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Al-Qaeda: A CIA protégé

edited 12 March 2008

Franklin Freeman
copyright © the author 2003-8
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The Breeding-Ground and Birth of al-Qaeda

The USA, via the CIA, originally backed the Islamic guerrilla resistance against the Marxist regime and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the late 1970s and 1980s. Its efforts focused increasingly on a hardline faction which was to spawn al-Qaeda in 1987-88. ...

Between 1978 and 1992, the US government poured in at least US $6 billion (some estimates range as high as $20 billion) worth of arms, training and funds to prop up the mujaheddin [in Afghanistan]. Other western governments, as well as oil-rich Saudi Arabia, kicked in as much again. Wealthy Arab fanatics, like Osama bin Laden, provided millions more. ...

Washington's favoured mujaheddin faction was one of the most extreme, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. ... Osama bin Laden was a close associate of Hekmatyar and his faction.

[Norm Dixon, "How the CIA created Osama bin Laden" (autumn 2001)]

As his unclassified CIA biography states, bin Laden left Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan after Moscow's invasion in 1979. By 1984, he was running a front organization known as Maktab al-Khidamar ["Services Office"] — the MAK — which funneled money, arms and fighters from the outside world into the Afghan war.

What the CIA bio[graphy] conveniently fails to specify (in its unclassified form at least) is that the MAK was nurtured by Pakistan's state security services, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, the CIA's primary conduit for conducting the covert war against Moscow's occupation. ...

[Michael Moran, "Bin Laden comes home to roost", MSNBC, 24 Aug. 1998]

During Ronald Reagan's second term as President, the US effort was stepped up. Casey, the Irish-Catholic head of the CIA, projected a Christian-Islamic alliance against Soviet communism, and sought to extend the fight into the Soviet Union itself. Milton Bearden, who "had drawn close to Casey a few years earlier", became CIA station chief in Pakistan's capital Islamabad in July 1986.

More and more Arabs were arriving in Pakistan to fight alongside the Afghan resistance. Azzam and bin Laden's MAK financed and funneled these volunteers.

Overall, the U.S. government looked favorably on the Arab recruitment drives. ... Some of the most ardent cold warriors at [CIA headquarters at] Langley thought this program should be formally endorsed and extended. ... [T]he CIA "examined ways to increase their participation, perhaps in the form of some sort of international brigade," ... Robert Gates [then-head of the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence] recalled. ... At the Islamabad station Milt Bearden felt that bin Laden himself "actually did some very good things" ... But nothing came of it ...
[Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (Penguin, 2005 edn), pp.145-6, 155-6.]
Milt Bearden was the CIA's station chief in Pakistan's capital Islamabad in 1986-89; as such he oversaw the agency's efforts to back the mujaheddin. He later said, "The CIA did not recruit Arabs. ... There were hundreds of thousands of Afghans all too willing to fight." And the CIA denied any direct contact with bin Laden.
(Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (Penguin, 2005 edn), pp.87, 147, 155-6, 208; Peter L Bergen, Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden [Weidenfield & Nicholson, London, 2001], pp.70-71; Tenet statement to the Joint Inquiry on 9/11, Oct. 17, 2002.)

But J. Michael Springmann, head of the non-immigrant visa section at the "CIA-dominated" US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1987-88, said he learned that the CIA had a "program to bring people to the United States for terrorist training, people recruited by the CIA and its asset Usama bin Laden, and the idea was to get them trained and send them back to Afghanistan to fight the then Soviets." "Their nationalities for the most part were Pakistani, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese." These "recruits without backgrounds" were given visas over Springmann's protests.
(Transcript of Springmann interview, Fox TV, 18 July 2002, Center for Cooperative Research; transcript of Springmann interview with CBC, 3 July 2002, 9/11 Review )

On American soil, the CIA used Muslim charities and mosque communities as fronts for recruitment of fighters in their secret war against the USSR [Operation Cyclone] in the Hindu Kush. As Cooley writes in Unholy Wars: "One was in New York's Arab district, in Brooklyn along Atlantic Avenue ... Another was a private rifle club in an affluent community of Connecticut."

