Yesterday I ran an excerpt from my book The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11 about how the CIA, aided by the Pakistani Secret Service (ISI), helped to create Al Qaeda and launch Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist career during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Here the story continues into the 1990s, through the rise of the Taliban and up to the eve of the 9/11 attacks.
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.