How A Holy War Against The Soviets Turned On U.S.

by Ahmed Rashid
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
September 23, 2001

In 1986, Director of Central Intelligence William Casey stepped up the war against the Soviet Union by taking three significant, but at that time highly secret, measures.

He persuaded the U.S. Congress to provide the Afghan fighters known as Mujaheddin, "holy warriors" in Arabic, with American-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Soviet planes and to send U.S. advisers to train the guerrillas. Until then, no U.S.-made weapons or personnel had been used directly in the war effort. U.S.-financed weapons provided to the Afghans until then had been generally of Warsaw Pact manufacture, to provide deniability of U.S. support for the Mujaheddin.

The CIA, Britain's MI6 intelligence service and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) also agreed on a provocative plan to launch guerrilla attacks into the then Soviet Republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the soft Muslim underbelly of the Soviet state from where Soviet troops in Afghanistan received their supplies.

The task was given to the ISI's favorite Mujaheddin leader, Gulbuddin Hikmetyar. In March 1987, small units crossed the Amu Darya river from bases in northern Afghanistan and launched their first rocket attacks against villages in Tajikistan. Casey was delighted with the news, and on his next secret trip to Pakistan crossed the border into Afghanistan with the late Pakistani President Zia al-Haq to meet the Mujaheddin groups. Third, Casey committed CIA support to a long-standing ISI initiative to recruit radical Muslims from around the world to come to Pakistan and fight alongside the Afghan Mujaheddin. The ISI had promoted this idea since 1982, and by now all the other players had their reasons for supporting it.

President Zia aimed to cement Islamic unity, turn Pakistan into the leader of the Muslim world and foster an Islamic opposition to Soviet rule in Central Asia. Washington wanted to demonstrate that the entire Muslim world was fighting against the Soviet Union beside the Afghans and their American benefactors. Saudi Arabia saw an opportunity both to promote Wahabbism (the strict, austere form of Islam practiced in the kingdom) and to occupy some of its disgruntled radicals outside the country.

None of the players -- U.S., Britain, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia -- reckoned on the non-Afghan volunteers having their own agendas, which would eventually turn their hatred of the Soviets against the regimes of their own countries and the Americans.

Radicals come to study

Between 1982 and 1992, some 35,000 generally radical Muslims from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would enjoy their baptism under fire with the Afghan Mujaheddin. Tens of thousands more foreign Muslims came to study in the hundreds of new religious schools ("madrassas" in Arabic) that Pakistan's military government began to fund, in Pakistan and along the Afghan border. Eventually more than 100,000 generally radical Muslims were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the holy war (jihad) against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

In camps near Peshawar in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, these radicals met each other for the first time and studied, trained and subsequently fought together. It was the first opportunity for most of them to learn about Islamic movements in other countries, and they forged tactical and ideological links that would serve them well in the future. The camps became virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism.

"What was more important in the world view of history? The possible creation of an armed, radical Islamic movement, or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few fired-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" was the question that Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, posed. American citizens woke up to the consequences only when Afghanistan-trained Islamic militants blew up the World Trade Center in New York in 1993, killing six people and injuring 1,000.

"The war," wrote Samuel Huntington, "left behind an uneasy coalition of Islamist organizations intent on promoting Islam against all non-Muslim forces. It also left a legacy of expert and experienced fighters, training camps and logistical facilities, elaborate trans-Islam networks of personal and organizational relationships, a substantial amount of military equipment, including 300 to 500 U.S.-provided, now unaccounted-for Stinger missiles, and, most importantly, a heady sense of power and self-confidence based on what had been achieved, and a driving desire to move on to other victories."

A young bin Laden

Among these thousands of foreign recruits was a young Saudi student, Osama bin Laden, a son of Yemen-born construction magnate Mohammed bin Laden, a close friend of the late Saudi King Faisal. The bin Laden company had become fabulously wealthy on contracts to renovate and expand the Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina, as well as from other construction projects.

Pakistan's military intelligence service had long wanted Prince Turki bin Faisal, the head of the Saudi intelligence service to provide a royal prince to lead the Saudi contingent in the Afghanistan struggle in order to demonstrate to Muslims the commitment of the Saudi royal family to the holy war in Afghanistan. Bin Laden, although not royal, was close to the royal family and certainly wealthy enough to be a credible leader of the Saudi contingent.

The headquarters for those who had come to fight with the Afghans against Soviet forces was the offices in Peshawar, northern Pakistan, of the World Muslim League and the Muslim Brotherhood. The center was run by Abdullah Azam, a Palestinian from Jordan whom bin Laden had first met at university in Jeddah and whom he revered as his leader. (Azam and his two sons were assassinated by a bomb blast in Peshawar in 1989.)

Saudi funds flowed to Azam and to a "service center" created in 1984 to support the new recruits and to receive donations from Islamic charities. Donors included the Saudi intelligence service, the Saudi Red Crescent, the World Muslim League and private donors, including Saudi princes and mosques. A decade later, the service center would emerge as the nexus of a web of radical organizations which helped carry out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.

