Osama bin Laden founds an international group known as al-Qaeda, which in Arabic
means "the base." It is formed primarily of mujahideen, meaning holy
warriors, and others fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. The mujahideen were
significantly financed, armed, and trained by the United States Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Carter and Reagan administrations.
Osama bin Laden sets up militant training camps in Sudan and begins searching
for nuclear material and weapons.
Feb. 26, 1993
A 500-kilogram bomb explodes in a garage under World Trade Center in New York,
killing six and injuring 1,042. Bin Laden associate Ramzi Yousef is sentenced to
life without parole in February 1998 for orchestrating the bombing.
Al-Qaeda supporters attack UN troops in Somalia, killing 18 U.S. servicemen
June 26, 1995
Al-Qaeda tries, unsuccessfully, to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Seven people, including five Americans, are killed when two bombs explode at a
U.S.-Saudi military facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden is blamed
for the attack.
After Osama bin Laden is expelled from Sudan, al-Qaeda moves its operation to
Afghanistan. Iran sponsors a re-organization of al-Qaeda with bin Laden as
Bin Laden followers bomb U.S. military base near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing
19 American soldiers and wounding hundreds of Americans and Saudi Arabians.
Bombs explode at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam,
Tanzania, killing more than 220 people and injuring 5,000. The U.S. retaliates
with air strikes against suspected training camps in Sudan and Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden calls for attacks on American citizens.
A U.S. federal grand jury indicts Osama bin Laden in the bombing of U.S.
embassies in Africa.
Two suicide bombers, suspected to be associated with bin Laden, attack the navy
destroyer USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, killing 17 sailors.
Osama bin Laden releases a taped message, which many believe was the orders that
triggered the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Osama bin Laden threatens attacks on U.S.
Attacks on World Trade Center in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania kill
close to 3,000 people. Al-Qaeda is blamed within days of the attacks.
The United States launches air strikes in Afghanistan aimed at al-Qaeda training
camps and Taliban bases. Osama bin Laden, in a videotaped message, praises God
for Sept. 11 attacks and swears America will never "dream of security"
until "the infidels' armies leave the land of Muhammad."
Al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith issues a statement calling for a holy war
against the United States.
THE RISE OF BIN LADIN AND AL
A decade of conflict in Afghanistan, from 1979
to 1989, gave Islamist extremists a rallying point and training field. A
Communist government in Afghanistan gained power in 1978 but was unable to
establish enduring control. At the end of 1979, the Soviet government sent in
military units to ensure that the country would remain securely under Moscow's
influence. The response was an Afghan national resistance movement that defeated
Young Muslims from around the world flocked to
Afghanistan to join as volunteers in what was seen as a "holy
war"-jihad-against an invader. The largest numbers came from the Middle
East. Some were Saudis, and among them was Usama Bin Ladin.
Twenty-three when he arrived in Afghanistan in
1980, Bin Ladin was the seventeenth of 57 children of a Saudi construction
magnate. Six feet five and thin, Bin Ladin appeared to be ungainly but was in
fact quite athletic, skilled as a horseman, runner, climber, and soccer player.
He had attended Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. By some accounts, he had
been interested there in religious studies, inspired by tape recordings of fiery
sermons by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian and a disciple of Qutb. Bin Ladin was
conspicuous among the volunteers not because he showed evidence of religious
learning but because he had access to some of his family's huge fortune. Though
he took part in at least one actual battle, he became known chiefly as a person
who generously helped fund the anti-Soviet jihad.
Bin Ladin understood better than most of the
volunteers the extent to which the continuation and eventual success of the
jihad in Afghanistan depended on an increasingly complex, almost worldwide
organization. This organization included a financial support network that came
to be known as the "Golden Chain," put together mainly by financiers
in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. Donations flowed through charities
or other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Bin Ladin and the "Afghan
Arabs" drew largely on funds raised by this network, whose agents roamed
world markets to buy arms and supplies for the mujahideen, or "holy
Mosques, schools, and boardinghouses served as
recruiting stations in many parts of the world, including the United States.
Some were set up by Islamic extremists or their financial backers. Bin Ladin had
an important part in this activity. He and the cleric Azzam had joined in
creating a "Bureau of Services" (Mektab al Khidmat, or MAK), which
channeled recruits into Afghanistan.
The international environment for Bin Ladin's
efforts was ideal. Saudi Arabia and the United States supplied billions of
dollars worth of secret assistance to rebel groups in Afghanistan fighting the
Soviet occupation. This assistance was funneled through Pakistan: the Pakistani
military intelligence service (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISID),
helped train the rebels and distribute the arms. But Bin Ladin and his comrades
had their own sources of support and training, and they received little or no
assistance from the United States.
April 1988 brought victory for the Afghan
jihad. Moscow declared it would pull its military forces out of Afghanistan
within the next nine months. As the Soviets began their withdrawal, the jihad's
leaders debated what to do next.
