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"Islamic Int'l" now in sights of a superpower

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'Islamic International' now in sights of a superpower

By Anthony Shadid, Associated Press, 08/20/98

CAIRO, Egypt - They helped win a distant war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Their exploits were celebrated across the Muslim world. Now, in a rain of bombs on two continents, this battle-hardened, devout corps, an ''Islamic International,'' has become the No. 1 target of the world's No. 1 power.

These Arab veterans of the 1980s Afghan war transformed their old crusade in recent years into a new one against ''illegitimate'' Arab rulers, against an Israel that occupies Muslim land, against an America that supports both.

It was an attack against America, the deadly U.S. embassy bombings in Africa on Aug. 7, that led to U.S. air strikes Thursday against locations in Afghanistan and Sudan linked to followers of one of the leading ''Arab Afghans,'' Osama bin Laden, an exiled Saudi millionaire.

President Clinton said bin Laden's followers were believed to have played a ''key role'' in the embassy bloodshed.

These militants are a small cluster of as many as 25,000 Arabs and other Muslims who left home to fight in Afghanistan. But their campaign, both in its bloodshed and fervor, may help define the 1990s. Their paramilitary skills, growing sophistication and ample finance set them apart from an earlier generation.

An eclectic group, the Arab Afghans bombed the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 and the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan two years later. They are suspected of attacking U.S.-run facilities in Saudi Arabia. They tried to kill Egypt's president in Ethiopia. And they have fought in wars and insurgencies in some of the world's most troubled spots -- Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and Tajikistan.

Now, in the wake of the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 257 people, a group of those Arab Afghans has sent another stark message: Their war has just begun.

''Strikes will continue from everywhere, and Islamic groups will appear one after the other to fight American interests,'' said a statement last week from the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, a group formed in February.

The group stopped short of claiming responsibility, but its message was sent to Al-Hayat, the Arab world's leading newspaper, with several statements from a little-known group that did. Many Arab experts believe they may be one and the same.

From the Arab Afghan ranks have emerged some of the militants Arab governments and others consider the most dangerous today.

They are Egyptians, Saudis, Algerians, among other nationalities, and they cross porous borders with false passports -- Egyptian, Sudanese, Yemeni, even European. And their international sophistication has grown.

Islamic revolutionaries once passed hand to hand the simple cassettes of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's speeches during the Iranian revolution. Now, groups of Arab Afghans -- Egypt's Islamic Group, for instance -- design sleek, colorful web sites that market their fiery messages and offer an e-mail address in Europe, long a refuge for militant leaders fleeing death sentences at home.

''The majority come from universities, they're modern and they use modern methods. Americans imagine these people come from the Middle Ages and that's not true,'' said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Osama bin Laden stands as perhaps the most notorious of the new generation of Islamic militant.

Like thousands of other Saudis of his generation, he journeyed to Afghanistan soon after the 1979 Soviet invasion of that poor Muslim nation in central Asia, joining activists who would later form the nucleus of militant Islam, in such groups as Hamas, Egypt's Islamic Group, Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front and the Moro Liberation Front in the Philippines.

The war was heavily financed by an estimated $3 billion from America, the biggest covert operation since Vietnam.

To Americans, it was a fight against Soviet aggression. To pious Arabs, it was a sacred fight against an atheist ideology -- a conflict redolent of the international pilgrimage of leftists in the 1930s to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

''It was very romantic, it was everybody's cause. There was so much poetry about the crusade in Afghanistan,'' recalled Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who covered the war.

Bin Laden soon emerged as one of that war's greatest heroes.

Scion of one of Saudi Arabia's richest families, he gave up a life of plenty to bring in the bulldozers that cut the tunnels and roads along which the guerrillas trekked. His bravery on the battlefield soon became legendary.

After the war, stripped of his citizenship by a Saudi government fearful of his militant Islam, bin Laden made his way to Sudan, protected by Hassan al-Turabi, that country's Islamic ideologue.

Western pressure forced him to leave Sudan in 1995 and return to Afghanistan, where he has resided since.

But his money, a fortune estimated at $300 million, has continued to support a vast network. Mustafa Hamza, an Egyptian wanted in the attempt in 1995 on Egypt's president, was reported to be running a company owned by bin Laden in Somalia.

The contacts he forged remain loyal, too. One of them is Ayman al-Zawahri, a doctor and Afghanistan veteran who heads Egypt's Jihad group, which assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981. With bin Laden and others, he founded the group that warned of more attacks last week.

Such alliances -- Egyptian militants and bin Laden's followers -- could have sweeping repercussions, analysts say.

For years, Egyptian militant groups -- Jihad and the Islamic Group -- fought the government on its own turf. The Islamic Group was responsible for a simmering insurgency in southern Egypt. Jihad was notorious for high-profile assassination attempts in Cairo.

As the government turned the corner in the battle in 1995, with a brutal crackdown in which security forces bulldozed houses, clamped curfews on restive villages and detained thousands, the militants took the fight abroad. It became a ''dirty war,'' pitting government against Arab Afghan, that crossed three continents:

  • Talaat Fouad Qassem, the Islamic Group's spokesman abroad, vanished in Croatia in September 1995. His wife said he was abducted to Egypt and killed. His group claimed responsibility for a car bombing the following month in Croatia.

  • A car bomb ripped through the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan in November 1995, killing 17 people. The bombing followed Pakistan's extradition of several Arab Afghans.

  • Since June, at least five Egyptians were arrested in Albania. Albanian officials said they were deported to Egypt with the help of U.S. authorities. A day before the Africa bombings, Jihad vowed revenge against the United States for its role.

    ''These governments have embroiled themselves in a war,'' said Azam Tamimi, an Islamic activist in London. ''A desperate person, a person who will be killed or extradited, is capable of anything.''

    Pakistani officials now say it was an Egyptian -- a Zawahri loyalist who worked with bin Laden -- who planned the Africa bombings.

    That cooperation marks ''a new stage, a new period, a new phase of action, from the state as their enemy to the United States and Israel as their enemy,'' said Rashwan, the Egyptian analyst.

    Or, as the Jihad coalition put it, ''God willing, America will face a black fate similar to that of the Soviet Union.''



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