Sunday, September 23, 2001

Remember 9-11-01

Bin Laden’s
network of terror
was once an ally

Backed by the U.S., mujaheddin
fought the Soviets

By Ahmed Rashid
Special to the Star-Bulletin

ISLAMABAD >> William Casey, the director of U.S. central intelligence, committed the CIA in 1986 to support a long-standing initiative by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to fight alongside the Afghan mujaheddin against the invaders from the Soviet Union.

Pakistan sought to cement Islamic unity, turn Pakistan into the leader of the Muslim world and foster an Islamic opposition in Central Asia. Washington wanted to demonstrate that the entire Muslim world was fighting the Soviet Union alongside the Afghans and their American benefactors.

The Saudi Arabians saw an opportunity both to promote Wahabbism (their strict creed) and expel disgruntled radicals.

None of the players reckoned on these volunteers having their own agendas, which would eventually turn their hatred for the Soviets against their own regimes and the Americans.

Between 1982 and 1992, some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would pass their baptism under fire with the Afghan mujaheddin. Tens of thousands more Muslim radicals came to study in the new madrassas (Islamic schools) that Pakistan's government began to fund in Pakistan and along the Afghan border.

Osama bin Laden's influence crosses borders. A Indonesian
shopkeeper displayed T-shirts bearing images of bin Laden,
prime suspect of the attacks on America, at a shop in Jakarta.

Eventually more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the jihad (holy war). In camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, these radicals studied, trained and fought together. It was the first opportunity for most to learn about Islamic movements in other countries, and they forged tactical and ideological links. The camps became virtual universities for Islamic radicalism.

Among these recruits was a young Saudi student, Osama bin Laden, the son of a Yemeni construction magnate, Mohammed bin Laden, who was a close friend of the late King Faisal and whose company had become wealthy on the contracts to renovate the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. Pakistan's ISI had long wanted Prince Turki bin Faisal, the head of the Saudi Intelligence Service, to provide a royal prince to lead the Saudi contingent to show Muslims the commitment of the royal family to the jihad. Only poorer Saudis and Bedouin tribesmen had arrived to fight. Bin Laden, although not a royal, was close enough to the royals and wealthy enough to lead the Saudi contingent.

Bin Laden, Prince Turki and Pakistan intelligence officers were to become allies in a common cause. The center for the Arab-Afghans , Filipino Moros, Uzbeks from Soviet Central Asia, Arabs from Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and Uighurs from Xinjiang, China was the World Muslim League and the Muslim Brotherhood in the northwestern Pakistan city of Peshawar.

The center was run by Abdullah Azam, a Jordanian Palestinian. During the 1980s, Saudi funds flowed to Azam and the makhtab or services center. Donations from Saudi Intelligence, Saudi Red Crescent, the World Muslim League and private donations from Saudi princes and mosques were channeled through the makhtab. A decade later, the makhtab would emerge at the center of a web of radical organizations.

Until he arrived in Afghanistan, bin Laden's life had hardly been extraordinary. He was born around 1957, the 17th of 57 children sired by his Yemeni father and a Saudi mother, one of Mohammed bin Laden's many wives. Bin Laden studied for a master's degree in business administration at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah but soon switched to Islamic studies. His contemporaries remembered him as quiet and pious but hardly marked for greater things.

His father helped fund the Afghan struggle, so when bin Laden decided to join up, his family responded enthusiastically. He traveled to Peshawar in 1980 and met the Mujaheddin leaders, returning frequently with Saudi donations for the cause until 1982, when he decided to settle in Peshawar. He brought in his company engineers and construction equipment to help build roads and depots for the mujaheddin. In 1986, he helped build the Khost tunnel complex, which the CIA was funding as a major arms storage depot, training facility and medical center for the Mujaheddin, under the mountains close to the Pakistan border.

After the death of Azam in 1989, bin Laden took over Azam's organization and set up al-Qaida or military base as a service center for Arab-Afghans to forge a broad-based alliance among them. Several thousand Arab militants had established several bases but their extreme Wahabbi practices made them intensely disliked by Afghans.

By 1990, bin Laden was disillusioned by the internal bickering of the mujaheddin and he returned to Saudi Arabia to work in the family business. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, he lobbied the royal family to raise a force from the Afghan war veterans to fight Iraq. Instead, King Fahd invited in the Americans. This came as an enormous shock to bin Laden. As the 540,000 U.S. troops began to arrive, bin Laden openly criticized the royal family, lobbying the Saudi ulema (council) to issue fatwas, or religious rulings, against non-Muslims.

In 1992, bin Laden left for Sudan to take part in the Islamic revolution there. Bin Laden's criticism of the Saudi royal family eventually annoyed them so much that they revoked his citizenship in 1994. It was in Sudan that bin Laden gathered more veterans of the Afghan war, who were all disgusted by the American victory over Iraq and the attitude of the Arab ruling elites who allowed the U.S. military to remain in the Persian Gulf. As U.S. and Saudi pressure mounted against Sudan for harboring bin Laden, the Sudanese authorities asked him to leave.