Bin Ladin and Azzam agreed that the
organization successfully created for Afghanistan should not be allowed to
dissolve. They established what they called a base or foundation (al Qaeda) as a
potential general headquarters for future jihad.24 Though Azzam had been
considered number one in the MAK, by August 1988 Bin Ladin was clearly the
leader (emir) of al Qaeda. This organization's structure included as its
operating arms an intelligence component, a military committee, a financial
committee, a political committee, and a committee in charge of media affairs and
propaganda. It also had an Advisory Council (Shura) made up of Bin Ladin's inner
Bin Ladin's assumption of the helm of al Qaeda
was evidence of his growing self-confidence and ambition. He soon made clear his
desire for unchallenged control and for preparing the mujahideen to fight
anywhere in the world. Azzam, by contrast, favored continuing to fight in
Afghanistan until it had a true Islamist government. And, as a Palestinian, he
saw Israel as the top priority for the next stage.
Whether the dispute was about power, personal
differences, or strategy, it ended on November 24, 1989, when a remotely
controlled car bomb killed Azzam and both of his sons. The killers were assumed
to be rival Egyptians. The outcome left Bin Ladin indisputably in charge of what
remained of the MAK and al Qaeda.
Through writers like
Qutb, and the presence of
Egyptian Islamist teachers in the Saudi educational system, Islamists already
had a strong intellectual influence on Bin Ladin and his al Qaeda colleagues. By
the late 1980s, the Egyptian Islamist movement-badly battered in the government
crackdown following President Sadat's assassination-was centered in two major
organizations: the Islamic Group and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. A spiritual
guide for both, but especially the Islamic Group, was the so-called Blind
Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman. His preaching had inspired the assassination of Sadat.
After being in and out of Egyptian prisons during the 1980s,Abdel Rahman found
refuge in the United States. From his headquarters in Jersey City, he
distributed messages calling for the murder of unbelievers.
The most important Egyptian in Bin Ladin's
circle was a surgeon, Ayman al Zawahiri, who led a strong faction of the
Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Many of his followers became important members in the
new organization, and his own close ties with Bin Ladin led many to think of him
as the deputy head of al Qaeda. He would in fact become Bin Ladin's deputy some
years later, when they merged their organizations.
Bin Ladin Moves to Sudan By the fall of 1989,
Bin Ladin had sufficient stature among Islamic extremists that a Sudanese
political leader, Hassan al Turabi, urged him to transplant his whole
organization to Sudan. Turabi headed the National Islamic Front in a coalition
that had recently seized power in Khartoum.
Bin Ladin agreed to help Turabi in an ongoing
war against African Christian separatists in southern Sudan and also to do some
road building. Turabi in return would let Bin Ladin use Sudan as a base for
worldwide business operations and for preparations for jihad.
While agents of Bin Ladin began to buy
property in Sudan in 1990,Bin Ladin himself moved from Afghanistan back
to Saudi Arabia.
In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Bin
whose efforts in Afghanistan had earned him celebrity and respect, proposed to
the Saudi monarchy that he summon mujahideen for a jihad to retake Kuwait. He
was rebuffed, and the Saudis joined the U.S.-led coalition. After the Saudis
agreed to allow U.S. armed forces to be based in the Kingdom, Bin Ladin and a
number of Islamic clerics began to publicly denounce the arrangement. The Saudi
government exiled the clerics and undertook to silence Bin Ladin by, among other
things, taking away his passport. With help from a dissident member of the royal
family, he managed to get out of the country under the pretext of attending an
Islamic gathering in Pakistan in April 1991.
By 1994, the Saudi government would freeze his
financial assets and revoke his citizenship. He no longer had a country he
could call his own.
Bin Ladin moved to Sudan in 1991 and set up a
large and complex set of intertwined business and terrorist enterprises. In
time, the former would encompass numerous companies and a global network of bank
accounts and nongovernmental institutions. Fulfilling his bargain with Turabi,
Bin Ladin used his construction company to build a new highway from Khartoum to
Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast. Meanwhile, al Qaeda finance officers and top
operatives used their positions in Bin Ladin's businesses to acquire weapons,
explosives, and technical equipment for terrorist purposes. One founding member,
Abu Hajer al Iraqi, used his position as head of a Bin Ladin investment company
to carry out procurement trips from western Europe to the Far East. Two
others,Wadi al Hage and Mubarak Douri, who had become acquainted in Tucson,
Arizona, in the late 1980s, went as far afield as China, Malaysia, the
Philippines, and the former Soviet states of Ukraine and Belarus.
Bin Ladin's impressive array of offices
covertly provided financial and other support for terrorist activities. The
network included a major business enterprise in Cyprus; a "services"
branch in Zagreb; an office of the Benevolence International Foundation in
Sarajevo, which supported the Bosnian Muslims in their conflict with Serbia and
Croatia; and an NGO in Baku, Azerbaijan, that was employed as well by Egyptian
Islamic Jihad both as a source and conduit for finances and as a support center
for the Muslim rebels in Chechnya. He also made use of the already-established
Third World Relief Agency (TWRA) headquartered in Vienna, whose branch office
locations included Zagreb and Budapest. (Bin Ladin later set up an NGO in
Nairobi as a cover for operatives there.)
