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Chapter Nine: The War: Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan
THE JUDGMENT TO KILL AND FIGHT AMERICANS AND THEIR ALLIES, WHETHER CIVILIANS OR MILITARY, IS AN OBLIGATION FOR EVERY MUSLIM.
OSAMA BIN LADEN
AMERICANS, THINK! WHY DOES THE WHOLE WORLD HATE YOU?
SIGN AT A PAKISTANI DEMONSTRATION IN SEPTEMBER 2001
Few images have ever been so horrific or so enduring. The north tower of the World Trade Center in New York was already belching clouds of golden red flames and odorous black smoke from the impact of a hijacked plane that had swooped down from nowhere at 8:48 A.M. and sliced into its upper floors when, unbelievably, a second plane careened at full throttle into the south tower. Huge shards of mirrored glass, chunks of concrete and steel and then, in desperation, people spewed from both of the 110-floor structures. It all happened in a mere eighteen minutes as much of the world watched helplessly on television.
Thirty-six minutes later, at 9:42 A.M., another hijacked flight plummeted from the sky like a kamikaze fighter plane and dove into the Pentagon, the recently reinforced concrete fortress outside Washington that is often considered the world's most secure office building. One section of the massive five-sided structure ripped wide open as if nothing had ever been there.
And finally, at 10:10 A.M., a fourth plane like the other three, a transcontinental flight from the East Coast bound for California that, fully fueled, was the equivalent of a flying bomb crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. It had been destined for either the Capitol or the White House in Washington, investigators later concluded. It apparently crashed after the heroic efforts of passengers to overwhelm the hijackers.
The sequence of air assaults on September 11, 2001, was the worst terrorist attack ever. Anywhere. Some five thousand unsuspecting men, women and children from eighty nations were killed in New York and Washington and on the four ill-fated American and United passenger planes. The ten worst terrorist attacks worldwide before September 11, which claimed a combined total of 1,968 victims, almost paled by comparison.
But the numbers told only a tiny part of the story. The world's wealthiest and mightiest nation, in shocked disbelief of its vulnerability, closed down for almost a week. Congress, the White House and all major federal buildings were evacuated the first day, and many agencies shut down, moved or worked with part-time staffs for the remainder of the week. Airlines were grounded. Stock markets closed. Classes in schools and universities nationwide were suspended. Sports matches and cultural events social life in general were canceled or postponed. And it didn't stop at the borders. American troops posted worldwide went on high alert, while more than fifty U.S. embassies around the world were shut. And the State Department issued warning after warning after warning about where Americans dare not tread.
In historic terms, the attacks ended that comparatively tranquil and prosperous decade known as the post-Cold War period, which began in 1991 with the demise of the Soviet Union and the swift high-tech victory that forced Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to retreat from little oil-rich Kuwait. From 1991 to 2001, international crises flitted rather briefly across television screens. Conflicts were increasingly internal Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia. And foreign policy was rarely a defining force. In the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush gave only one foreign affairs speech.
After a breathtaking eighty-two minutes of terror, America's mission was abruptly redefined, its resources reallocated, its troops redeployed.
America's economy, already in a slump, was also bumped into recession. The week it reopened, the stock market suffered the biggest drop more than 14 percent since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Consumer confidence tanked. Airlines were on the ropes. Tourism evaporated with a rippling impact on hotels, transportation, theme parks even Disney. Cross-border trade with Mexico and Canada drew to a standstill with miles of trucks stranded at security checks. Sales shrank as people stopped buying. Layoffs soared into the hundreds of thousands within the first month.
And the impact rippled worldwide. The World Bank warned that the human toll extended to as many as ten million people who could lose their chance to escape poverty. Tens of thousands more could starve to death as a direct consequence of the attacks, due to everything from slashed exports to the United States and the collapse of tourism to loss of remittances sent home by migrant workers suddenly without jobs in America. The bank predicted that up to forty thousand children under the age of five could perish from the economic spillover, as poverty deepened and took a toll in childhood disease and malnutrition. And business in wealthy nations wasn't immune. European airlines immediately took a big hit. Swissair and Belgium's Sabena, two of the world's premier airlines, were forced to apply for bankruptcy protection.
Few events have ever had such sweeping and immediate impact. The drama of the moment seemed to defy superlatives.
Everything about the aftermath was also the biggest. The attacks spawned the largest FBI investigation ever, the largest worldwide intelligence probe combining the resources of dozens of nations, the largest global coalition formed to launch a new war on terrorism and, at $25 million, the largest reward ever offered for the capture of a wanted man one Osama bin Laden.
There never seemed to be much doubt about bin Laden's links to the attacks. Analysts working in white cubicles at the CIA's nearly windowless Counterrorism Center where pathways are marked "Osama bin Lane" and "Saddam Street" and "Qaddafi Qourt" after the world's rogues almost automatically assumed that the elusive Saudi renegade and his ethereal web of cells in al-Qaeda were responsible. Initially without a shred of tangible proof, they quickly concluded that the pattern perfectly fit his goals and style. And frankly, several conceded privately, virtually no other group anywhere had the capability or recklessness to even consider so ambitious a plot.
The American intelligence community also knew it was coming.
Since the early 1990s, the pace and scope of bin Laden's activities had been growing. His funds, training camps, contacts, businesses or influence were linked, directly or indirectly, to a litany of chillingly novel assaults: The first World Trade Center attack in 1993 left six dead and hundreds injured. A 1994 plot to blow up a dozen American jumbo jets flying over the Pacific was foiled by a lucky discovery; the same bin Laden ally was plotting to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1995. In 1998, the suicide truck bombings of two American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 224 and injured more than 4,000 diplomats, staff and passersby.