Until Osama bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan, his life had not been extraordinary. He was born around 1957, the 17th of 57 children fathered by his Yemeni father. His mother was Saudi, one of his father's many wives. Bin Laden studied for a master's degree in business administration at King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia but soon switched to Islamic studies. Thin and tall, he stands at 6 feet 5 inches, with long limbs and a flowing beard.

His father backed the Afghan struggle and helped fund it; when Osama bin Laden decided to join the non-Afghan fighters with the Mujaheddin, his family responded enthusiastically. Osama first traveled to Peshawar in 1980 and met the Mujaheddin leaders, then returned frequently with Saudi donations for the cause. In 1982, he decided to set himself up in Peshawar. He brought in engineers from his father's company and heavy construction equipment to build roads and warehouses for the Mujaheddin. In 1986, he helped build a CIA-financed tunnel complex, to serve as a major arms storage depot, training facility and medical center for the Mujaheddin, deep under the mountains close to the Pakistan border. For the first time there he set up his own training camp for Arabs and Afghans, who came increasingly to see this lanky, wealthy, charismatic Saudi as their leader.

Bin Laden later claimed to have taken part in ambushes against Soviet troops. This may be true, but, in general, he used his own wealth and other Saudi donations to build Mujaheddin projects and spread his brand of Islam among the Afghans. With the death of his mentor, Azam, in 1989, bin Laden took over Azam's organization and set up al-Qaida (in Arabic, "the base") as a service center for Arabs working with the Afghan Mujaheddin and their families and to forge a broad-based alliance among the Islamic radicals involved in the struggle for Afghanistan. Several thousand of these militants established bases in Afghanistan; their austere approach to Islam sometimes made them intensely disliked by some Afghans. Their choice of preferred allies among the Afghans also sometimes earned them enemies among less extreme Muslims in Afghanistan.

Upset by U.S. role in Gulf War

By 1990 bin Laden had become disillusioned by internal bickering within the Mujaheddin and returned to Saudi Arabia to work in the family business. There he founded a welfare organization for veterans of the war. Some 4,000 of them had settled in Mecca and Medina alone, and bin Laden gave money to families of those killed. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait he lobbied the Saudi royal family to organize civil defense in the kingdom and to raise a force from among the Afghan war veterans to fight Iraq. Instead, King Fahd invited in the Americans, shocking and infuriating bin Laden. As the eventual 540,000 U.S. troops began to arrive, bin Laden openly criticized the royal family, lobbying organized Saudi Muslim clergy to issue religious rulings ("fatwas" in Arabic), condemning the stationing of non-Muslims in the country.

Bin Laden left Saudi Arabia in 1992 for Sudan, to take part in an Islamic re-make of that country then taking place. Bin Laden's continued criticism of the Saudi royal family eventually annoyed them so much that in 1994 they took the unusual step of revoking his citizenship. In Sudan, using his wealth and contacts, bin Laden gathered around him more veterans of the Afghan war, 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 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 went back to Afghanistan, arriving in Jalalabad in a chartered jet with an entourage of dozens of Arab militants, bodyguards and family members, including three wives and 13 children. There he lived under the protection of local authorities until the conquest of Kabul and Jalalabad by the victorious Taliban in September 1996. In August 1996, he had issued his first declaration of holy war against the Americans, whom he said were occupying Saudi Arabia.

"The walls of oppression and humiliation cannot be demolished except in a rain of bullets," his declaration read. Having struck up a friendship with Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, in 1997 bin Laden moved to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and came under the protection of the Taliban.

By 1997 the CIA had set up a special cell to monitor bin Laden's activities and his links with other Islamic militants. A U.S. State Department report noted in August 1996 that bin Laden was "one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world." It described bin Laden as financing terrorist camps in Somalia, Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen, as well as in Afghanistan. President Clinton had signed the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allowed the U.S. to block assets of terrorist organizations, in April 1996. It was used, for the first time, to block bin Laden's access to his fortune, estimated at $250-300 million. Egyptian intelligence declared shortly later that bin Laden was training 1,000 militants, a second generation of Arabs and Afghans, to seek to bring about Islamic revolution in Arab countries.

CIA tries a snatch operation

In early 1997 the CIA put together a team that arrived in Peshawar to try to carry out a snatch operation to get bin Laden out of Afghanistan. The Americans enlisted Afghans and Pakistanis to help, but subsequently aborted the operation. The U.S. actions in Peshawar helped persuade bin Laden to install himself in safer Kandahar. In a February 1998 meeting, all the groups associated with al-Qaida issued a manifesto in the name of "The International Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders." It stated that, "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 peoples."

The meeting issued a religious ruling proclaiming the killing of Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- to be an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it, in any country in which it is possible to do so. Bin Laden had formulated a policy that was not just aimed at the Saudi royal family and the Americans, but which called for what he considered to be the liberation of the entire Muslim Middle East. As the American air war against Iraq continued in 1998, bin Laden called on all Muslims to "confront, fight and kill, Americans and Britons."

1998 U.S. Embassy bombings

Whatever notoriety bin Laden had already picked up, it was the bombings in August 1998 of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, which made bin Laden a household word. Thirteen days later, after accusing bin Laden of perpetrating the attack, the U.S. retaliated, firing cruise missiles at targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. Several camps in Afghanistan were hit. Known dead included three Yemenis, two Egyptians, one Saudi, one Turk, seven Pakistanis and 20 Afghans.