Bin Ladin now had a vision of himself as head
of an international jihad confederation. In Sudan, he established an
"Islamic Army Shura" that was to serve as the coordinating body for
the consortium of terrorist groups with which he was forging alliances. It was
composed of his own al Qaeda Shura together with leaders or representatives of
terrorist organizations that were still independent. In building this Islamic
army, he enlisted groups from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman,
Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Somalia, and Eritrea. Al Qaeda also
established cooperative but less formal relationships with other extremist
groups from these same countries; from the African states of Chad, Mali, Niger,
Nigeria, and Uganda; and from the Southeast Asian states of Burma, Thailand,
Malaysia, and Indonesia. Bin Ladin maintained connections in the Bosnian
conflict as well.
The groundwork for a true global terrorist
network was being laid.
Bin Ladin also provided equipment and training
assistance to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines and also to a
newly forming Philippine group that called itself the Abu Sayyaf Brigade, after
one of the major Afghan jihadist commanders.
Al Qaeda helped Jemaah Islamiya
nascent organization headed by Indonesian Islamists with cells scattered across
Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It also aided a Pakistani
group engaged in insurrectionist attacks in Kashmir. In mid-1991, Bin Ladin
dispatched a band of supporters to the northern Afghanistan border to assist the
Tajikistan Islamists in the ethnic conflicts that had been boiling there even
before the Central Asian departments of the Soviet Union became independent
This pattern of expansion through building
alliances extended to the United States. A Muslim organization called al Khifa
had numerous branch offices, the largest of which was in the Farouq mosque in
Brooklyn. In the mid1980s, it had been set up as one of the first outposts of
Azzam and Bin Ladin's MAK.
Other cities with branches of al Khifa
included Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Tucson.
Al Khifa recruited American Muslims to fight
in Afghanistan; some of them would participate in terrorist actions in the
United States in the early 1990s and in al Qaeda operations elsewhere, including
the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa.
2.4 BUILDING AN ORGANIZATION, DECLARING WAR ON
THE UNITED STATES (1992-1996) Bin Ladin began delivering diatribes against the
United States before he left Saudi Arabia. He continued to do so after he
arrived in Sudan. In early 1992, the al Qaeda leadership issued a fatwa calling
for jihad against the Western "occupation" of Islamic lands.
Specifically singling out U.S. forces for attack, the language resembled that
which would appear in Bin Ladin's public fatwa in August 1996. In ensuing weeks,
Bin Ladin delivered an often-repeated lec ture on the need to cut off "the
head of the snake."
By this time, Bin Ladin was well-known and a
senior figure among Islamist extremists, especially those in Egypt, the Arabian
Peninsula, and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Still, he was just one
among many diverse terrorist barons. Some of Bin Ladin's close comrades were
more peers than subordinates. For example, Usama Asmurai, also known as Wali
Khan, worked with Bin Ladin in the early 1980s and helped him in the Philippines
and in Tajikistan. The Egyptian spiritual guide based in New Jersey, the Blind
Sheikh, whom Bin Ladin admired, was also in the network. Among sympathetic peers
in Afghanistan were a few of the warlords still fighting for power and Abu
Zubaydah, who helped operate a popular terrorist training camp near the border
with Pakistan. There were also rootless but experienced operatives, such as
Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who-though not necessarily formal
members of someone else's organization-were traveling around the world and
joining in projects that were supported by or linked to Bin Ladin, the Blind
Sheikh, or their associates.
In now analyzing the terrorist programs
carried out by members of this network, it would be misleading to apply the
label "al Qaeda operations" too often in these early years. Yet it
would also be misleading to ignore the significance of these connections. And in
this network, Bin Ladin's agenda stood out. While his allied Islamist groups
were focused on local battles, such as those in Egypt, Algeria, Bosnia, or
Chechnya, Bin Ladin concentrated on attacking the "far enemy"-the
Attacks Known and Suspected After U.S. troops
deployed to Somalia in late 1992, al Qaeda leaders formulated a fatwa demanding
their eviction. In December, bombs exploded at two hotels in Aden where U.S.
troops routinely stopped en route to Somalia, killing two, but no Americans. The
perpetrators are reported to have belonged to a group from southern Yemen headed
by a Yemeni member of Bin Ladin's Islamic Army Shura; some in the group had
trained at an al Qaeda camp in Sudan.
Al Qaeda leaders set up a Nairobi cell and
used it to send weapons and trainers to the Somali warlords battling U.S.
forces, an operation directly supervised by al Qaeda's military leader.
Scores of trainers flowed to Somalia over the
ensuing months, including most of the senior members and weapons training
experts of al Qaeda's military committee. These trainers were later heard
boasting that their assistance led to the October 1993 shootdown of two U.S.
Black Hawk helicopters by members of a Somali militia group and to the
subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces in early 1994.