Bin Laden and a man named Mustafa Chalaby, who ran a jihad refugee centre in Brooklyn, were both protégés of Abdullah Azzam. ...

Cooley says that those directly recruited by the US went to Camp Peary — "the Farm", as the CIA's spy training centre in Virginia is known in the intelligence community ... At the Farm and other secret camps, young Afghans and Arab nationals from countries such as Egypt and Jordan learned strategic sabotage skills. Passed down to the younger jihad generation which filled the ranks of the bin Laden organisation, these skills would come back to haunt the US. ...'

[Giles Foden, "Blowback Chronicles", Guardian, 15 Sept. 2001; referring to John Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (Pluto Press, no date given)]

The MAK, headed by the Palestinian-Egyptian Abdullah Azzam in conjunction with bin Laden, was based in Peshawar, Pakistan. Numerous branches were established in the USA under the name of al-Khifa. The first was set up in Tucson, amid the large Arab community there, in 1986. The 9/11 Commission's Report later noted that "A number of important al Qaeda figures attended the University of Arizona in Tucson or lived in Tucson in the 1980s and early 1990s".

The largest branch of al-Khifa was in Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, New York (in or next to the Farouq Mosque). Other branches were in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. Officially known as the al-Khifa Refugee Center and the associated Afghan Refugee Services, the Brooklyn centre provided the interface for "Operation Cyclone", the American effort to support the mujaheddin. The organization became known as the "Services Office", after its Peshawar original, and worked to raise funds and train recruits for the war effort.

Azzam is believed to have visited from time to time, and bin Laden was numbered among the financial supporters. Al-Khifa had a training camp (perhaps the "private rifle club") in Connecticut, where "Recruits received brief paramilitary training and weapons induction, according to evidence in [subsequent terrorist] trials". Several former members of the "active service" of the CIA were employed there as "expert consultants".

(Andrew Marshall, "Terror 'blowback' burns CIA: America's spies paid and trained their nation's worst enemies", Independent on Sunday [UK], 1 Nov. 1998; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (Penguin, 2005 edn), p.155; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 2, p.58 [HTML version]; ibid, chapter 7, p.226 [HTML version]; Richard Labévière, Dollars For Terror [Algora, 2000; translation of Les Dolleurs de la Terreur, Grasset, 1999], pp.223-4)

In 1986, bin Laden brought heavy construction equipment from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. Using his extensive knowledge of construction techniques, (he has a degree in civil engineering), he built "training camps", some dug deep into the sides of mountains, and built roads to reach them.

These camps, now dubbed "terrorist universities" by Washington, were built in collaboration with the ISI and the CIA. The Afghan contra fighters, including tens of thousands of mercenaries recruited and paid for by bin Laden, were armed by the CIA. Pakistan, the US and Britain provided military trainers. ...

Al Qaeda (the Base), bin Laden's organisation, was established in 1987-88 to run the camps and other business enterprises. It is a tightly-run capitalist holding company — albeit one that integrates the operations of a military force and related logistical services with `legitimate' business operations.

[Norm Dixon, "How the CIA created Osama bin Laden" (autumn 2001)]

... bin Laden split from the relatively conventional MAK in 1988 and established a new group, al-Qaida, that included many of the more extreme MAK members he had met in Afghanistan. ... Afghan vet[eran]s, or Afghanis ...