After the African attacks, bin Laden became America's foremost fugitive. Old-fashioned Wanted posters were put up in embassies worldwide. Both the CIA and FBI created special units to focus full-time on bin Laden and his agents, surrogates and allies. The trail of al-Qaeda bloodshed became so long, the tactics so distinctive and the threat so obvious that the United States won passage of a United Nations resolution demanding that bin Laden be brought to justice.
But nothing cowed bin Laden. Indeed, the challenge seemed to up the ante. In an audacious strike, two suicide bombers in a motorized dinghy rammed into the U.S.S. Cole docked off Yemen in October 2000. Seventeen American sailors were killed; dozens were badly injured.
Al-Qaeda's hand was also detected in attacks planned for the 2000 turn-of-the-millennium in the United States as well as in Jordan. Sometimes by sheer luck, agents or allies or followers were picked up at border posts or were found already in the United States. Among their plots were attacks on the Los Angeles Airport and the Seattle Space Needle. So the United States had scored some successes. But it was clear more was to come.
With uncanny prescience, CIA Director George Tenet had warned the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence just seven months before the twin terrorist spectaculars in New York and Washington in 2001. He outlined how bin Laden and his "global network" of lieutenants and associates
remain the most immediate and serious threat. Since 1998, Bin Laden has declared all U.S. citizens legitimate targets of attack. As shown by the bombing of our Embassies in Africa in 1998 and his Millennium plots last year, he is capable of planning multiple attacks with little or no warning.
The problem was always prevention tracking cells of four or five men who had the education, language skills, financial means and fanatic commitment to penetrate foreign societies, use computers and cell phones, take flight instruction and generally twist the freedoms of democracy to their own goals. Then, of course, there was the challenge of getting bin Laden. Covert operations had tried more than once.
Osama bin Laden was an unlikely candidate to become the world's deadliest terrorist, its most sought after fugitive. Born in 1957 to extraordinary riches, he was the son of a wealthy Yemeni immigrant who made billions in construction by befriending King Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia. He lived well. The family was pious. One account reports that, as a child, bin Laden organized trivia contests for his friends and siblings about the history and meaning of Islam. But like many Saudis, he also occasionally veered. As a teenager, he reportedly had freewheeling weekends in Beirut highlighted by parties, bars and, once, a fight over a female.
Yet in some ways he was also the odd man out. His father sired at least fifty-two children, but he was by several accounts his mother's only child at least her only son. She was not Saudi; his parents met when bin Laden's father, Mohammed, was in Jerusalem overseeing work on the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam. Bin Laden grew tall and lanky, towering over his peers. In the West, he would have been considered basketball height. But people who met him, both as a youth and as an adult, described him as remarkably shy. His thin face, distinguished by high cheekbones and narrow eyes, appeared more haunted than threatening.
To this day, the seminal event in bin Laden's life was the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He was in his early twenties at the time, fresh out of King Abdel Aziz University in Jeddah, where he had studied civil engineering. He knew little about Afghanistan. It wasn't Arab. It wasn't part of the Middle East. But it was Muslim. So by his own account, bin Laden never had any doubt about what he should do.
"The news that was broadcast by radio stations that the Soviet Union invaded a Muslim country, this was sufficient motivation for me to start to aid our brothers in Afghanistan," he told CNN in 1997.
"I was enraged," he told others. "I went there at once."
It was the first turning point in bin Laden's transformation into a terror master.
His first ventures in Afghanistan were actually harmless. Using his training as an engineer, he aided the fledgling Afghan opposition in building its own infrastructure. He organized heavy equipment, including bulldozers and dump trucks, from his family's company to help build camps, roads and military depots.
"When we saw the brutality of the Russians bombing Mujahadeen positions, by the grace of God we dug a good number of huge tunnels and built in them some storage places and in some others we built a hospital," he later recalled. He also helped cut a mountain trail across the country to within fifteen miles of Kabul.
But his mission gradually expanded. In the mid-1980s, with a Palestinian partner, bin Laden began using his vast inheritance estimated to be anywhere from $60 million to $300 million and money solicited from rich sympathizers in the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms to set up Maktab al-Khidamat, or the Services Office. It sounded innocuous enough. Based in Peshawar, the Wild West Pakistani frontier town teeming with refugees, spies and arms merchants, it was one of dozens of charities aiding Afghans streaming across the border to flee the Soviets.
But the Services Office also had a less visible mission. It began funneling fighters and funds to the Afghan resistance bringing in Muslim brethren to supplement the ranks of the Mujahadeen holy warriors. It marked the onset of bin Laden's political activism, his intervention in shaping history.
In 1988, bin Laden and his partner split over strategy. The Saudi militant was becoming increasingly ambitious. Now in his early thirties, he nurtured an independent vision: He wanted to lay the groundwork for taking the jihad beyond Afghanistan's borders. That year, he formed al-Qaeda, Arabic for "the Base" a name that offered the first hint of what was to come.
The work was already well under way. Between 1984 and 1989, bin Laden and his allies had established recruitment centers in more than fifty countries. Volunteers turned up in Pakistan from as far afield as Algeria on the Mediterranean to the Philippines in the Pacific, from Egypt on the Red Sea to Bangladesh on the Indian Ocean, from Chechnya in the Soviet Union to Bosnia in old Yugoslavia, and from his home turf in Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf all the way across the Atlantic to the United States, according to U.S. intelligence.
Washington did nothing to stem the flow. Indeed, the Services Office paid for the recruits' transport, shelter and training in paramilitary camps where they underwent basic instruction with full American knowledge and approval, even implicit encouragement. Whatever the Reagan administration's fears about the use of militant Islam in Iran's revolution or the spate of extremist attacks threatening Western interests in the Middle East, Islam was the ideology of choice in countering communism in Afghanistan. Policy was based on a useful but flawed axiom: The enemy of the American enemy was a useful American friend.