In November 1995, a car bomb exploded outside
a Saudi-U.S. joint facility in Riyadh for training the Saudi National Guard.
Five Americans and two officials from India were killed. The Saudi government
arrested four perpetrators, who admitted being inspired by Bin Ladin. They were
promptly executed. Though nothing proves that Bin Ladin ordered this attack,
U.S. intelligence subsequently learned that al Qaeda leaders had decided a year
earlier to attack a U.S. target in Saudi Arabia, and had shipped explosives to
the peninsula for this purpose. Some of Bin Ladin's associates later took
In June 1996, an enormous truck bomb detonated
in the Khobar Towers residential complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that housed
U.S. Air Force personnel. Nineteen Americans were killed, and 372 were wounded.
The operation was carried out principally, perhaps exclusively, by Saudi
Hezbollah, an organization that had received support from the government of
Iran. While the evidence of Iranian involvement is strong, there are also signs
that al Qaeda played some role, as yet unknown.
In this period, other prominent attacks in
which Bin Ladin's involvement is at best cloudy are the 1993 bombing of the
World Trade Center, a plot that same year to destroy landmarks in New York, and
the 1995 Manila air plot to blow up a dozen U.S. airliners over the Pacific.
Details on these plots appear in chapter 3.
Another scheme revealed that Bin Ladin sought
the capability to kill on a mass scale. His business aides received word that a
Sudanese military officer who had been a member of the previous government
cabinet was offering to sell weapons-grade uranium. After a number of contacts
were made through intermediaries, the officer set the price at $1.5 million,
which did not deter Bin Ladin. Al Qaeda representatives asked to inspect the
uranium and were shown a cylinder about 3 feet long, and one thought he could
pronounce it genuine. Al Qaeda apparently purchased the cylinder, then
discovered it to be bogus.
But while the effort failed, it shows what Bin
Ladin and his associates hoped to do. One of the al Qaeda representatives
explained his mission: "it's easy to kill more people with uranium."
Bin Ladin seemed willing to include in the
confederation terrorists from almost every corner of the Muslim world. His
vision mirrored that of Sudan's Islamist leader, Turabi, who convened a series
of meetings under the label Popular Arab and Islamic Conference around the time
of Bin Ladin's arrival in that country. Delegations of violent Islamist
extremists came from all the groups represented in Bin Ladin's Islamic Army
Shura. Representatives also came from organizations such as the Palestine
Liberation Organization, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
Turabi sought to persuade Shiites and Sunnis
to put aside their divisions and join against the common enemy. In late 1991 or
1992, discussions in Sudan between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives led to an
informal agreement to cooperate in providing support-even if only training-for
actions carried out primarily against Israel and the United States. Not long
afterward, senior al Qaeda operatives and trainers traveled to Iran to receive
training in explosives. In the fall of 1993, another such delegation went to the
Bekaa Valley in Lebanon for further training in explosives as well as in
intelligence and security. Bin Ladin reportedly showed particular interest in
learning how to use truck bombs such as the one that had killed 241 U.S. Marines
in Lebanon in 1983.The relationship between al Qaeda and Iran demonstrated that
Sunni-Shia divisions did not necessarily pose an insurmountable barrier to
cooperation in terrorist operations. As will be described in chapter 7, al Qaeda
contacts with Iran continued in ensuing years.
Bin Ladin was also willing to explore
possibilities for cooperation with Iraq, even though Iraq's dictator, Saddam
Hussein, had never had an Islamist agenda-save for his opportunistic pose as a
defender of the faithful against "Crusaders" during the Gulf War of
1991. Moreover, Bin Ladin had in fact been sponsoring anti-Saddam Islamists in
Iraqi Kurdistan, and sought to attract them into his Islamic army.
To protect his own ties with Iraq, Turabi
reportedly brokered an agreement that Bin Ladin would stop supporting activities
against Saddam. Bin Ladin apparently honored this pledge, at least for a time,
although he continued to aid a group of Islamist extremists operating in part of
Iraq (Kurdistan) outside of Baghdad's control. In the late 1990s, these
extremist groups suffered major defeats by Kurdish forces. In 2001, with Bin
Ladin's help they re-formed into an organization called Ansar al Islam. There
are indications that by then the Iraqi regime tolerated and may even have helped
Ansar al Islam against the common Kurdish enemy.
With the Sudanese regime acting as
intermediary, Bin Ladin himself met with a senior Iraqi intelligence officer in
Khartoum in late 1994 or early 1995. Bin Ladin is said to have asked for space
to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but
there is no evidence that Iraq responded to this request.
As described below, the ensuing years saw
additional efforts to establish connections.
Sudan Becomes a Doubtful Haven Not until 1998
did al Qaeda undertake a major terrorist operation of its own, in large part
because Bin Ladin lost his base in Sudan. Ever since the Islamist regime came to
power in Khartoum, the United States and other Western governments had pressed
it to stop providing a haven for terrorist organizations. Other governments in
the region, such as those of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and even Libya, which were
targets of some of these groups, added their own pressure. At the same time, the
Sudanese regime began to change. Though Turabi had been its inspirational
leader, General Omar al Bashir, president since 1989, had never been entirely
under his thumb. Thus as outside pressures mounted, Bashir's supporters began to
displace those of Turabi.
