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, as pieced together 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.
Tomorrow: How The ISI Sustained the Taliban and Protected Bin Laden