In May 1996, bin Laden traveled back to Afghanistan, arriving in Jalalabad with an entourage of dozens of Arab militants, bodyguards and family members, including three wives and 13 children. Here he lived under the protection of the Jalalabad Shura (an advisory assembly) until the conquest of Kabul and Jalalabad by the Taliban in September 1996. In August 1996, he had issued his first declaration of jihad against the Americans: "The walls of oppression and humiliation cannot be demolished except in a rain of bullets."

By now, the CIA had set up a cell to monitor his activities and links with other Islamic militants. A U.S. State Department report in August 1996 noted that bin Laden was "one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world." The report said he was financing terrorists in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Egypt and Afghanistan.

In April 1996, President Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allowed the United States to block assets of terrorist organizations. It was first used to block bin Laden's access to his fortune of $250-$300 million. A few months later, Egyptian intelligence declared that bin Laden was training 1,000 militants to start an Islamic revolution in Arab countries.

In early 1997, the CIA sent a squad to Peshawar to snatch bin Laden out of Afghanistan. The Americans enlisted Afghans and Pakistanis to help but aborted the operation. In February 1998, al-Qaida issued a manifesto under the aegis of "The International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders." The manifesto stated "for more than seven years the U.S. has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim people."

The meeting issued a fatwa. "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to." Bin Laden called for the liberation of the entire Muslim Middle East. As the American air war against Iraq escalated in 1998, bin Laden called on all Muslims to "confront, fight and kill, Americans and Britons."

It was the bombings in August 1998 of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 220 people, that made bin Laden a household name in the Muslim world and the West. Just 13 days later, after accusing bin Laden of perpetrating the attack, the United States retaliated by firing 70 cruise missiles against bin Laden's camps around Khost and Jalalabad.

In November 1998, the United States offered a $5-million reward for bin Laden's capture. The Americans were further galvanized when bin Laden claimed that it was his Islamic duty to acquire chemical and nuclear weapons to use against America: "It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims. Hostility toward America is a religious duty and we hope to be rewarded for it by God."

After the Africa bombings, the United States launched a global operation. More than 80 militants were arrested in a dozen countries in a crescent running from Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan and Yemen to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Philippines. According to the FBI, militants in Yemen who kidnapped 16 Western tourists in December 1998 were funded by bin Laden. In February 1999, Bangladeshi authorities said bin Laden sent $1 million to the Harkat-ul-Jihad in Dhaka, some of whose members had trained in Afghanistan. Harkat leaders wanted to turn Bangladesh into a Taliban-style Islamic state.

Meanwhile, during the trial of 107 al-Jihad members at a military court in Cairo, Egyptian intelligence officers testified that bin Laden had bankrolled al-Jihad. In February 1999, the CIA claimed that through monitoring bin Laden's communication network by satellite, they had prevented his supporters from carrying out bomb attacks against U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia, Albania, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Uganda, Uruguay and Ivory Coast.

It was Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that suffered the most. In March 1997, three Arab and two militants from Tajikistan were killed after a 36-hour gun battle between them and police in an Afghan refugee camp near Peshawar. Belonging to the radical Tafkir group, they were planning to bomb a meeting of Islamic heads of state in Islamabad.

Pakistan faced a problem when Washington urged Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to help arrest bin Laden. Sharif sidestepped the issue.

Even though the Americans repeatedly tried to persuade the ISI to cooperate in delivering bin Laden, the ISI declined. Without Pakistan's support, the United States could not hope to launch a snatch by U.S. commandos because it needed Pakistani territory to launch such raids. At the same time, the United States dared not expose Pakistan's support for the Taliban because it still hoped for ISI help in catching bin Laden.

The Saudi conundrum was even worse. In July 1998, Prince Turki visited Kandahar and a few weeks later 400 new pick-up trucks arrived in Kandahar still bearing Dubai license plates. The Saudis gave cash for the Taliban's conquest of the north. Until the Africa bombings, and despite U.S. pressure to end their support for the Taliban, the Saudis continued funding the Taliban and were silent on extraditing bin Laden.

The truth about the Saudi silence was complicated. The Saudis preferred to leave bin Laden in Afghanistan because his arrest and trial by the Americans could expose the relationship that bin Laden had with sympathetic members of the royal family and elements within Saudi intelligence, which could prove deeply embarrassing. The Saudis wanted bin Laden either dead or a captive of the Taliban -- they did not want him captured by the Americans.

Increasingly in the late 1990s, bin Laden's world view appeared to dominate the thinking of Taliban leaders. Until his arrival, the Taliban leadership had not been particularly antagonistic to the United States or the West but demanded recognition for their government. After the Africa bombings, Taliban statements reflected the defiant bin Laden.

Copyright 2000 by Ahmed Rashid.
Reprinted by permission of the International Consortium
of Investigative Journalists from its Web site

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