The attempted assassination in Ethiopia of
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 1995 appears to have been a tipping
point. The would-be killers, who came from the Egyptian Islamic Group, had been
sheltered in Sudan and helped by Bin Ladin.
When the Sudanese refused to hand over three
individuals identified as involved in the assassination plot, the UN Security
Council passed a resolution criticizing their inaction and eventually sanctioned
Khartoum in April 1996.
A clear signal to Bin Ladin that his days in
Sudan were numbered came when the government advised him that it intended to
yield to Libya's demands to stop giving sanctuary to its enemies. Bin Ladin had
to tell the Libyans who had been part of his Islamic army that he could no
longer protect them and that they had to leave the country. Outraged, several
Libyan members of al Qaeda and the Islamic Army Shura renounced all connections
Bin Ladin also began to have serious money
problems. International pressure on Sudan, together with strains in the world
economy, hurt Sudan's currency. Some of Bin Ladin's companies ran short of
funds. As Sudanese authorities became less obliging, normal costs of doing
business increased. Saudi pressures on the Bin Ladin family also probably took
some toll. In any case, Bin Ladin found it necessary both to cut back his
spending and to control his outlays more closely. He appointed a new financial
manager, whom his followers saw as miserly.
Money problems proved costly to Bin Ladin in
other ways. Jamal Ahmed al Fadl, a Sudanese-born Arab, had spent time in the
United States and had been recruited for the Afghan war through the Farouq
mosque in Brooklyn. He had joined al Qaeda and taken the oath of fealty to Bin
Ladin, serving as one of his business agents. Then Bin Ladin discovered that
Fadl had skimmed about $110,000, and he asked for restitution. Fadl resented
receiving a salary of only $500 a month while some of the Egyptians in al Qaeda
were given $1,200 a month. He defected and became a star informant for the
United States. Also testifying about al Qaeda in a U.S. court was L'Houssaine
Kherchtou, who told of breaking with Bin Ladin because of Bin Ladin's professed
inability to provide him with money when his wife needed a caesarian section.
In February 1996, Sudanese officials began
approaching officials from the United States and other governments, asking what
actions of theirs might ease foreign pressure. In secret meetings with Saudi
officials, Sudan offered to expel Bin Ladin to Saudi Arabia and asked the Saudis
to pardon him. U.S. officials became aware of these secret discussions,
certainly by March. Saudi officials apparently wanted Bin Ladin expelled from
Sudan. They had already revoked his citizenship, however, and would not tolerate
his presence in their country. And Bin Ladin may have no longer felt safe in
Sudan, where he had already escaped at least one assassination attempt that he
believed to have been the work of the Egyptian or Saudi regimes, or both. In any
case, on May 19, 1996, Bin Ladin left Sudan-significantly weakened, despite his
ambitions and organizational skills. He returned to Afghanistan.
QAEDA'S RENEWAL IN AFGHANISTAN (1996-1998)
Bin Ladin flew on a leased aircraft from
Khartoum to Jalalabad, with a refueling stopover in the United Arab Emirates.
He was accompanied by family members and
bodyguards, as well as by al Qaeda members who had been close associates since
his organization's 1988 founding in Afghanistan. Dozens of additional militants
arrived on later flights.
Though Bin Ladin's destination was
Afghanistan, Pakistan was the nation that held the key to his ability to use
Afghanistan as a base from which to revive his ambitious enterprise for war
against the United States.
For the first quarter century of its existence
as a nation, Pakistan's identity had derived from Islam, but its politics had
been decidedly secular. The army was-and remains-the country's strongest and
most respected institution, and the army had been and continues to be
preoccupied with its rivalry with India, especially over the disputed territory
From the 1970s onward, religion had become an
increasingly powerful force in Pakistani politics. After a coup in 1977,
military leaders turned to Islamist groups for support, and fundamentalists
became more prominent. South Asia had an indigenous form of Islamic
fundamentalism, which had developed in the nineteenth century at a school in the
Indian village of Deoband.
The influence of the Wahhabi school of
Islam had also grown, nurtured by Saudi-funded institutions. Moreover, the
fighting in Afghanistan made Pakistan home to an enormous-and generally
unwelcome-population of Afghan refugees; and since the badly strained Pakistani
education system could not accommodate the refugees, the government increasingly
let privately funded religious schools serve as a cost-free alternative. Over
time, these schools produced large numbers of half-educated young men with no
marketable skills but with deeply held Islamic views.
Pakistan's rulers found these multitudes of
ardent young Afghans a source of potential trouble at home but potentially
useful abroad. Those who joined the Taliban movement, espousing a ruthless
version of Islamic law, perhaps could bring order in chaotic Afghanistan and
make it a cooperative ally. They thus might give Pakistan greater security on
one of the several borders where Pakistani military officers hoped for what they
called "strategic depth."