The recruits became known as the Afghan Arabs. They had negligible impact on the war's outcome compared with the Afghans, according to Milt Bearden, who ran the CIA's covert operation with the Afghan Mujahadeen out of Peshawar from 1986 until the war ended. The Arabs rarely fought big battles, according to Pakistanis who trained the diverse branches of Afghan opposition. And many of the recruits spent more time in Pakistan than Afghanistan.
Bin Laden was also more financier and organizer than commando, Pakistanis contend. But he claims to have seen action and a lot of it.
"We went through vicious battles with the Russians. They are known in the West for their brutality and viciousness. They used poisonous gas against us and I was subjected to this. They used airplanes against our position and we lost many fighters, but we were able to deter many commando attacks, unlike anything before," he told ABC.
Years later, he bragged to a British journalist, "Once I was only thirty meters from the Russians and they were trying to capture me. I was under bombardment but I was so peaceful in my heart that I fell asleep. I saw a 120-millimeter mortar shell land in front of me, but it did not blow up. Four more bombs were dropped from a Russian plane on our headquarters, but they did not explode. I was never afraid of death. As Muslims, we believe that when we die, we go to heaven. Before a battle, God sends us seqina, tranquility."
Local lore also has it that the personal AK-47 rifle bin Laden carried with him long after the war ended was won during three days of hand-to-hand combat between the Afghan Arabs and the Soviets.
Whatever the truth, the five thousand or so Afghan Arabs a ragtag force of modestly trained and poorly armed "holy warriors" who spent varying amounts of time and energy fighting in Afghanistan became legends of the guerrilla war, even if only for their willingness to fight and die for their brethren. Under the banner of Islam, they were credited with helping defeat the Soviet Union its first and only military defeat since the 1917 revolution.
"Our experience in this jihad was great," bin Laden told CNN. "What we benefited from the most was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind, but in the minds of all Muslims."
For the young holy warriors, many of them angry or disillusioned with autocratic governments at home, Afghanistan was a heady time. It cleansed. It empowered. It inspired.
"I have benefited so greatly from the jihad in Afghanistan that it would have been impossible for me to have gained so much from any other experience. In spite of the Soviet Union's power, we used to move with confidence. And God conferred favors on us," bin Laden later reflected.
"What I lived in two years there, I could not have lived in a hundred years elsewhere."
It is no small irony that bin Laden and the United States shared a common mission for a whole decade. From 1979 until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the Saudi militant and the CIA were de facto allies against the Soviet occupation. They fought the last battle of the Cold War together.
On August 2, 1990, a piercingly hot night in the desert emirates of Arabia, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The next day, President Saddam Hussein declared his intention to annex the tiny city-state as Iraq's nineteenth province. The outside world condemned the aggression on a sovereign state, although for both sides the issue, really, was oil.
Over the next seven months, the United States rallied thirty-eight nations to contribute troops, tanks, arms and warplanes to liberate the tiny city-state. Operation Desert Storm was, in the end, a decisive rout.
But it did have unintended and eventually costly consequences. It triggered the second major turning point in bin Laden's militancy. It was the event that redirected his wrath toward the United States.
Bin Laden was by then back home. After the Soviets abandoned Afghanistan in late 1989, he had returned to Saudi Arabia to work in the family construction business in Jeddah. Within months, however, some half a million highly visible foreign troops arrived in Saudi Arabia, the staging ground for Desert Storm.
For bin Laden, the presence of "infidel" soldiers in the birthplace of Islam and the site of its two holiest shrines, where every able Muslim is supposed to make a pilgrimage at least once to fulfill one of Islam's five pillars was a violation of Saudi sovereignty, Arab dignity and Islamic tenets. It was an occupation. It was Afghanistan all over again. In fact, he concluded, it was worse.
Bin Laden was enraged that the al-Saud royal family had allowed the intrusion, an action that meant it could no longer claim the right to rule.
"The Saudi regime is but a branch or an agent of the United States. It has stopped ruling people according to what God revealed," he told CNN.
But the United States was the greater offender. It was the prop that kept the thirty thousand members of the al-Saud royal family in power.
"Since Allah spread out the Arabian peninsula, created its desert and drew its seas, no such disaster has ever struck as when those Christian legions spread like pest, crowded its land, ate its resources, eradicated its nature and humiliated its leaders," bin Laden later explained.
The Soviet demise, he also complained, had given the United States excessive power. "The collapse of the Soviet Union made the United States more haughty and arrogant and it has started to look at itself as a Master of this world and established what it calls the New World Order," he said. "It wants to delude people that it can do whatever it wants."
Invigorated by the Afghan jihad, bin Laden began to agitate. It didn't take long to become unwelcome at home. In 1991, he was expelled.
Bin Laden moved across the Red Sea to Sudan, a decision that paved the way for a third major turning point in his transformation. Africa's largest country was then ruled by a militant Islamic regime. It had room for both bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And both flourished.
In dusty Khartoum on the meandering Nile, bin Laden lived with three some accounts claim four wives and a growing brood of children in a large, tightly guarded house behind a high wall topped with barbed wire. He owned another chocolate-colored building down the street that was his "guest house," although neighbors said the well-armed male residents seemed to be rather permanent. It was one of a chain that bin Laden funded in Kenya, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere to provide shelter or safe haven for allies.
Bin Laden, however, was rarely seen. Whenever he left home, he traveled in black Land Cruisers with heavily tinted windows, usually in a motorcade of other vehicles with windows just as dark.