[Michael Moran, "Bin Laden comes home to roost", MSNBC, 24 Aug. 1998)]

As the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan during 1988-9, a policy split emerged between the US State Department and the CIA. The State Department focused on moderate Afghan factions and a negotiated supersession of the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime. But the CIA continued military support, via Pakistan, of Hekmatyar and other Islamists. Meanwhile, Arabs continued to flow in to fight alongside the Afghan Islamists. ...
(Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (Penguin, 2005 edition), chapters 10 to 12)

New Roles for the "Arab Afghans"

The CIA decided that bin Laden's "Arab Afghans" were too useful an ally to abandon after the Soviets left Afghanistan, and in a meeting at Green's Hotel, Peshawar, Pakistan, in late 1991, between their local representatives, Prince Turki bin Faisal (head of the Saudi intelligence service) and the "Arab Afghans", they decided to continue links. The "strategic" position of Afghanistan vis-a-vis Central Asian oil was a factor in this decision.
(Labévière, Dollars For Terror, pp.104-5; cf. pp.227-8. "Arab Afghans" is a term Labévière uses for both the "proto-Qaeda" formed in Afghanistan with the CIA's help, and the later "fully-formed" version.)

The Islamist connections were employed in Bosnia during the break-up of Yugoslavia. Using the Pakistani ISI as an intermediary once more, the CIA channelled weapons and "Arab Afghan" and other Islamic fighters to the Bosnian Muslim Army. Chinese, North Korean and Iranian arms were supplied in order to maintain deniability.

[T]he Third World Relief Agency (TWRA), a Sudan-based, phoney humanitarian organization ... has been a major link in the arms pipeline to Bosnia ... TWRA is believed to be connected with such fixtures of the Islamic terror network as Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (the convicted mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) and Osama bin Laden ...
(Michel Chossudovsky, "Osamagate", Center For Global Research, Oct. 2001; quotation from Washington Post, 22 Sept. 1996)

"Blowback": The 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and After

At 18 minutes past noon on 26 February 1993, a huge truck bomb exploded in the underground parking garage beneath the twin towers of the New York World Trade Center. ... (9/11 Commission Report, chapter 3, p.71. [HTML version])...

The ensuing FBI investigation led to (amongst others) "terrorist mastermind" Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who was subsequently convicted on various terrorist charges, including a plot to bomb New York landmarks such as the UN building, the FBI headquarters and the Holland Tunnel.

Rahman's record is revealing. Born in Egypt, he was "spiritual mentor" of several Islamist groups. These included Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which was later to "merge" with al-Qaeda, and more especially Jama'a Islamiya (the Islamic Group), which had formed from a split with Jihad (and was later to partially remerge with it). Rahman played a leading role in recruiting foreign Islamic fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and also raised finance for the "holy war". He was issued a US entry visa in 1987. In 1990, Rahman was interviewed in Khartoum, Sudan, by the CIA's area station chief. He was subsequently issued with a multiple-entry visa by an undercover CIA operative who worked in the consular section of the US embassy there. This included the coveted green-card — permanent-resident — status. (Official statements later put down the visas to a series of computer errors; and the fact that the consular official was a CIA agent was dismissed as "sheer coincidence".) On entering the US, Rahman went to the al-Khifah "refugee center" in Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, New York, the front for raising anti-Soviet fighters ... He was also a "central figure" at the Farouq mosque next door, and also preached at a mosque in nearby Jersey City.
(Richard Labévière, Dollars For Terror, pp.221-4 [he refers to Newsweek as confirming the visa story, but fails to give a specific reference]; Peter L Bergen, Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden [Weidenfield & Nicholson, London, 2001], pp.72-3 [his reference is Marguerite Michaels, "Martyrs for the Sheik", Time magazine, 19 July 1993]; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 3, p.72 [HTML version])

Ramzi Youssef, the man who parked the truck bomb under the WTC, was himself an "Arab Afghan" who learned the arts of terrorism in Peshawar, Pakistan. And he had, according to a classified FBI file, been recruited by the local branch of the CIA. (His uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM], was to become the "operational mastermind" of 9/11.) (Labévière, Dollars For Terror, pp.220-1. 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 3, p.73. [HTML version]) ...

