space as well as plane tickets. Not included in the cost: $6,000 in unpaid phone bills. Bin Laden’s wealth is thought to be in the tens of millions, somewhat less that previously thought, but certainly more than adequate. “Terrorism is not an expensive sport,” said a senior Treasury Department official who tracks terrorists’ money.

Does bin Laden focus on one target at a time or simultaneously plan various attacks?

U.S. officials note that the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were to be accompanied by other, near simultaneous bombings in other world capitals. One in Tirana, Albania, was foiled days before it took place. A series of coordinated attacks is well within his operational capabilities. ”(Bin Laden) is planning several hits and at some point he’s going to break through,” said one U.S. official.

How important is operational security to al-Qaeda?

Officials say bin Laden’s operations are rigid, and subject to cancellation if there is a suspected breech of security. If operatives encounter something unexpected, they will “go back to square one,” said an official who tracks the movement. “There is little autonomy, little spontaneity in operational matters and changes in plans must be approved at higher levels.” In most cases, bin Laden’s people will trade time for security, and it may take up to six months to re-start the operation.

Has the U.S. had any success against his operations?

Without providing details, George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has publicly testified that the CIA has disrupted “several” terrorist attacks against Americans. U.S. officials confirm those disruptions have involved planned attacks by bin Laden.

More than 100 of his operatives have been arrested worldwide since the embassy bombings in August 1998 on every continent but Australia and Antarctica. Five men accused of conspiring in the embassy bombings are in U.S. custody, awaiting trial in Manhattan. Another is awaiting extradition in London. The U.S. has, it believes, thwarted a planned attack on U.S. facilities in London in early 1999 and an attack on FBI Headquarters in Washington last summer.

Even so, a Pentagon official said bin Laden’s organization continues to regenerate and improve. “We keep stopping him; he keeps coming back,” the official said.

Are his operations limited to bombings or does he have aspirations in the nuclear, biological and chemical areas?

Bin Laden appears to be branching out - planning assassinations using “contact poisons,” obtaining “rudimentary” chemical and biological materials, and trying to acquire radioactive material. One Pentagon official says bin Laden has been obtaining “contact poisons - KGB-like pellets” that could be used in assassinations. Some are difficult to detect in an autopsy. He added that public U.S. intelligence reports on bin Laden’s training camps have noted that the network has instructed terrorists in assassination and kidnapping.

Bin Laden’s German operation was hit in a sting operation as it tried to buy highly enriched uranium on Russia’s black market in 1993. Russian intelligence says that bin Laden has been working with Chechen rebels to obtain materials for a “dirty bomb” that would spray deadly radioactive materials over a small area.

However, the network’s efforts to obtain these materials so far do not strongly suggest a pattern or a specific plan. And officials cautioned that there is “no sense of a technical sophistication” in bin Laden’s camp.

Why hasn’t the U.S. tried to grab him?

The U.S. says it is serious about capturing bin Laden, However, any such operation depends on getting real-time information on his whereabouts. “We are serious about going after him,” said one senior administration official. “He is serious about going after us. If we can nail his ass, we will. But it is going to be action and reaction for a long time.”

How is bin Laden’s health?

A senior counter-terrorism official said the latest CIA analysis is that bin Laden is “a hypochondriac,” a condition that could simply reflect bin Laden’s stressful lifestyle. However, he is known to have an enlarged heart, chronically low blood pressure and is missing toes on one foot from a battle wound suffered in Afghanistan. He is regularly attended by a physician.

Is there any indication bin Laden works with governments in the Middle East?

Bin Laden has long-standing ties with the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan, including some possible family ties.

The U.S. alleges that on two occasions in the early 1990’s, a senior religious leader from Iran met with bin Laden’s representatives in Khartoum to discuss cooperating against western interests. Bin Laden is a Wahabi Muslim, while Iran is Shi’ite Muslim. However, there is no evidence to suggest any joint operations were ever planned or carried out.

However, U.S. officials believe that bin Laden is involved with Kashmiri Muslim rebels in India and Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence, its semi-autonomous military intelligence agency. In the 1980s, the U.S. used the ISI to fund, train and arm the Afghan mujahedin, including bin Laden, in its fight against the Soviet Red Army.

The U.S. is troubled by Pakistan’s use of rebel insurgents in Kashmir, the subject of three wars between Pakistan and India. Muslim fighters, financed by the ISI but trained by bin Laden, have been operating in the Indian part of Kashmir.