Yet the Saudi militant became quite a presence in Sudan, where he combined ideology and economics with great effect. His most ambitious project, much heralded by the local population, was a highway stretching some eight hundred miles from Khartoum east to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and a new airport at the end of it. His investment firm won a near monopoly on gum arabic, the East African nation's largest export and a basic ingredient in fruit juices produced in the United States. He also started an Islamic bank, built a tannery, created an export company, launched construction projects and developed agricultural schemes. Sudan became the base for foreign ventures, too, including a trading company in Kenya and a ceramic plant, publishing outlet and appliance import firm in Yemen.
With a corps of almost five hundred Afghan Arabs whom bin Laden had imported from Pakistan and others who came to Sudan to join the cause, al-Qaeda also quietly expanded. Some of its members worked in bin Laden's businesses. Some were his bodyguards. Some trained at three new camps in northern Sudan with a second generation of jihadis who would fight a different kind of war. Many did all three.
During the years of bin Laden's exile in Sudan, al-Qaeda grew from a largely one-man show into a sophisticated organization. Testimony at subsequent trials of its members, including a paymaster, portrayed it as a multinational corporation complete with a finance committee, investments and well-concealed accounts worldwide, many in the very Western societies bin Laden most despised.
The brilliance of his schemes, however, may not have been how well organized they were, but rather what diffuse cover they had. Al-Qaeda had multiple layers of cutouts, people who didn't know where funds or orders came from beyond the immediate contact. Allies and agents, surrogates and associates in cells scattered around the world could also take the initiative, in tactics and targets and even in raising their own operating expenses.
The first World Trade Center attack in 1993, the first major international terrorist attack on American shores, was a case in point. The bombers drove two vehicles into the towers' underground parking garage, transferred the explosives into one vehicle and drove off in the other. Six people were killed, 1,042 injured. The number of casualties would have been much higher if not for the angle of the van left on a parking ramp. The damage still totaled more than $500 million. And the World Trade Center remained closed for a month.
The United States later convicted mastermind Ramzi Yousef, who was captured in Pakistan, and others for the bombing. But Washington had difficulty proving the link back to bin Laden. The only thread tying the two was the fact Yousef had taken refuge in a guest house funded by bin Laden that had originally been used by the Afghan Arabs in Pakistan.
So bin Laden claimed deniability, although he made no secret of his admiration for the attack.
"Ramzi Yousef, after the World Trade Center bombing, became a well-known Muslim personality and all Muslims know him. Unfortunately I did not know him before the incident. I remember him as a Muslim who defended Islam from American aggression. He took this effort to let the Americans know that their government assaults Muslims. Americans will see many youths who will follow Ramzi Yousef," he later told ABC News.
About the same time, al-Qaeda also launched operations next door to Sudan in east Africa. Bin Laden's allies traveled to Somalia in 1992 and 1993 to foment attacks on American and British troops deployed as part of Operation Restore Hope, a humanitarian mission to distribute food to ease a famine exacerbated by strife among rival warlords. Senior members of al-Qaeda trained Somali clans. Some even participated in an attack on the Americans, which left eighteen dead.
This time, bin Laden came close to claiming responsibility. In the ABC interview, he almost crowed, "After God honored us with victory in Afghanistan, it cleared from Muslim minds the myth of superpowers. The youth ceased seeing America as a superpower too. After leaving Afghanistan they headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldiers are paper tigers. After a few blows, they ran in defeat.
"When this took place I was in Sudan and this great defeat pleased me very much, the way it pleases all Muslims," he added.
As his profile heightened, bin Laden began paying a price. In 1993, the United States put Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, in large part because of bin Laden. In 1994, Saudi Arabia revoked his citizenship. He openly complained that family members his mother, several brothers and an uncle, since his father had died in 1968, ironically, in a plane crash in San Antonio were dispatched nine times to try to get him to change his ways. They wanted him to come home and apologize to King Fahd.
"They conveyed the Saudi government's message that if I don't go back, they'll freeze my assets, deprive me of my citizenship, my passport and my Saudi identity, and distort my picture in the Saudi and foreign media," he told CNN.
"They think that a Muslim may bargain on his religion. I said to them, Do whatever you wish."
The family publicly disowned him. Some Muslim clerics even dared to condemn his interpretations of Islam.
And then, in 1996, under American pressure, Sudan expelled him.
"People are supposed to be innocent until proved guilty," he told Time magazine. "Well, not the Afghan fighters. They are the 'terrorists of the world.' "
Then he issued a warning: "Pushing them against the wall will do nothing except increase the terrorism."
From that moment on, bin Laden formally went to war with the United States.
Ostracized by the entire Arab world and with limited alternatives, he returned to Afghanistan, by that point under the new rule of the Taliban. Then he issued a rambling "declaration of war" in three lengthy parts that laid out the goals, the tactics and the sacrifice required to be successful. Rage seethed in every line. He warned of a "volcanic eruption" of hatred against America "as a result of severe oppression, suffering, iniquity, humiliation and poverty." He railed against American arrogance, aggression, inhumanity, not to mention manipulation of oil prices "where production is restricted or expanded and prices are fixed to suit the American economy."
The first part of his declaration was entitled "Expel the Infidels from the Arab Peninsula." It proclaimed, "There is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land.
No other priority, except Belief, could be considered before it....It is the duty now of every tribe in the Arabian peninsula to fight jihad and cleanse the land from these Crusader occupiers. Their wealth is booty to those who kill them."
The second part, entitled "A Suitable Means of Fighting Must Be Adopted," warned that the only way to fight a more powerful army was to use "fast-moving light forces that work under complete secrecy." It called for the faithful to support a new generation of holy warriors with intelligence, materials, arms and especially to help "cover up" their planning from the enemy. It also called on Muslim women to boycott all American goods.
The third part, entitled "A Martyr Will Not Feel the Pain of Death," needed no explanation. "Our youths must believe in paradise after death. If death is a predetermined must, then it is a shame to die cowardly," the treatise advised.
In turn, it promised that the warriors "know that their rewards in fighting the USA is double their rewards in fighting anyone else."