It is unlikely that Bin Ladin could have
returned to Afghanistan had Pakistan disapproved. The Pakistani military
intelligence service probably had advance knowledge of his coming, and its
officers may have facilitated his travel. During his entire time in Sudan, he
had maintained guesthouses and training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These
were part of a larger network used by diverse organizations for recruiting and
training fighters for Islamic insurgencies in such places as Tajikistan,
Kashmir, and Chechnya. Pakistani intelligence officers reportedly introduced Bin
Ladin to Taliban leaders in Kandahar, their main base of power, to aid his
reassertion of control over camps near Khowst, out of an apparent hope that he
would now expand the camps and make them available for training Kashmiri
Yet Bin Ladin was in his weakest position
since his early days in the war against the Soviet Union. The Sudanese
government had canceled the registration of the main business enterprises he had
set up there and then put some of them up for public sale. According to a senior
al Qaeda detainee, the government of Sudan seized everything Bin Ladin had
He also lost the head of his military
committee, Abu Ubaidah al Banshiri, one of the most capable and popular leaders
of al Qaeda. While most of the group's key figures had accompanied Bin Ladin to
Afghanistan, Banshiri had remained in Kenya to oversee the training and weapons
shipments of the cell set up some four years earlier. He died in a ferryboat
accident on Lake Victoria just a few days after Bin Ladin arrived in Jalalabad,
leaving Bin Ladin with a need to replace him not only in the Shura but also as
supervisor of the cells and prospective operations in East Africa.69 He had to
make other adjustments as well, for some al Qaeda members viewed Bin Ladin's
return to Afghanistan as occasion to go off in their own directions. Some
maintained collaborative relationships with al Qaeda, but many disengaged
For a time, it may not have been clear to Bin
Ladin that the Taliban would be his best bet as an ally. When he arrived in
Afghanistan, they controlled much of the country, but key centers, including
Kabul, were still held by rival warlords. Bin Ladin went initially to Jalalabad,
probably because it was in an area controlled by a provincial council of Islamic
leaders who were not major contenders for national power. He found lodgings with
Younis Khalis, the head of one of the main mujahideen factions. Bin Ladin
apparently kept his options open, maintaining contacts with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,
who, though an Islamic extremist, was also one of the Taliban's most militant
opponents. But after September 1996, when first Jalalabad and then Kabul fell to
the Taliban, Bin Ladin cemented his ties with them.
That process did not always go smoothly. Bin
Ladin, no longer constrained by the Sudanese, clearly thought that he had new
freedom to publish his appeals for jihad. At about the time when the Taliban
were making their final drive toward Jalalabad and Kabul, Bin Ladin issued his
August 1996 fatwa, saying that "We . . . have been prevented from
addressing the Muslims," but expressing relief that "by the grace of
Allah, a safe base here is now available in the high Hindu Kush mountains in
Khurasan." But the Taliban, like the Sudanese, would eventually hear
warnings, including from the Saudi monarchy.
Though Bin Ladin had promised Taliban leaders
that he would be circumspect, he broke this promise almost immediately, giving
an inflammatory interview to CNN in March 1997. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar
promptly "invited" Bin Ladin to move to Kandahar, ostensibly in the
interests of Bin Ladin's own security but more likely to situate him where he
might be easier to control.
There is also evidence that around this time
Bin Ladin sent out a number of feelers to the Iraqi regime, offering some
cooperation. None are reported to have received a significant response.
According to one report, Saddam Hussein's efforts at this time to rebuild
relations with the Saudis and other Middle Eastern regimes led him to stay clear
of Bin Ladin.
In mid-1998, the situation reversed; it was
Iraq that reportedly took the initiative. In March 1998, after Bin Ladin's
public fatwa against the United States, two al Qaeda members reportedly went to
Iraq to meet with Iraqi intelligence. In July, an Iraqi delegation traveled to
Afghanistan to meet first with the Taliban and then with Bin Ladin. Sources
reported that one, or perhaps both, of these meetings was apparently arranged
through Bin Ladin's Egyptian deputy, Zawahiri, who had ties of his own to the
Iraqis. In 1998, Iraq was under intensifying U.S. pressure, which culminated in
a series of large air attacks in December.
Similar meetings between Iraqi officials and
Bin Ladin or his aides may have occurred in 1999 during a period of some
reported strains with the Taliban. According to the reporting, Iraqi officials
offered Bin Ladin a safe haven in Iraq. Bin Ladin declined, apparently judging
that his circumstances in Afghanistan remained more favorable than the Iraqi
alternative. The reports describe friendly contacts and indicate some common
themes in both sides' hatred of the United States. But to date we have seen no
evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative
operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq
cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the
Bin Ladin eventually enjoyed a strong
financial position in Afghanistan, thanks to Saudi and other financiers
associated with the Golden Chain. Through his relationship with Mullah Omar-and
the monetary and other benefits that it brought the Taliban-Bin Ladin was able
to circumvent restrictions; Mullah Omar would stand by him even when other
Taliban leaders raised objections. Bin Ladin appeared to have in Afghanistan a
freedom of movement that he had lacked in Sudan. Al Qaeda members could travel
freely within the country, enter and exit it without visas or any immigration
procedures, purchase and import vehicles and weapons, and enjoy the use of
official Afghan Ministry of Defense license plates. Al Qaeda also used the
Afghan state-owned Ariana Airlines to courier money into the country.