Upping the ante, in November 1998 the U.S., further provoked by a bin Laden proclamation that it was a religious duty for Muslims to acquire chemical and nuclear weapons to use against the U.S.A., offered a $5 million reward for his capture.

In the wake of the bombings in Africa, the U.S. launched a global operation against bin Laden and his cohorts. More than 80 Islamic militants were arrested at U.S. behest in a dozen different countries. It was Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the original sponsors of the Arab effort to support the anti-Soviet Afghans, who suffered the most as their activities came back to haunt them. In March 1997, three Arabs and two Islamic militants from Tajikistan were shot dead after a 36-hour gun battle between them and the police in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan. They were planning to bomb an Islamic heads of state meeting that was going to be held in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.

Fighting in Kashmir against India

With the encouragement of Pakistan, the Taliban and bin Laden, Arabs and Afghans had enlisted in the Pakistani party Harkat-ut-Ansar to fight in Kashmir against Indian troops. The U.S. government had declared Harkat-ut-Ansar a terrorist organization in 1996; it changed its name to Harkat-ul-Mujaheddin, seeking to evoke the legitimacy of the anti-Soviet struggle for Afghanistan.

Pakistan faced a problem when Washington urged Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to help arrest bin Laden. The Pakistan intelligence service's close contacts with bin Laden, and the fact that he was helping fund and train Kashmiri militants, created a dilemma for Sharif when he visited Washington in December 1998. Sharif sidestepped the issue during his visit, but other Pakistani officials were less diplomatic, reminding their American counterparts how both countries had helped bin Laden in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.The Saudis' conundrum was even worse than Pakistan's. They provided cash for Taliban's military campaign in the north of Afghanistan. Until the Africa bombings and despite U.S. pressure to end Saudi support for the Taliban, they continued funding the movement and were silent in the face of entreaties to extradite bin Laden.

The truth about the Saudi silence was complicated. The Saudis preferred, in fact, to leave bin Laden in Afghanistan; his arrest and trial by the Americans could expose the deep relationship that he continued to have with sympathetic members of the royal family and elements within the Saudi intelligence service, which could prove deeply embarrassing if exposed. The Saudis wanted bin Laden either dead or a willing or unwilling guest of the Taliban, not in the hands of the Americans.

A life with the Taliban in Kandahar

By now, bin Laden had developed considerable influence within the Taliban. Partly for his own safety and partly to keep control over him, the Taliban shifted bin Laden to Kandahar in 1997. At first he lived as a paying guest. He built a house for Taliban leader Mullah Omar's family and provided funds to other Taliban leaders. He promised to pave the road from Kandahar airport to the city and to build mosques, schools and dams, but his civic works never got started as his funds were frozen. The grand life-style of the rich, young Saudi and his entourage aroused local resentment, against him and against the Taliban leaders who benefited from his largesse. Bin Laden's world view appeared to begin to dominate the thinking of senior Taliban leaders. All-night conversations with them paid off. Taliban leaders formerly not particularly antagonistic to the U.S. became increasingly vociferous against the Americans, the UN, the Saudis and other Muslim regimes around the world. Their statements increasingly reflected the language of bin Laden.

As U.S. pressure on the Taliban to expel bin Laden intensified, the Taliban said he was a guest and that it was against Afghan tradition to expel guests. When it appeared that Washington was planning another military strike against bin Laden, the Taliban tried to cut a deal with Washington -- to allow him to leave the country in exchange for U.S. recognition. Thus, until the winter of 1998 the Taliban saw bin Laden as an asset, a bargaining chip with the Americans.

The U.S. State Department opened a satellite telephone connection to speak to Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar directly. The Afghanistan desk officers, helped by a Pushto translator, held lengthy conversations with Omar in which both sides explored various options, but to no avail. By early 1999 it began to dawn on the Taliban that no compromise with the U.S. was possible without handing over bin Laden; they began to see the Saudi as a liability. A U.S. deadline in February 1999 forced the Taliban to make him disappear discreetly from Kandahar.

The Arabs who had helped the Afghans had now come full circle. From being mere appendages to the Afghan holy war and the Cold War in the 1980s they had come to take center stage in neighboring countries' and the West's policy toward Afghanistan's Taliban government in the 1990s. Afghanistan had become a clearly labeled haven for terrorism and for an extreme Islamist internationalism directed against the governments of other Muslim states. Americans and the rest of the West were also clearly at a loss as to how to deal with Afghanistan and its new role in the world.


(c) 2000 by Ahmed Rashid. Reprinted by permission.

NOTES: THE WAR ON TERROR BIN LADEN'S WORLD Ahmed Rashid, Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Daily Telegraph of London, is a Pakistani investigative journalist who has covered Afghanistan for 20 years. Rashid also is a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which is based in Washington, D.C. What follows is an excerpt from his book "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia" (Yale University Press), which originally appeared on the center's web site, The Public i,


Copyright 2001 PG Publishing

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