In an interview with CNN in 1997, some seven months later, bin Laden also gave the first hint that attacks by the jihadis might not be limited to the Middle East. Without a reversal in American practices and policies, he warned, "the United States will drive them to transfer the battle into the United States. If the American government is serious about avoiding the explosions inside the United States, then let it stop provoking the feelings of 1.2 billion Muslims."
What role bitterness played after being isolated in Afghanistan, courtesy of American pressure on his homeland in Saudi Arabia and on his sanctuary in Sudan may never be known. But the declaration of war coincided with the onset of planning for ambitious terror spectaculars.
In February 1998, bin Laden, now calling himself a sheikh, indicating the assumption of some religious standing, issued his first fatwa to justify what was to come.
Citing every grievance from America's support of Israel to its attempt to "rip apart" the nations of Egypt, Iraq, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, he exhorted Muslims everywhere to join his jihad. "All these crimes and calamities are an explicit declaration by the Americans of war on Allah, His Prophet and Muslims," he proclaimed.
"The judgment to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilian or military, is an obligation for every Muslim who is able to do so in any country. In the name of Allah, we call upon every Muslim who believes in God and asks for forgiveness, to abide by God's order by killing Americans and stealing their money anywhere, anytime and whenever possible."
The fatwa was widely publicized by the World Islamic Front of Jihad Against Jews and Christians, a coalition formed in 1998 that included al-Qaeda. Bin Laden described it as a "higher council to coordinate rousing the Muslim nation" to carry out jihad. The plots then began to unfold.
Six months later, on a humid August day in 1998, two Saudi members of al-Qaeda drove a bomb-laden Toyota truck to the back of the American Embassy in scruffy downtown Nairobi and set it off. More than two hundred were killed, more than four thousand injured. A few minutes later, a bomb-laden Nissan Atlas truck drove into the American mission in Dar es Salaam, in neighboring Tanzania. Eleven died, dozens were injured.
In December 1999, an Algerian stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border was found to have more than one hundred pounds of bomb-making materials in his car. He later admitted plotting to set off a large explosion at Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Day, the millennium. He admitted being trained in Afghanistan, where he had been instructed to go abroad and kill Americans.
In October 2000, members of al-Qaeda from Saudi Arabia and Yemen rammed into the belly of the U.S.S. Cole, which was docked off the coast of Aden. Seventeen died.
And on September 11, 2001, four hijacked planes changed America forever.
"Our battle with the Americans is larger than our battle with the Russians," bin Laden told ABC in 1998.
"We fought against the Soviet Union until, not to say we defeated them, but Allah defeated them. They became non-existent. There is a lesson to learn from this for he who wishes to learn. There was nothing left to call Soviet Union," he added.
"We now predict a black day for America and the end of the United States as the United States. God willing."
The road to Kabul, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, wasn't really much of a road at all. It was a dusty gravel trail with potholes that dropped like valleys. Driving on it in a vintage Afghan taxi badly dented, its windshield cracked, its paint long faded into a nondescript rust was like being caught in a typhoon: Constant nausea from swerving down into a pothole and then back up onto the rough road. Bone-cracking jerks to avoid hitting rocky abysses so wide they could have swallowed cars altogether as some did. The hundred-mile journey dragged out for almost seven hours. In the spring of 2000, the rest of Afghanistan's infrastructure was in similar shape.
The worst part of the trek from the Pakistani border town of Peshawar and the strategic Khyber Pass to the Afghan capital was the horror of watching the small children, usually barefoot and often barely dressed, who lined the roadsides. Under a searing sun, they threw handfuls of rocky dirt into the road's deep crevices, hoping drivers would toss a few Afghan bills out the window as thanks for their efforts. A few Afghans didn't go very far; the exchange rate was then 73,000 Afghans to one American dollar.
But the alternative was a place like Kabul's Alla Auddin Orphanage, home to some eight hundred children who were divvied up thirty-eight to a small room, two to a bed with a single dirty blanket, no running toilets. The children were not allowed to stray outside the compound. Located in abandoned buildings in the war-ravaged half of the capital, the surrounding area was still laden with land mines. With some ten million mines still littering the countryside, Afghanistan was dangerous for more than one reason.
When asked what the kids did to play, Mazar Uddin, a beguiling six-year-old with a dusty head of hair, replied with his own question: "What's a toy?"
Alla Auddin was probably the world's only orphanage where most children had at least one living parent. But in Kabul, where up to 70 percent of the workforce was unemployed and a mid-level civil service job paid about $10 a month, a growing number of families were surrendering their children so they could survive. By 2000, one in four Afghan children died before the age of five.
At a time most of the world was exploring the possibilities of a new global era, Afghans lived in centuries past. The capital, once a cosmopolitan city with a history dating back three thousand years, was by then half in dusty, bullet-riddled, roofless ruins. The shah's old palace, the art museum, modern commercial centers all blown away or in tatters. The other half of Kabul barely functioned. Only one in ten Afghans had access to clean water.
Kabul Zoo, which once marked the war's front line, was a symbol of what was left. An elephant and two tigers had died of shrapnel wounds and the Reptile House was blown up in the early 1990s, so the only residents were Marjan, a lone aging lion that had lost an eye to shrapnel, a crippled bear and two mangy, slightly crazed monkeys.
By 2000, Afghanistan was a rapidly crumbling nation. And its disintegration was as much a by-product of the Cold War's last battle as bin Laden was. The final phase of the ideological struggle between democracy and communism set in motion a ruinous sequence of events, including three wars in twenty years.
