Back in the 1980s, before the Cold War gave way to the War on Terror, American money and supplies helped Osama Bin Laden create Al Qaeda and build it into one of the world’s most successful terrorist organizations. And without the close alliances between Al Qaeda and our “allies” Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the attack on the World Trade Towers could not have been carried out. What follows are the bare bones of what we know of this world as it existed in the days before September 11, 2001. (Some of the early material in this account first appeared in my book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11.)
In August 1998, shortly after the Al Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa, Osama Bin Laden was interviewed by Agence France Press. In grandiose but concise terms, he described his own rise to power in the early 1980s, during the years of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. “To counter these atheist Russians, the Saudis chose me as their representative in Afghanistan,” he said. “I settled in Pakistan in the Afghan border region. There I received volunteers who came from the Saudi kingdom and from all over the Arab and Muslim countries. I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis. I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts, communist or western oppression.”
In spite of its self-serving message and self-aggrandizing tone, the basic facts of Bin Laden’s account are not inaccurate. The terrorist organization that would one day launch the most devastating attacks ever to take place on American soil owes its existence, in large part, to U.S. covert operations and U.S. allies. At its inception, Al Qaeda was trained and supported by Pakistani agents, funded by Saudi sympathizers, and supplied by the CIA.
Later, when Bin Laden turned his sights on the United States, the CIA’s former friend in Afghanistan became its enemy. But the strategic and financial support provided by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continued, right up to the moment of the 9/11 attacks. Without these two countries—and especially their powerful intelligence services—the attacks could not have taken place. Attacks of this magnitude required money, and they required a friendly regime in Afghanistan to provide a training base; these were supplied courtesy of our “allies” in the region. Their support for Al Qaeda continued over nearly two decades, with little intervention from the United States beforehand, and few consequences after the fact.
How the CIA and the Pakistani Secret Service Launched Al Qaeda
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the trail of the terrorists quickly led back to Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda maintained its camps under the protection of the Taliban regime. But in reality, the trail leads further back into Afghan history, to the final decade of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union perceived a threat on its southern border and made the disastrous decision to invade and occupy Afghanistan.
The launch of U.S. covert actions in Afghanistan did not merely respond to the Soviet invasion—it helped to provoke the invasion. In January 1998, Jimmy Carter’s National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, told Nouvel Observateur, “According to the official history, CIA aid to the [anti-Soviet] Mujahaddin began during 1980, that’s to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. But the reality, kept secret until now, is completely different: On 3 July 1979 Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And on the same day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained that in my opinion this aid would lead to a Soviet military intervention.”
Brzesinski continued, “On the day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, saying, in essence: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.’ Indeed, for almost ten years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.”
Asked whether he regretted having supported an operation that would foment Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan, giving aid to future terrorists, Brzesninski said, “What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
The “agitated Muslims” indeed became a key part of the CIA’s strategy in Afghanistan, where a full-scale covert war was carried out during the Reagan Administration, with hundreds of millions in funding eventually provided by Congress. The covert operation took place under the zealous leadership of CIA Director William J. Casey, from 1982 until he became incapacitated in the autumn of 1986. Afghanistan seems to have held a special place in Casey’s heart, representing an opportunity to fight the Soviets right on their own border. In his book Ghost Wars, Steve Coll describes Casey in his famed black C 141 Starlifter transport, streaking through the night sky from CIA headquarters in Langley to Islamabad and back, sometimes stopping off in Riyadh to drum up funding. Casey promoted the idea that would eventually blaze a trail directly from the Cold War to the attacks of 9/11. He wanted to see the formation of an “All Arab” volunteer force that could recruit Muslims from around the world to come to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the Soviet Union.
Pakistan quickly became the U.S.’s number one ally in the Afghan campaign. Although it was long viewed as a strategic ally in the Cold War, relations between Pakistan and the United States at that time had been strained by Pakistani human rights abuses and nuclear weapons development, and most U.S. aid had been cut off. According to Soviet journalist Artyom Borovik, Pakistani leader General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq “saw in the Afghan conflict a unique opportunity to obtain a sharp increase in U.S. military and financial aid to Pakistan. The Pakistani generals regarded the entrance of Soviet troops into Afghanistan as ‘Brezhnev’s gift.’” And indeed, soon after the Soviet invasion, Jimmy Carter described Pakistan as a “frontline state” in the Cold War, and offered Zia $400 million in military and economic aid. In 1981, Reagan increased the aid package to $3.2 billion over six years, renewed in 1986 at the level of $4 billion. This aid required waivers to Congressional measures forbidding aid to countries developing nuclear capabilities—the first of many instances where the United States would look the other way when it came to Pakistan.