The Taliban seemed to open the doors to all
who wanted to come to Afghanistan to train in the camps. The alliance with the
Taliban provided al Qaeda a sanctuary in which to train and indoctrinate
fighters and terrorists, import weapons, forge ties with other jihad groups and
leaders, and plot and staff terrorist schemes. While Bin Ladin maintained his
own al Qaeda guesthouses and camps for vetting and training recruits, he also
provided support to and benefited from the broad infrastructure of such
facilities in Afghanistan made available to the global network of Islamist
movements. U.S. intelligence estimates put the total number of fighters who
underwent instruction in Bin Ladin-supported camps in Afghanistan from 1996
through 9/11 at 10,000 to 20,000.
In addition to training fighters and special
operators, this larger network of guesthouses and camps provided a mechanism by
which al Qaeda could screen and vet candidates for induction into its own
organization. Thousands flowed through the camps, but no more than a few hundred
seem to have become al Qaeda members. From the time of its founding, al Qaeda
had employed training and indoctrination to identify "worthy"
Al Qaeda continued meanwhile to collaborate
closely with the many Middle Eastern groups-in Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Lebanon,
Morocco, Tunisia, Somalia, and elsewhere-with which it had been linked when Bin
Ladin was in Sudan. It also reinforced its London base and its other offices
around Europe, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. Bin Ladin bolstered his links to
extremists in South and Southeast Asia, including the Malaysian-Indonesian JI
and several Pakistani groups engaged in the Kashmir conflict.
The February 1998 fatwa thus seems to have
been a kind of public launch of a renewed and stronger al Qaeda, after a year
and a half of work. Having rebuilt his fund-raising network, Bin Ladin had again
become the rich man of the jihad movement. He had maintained or restored many of
his links with terrorists elsewhere in the world. And he had strengthened the
internal ties in his own organization.
The inner core of al Qaeda continued to be a
hierarchical top-down group with defined positions, tasks, and salaries. Most
but not all in this core swore fealty (or bayat) to Bin Ladin. Other operatives
were committed to Bin Ladin or to his goals and would take assignments for him,
but they did not swear bayat and maintained, or tried to maintain, some
autonomy. A looser circle of adherents might give money to al Qaeda or train in
its camps but remained essentially independent. Nevertheless, they constituted a
potential resource for al Qaeda.
Now effectively merged with Zawahiri's
Egyptian Islamic Jihad,
al Qaeda promised to become the general
headquarters for international terrorism, without the need for the Islamic Army
Shura. Bin Ladin was prepared to pick up where he had left off in Sudan. He was
ready to strike at "the head of the snake."
Al Qaeda's role in organizing terrorist
operations had also changed. Before the move to Afghanistan, it had concentrated
on providing funds, training, and weapons for actions carried out by members of
allied groups. The attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa in the summer of
1998 would take a different form-planned, directed, and executed by al Qaeda,
under the direct supervision of Bin Ladin and his chief aides.
The Embassy Bombings As early as December
1993, a team of al Qaeda operatives had begun casing targets in Nairobi for
future attacks. It was led by Ali Mohamed, a former Egyptian army officer who
had moved to the United States in the mid-1980s, enlisted in the U.S. Army, and
became an instructor at Fort Bragg. He had provided guidance and training to
extremists at the Farouq mosque in Brooklyn, including some who were
subsequently convicted in the February 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
The casing team also included a computer expert whose write-ups were reviewed by
al Qaeda leaders.
The team set up a makeshift laboratory for
developing their surveillance photographs in an apartment in Nairobi where the
various al Qaeda operatives and leaders based in or traveling to the Kenya cell
sometimes met. Banshiri, al Qaeda's military committee chief, continued to be
the operational commander of the cell; but because he was constantly on the
move, Bin Ladin had dispatched another operative, Khaled al Fawwaz, to serve as
the on-site manager. The technical surveillance and communications equipment
employed for these casing missions included state-of-the-art video cameras
obtained from China and from dealers in Germany. The casing team also
reconnoitered targets in Djibouti.
As early as January 1994, Bin Ladin received
the surveillance reports, complete with diagrams prepared by the team's computer
specialist. He, his top military committee members-Banshiri and his deputy, Abu
Hafs al Masri (also known as Mohammed Atef)-and a number of other al Qaeda
leaders reviewed the reports. Agreeing that the U.S. embassy in Nairobi was an
easy target because a car bomb could be parked close by, they began to form a
plan. Al Qaeda had begun developing the tactical expertise for such attacks
months earlier, when some of its operatives-top military committee members and
several operatives who were involved with the Kenya cell among them-were sent to
Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon.