The first war when the Soviet Union fought America's surrogates and lost was as cruel for the aftermath as for the decade of fighting. Rugged and remote Afghanistan had no sustaining lure, like Kuwait's oil or Yugoslavia's location in Europe. So once the rivalry ended, both superpowers packed up and left the country to the monsters and the monstrous conditions that they had helped to create. By then, Human Rights Watch reported, about half of the country's prewar population were either refugees, internally displaced or dead.
Those monsters soon took over, ousting the pro-Moscow leader left behind. The second war raged in the early 1990s, when the coalition backed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia against the Soviets abruptly disintegrated. By 1992, the prime minister and defense minister had rival militias shelling each other. Former guerrilla commanders became local warlords, and the capital and much of the country were quickly carved up with savage effect. They were the ones who destroyed Kabul, not the Soviets.
Kabul in the 1990s became as anarchic, corrupt and dangerous as Beirut in the 1980s. By 1994, hundreds of thousands of Afghans were again fleeing across the borders.
In the midst of social chaos, a new Islamic movement emerged to fill the political void. Its rise from the ashes of Afghanistan should have been predictable, but many of the major players both in and outside the country did not see it coming.
The movement grew out of the desolate camps of tents and mud-brick shacks along the Pakistani border, where Afghan refugees were stranded for more than a decade. With limited sources of education, many of the young males ended up in madrassahs, strict religious schools that grew up around the camps. Most were paid for by the Saudis. In makeshift schoolrooms, the Koran or what a teacher had memorized from the Koran was often the only available text.
The madrassahs were another by-product of the times. Islamic expression, even zealotry, had been encouraged by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States as a counterweight to any pull by communism's promise of utopia for the poor proletariat of which south Asia had hundreds of millions. Islam had already proved its potential as a banner originally uniting disparate Afghan clans and tribes to fight the Soviets; "Allahu Akbar," which means "God is great," had been their rallying cry. And they had prevailed.
For millions of refugees stranded for a decade or more, Islam had also offered a sense of dignity, identity and reassurance in a world that seemed to have abandoned the Afghans.
The Islamic movement emerged quietly at first. A group of young men who had grown up in the camps returned home and began taking matters into their own hands in southern Afghanistan, around Qandahar. They had no formal political party; they were merely religious students, or Taliban. Talib means student. In 1994, they began to mobilize around a one-eyed religious leader named Sheikh Mohammed Omar.
Among the telling early stories about the Taliban's rise to power was the tale of a truck convoy from Pakistan that was hijacked by an Afghan warlord. The Taliban came to its rescue, freeing the thirty trucks and pursuing the warlord. With summary justice, he was subsequently shot; his body was strung up in public to make a point.
Over the next two years, the Taliban wrested power in Afghanistan's third war. The warlords who had forced a Soviet retreat were themselves forced to withdraw by 1996, either abandoning the country or regrouping in a small mountainous enclave on the northern border with Tajikistan.
For many Afghans, the Taliban were at first a welcome relief from divisive and destructive rule. They restored peace to some 90 percent of the ravaged south Asian nation for the first time since 1979.
Afghan acceptance of the Taliban also reflected the broader desperation in the Islamic world and the public's utter exhaustion in the struggle to find some effective and legitimate way to rule. Afghanistan had been groping since a 1973 coup ended the monarchy. Islam, the only major monotheistic faith to offer a set of rules by which to govern society as well as a set of spiritual beliefs, offered a solution.
The euphoria did not last long, however. The wrath of militant Islam may have saved Afghanistan in the 1980s. And rallying under its banner may have worked as a modern idiom of opposition in dealing the Soviets their first military defeat. But using Islam to rule, particularly in a rigid, intolerant form, reflected the difficulty of translating the faith into a popular form of modern government.
On virtually every front, Sheikh Omar and the semiliterate Taliban students failed abysmally to improve life. The soldiers of peace instead became the instruments of tyranny. And militant Islam only further destroyed Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Under the Taliban, most aspects of modern life were outlawed. Television was one of the first things to go. Afghans were among the few people in the world unable to see the images of devastation in New York and Washington. The only reports available to them were from the Pashto and Dari language services of the Voice of America and the BBC.
Music, movies, most books and most sports, cards, board games and other forms of entertainment, including many children's toys and dolls, were also forbidden. So was kite flying. Human portraits, pictures and videos were, too. More than one town on the road to Kabul had a gateway festooned with the brown tape from confiscated videos and audiocassettes.
Alcohol was obviously a no-no, but so were cigarettes in public except for the Taliban. Even applause was banned. So was public laughter.
"Time should be spent serving the country and praying to God. Nothing else. Everything else is a waste of time and people are not allowed to waste their time," Sher Abbas Stanakzai, the young deputy foreign minister, told an American reporter.
Gender apartheid prevailed throughout the land. All activities mixing the sexes were outlawed. Just in case, so were wedding receptions, picnics and non-Islamic holiday celebrations.
Enforcement was ruthless. Among the few cars on eerily empty Kabul streets in 2000 were the Taliban's souped-up four-wheel drive vehicles that patrolled every block. Men in big black turbans and with big black beards from the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue were on the prowl for forbidden activity. Their trucks were often the only sound on the street during the nightly dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Among the few public functions were the Friday post-prayer gatherings in Kabul's crumbling sports stadium to mete out court sentences for offenders. The only females allowed were those being punished. Most women were hauled in for floggings up to a hundred lashes for offenses like talking or walking in public with men to whom they weren't related, a crime considered the equivalent of adultery. Actual sex was punishable by public stoning to death. Getting caught with nail polish could cost a woman the top of her finger.
Among men, the most common crime was theft, due largely to Afghanistan's bottomed-out economy. The law-and-order crime shows at the sports stadium most often featured one or more men having a hand lopped off for stealing; afterward, the severed limb was paraded around the stadium for onlookers to see.