"A confidential CIA internal survey concluded that it was 'partly culpable' for the World Trade Center bomb, according to reports of the time. There had been blowback." (Andrew Marshall, "Terror 'blowback' burns CIA", Independent on Sunday [UK], 1 Nov. 1998) However, as Michel Chossudovsky comments, "The 'blowback' thesis is a fabrication. The evidence amply confirms that the CIA never severed its ties to the 'Islamic Militant Network'. ..." ("Osamagate", Center For Global Research, Oct. 2001)

Some of the future "9/11 hijackers" were discovered "by association with" the 1993 plotters in the "data-mining" operation Able Danger in 1999. (Mosque links between Mohammed Atta and Rahman are specifically mentioned. Jacob Goodwin, "Inside Able Danger ...", Government Security News (23-24 Aug. 2005) (link no longer available)) Fifteen of their number were also to obtain US visas with ease at the "CIA-dominated" US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (See "The Hijackers".)

The FBI investigation into the later US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in 1998 was said to have found that the traces from the explosions came from an American military explosive, of the type of which the CIA had apparently given to the "Arab Afghans" just three years before.
(Alexandra Richard, "La CIA aurait rencontre Ben Laden en juillet", Le Figaro, 31 Oct. 2001; a translation of this article is 'Links: Le Figaro Reports CIA, bin Laden Contacts', Scoop, 2 Nov. 2001. (The same article reported that the CIA's local representative, Larry Mitchell, met bin Laden in Dubai just three months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.))

Ali Mohammed: A Key Link?

(Sources:- Andrew Marshall, "Terror 'blowback' burns CIA: America's spies paid and trained their nation's worst enemies", Independent on Sunday [UK], 1 Nov. 1998; Lance Williams and Erin McCormick, "Al Qaeda terrorist worked with FBI ...", San Francisco Chronicle, 4 Nov. 2001; Ton Hays and Sharon Theimer, Associated Press, "Egyptian agent worked with Green Berets, bin Laden", Jerusalem Post, 31 Dec. 2001. Other references indicated at appropriate points in text.)

Ali Mohammed ("al-Amriki", the American) fits the profile of a double agent, according to Larry Johnson (former deputy chief of counterterrorism at the US State Department). Mohammed worked for the CIA, and US special forces, at different times during the 1980s and 1990s. In the same period, he also co-operated with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. And he was, according to FBI special agent Jack Cloonan, "bin Laden's first trainer". (Jack Cloonan interview, PBS, 13 July 2005 (edited online version)) But he may also have been an FBI informant. He was later convicted on terrorism conspiracy charges.

Originally an Egyptian Army captain, and fluent in English, Mohammed completed a training programme for foreign officers at the Special Forces school in Fort Bragg (home of the Green Berets) in North Carolina in 1981. But at the same time he became involved with Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant Moslem group "later absorbed by al-Qaeda". (And he was apparently in the same army unit as the soldier who assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.)

Mohammed left the Egyptian Army in 1984 and became a CIA informant. At some unspecified later time the CIA dropped him because he was "boasting" of his relationship with the agency. They put his name on a watch list aimed at blocking his entrance to the USA, according to a US government official.

Nevertheless, Mohammed got a visa one year later, and returned to America. He married a Santa Clara woman and became a US citizen. Mohammed joined the US Army in 1986 and returned to Fort Bragg the following year. Here he worked as a supply sergeant for the Special Forces, and also gave briefings on Islamic fundamentalism at the Kennedy Center and School there.

Mohamed's behavior and his background were so unusual that his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Robert Anderson, became convinced that he was both a "dangerous fanatic" and an operative of U.S. intelligence.

Anderson, now [in 2001] a businessman in North Carolina, said that on their first meeting in 1988, Mohamed told him, "Anwar Sadat was a traitor and had to die."

Later that year, Anderson said, Mohamed announced that — contrary to all Army regulations — he intended to go on vacation to Afghanistan to join the Islamic guerrillas in their civil war against the Soviets. A month later, he returned, boasting that he had killed two Soviet soldiers and giving away as souvenirs what he claimed were their uniform belts.

