Allegations of CIA assistance to Osama bin Laden

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Some sources have alleged that[1][2][3] the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had ties with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda and its "Afghan Arab" fighters when it armed Mujahideen groups to fight the Soviet Union during the Soviet–Afghan War.

About the same time as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States began collaborating with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to provide several hundred million dollars a year in aid to the Afghan Mujahideen insurgents fighting the Afghan pro-Soviet government and the Soviet Army in Operation Cyclone. Along with native Afghan mujahideen were Muslim volunteers from other countries, popularly known as "Afghan Arabs". The most famous of the Afghan Arabs was Osama bin Laden, known at the time as a wealthy and pious Saudi who provided his own money and helped raise millions from other wealthy Gulf Arabs.

When the war ended, bin Laden organized the al-Qaeda organization to carry on armed jihad against other countries, primarily against the United States.

A number of commentators have described Al-Qaeda attacks as "blowback" or an unintended consequence of American aid to the mujahideen. In response, the United States government and American and Pakistani intelligence officials involved in the operation have denied this theory. Many journalists including CNN's Peter Bergen have also refuted the claim. They maintain the aid was given out by the Pakistan government, that it went to Afghan not foreign mujahideen, and that there was no contact between the Afghan Arabs (foreign mujahideen) and the CIA and other American officials, let alone the arming, training, coaching or indoctrination.


In a 2004 article entitled "Al-Qaeda's origins and links", the BBC wrote:

During the anti-Soviet war Bin Laden and his fighters received American and Saudi funding. Some analysts believe Bin Laden himself had security training from the CIA.[4]

Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary in the UK from 1997 to 2001, believed the CIA had provided arms to the Arab mujahideen, including Osama bin Laden, writing, "Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the '80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage war against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan."[5]

In conversation with former British Defence Secretary Michael Portillo, two-time prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto said Osama bin Laden was initially pro-American.[6] Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, has also stated that bin Laden once expressed appreciation for the United States' help in Afghanistan. On CNN's Larry King program he said:[7]

Bandar bin Sultan: This is ironic. In the mid-'80s, if you remember, we and the United - Saudi Arabia and the United States were supporting the Mujahideen to liberate Afghanistan from the Soviets. He [Osama bin Laden] came to thank me for my efforts to bring the Americans, our friends, to help us against the atheists, he said the communists. Isn't it ironic?

Larry King: How ironic. In other words, he came to thank you for helping bring America to help him.

Bandar bin Sultan: Right.[8]

Opposing view[edit]

Peter Bergen

U.S. government officials and a number of other parties maintain that the U.S. supported only the indigenous Afghan mujahideen. They deny that the CIA or other American officials had contact with Bin Laden, let alone armed, trained, coached or indoctrinated him. American scholars and reporters have called the idea of a CIA-backed Al Qaeda "nonsense",[9] "sheer fantasy",[10] and a "common myth".[11]

According to Peter Jouvenal, Americans could not train mujahideen because Pakistani officials would not allow more than a handful of U.S. agents to operate in Pakistan and none in Afghanistan.[12]

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri says much the same thing in his book Knights Under the Prophet's Banner.[13]

Bin Laden himself once said "The collapse of the Soviet Union ... goes to God and the mujahideen in Afghanistan ... the US had no mentionable role," but "collapse made the US more haughty and arrogant."[14]

In Ghost Wars (2004), Steve Coll recounted: "Bin Laden moved within Saudi intelligence's compartmented operations, outside of CIA eyesight. CIA archives contain no record of any direct contact between a CIA officer and bin Laden during the 1980s."[15] Yet Coll also documents that bin Laden at least informally cooperated with the ISI during the 1980s and had intimate connections to CIA-backed mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani; Milton Bearden, the CIA's Islamabad station chief from mid-1986 until mid-1989, took an admiring view of bin Laden at the time. Afghan assets recounted the fanaticism and intolerance of many of the so-called "Afghan Arabs" to the CIA, yet the CIA discounted these reports, instead contemplating direct support to the Arab volunteers under the guise of a Spanish Civil War-inspired "international brigade"—a concept that never got off paper.[16]

According to Norwegian researcher Thomas Hegghammer, the book Unholy Wars by journalist John K. Cooley did the most to propagate the view that the CIA trained the Afghan Arabs.[17] In this book Cooley described “the central role of the CIA’s Muslim mercenaries, including upwards of 2,000 Algerians, in the Afghanistan war”.[18] He did not present any evidence for his claims though.[19] And according to historian Odd Arne Westad his book is unreliable. Based on information by Soviet defector Vasili Mitrokhin, parts of the book “obviously originate in Soviet disinformation from the 1980s”.[20]

According to CNN journalist Peter Bergen, known for conducting the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997, "Bin Laden had his own money, he was anti-American and he was operating secretly and independently."[21]

Bergen quotes Pakistani Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, who ran the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Afghan operation between 1983 and 1987:

It was always galling to the Americans, and I can understand their point of view, that although they paid the piper they could not call the tune. The CIA supported the mujahideen by spending the taxpayers' money, billions of dollars of it over the years, on buying arms, ammunition, and equipment. It was their secret arms procurement branch that was kept busy. It was, however, a cardinal rule of Pakistan's policy that no Americans ever become involved with the distribution of funds or arms once they arrived in the country. No Americans ever trained or had direct contact with the mujahideen, and no American official ever went inside Afghanistan.[22]

Marc Sageman, a Foreign Service Officer who was based in Islamabad from 1987 to 1989, and worked closely with Afghanistan's Mujahideen, states that no American money went to the foreign volunteers.