But the Taliban were cruelest to Afghanistan's women. Before the Taliban assumed power, women were well integrated into public life, accounting for half the civil service and one out of three doctors. But in 1996, female education from kindergarten upward was outlawed. Women were banned from the workforce, strapping tens of thousands of war widows in particular and forcing many to beg.
By 2000, most of the women in public were beggars huddled on Kabul street corners with a child in tow or, in desperation, even out in the street under their burkas, the all-encompassing cover that offered only a small gauze section over the eyes through which to see. Burkas were required dress from about age nine. Allowing no peripheral vision, Islamic garb was blamed for countless accidents because women couldn't see beyond a tiny space in front of them. Even behind their burkas, women were not allowed to wear makeup, cut their hair short or wear trousers, jewelry, white socks or high heels.
Male doctors were also ordered not to treat women, which left most without proper health care. In 2001, police from the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue raided Kabul's emergency hospital, beating staff and forcing the hospital to suspend operations, because males and females allegedly mixed.
The Taliban claimed they were protecting Afghan women. But like many of their policies, implementation was selective. "Taliban administration in Afghanistan shrouded its denial of women's rights in the rhetoric of protection, but its forces raped ethnic Hazara and Tajik [minority] women with impunity," Human Rights Watch reported in 2001.
The tyranny of Taliban rule grew worse, not better, as they consolidated power. To distinguish them from Muslims, Hindus were required to wear yellow clothing, a haunting flashback to the Jews' yellow stars imposed by the Nazis. Other ethnic and religious minorities reported arbitrary arrests and extortion to avoid arbitrary arrests. Humanitarian aid to Hazarajat, a region populated mainly by minority Shi'ite Muslims, was blocked.
With haughty disdain, the Taliban also set out to destroy Afghan history. In March 2001, the government decreed that all symbols of Buddhism, the prevalent local religion before Islam, had to be destroyed. That included the two colossal stone Buddhas carved into the mountains at Bamiyan, once a staging post on the ancient Silk Road where camel caravans rested during the long trek between China and Rome. In an engineering and artistic feat, they had been sculpted into the mountains in the third century. One stood 130 feet high; the other one was over 150 feet tall.
But the reclusive Sheikh Omar, who lost an eye during the Soviet war, decided the serene figures and all other non-Islamic statues were "idolatrous," defying international outcries, pleas from the art world and even a testy reprimand from United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. "True faith elicits respect and you have to respect what is sacred to others too," Annan advised the Taliban.
Replied Taliban spokesman Faiz Ahmed Faiz, "Since the international community has turned a blind eye to the suffering of the common man in Afghanistan, it has no right to make a hue and cry about the statues."
Destroying them became the closest thing the Taliban had to sport. Using dynamite, tanks, rockets and grenades, the Taliban relentlessly fired, rammed and lobbed their weaponry at the statues for four days. At the end, much like the rest of the country, the giant Buddhas were reduced to piles of rubble.
As the twenty-first century dawned, life in Afghanistan had become far more repressive than it had been during the Soviet occupation. Indeed, public disillusionment was running so deep that some Afghans were actually nostalgic about the Soviet presence.
"The Soviets tried to steal our land and impose their ways," confided a civil servant named Asad as he shopped at a Kabul pharmacy with barren shelves. "But the Taliban are worse. They have stolen our religion and turned it against us. There is no greater offense.
"At least the Soviets were civilized."
The merger of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban was almost inevitable.
In 1996, bin Laden was looking for a new base of operations, just as the Taliban were consolidating control over most of Afghanistan. Bin Laden had millions of hard currency dollars, sophisticated multinational financial interests, construction skills and a network of well-trained commandos. The Taliban, steeped only in religious studies, faced a country in ruins.
They were also both by-products of the superpower rivalry. They both emerged from an environment, initially nurtured by powerful state sponsors, which encouraged religious passions. And they shared unflinching values, similar worldviews, common enemies and a distinct Islamic vision.
Bin Laden was a Wahhabi, a comparatively small sect of Sunni Islam. It was named after Mohammed bin Abd al Wahhab, an eighteenth-century cleric whose interpretation of Islam called for a return to the ways of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam, in the seventh century. Any practice, any idea more modern, was anathema. Wahhabism called for a life so austere that it would not tolerate the decoration of mosques nor celebration of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday. In the twentieth century, it was the strictest interpretation of the Koran, fundamentalist in its literal meaning.
Wahhabism was used by the great warrior and founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, to unify the feuding, unruly tribes of the Arabian peninsula. The singularly fierce Wahhabi commitment in battle became famed throughout the region. An Arab historian recorded,
I have seen them hurl themselves on their enemies, utterly fearless of death, not caring how many fall, advancing rank after rank with only one desire the defeat and annihilation of the enemy. They normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men.
The Wahhabi state created by ibn Saud in 1932 was the most conservative in the world and retained that rank until the Taliban took over Afghanistan six decades later. To this day, non-Muslims cannot be buried in Saudi soil. For years, the idea of radio, telephone and education for women was ridiculed as evil. A woman is still not allowed to drive or ride in the front seat of a car, even with her husband. And riots ensued when television was finally introduced in 1965 because it portrayed a human image. King Faisal justified it by describing it as an instrument to spread the words of the Prophet.
The essence of the Wahhabi mission is threefold: To cleanse Muslim society and restore its original purity. To rebuff infidels from Muslim lands. And to expand.
Wahhabism allows no choice or personal freedoms. It advocates one path to God. And a good Muslim submits.
Wahhabism was part of what originally inspired bin Laden to go to Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion. It was what motivated Saudi Arabia to bankroll the Afghan Mujahadeen and private Saudi citizens to fund bin Laden's Afghan Arabs during the decade-long war. It was the reason Saudis used their oil wealth to support many of the madrassah schools, where Afghan refugees were taught similar ideas in the 1980s in turn giving birth to the Taliban. And it was the reason Saudi Arabia was one of only three governments in the world to recognize the Taliban when they assumed power in 1996.