Zia was more than willing to support Casey’s strategy of building an international Islamic force to fight in Afghanistan. According to Ahmed Rashid in his book Taliban, Pakistan issued standing orders to all its embassies to grant visas to anyone who wanted to come and fight with the mujahaddin against the Soviets. As a result, a growing force of Muslims from around the world gathered in camps in easternmost Afghanistan, just across the Pakistani border. These camps, Rashid notes, became “virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism.”
The CIA in Afghanistan worked closely with its Pakistani counterpart, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI. According to Mohammad Yousaf, the ISI operations chief for the Afghanistan campaign, most of the U.S. money and supplies were channeled right to the ISI, which then made the decisions as to which commanders in Afghanistan got what weapons. The ISI maintained four base commands within Afghanistan, and they in turn reached out to smaller units, organized around clans and villages.
As reported in the Financial Times, in the early 1980s, the ISI even “started a special cell for the use of heroin for covert actions”– initiated, according to the article, “at the insistence of the Central Intelligence Agency.” This cell “promoted the cultivation of opium and the extraction of heroin in Pakistani territory as well as in the Afghan territory under mujahideen control for being smuggled into the Soviet controlled areas in order to make the Soviet troops heroin addicts. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the ISI’s heroin cell started using its network of refineries and smugglers for smuggling heroin to the Western countries and using the money as a supplement to its legitimate economy. But for these heroin dollars, Pakistan’s legitimate economy must have collapsed many years ago. . . . Not only the legitimate State economy, but also many senior officers of the Army and the ISI benefited from the heroin dollars.”
Mikail Gorbachev made the decision to withdraw Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and pullout took place in early 1989. By that time, reports and complaints about the growing force of militant Islamic volunteers began to come back to the CIA. But with the advent of the Soviet wind-down and withdrawal, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union and demise of the Cold War, the West lost all interest in Afghanistan. The United States never made any real attempt to deal with the realities it had helped create on the ground in Afghanistan. The war left behind a country where 1.5 million citizens—10 percent of the total population–had been killed, and 6 million had fled as refugees; where a third of the towns and villages had been destroyed outright or rendered unlivable, three-quarters of the paved roads were gone, and half of the agricultural production and livestock had been lost. It also left behind a heavily armed and heavily mined country in a state of virtual anarchy.
As the leaders of former mujaheddin factions fought one another for control, Afghan and Pakistani students were building a new political movement. This movement grew up around the thousands of madrassahs, or religious schools, that had taken root within Pakistan along the northwestern Afghan border. The founders of the new Taliban had no trouble finding recruits in the madrassahs, and in the crowded refugee camps on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and they soon became a force to reckon with within the warring factions in Afghanistan.
Among those keeping their eye on the growing Taliban movement was the ISI, long a major instrument of Pakistani foreign policy. The jihadists within the Pakistani government, and especially within the intelligence service, were unstinting in their support of the Taliban, and the ISI as a whole looked upon the Taliban with increasing favor. The ISI would be instrumental in bringing the Taliban to power, and would continue to provide them aid and advice in managing the country once they had assumed control. At times, Afghanistan almost seemed to be an administrative appendage of Pakistan.
At the same time, the cadre of militant Islamic guerrilla fighters who had converged from across the Islamic world were determined to maintain Afghanistan as a headquarters for future jihads. The time was ripe for the completion of what would prove a deadly troika joining the Pakistani secret service, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.
How The ISI Sustained the Taliban and Protected Bin Laden
Like thousands of others, Osama Bin Laden had cut his jihad teeth in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. Those who knew him when he first arrived, in 1980, depict him as a gentle, modest Saudi whose only desire was to put a shoulder to the wheel in ousting the Soviets. He was not considered a fighter, or much of a leader. He was considered wealthy, and over time his wealth took on mythic proportions. Although nowhere near as rich as the rumor had it, Bin Laden drew on other members of the Saudi elite, and helped finance hospitals, camps, and other construction projects.
Bin Laden was never viewed as a military commander until the Russians attacked his camp in eastern Afghanistan in 1987. Bin Laden appears to have been wounded in the foot (although there also have been reports of kidney problems and the need for dialysis at the time). Thanks to his own public relations campaign he was from then on celebrated as a jihad fighter, often filmed on horseback. His experiences were told and retold in his own propaganda.