Sageman also says:[10]

Contemporaneous accounts of the war do not even mention [the Afghan Arabs]. Many were not serious about the war. ... Very few were involved in actual fighting. For most of the war, they were scattered among the Afghan groups associated with the four Afghan fundamentalist parties.

No U.S. official ever came in contact with the foreign volunteers. They simply traveled in different circles and never crossed U.S. radar screens. They had their own sources of money and their own contacts with the Pakistanis, official Saudis, and other Muslim supporters, and they made their own deals with the various Afghan resistance leaders."[10]

As Peter Beinart writes in an October, 2001 article in The New Republic arguing against blowback as a cause for the 9/11 attacks:

As Vincent Cannistraro, who led the Reagan administration's Afghan Working Group from 1985 to 1987, puts it, "The CIA was very reluctant to be involved at all. They thought it would end up with them being blamed, like in Guatemala." So the Agency tried to avoid direct involvement in the war, ... the skittish CIA, Cannistraro estimates, had less than ten operatives acting as America's eyes and ears in the region. Milton Bearden, the Agency's chief field operative in the war effort, has insisted that "[T]he CIA had nothing to do with" bin Laden. Cannistraro says that when he coordinated Afghan policy from Washington, he never once heard bin Laden's name.[23]

Fox News reporter Richard Miniter wrote that in interviews with the two men who "oversaw the disbursement for all American funds to the anti-Soviet resistance, Bill Peikney—CIA station chief in Islamabad from 1984 to 1986—and Milt Bearden—CIA station chief from 1986 to 1989—he found,

Both flatly denied that any CIA funds ever went to bin Laden. They felt so strongly about this point that they agreed to go on the record, an unusual move by normally reticent intelligence officers. Mr. Peikney added in an e-mail to me: “I don’t even recall UBL [bin Laden] coming across my screen when I was there.[24]

Other reasons advanced for a lack of a CIA-Afghan Arab connection of "pivotal importance," (or even any connection at all), was that the Afghan Arabs themselves were not important in the war but were a "curious sideshow to the real fighting."[25]: 107 

One estimate of the number of combatants in the war is that 250,000 Afghans fought 125,000 Soviet troops, but only 2000 Arab Afghans fought "at any one time".[25]: 105 

According to Bearden, the CIA did not recruit Arabs because there were hundreds of thousands of Afghans all too willing to fight. The Arab Afghans were not only superfluous but "disruptive," angering local Afghans with their more-Muslim-than-thou attitude, according to Peter Jouvenal.[22] Veteran Afghan cameraman Peter Jouvenal quotes an Afghan mujahideen as saying "whenever we had a problem with one of them [foreign mujahideen], we just shot them. They thought they were kings."

Many who traveled in Afghanistan, including Olivier Roy[9] and Peter Jouvenal,[22] reported of the Arab Afghans' visceral hostility to Westerners in Afghanistan to aid Afghans or report on their plight. BBC reporter John Simpson tells the story of running into Osama bin Laden in 1989, and with neither knowing who the other was, bin Laden attempting to bribe Simpson's Afghan driver $500—a large sum in a poor country—to kill the infidel Simpson. When the driver declined, Bin Laden retired to his "camp bed" and wept "in frustration."[26]


Sir Martin Ewans stated that the Afghan Arabs "benefited indirectly from the CIA's funding, through the ISI and resistance organizations,"[27] and that "it has been reckoned that as many as 35,000 'Arab-Afghans' may have received military training in Pakistan at an estimated cost of $800 million in the years up to and including 1988."[28]

Some of the CIA's greatest Afghan beneficiaries were Arabist commanders such as Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who were key allies of Bin Laden over many years.[29][30] Haqqani—one of Bin Laden's closest associates in the 1980s—received direct cash payments from CIA agents, without the mediation of the ISI. This independent source of funding gave Haqqani disproportionate influence over the mujahideen, and helped Bin Laden develop his base.[31]

Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, an associate of Bin Laden's, was given visas to enter the US on four occasions by the CIA.[32] Rahman was recruiting Arabs to fight in the Soviet-Afghan war, and Egyptian officials testified that the CIA actively assisted him. Rahman was a co-plotter of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.[33][22]

