LONDON (Reuters) – The key question of who orchestrated the unprecedented attack on the United States remained unanswered on Tuesday, but a U.S. official and a slew of experts pointed the finger at Saudi exile Osama bin Laden.
Holed up in Afghanistan, the tall, bearded 44-year-old multi-millionaire commands Islamic fundamentalists willing to die attacking the United States which they see as the ultimate enemy in a holy war.
Few other people are perceived to have the cash or expertise to mount such attacks.
Washington has previously accused him of masterminding the coordinated bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 that killed more than 200 people and has put a $5 million reward on his head.
He was also named as a suspect within hours of a suicide attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden that killed 17 Americans last October.
The United States did not rush to apportion blame on Tuesday after hijacked planes smashed into the vast twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. But an unnamed official said the attacks bore Bin Laden’s hallmarks.
“There are indications that people with links to Bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization may have been responsible, but it is still too premature and that has not been determined,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“There is reason to believe people with links to him may have been responsible for this,” he told Reuters in Washington.
The Taliban movement ruling Afghanistan, which has sheltered Bin Laden, denied he was to blame and condemned what it called “terrorist” attacks. Pakistan, the Taliban’s main international backer, joined in the condemnation.
“We are not supporting terrorism. Osama does not have the capability. We condemn this,” Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen told Reuters in Afghanistan. Bin Laden himself has denied responsibility for earlier attacks.
President Bush, facing the first big test of his eight-month presidency, vowed to hunt down and punish those responsible.
Swedish aid workers in Afghanistan said they might pull out, fearing U.S. retaliation if it appeared bin Laden was involved. The European Union’s top humanitarian aid official postponed a trip over “uncertainty linked to the security situation.”
The U.N. envoy for Afghanistan said if Washington believed the attacks were related to Bin Laden it would have ”incalculable consequences” for his country.
The United States launched cruise missiles at what it termed bin Laden training camps inside Afghanistan after the 1998 embassy attacks, killing some militants but failing to touch the Saudi exile.
His location in Afghanistan is a secret, he is thought to change residence continually and the rare statements attributed to him cannot be verified. His days of meeting western reporters ended before the bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa.
An Arab journalist said Bin Laden warned three weeks ago that he and his followers would carry out an unprecedented attack on U.S. interests.
“Personally we received information that he planned very, very big attacks against American interests. We received several warnings like this,” Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi news magazine, told Reuters.
Lee Kreindler, a prominent aviation lawyer involved in high-profile airline bombing cases, told Reuters in New York that bin Laden was a “prime suspect.”
“This took a lot of planning. There are not too many forces with the wealth and expertise to do this,” he said.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak said bin Laden was most likely behind the attacks and Israeli security experts also named his followers as the likely perpetrators.
But some U.S. intelligence analysts warned against jumping to conclusions.
They said the attacks could have been the work of other groups tied to the Middle East, angry over a perception that Washington supported Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians.
Palestinian analysts said the attackers may have been U.S. militants in the mold of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Bin Laden honed his guerrilla warfare skills in the 1980s, commanding Arab fighters funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who fought alongside Afghan Muslim guerrillas against Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan.
His war with the United States is believed to have begun after U.S. forces deployed in Saudi Arabia during the 1990-91 Gulf crisis. He saw their presence as desecrating the land of Islam. He is also believed to blame the sufferings of the Palestinian people on U.S. support for Israel.
George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said earlier this year that the Saudi was the most immediate and serious threat to U.S. security.
“Since 1998 bin Laden has declared all U.S. citizens legitimate targets of attack,” he said.
Tenet said bin Laden was using the Internet “to acquire information and capabilities to acquire chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear attack.”
He has been the target of a massive U.S. manhunt since the 1998 bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Those killed 224 people and injured 4,000.
Bin Laden is believed to live amid tight security near the Taliban’s spiritual capital in the southern Afghan town of Kandahar or the eastern town of Jalalabad, and the Taliban have rebuffed all attempts to deport him.
Born in the Saudi capital Riyadh in 1957, he was raised in a wealthy family that made its fortune from Saudi Arabia’s oil-fueled construction boom. His own fortune is reckoned by U.S. officials to be worth about $300 million.
Bin Laden has said that U.S. efforts to arrest him and hurt him financially have had little effect.
“America has been trying ever since (the 1993 attack on U.S. military personnel in Somalia) to tighten its economic blockade against us and to arrest me. It has failed. This blockade does not hurt us much. We expect to be rewarded by God,” Time magazine quoted him as saying in an interview two years ago.
“Our job is to instigate and, by the grace of God, we did that, and certain people responded to this instigation,” he said.