As the Soviets began their pullout, Bin Laden and his closest associates “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,” as Ahmed Rashid describes it. But without a local jihad to fight, Bin Laden moved back to Saudi Arabia in 1989. Then, disgusted by the Saudi alliance with the United States in the Gulf War, he moved on to Sudan, where he continued to build his operation to finance and support terrorist enterprises. He and dozens of his supporters returned to Afghanistan in 1996, just months before Kandahar finally fell to the Taliban.
Here, again, Pakistan played a decisive role. As the 9/11 Commission report acknowledged, “Though his 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.” Pakistan would continue to be the source of madrassah-bred militants, and clearly hoped that the Taliban and its like “perhaps could bring order in chaotic Afghanistan and make it a cooperative ally.”
“It is unlikely,” the Commission continues, “that Bin Laden could have returned to Afghanistan had Pakistan disapproved. The Pakistani military and intelligence services 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 Laden 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 militants” for Pakistan’s ongoing standoff with India.
Bin Laden himself acknowledged his debt to the ISI, which he surely must have had in mind when he told Time magazine, in a 1999 interview, “As for Pakistan, there are some governmental departments which, by the grace of God, respond to Islamic sentiments of the masses in Pakistan. This is reflected in sympathy and cooperation. However, some other governmental departments fell into the trap of the infidels. We pray to God to return them to the right path.”
Cementing his relationship with the new Taliban regime (to which he brought considerable monetary support), Bin Laden helped expand the jihadist training camps in the safe sanctuary of Afghanistan; these camps would, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, train from 10,000 to 20,000 fighters between his 1996 return and September 11, 2001.
In February 28, 1998, Bin Laden issued his famous fatwa. Less than six months later, on August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda carried out its most devastating terrorist attacks up to that time, on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, killing 224 and injuring more than 5,000. In the days following the embassy bombings, the CIA learned military and extremist groups would be gathering on August 20 at a camp near Khost in eastern Afghanistan. The reports said Bin Laden was expected. This might seem to be the moment to respond with force to the embassy attacks and kill Bin Laden. Weak as it was, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Clinton Administration readied a response to the African embassy bombings by planning a surprise cruise missile attack on the camp, hoping they might find Bin Laden there and kill him.
But the attack was anything but a surprise. Seventy-five Tomahawk cruise missiles landed on the camp that evening–just as everyone knew they would. Twenty odd Pakistani jihad fighters died. Numerous others were wounded. Bin Laden was not there.
On August 19, the day before the planned attack, Pakistani cabinet minister Mushahid Hussain was in Saudi Arabia, and on an open phone line called the head of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau. Hussain later recounted his conversation to Steve Coll: “So I said, ‘what’s happening?’ [He said] ‘Bin Laden is having a meeting tomorrow. He’s called it a summit.’ I said, ‘do the Americans know?’ He said, ‘of course.’” Hussain concluded that “the attacks will come this evening,” and commented that if he could anticipate the strikes, “Surely Bin Laden with all of his resources would have known what was coming.” In other words, between the Saudis and the ISI, it is likely that someone warned Bin Laden that the United States knew of the meeting and was planning an attack. Apparently, Bin Laden’s “resources” included high-ranking individuals within the leadership of America’s two most important regional allies.
One of these “resources” was Hamid Gul, then head of the ISI. By all appearances, Gul was dedicated to protecting the Taliban, which in turn maintained close ties with Al Qaeda. In Against All Enemies, former terrorism “czar” Richard Clarke writes, “I believed that if Pakistan’s ISID [ISI] wanted to capture bin Laden or tell us where he was, they could have done so with little effort. They did not cooperate with us because ISID saw al Qaeda as helpful to the Taliban. They also saw al Qaeda and its affiliates as helpful in pressuring India, particularly in Kashmir. Some, like General Hamid Gul, . . . also appeared to share bin Laden’s anti-Western ideology.”
But when the United States repeatedly asked the ISI to provide Bin Laden’s location for a U.S. attack, Pakistani intelligence officers told the CIA that Al Qaeda no longer trusted them, so they could not pinpoint his whereabouts. According to Coll, “The Americans doubted this. . . . Pakistan’s army and political class had calculated that the benefits they reaped from supporting Afghan-based jihadist guerrillas—including those trained and funded by Bin Laden—outstripped the costs, some of Clinton’s aides concluded. As one White House official put it bluntly, ‘Since just telling us to fuck off seemed to do the trick,’ why should the Pakistanis change their strategy?”
