Rich Saudi Dissident Named Bomb Suspect

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials Thursday said a wealthy Saudi dissident was a prime suspect in two guerrilla bombings that have killed 24 Americans in the past year in an apparent effort to drive the United States from Saudi Arabia.
Counterterrorism officials said they had received a report from a foreign intelligence service that the suspect, Osama Bin Laden, had taken credit for the bombings in telephone conversations and had vowed to strike again.

Although the officials were unable to confirm the bulk of the foreign-supplied intelligence, they said it was unusually detailed “and does fit well with what we know from other sources concerning Bin Laden and Sunni extremist networks.”

“For example, we have a large body of reporting on Bin Laden’s efforts to encourage cooperation between Islamic extremists of many nationalities and on his long-time relationship with Iraqi and Sudanese officials and have some reporting concerning his cells within Saudi Arabia,” a counterterrorism official said.

Bin Laden, who has recently spent time in Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan, has denied involvement in the bombings that killed five Americans and two Indians in Riyahd on Nov. 13, 1995 and killed 19 U.S. airmen in Dhahran last June 25.

But he called those events warnings that the United States should withdraw its forces from Saudi Arabia, America’s largest oil supplier. Four Saudis executed for the Riyadh attack said they had been inspired by his writings.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns declined comment on a report in Thursday’s Washington Times, which detailed the telephone conversations in which Bin Laden purportedly took credit for the blasts and promised to hit again.

Specifying that he was speaking about Bin Laden without reference to the ongoing joint U.S.-Saudi bombing probe, Burns said: “He’s a bad guy … engaged in activities that we believe are terroristic.

“We try to follow his career because we want people like him to meet justice. We want to bring them to justice when we can. So, we’re interested in him and we’ll continue to follow his career very closely.” In a fact sheet handed out in February, the State Department described Bin Laden, scion of a Saudi construction family who was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, as “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world today.”

It linked Bin Laden, who has been under the protection of the fundamentalist Taleban militia in Afghanistan, to guerrilla training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan and said he backed a bid to bomb U.S. forces in Yemen in 1992.

The Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is leading the U.S. side of the probe, and the Saudi Embassy declined comment on whether Bin Laden was a suspect in the Dhahran bombing.

But Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, who monitors the Gulf region and has just returned from visits to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, said Bin Laden was feared as “the major potential threat to U.S. forces in the Gulf.”

“Based on my conversations with U.S. military and other officials in the region, it’s clear that they are looking at him closely in connection with the two past bombings,” he added in a telephone interview.

Another U.S. official who monitors the Middle East said Bin Laden had long been a prime suspect. He said Bin Laden, a Sunni Moslem, apparently had poor relations with Iran’s radical Shiite leaders, accused by the United States of being the chief state sponsor of anti-Western terrorism.

But Katzman said he understood that Bin Laden had narrowed his differences with Iran. “Any consumation of a political marriage between Iran and Bin Laden could have devastating consequences for the U.S. military in the Gulf,” he added.

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