The cell in Kenya experienced a series of
disruptions that may in part account for the relatively long delay before the
attack was actually carried out. The difficulties Bin Ladin began to encounter
in Sudan in 1995, his move to Afghanistan in 1996, and the months spent
establishing ties with the Taliban may also have played a role, as did
Banshiri's accidental drowning.
In August 1997, the Kenya cell panicked. The
London Daily Telegraph reported that Madani al Tayyib, formerly head of al
Qaeda's finance committee, had turned himself over to the Saudi government. The
article said (incorrectly) that the Saudis were sharing Tayyib's information
with the U.S. and British authorities.
At almost the same time, cell members
learned that U.S. and Kenyan agents had searched the Kenya residence of Wadi al
Hage, who had become the new on-site manager in Nairobi, and that Hage's
telephone was being tapped. Hage was a U.S. citizen who had worked with Bin
Ladin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and in 1992 he went to Sudan to become one of
al Qaeda's major financial operatives. When Hage returned to the United States
to appear before a grand jury investigating Bin Ladin, the job of cell manager
was taken over by Harun Fazul, a Kenyan citizen who had been in Bin Ladin's
advance team to Sudan back in 1990. Harun faxed a report on the "security
situation" to several sites, warning that "the crew members in East
Africa is [sic] in grave danger" in part because "America knows . . .
that the followers of [Bin Ladin] . . . carried out the operations to hit
Americans in Somalia." The report provided instructions for avoiding
On February 23, 1998, Bin Ladin issued his
public fatwa. The language had been in negotiation for some time, as part of the
merger under way between Bin Ladin's organization and Zawahiri's Egyptian
Islamic Jihad. Less than a month after the publication of the fatwa, the teams
that were to carry out the embassy attacks were being pulled together in Nairobi
and Dar es Salaam. The timing and content of their instructions indicate that
the decision to launch the attacks had been made by the time the fatwa was
The next four months were spent setting up the
teams in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Members of the cells rented residences, and
purchased bomb-making materials and transport vehicles. At least one additional
explosives expert was brought in to assist in putting the weapons together. In
Nairobi, a hotel room was rented to put up some of the operatives. The suicide
trucks were purchased shortly before the attack date.
While this was taking place, Bin Ladin
continued to push his public message. On May 7, the deputy head of al Qaeda's
military committee, Mohammed Atef, faxed to Bin Ladin's London office a new
fatwa issued by a group of sheikhs located in Afghanistan. A week later, it
appeared in Al Quds al Arabi, the same Arabic-language newspaper in London that
had first published Bin Ladin's February fatwa, and it conveyed the same
message-the duty of Muslims to carry out holy war against the enemies of Islam
and to expel the Americans from the Gulf region. Two weeks after that, Bin Ladin
gave a videotaped interview to ABC News with the same slogans, adding that
"we do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and
civilians; they are all targets in this fatwa."
By August 1, members of the cells not directly
involved in the attacks had mostly departed from East Africa. The remaining
operatives prepared and assembled the bombs, and acquired the delivery vehicles.
On August 4, they made one last casing run at the embassy in Nairobi. By the
evening of August 6, all but the delivery teams and one or two persons assigned
to remove the evidence trail had left East Africa. Back in Afghanistan, Bin
Ladin and the al Qaeda leadership had left Kandahar for the countryside,
expecting U.S. retaliation. Declarations taking credit for the attacks had
already been faxed to the joint al Qaeda-Egyptian Islamic Jihad office in Baku,
with instructions to stand by for orders to "instantly" transmit them
to Al Quds al Arabi. One proclaimed "the formation of the Islamic Army for
the Liberation of the Holy Places," and two others-one for each
embassy-announced that the attack had been carried out by a "company"
of a "battalion" of this "Islamic Army."
On the morning of August 7, the bomb-laden
trucks drove into the embassies roughly five minutes apart-about 10:35 A.M. in
Nairobi and 10:39 A.M. in Dar es Salaam. Shortly afterward, a phone call was
placed from Baku to London. The previously prepared messages were then faxed to
The attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi
destroyed the embassy and killed 12 Americans and 201 others, almost all
Kenyans. About 5,000 people were injured. The attack on the U.S. embassy in Dar
es Salaam killed 11 more people, none of them Americans. Interviewed later about
the deaths of the Africans, Bin Ladin answered that "when it becomes
apparent that it would be impossible to repel these Americans without assaulting
them, even if this involved the killing of Muslims, this is permissible under
Islam." Asked if he had indeed masterminded these bombings, Bin Ladin said
that the World Islamic Front for jihad against "Jews and Crusaders"
had issued a "crystal clear" fatwa. If the instigation for jihad
against the Jews and the Americans to liberate the holy places "is
considered a crime," he said, "let history be a witness that I am a
Credit: The 911 Commission Report