CAIRO, Egypt – With his Afghan allies embroiled in a ruinous civil war and most of his Arab comrades afraid to return home, Usama bin Laden and his top men decided a decade ago to take seek in Sudan, a vast, impoverished nation ruled by a strict Islamic government.
That decision may have sown the seeds for the twin attacks Thursday on an Israeli-owned beach hotel in Kenya and on an Israeli charter plane taking vacationers home from the East African nation.
The car bomb attack on the hotel outside Kenya's Indian Ocean resort of Mombasa left 12 dead — including three suicide bombers — and scores injured. Simultaneously, two missiles were fired at an Israeli airliner as it took off from Mombasa airport with 261 passengers and 10 crew aboard. Both missiles missed and no one on the plane was hurt.
The previously unknown Army of Palestine claimed responsibility for the attacks. However, Israeli and Kenyan officials said they believed bin Laden's Al Qaeda network was the likely culprit.
Bin Laden, a Saudi-born extremist blamed by the United States for the Sept. 11 attacks, built a network of terror cells in the Horn of Africa region, including Kenya, during his four-year stay in Sudan.
He exploited the lawlessness of Somalia and the relatively lax security of countries like Tanzania and Kenya, and drew on the sympathy of some African Muslims and others of Arab origin.
Mohammed Salah, an Egyptian who writes about militant Muslim groups for the respected London-based Al-Hayat daily, said that bin Laden used his top lieutenants to scout for recruits in neighboring countries after he arrived in Sudan in 1992.
Fellow "Arab Afghans" — Arabs who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan — were also a source of recruits. Many of the Afghan war veterans feared they would be arrested if they returned home, and took refuge in African countries.
The Horn of Africa region is home to thousands of Muslims of Arab descent. Salah said that was a big help in allowing Al Qaeda operatives to live and work in relative safety.
Bin Laden's efforts first bore fruit in 1992 in Somalia, where his chief military commander, Mohammed Atef, was believed to have been behind the downing of a U.S. military helicopter. He also organized a mob that dragged the body of a dead American serviceman through the streets of Mogadishu in Somalia — a scene that persuaded President Bill Clinton to withdraw U.S. troops from the country.
Atef, who was killed last year in the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, was with bin Laden in Sudan — along with fellow Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahri, who became Al Qaeda's second-ranking figure. Al-Zawahri remains at large.
Bin Laden's African operatives struck again in 1998 with the simultaneous attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 231 people — including 12 Americans — and wounded more than 5,000.
"The main purpose behind the establishment of Al Qaeda presence in African nations was using them as a place of refuge," said Dia'a Rashwan, an expert on radical Islamic groups at Egypt's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "But they eventually used their presence there to recruit and set up cells."
"Al Qaeda's men know the area very well," said Salah, the Al-Hayat journalist. "They have worked hard there and found sympathy among quite a few."
If Al Qaeda was behind the attacks, it would be the first time the terror organization has targeted Israeli interests. But it would also fit with recent rhetoric attributed to bin Laden himself.
The choice of Israeli targets may be designed to make propaganda gains from the anger felt by many of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims over what they see as the Jewish state's use of excessive force against the Palestinians in more than two years of violence.
In an audiotape broadcast this month by the Arab satellite television station Al-Jazeera, bin Laden linked the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the confrontation between the United States and Iraq.
"Our kinfolk in Palestine have been slain and severely tortured for nearly a century," bin Laden said. "If you were distressed by the deaths of your men ... remember our children who are killed in Palestine and Iraq everyday."