- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Osama bin Laden has a fatal kidney disease. Unless it is diabetes. Or kidney stones.
He fought with distinction on the front lines of the Afghan war against the Soviets. Unless he made a petulant nuisance of himself and was tolerated only because he brought cash and road-building machines.
He snatched his trademark rifle from the cold, dead hands of a Soviet general, proving his prowess as a fighter, some people say. Others say he knows little more about the gun than how to hold it.
This most wanted of men is among the least understood. Each phantom sign has only stoked the enigma. Now comes a disembodied voice on a tape that is believed to be his.
There he is, say admirers, bin Laden undead, seemingly invincible and sticking it to America once again. But listen to those strange beeps on the tapes, others say, hopefully. Could that be a dialysis machine, life support for a feeble dying man?
Myth-making and mystery surround every ounce of information about the terrorist leader known variously as Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden, Usama bin Laden, the Prince, the Emir, Abu Abdallah, Mujahid Shaykh, Hajj, the Director, the Contractor and still more names.
"The fact we haven't been able to find him just builds the myth," said Michael S. Swetnam, co-author of a book profiling the al Qaeda network and chairman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington. Each cunning escape or lucky break, he said, only feeds the belief that "that man and his followers must truly be blessed by Allah."
Never mind the confounding mystery of his present circumstances. Even his past is in the eye of the beholder.
Bin Laden is the Saudi-born son of a Yemeni-born construction magnate, an outcast among more than 50 children. He made his name by helping the Afghan resistance, bringing in heavy equipment to cut roads and tunnels, and built hospitals and supply depots in the late 1980s.
Yossef Bodansky, a terrorism adviser to the U.S. government, opened a file on him 20 years ago when he learned of the "dedicated and very serious young man." Bin Laden will go far, he believed then, without knowing which direction. The United States was interested in dedicated opponents of Moscow at the time.
Exiled from Saudi Arabia in 1991 for his political opposition, bin Laden and his nascent al Qaeda terrorist organization went after the United States, its interests, its people and anyone who got in the way.
"The urgent thing was communism, but the next target was America," bin Laden said of that transition, adding years later, "Hostility toward America is a religious duty, and we hope to be rewarded for it by God."
There are delicious sets of images, for both those who believe the bin Laden legend and those who dismiss it.
By his own words, he was so tranquil in the face of danger that he once fell asleep during a bombardment from Russians 100 yards away. "I was never afraid of death," he said.
By another account, that of then-British Broadcasting Corp. producer John Simpson, bin Laden was so incensed by the presence of Mr. Simpson's Western film crew during an attack on Russian positions that bin Laden offered an Afghan truck driver the equivalent of $300 to run down the journalists.
The Afghans merely laughed, Mr. Simpson recalled with relief, and bin Laden "ran off to one of the mujahedeen's sleeping quarters and threw himself onto one of the beds, beating his fists on the pillow in frustration."
Former business associates say they have seen bin Laden beardless and in Western suits in his days working for the family enterprises before he struck out as an Islamic fighter and terrorist.
They remember him as an unsettled figure, cowed by his older, playboy brother, Salem, an avid pilot and fluent English-speaker who died in 1988 when his light aircraft crashed into power lines in San Antonio.
U.S. officials have abetted the mystery, attributing acts to him in the early 1990s that he may have only cheered after the fact, missing him with missiles, apparently missing him again in the Tora Bora mountains and running a propaganda campaign that included dropping leaflets over Afghanistan with fake photos of him without his beard.
"We've played into his hands all the way," Mr. Swetnam said.
Adding to the enigma is a host of maladies he is said to bear, at various times terminal kidney disease, terminal cancer, diabetes, kidney stones, hypochondria, blood disorders or missing toes. What is known for sure: He has walked with the aid of a stick and, for a man younger than 50, has looked older than his years.
Mr. Swetnam said al Qaeda's deadly 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and the Clinton administration's response a failed attempt to kill him with cruise missiles were transforming events for the terrorist.
"That took him from being a backwater crazy in the world to being a truly worthy opponent of the United States" for those who hate the United States, he said.


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