The CIA, in tracking Bin Laden, had desperately—and foolishly–turned to its old ally the ISI, which had been so useful during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But the situation a decade later was quite different. The ISI had hated the Russian invaders, but many of them were more than sympathetic to the Taliban, and even to Bin Laden. Now, the United States wanted the Pakistanis to help them quell the rise of Islamic extremism, rather than encourage it. Some lip service was given to cooperation on both sides. The Pakistani government wanted to preserve a decent relationship with the United States, especially in 1998, when it was conducting tests of nuclear weapons. But it never took any real action to limit the ISI’s support of the Taliban or Al Qaeda. And the ISI, always an entity unto itself, did worse than nothing. There can be little doubt that many ISI operatives were functioning, in effect, as double agents, getting information from the CIA, and passing it on either directly to Bin Laden, or to the Taliban, which in turn informed Bin Laden.
ISI operatives were clearly involved in destroying enemies that threatened the Taliban. In early 1999, after Abdul Haq, the respected anti-Soviet fighter and Pashtun warlord, became an independent voice and stood up against the Taliban, the ISI called on him and told him to shut up. Haq paid them no heed. On returning later, he found his children and wife murdered. Several sources trace the attack to the ISI. The ISI would subsequently be implicated in Haq’s murder, as well as the murder of legendary Northern Alliance mujahedeen leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.
When General Pervez Musharaff took power in a 1999 coup, he appointed as his new ISI chief Lt. General Mahmoud Ahmed. Always a strong supporter of the Taliban, Mahmoud himself soon found new meaning in religion and started calling himself a “born against Muslim.” By the summer of 2000, the longstanding relationship between the ISI and the CIA had “turned icy.”
The Agency also began to realize it could not count on the jihadists within Pakistani intelligence, and began recruiting and training its own team of Afghan assets. Whether due to divided loyalties or limited competence, these recruits seem to have provided little useful intelligence on Al Qaeda.
What the ISI May Have Known About the Coming Attacks
The Taliban was largely the creation of the ISI. The Pakistani intelligence agency shepherded its rise, participated in its councils, kept away the CIA in order to protect it, and together with the Saudis appear to have warned the Taliban and Al Qaeda when an American attack was coming. It seems impossible that a major strategy debate could take place within the Taliban leadership, without ISI having some knowledge of it.
According to the 9/11 Commission report, based on testimony from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other captured operatives, just such a debate took place in the spring and summer of the 2001. The Taliban’s debating partner was Al Qaeda, and subject was the wisdom of launching the planned direct attacks on the United States.
According to this account, a general warning had been issued in Al Qaeda camps in July or early August—a warning similar to the one issued before the bombing of the Cole. Bin Laden disappeared, Al Qaeda members and their families were dispersed, and security was increased. The alert was cancelled after thirty days. The Commission states, “While details of the operation were strictly compartmented, by the time of the alert, word had begun to spread that an attack against the United States was coming.”
As the Taliban leadership became aware of the attack plans, they initially opposed them. Their first priority was defeating the Northern Alliance, which continued to control portions of Afghanistan and launch attacks on the Taliban. They were depending on military equipment and support from Al Qaeda. An attack on the United States might be counterproductive in that it would draw the U.S. into an Afghan conflict on the side of the Northern Alliance.
Mullah Omar also opposed Bin Laden’s plans on ideological grounds, preferring to attack Jews and not necessarily the United States. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed also subsequently claimed that Omar was under pressure from Pakistan to keep Al Qaeda operations inside Afghanistan. Matters came to a head at an Al Qaeda shura council meeting. While several top Al Qaeda leaders sided with the Taliban, Bin Laden overrode his opponents, asserting that Omar had no authority to stop jihads outside of Afghanistan’s borders.
Given the Taliban’s intimate knowledge of the plan for the 9/11 attacks—the debate within the top ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, a shura council meeting, and the suggestion Pakistan was pressuring Omar to keep Al Qaeda inside Afghanistan—it seems evident that the ISI must have known what was about to happen. In a so-called ally, this is treachery of the highest order. It is also another sad indictment of both an intelligence service that could not detect such treachery, and a White House that chose to turn its face away.
JAMES RIDGEWAY, an occasional columnist with ThisCantBeHappening.net, is senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones Magazine. For 30 years he was Washington correspondent for the Village Voice. He has his own blog called Unsilent Generation, where this article originally appeared.