One allegation not denied by the US government is that the U.S. Army enlisted and trained a former Egyptian soldier named Ali Mohamed, and that it knew Ali occasionally took trips to Afghanistan, where he claimed to fight Russians.[34][25][page needed] According to journalist Lawrence Wright, who interviewed U.S. officials about Ali, the Egyptian did tell his Army superiors he was fighting in Afghanistan, but did not tell them he was training other Afghan Arabs or writing a manual from what he had learned from the US Army Special Forces. Wright also reports that the CIA failed to inform other US agencies that it had learned Ali, who was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, was an anti-American spy.[25][page needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Farley R (2013). "Rand Paul's Bin Laden Claim Is 'Urban Myth'". Retrieved 6 Mar 2019.
  2. ^ Bergen P (2011). "Five myths about Osama bin Laden". The Washington Post. Retrieved 6 Mar 2019.
  3. ^ Burke J (2011). "The 10 key myths about Osama bin Laden". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 Mar 2019.
  4. ^ "Al-Qaeda's origins and links". BBC News. 2004.
  5. ^ Cook R (2005). "The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means". The Guardian. London: Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved 8 Jul 2005.
  6. ^ Bhutto B (20 Mar 2003). Dinner with Portillo. BBC Four.
  7. ^ King L (1 Oct 2001). "America's New War: Responding to Terrorism". Larry King Live. CNN. CNN Transcripts.
  8. ^ "Bin Laden comes home to roost". BBC News.
  9. ^ a b Roy O (2004). Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 291–92. ISBN 9780231134996.
  10. ^ a b c Sageman M (2004). Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 57–8. ISBN 9780812238082.
  11. ^ Bergen, Peter L. (2021). The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 42. ISBN 978-1-9821-7052-3.
  12. ^ Bergen P (2001). "Blowback: The CIA and the Afghan War". Holy War Inc. New York: The Free Press. p. 65. ISBN 9780743234672. As said by Peter Jouvenal.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  13. ^ "Did the U.S. "Create" Osama bin Laden?". U.S. Department of State. 14 Jan 2005. Archived from the original on 10 March 2005. Retrieved 9 Jan 2007.
  14. ^ Messages to the World, 2006, p.50. (March 1997 interview with Peter Arnett
  15. ^ Coll S (2004). Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Penguin Group. pp. 87. ISBN 9781594200076.
  16. ^ Coll, Steve (2004). Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Penguin Group. pp. 87–88, 147, 152–158, 167, 208. ISBN 9781594200076.
  17. ^ Hegghammer, Thomas (2020). The Caravan. Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 182. ISBN 978-0-521-76595-4.
  18. ^ Cooley, John K. (2002). Unholy Wars. Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (3rd ed.). London: Pluto Press. p. 163. ISBN 0-7453-1917-3.
  19. ^ Bergen, Peter (2001). Holy War, Inc. Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden. New York: Free Press. pp. 64, 251. ISBN 0-7432-0502-2.
  20. ^ Westad, Odd Arne (2004). "Reagan's Anti-Revolutionary Offensive in the Third World". In Njølstad, Olav (ed.). The Last Decade of the Cold War: From Conflict Escalation to Conflict Transformation. London: Frank Cass. p. 261. ISBN 0-7146-8539-9.
  21. ^ a b c d Bergen P (2001). "Blowback: The CIA and the Afghan War". Holy War Inc. New York: The Free Press. pp. 65–7. ISBN 9780743234672.
  22. ^ Beinart P (2001). "Back To Front". The New Republic.
  23. ^ Miniter R (2003). "Dispelling the CIA-Bin Laden Myth". International. Fox News. Archived from the original on 27 July 2009. Retrieved 6 October 2009.
  24. ^ a b c d Wright L (2006). Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Knopf. ISBN 9780307266088.
  25. ^ Simpson J (2000). A Mad World, My Masters: Tales from a Traveller's Life. London: Macmillan. p. 83. ISBN 9781743034538.
  26. ^ Ewans, Martin (2004). Conflict in Afghanistan: Studies in Asymetric Warfare. London: Routledge. p. 128. ISBN 9781134294817.
  27. ^ Ewans M (2013). Afghanistan - A New History. London: Routledge. p. 205. ISBN 9781136803390.
  28. ^ Gopal A, Mahsud MK, Fishman B (2013). "The Taliban in North Waziristan". In Bergen P, Tiedemann K (eds.). Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 132–142. ISBN 9780199893096.
  29. ^ Elias-Sanborn B, ed. (11 Sep 2012). "The Haqqani History: Bin Ladin's Advocate Inside the Taliban". National Security Archive. Retrieved 6 Mar 2019.
  30. ^ Brown V, Rassler D (2013). Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973-2012. USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 68–69. ISBN 9780199327980.
  31. ^ Kepel, Gilles (2002). Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Harvard University Press. pp. 300–304. ISBN 9781845112578.
  32. ^ Jehl D (1993). "C.I.A. Officers Played Role In Sheik Visas". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 Mar 2019.
  33. ^ Marshall A (1998). "Terror 'blowback' burns CIA". The Independent. Archived from the original on 2010-10-04. Retrieved 16 Sep 2009.