Wahhabism, ironically, was also what emboldened bin Laden to turn against the Saudi royal family after American and other "infidel" troops were allowed into Saudi Arabia. For their betrayal of Islam, bin Laden became determined to oust the al-Saud and to take on the United States, as the essential prop keeping the monarchy in power.
So by 1996, as bin Laden and the Taliban settled into Afghanistan, their common interpretation of the faith guaranteed a powerful bond.
Bin Laden and Sheikh Omar, both then about forty, both showing the first strands of gray in their long, untrimmed beards, quickly established a close connection. Some reports claim one of bin Laden's sons eventually married one of Sheikh Omar's daughters. Whether true or not, the two men developed ties "on which both depend for their continued existence," according to evidence on the September 11 attacks released by the British government.
The relationship played out visibly on the two keys to their mutual survival security and money.
After seizing Kabul in 1996, the Taliban still faced one last residual challenge: Remnants of the previous government had regrouped as the Northern Alliance up along the Tajikistan border. The opposition held only 5 to 10 percent of Afghanistan, but it remained a persistent nuisance. It also still had widespread international recognition, including Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations. It was kept alive militarily by an unlikely set of backers in Russia, India and Iran, each of which had its own agenda.
In stepped bin Laden.
The Saudi strategist was "closely involved" with Taliban training, planning and operations, according to the British document on the terror attacks. "Bin Laden has provided the Taliban regime with troops, arms and money to fight the Northern Alliance. He has representatives in the Taliban military command structure. He has also given infrastructure assistance and humanitarian aid."
Bin Laden's biggest contribution, however, was to offer up a group of foreign volunteers, predominantly Arabs, who had signed on with al-Qaeda. They became known as the 55th Brigade after they took over the old 55th Brigade headquarters and railway terminus used by the Soviet Union as the transit point for war materiel and other goods entering Afghanistan. The new force technically came under bin Laden's command, but it was deployed on the Taliban's front lines with the opposition.
The 55th Brigade was the most aggressive and determined of the forces fighting for the Taliban. The religious students' military skills were actually fairly limited. Exhausted after two decades of conflict, Afghans generally were also happy to defer the dangerous work to others.
"The 55th Brigade does the toughest training and carries out the most arduous special operations for the Taliban. They have spearheaded some of the key operations against us, securing positions, then handing over to second and third tier forces," said Haron Amin, the Northern Alliance spokesman and diplomat accredited to the United Nations.
"You can always tell a member of the 55th Brigade," he claimed. "In case of capture, they blow themselves up with grenades."
Bin Laden and the Taliban also formed a critical financial alliance. The wealthy Saudi conducted business transactions for the Taliban. He was also widely reported to have "donated" millions to the government to "facilitate" his sanctuary, training camps, arms running and personal communications system.
But the most lucrative connection may have been drugs.
"They jointly exploit the Afghan drugs trade," Britain reported, in significant understatement, in evidence against bin Laden. In fact, together they reaped up to $50 million a year off the world's largest crop of poppies and the largest single source of opium and heroin in the world. In the 1990s, some 70 percent of world supplies came from Afghanistan. Most ended up in Europe and the United States.
For decades, the first leg on the road to Kabul, through the lowlands beyond the Khyber Pass, was through a sea of poppies. In the spring they grow tall and conspicuous, with their distinctive flowering pink and red buds and the bulbous heads filled with opium sap. Farmers generally did not like the crop and, for them, profits were small. In 2000, the going price, slightly lower than usual because of poor quality due to the drought, was about $30 per kilo compared with between $400 and $800 after being refined. But like coca farmers in Latin America, nothing else was anywhere near as profitable.
"It's a filthy thing," complained Gul Khan, an aging farmer and father of ten children in the village of Sir Shahi near Jalalabad. "But I have no choice if I want to feed my children. In Afghanistan today, I grow this or we all starve."
As a government, the Taliban did not cultivate poppies. Indeed, narcotics were strictly forbidden, and drug users and pushers faced harsh punishment, even a death sentence. The Taliban profited instead through taxation of both growers and traffickers. Farmers were taxed 10 percent; rates varied for processors and traffickers. In exchange, the Taliban tolerated trafficking. With help from al-Qaeda, they also provided security for drug stockpiles they kept to control the flow and manipulate world prices.
So by 2001, after five years together, the collaboration, the joint ventures, the interconnected security and the shared values made bin Laden and the Taliban two sides of the same coin.
By 2001, bin Laden believed the combination would make history by restoring Islamic purity and greatness.
"I envision Saladin coming out of the clouds," bin Laden said in a videotape released in 2001, referring to the Arab leader who wrested Jerusalem from Christian crusaders almost a millennium earlier.
"Our history is being rewritten."
Not surprisingly, in the end, the Taliban could not give up bin Laden. Hours before American and British warplanes launched Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001, they did make a desperate last-minute offer to turn their Saudi ally over for trial by an Islamic court. But they couldn't surrender him to the United States even if it meant they might both lose Afghanistan altogether.
As the bombs and cruise missiles began to fall, neither wavered. The Taliban ambassador in Pakistan said defiantly that the opening aerial attack turned an historic page. "If Americans are under the assumption that by shedding innocent Afghan blood life will be easy for them, they are wrong. This is a jihad," he pledged.
In a video released to the Arab world, bin Laden, dressed in a fatigue jacket, an AK-47 rifle at his side, warned that henceforth the world would be divided. "These events have split the whole world into two camps: the camp of belief and the camp of disbelief."
In an ominous parting shot, he proclaimed, "I swear, as God is Great, that neither America nor the people who live in it will ever taste security or safety until we feel security and safety in our land and Palestine."
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