Anderson said he wrote detailed reports aimed at getting Army intelligence to investigate Mohamed — and have him court-martialed — but the reports were ignored.

"I think you or I would have a better chance of winning Powerball (a lottery), than an Egyptian major in the unit that assassinated Sadat would have getting a visa, getting to California ... getting into the Army and getting assigned to a Special Forces unit," he said. "That just doesn't happen."

It was equally unthinkable that an ordinary American GI would go unpunished after fighting in a foreign war, he said.

Anderson said all this convinced him that Mohamed was "sponsored" by a U.S. intelligence service. "I assumed the CIA," he said.

[The Boston Globe reported in 1995 that Mohamed did in fact benefit from a visa waiver programme for intelligence assets. (Paul Quinn-Judge and Charles M Sennat, "Figure Cited in Terrorism Case Said to Enter US with CIA Help ...", Boston Globe, 3 Feb. 1995; referred to in Peter L Bergen, Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden [Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2001], pp.142-3)]

In 1989 Mohammed "came to the New York area to train mujaheddin on their way to Afghanistan". His location was evidently "the Al-Khifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, a place of pivotal importance to Operation Cyclone, the American effort to support the mujaheddin". There he trained Nosair and other figures soon to commit acts of terror on United States soil (most prominently perhaps, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). Mohammed also provided military training for mujaheddin in Jersey City and in Connecticut (perhaps at the camp where ex-CIA operatives were employed as "consultants" [see above, "The Breeding-Ground and Birth of al-Qaeda"]).

Ali Mohammed was "honorably discharged" from the US Army in November 1989 — and received at least two good-conduct medals. In the early 1990s he returned to Afghanistan, where he gave training in the al-Qaeda camps. "In one of the first training classes that [he] conducted was [Osama] bin Laden; [bin Laden's "deputy"] Ayman al-Zawahiri ... and others". (Jack Cloonan interview, PBS, 13 July 2005 (edited online version)) Mohammed apparently helped the terrorist organization prepare for the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (carrying out reconnaissance in 1993 [9/11 Commission Report, chapter 2, p.68 [HTML version]]).

Returning to California in the mid-1990s, Mohammed helped Zawahiri raise money for Egyptian Islamic Jihad. (Zawahiri was the leader of Jihad, which was in the process of merging with al-Qaeda.) But former State Department counter-terror boss Johnson believes he was also an FBI informant, and told them, after the embassy attacks, that bin Laden was responsible.

Mohammed was subpoenaed to testify before a New York grand jury in connection with the 1993 Trade Center bombing, before himself being convicted on conspiracy charges. He was imprisoned in New York's Metropolitan Correction Center.

But this was not the end of Mohammed's "borderlands" role. Just before the Afghanistan invasion, he was consulted at the prison by the chief human-intelligence officer of Delta Forces. Mohammed provided advice on the Qaeda training camps. (Jack Cloonan interview, PBS, 13 July 2005 (edited online version))

Jamal al-Fadl: Qaeda "Supergrass" and Image-Builder

Qaeda informer Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl was the key with which the CIA produced its new, deadlier image of al-Qaeda from 1996 onwards. FBI special agent Dan Coleman, who also worked for the CIA's Bin Laden Issue Station, called him the "Rosetta Stone" of al-Qaeda. (Jane Mayer, "Junior: The clandestine life of America's top Al Qaeda source", The New Yorker, 4 Sept. 2006)

Sudanese-born. Recruited to the mujaheddin through the al-Kifa centre in Brooklyn when he lived in the US in the mid-1980s. Al-Fadl had joined al-Qaeda in 1989, apparently in Afghanistan. Peter Bergen called him the third member of the organization (presumably after Azzam and bin Laden).

... But al-Fadl had since embezzled $110,000 from al-Qaeda, and now wanted to "defect". ...

From 1996, al-Fadl "provided a major breakthrough on the creation, character, direction and intentions of al Qaeda". "Bin Laden, the CIA now learned, had planned multiple terrorist operations and aspired to more" — including the acquisition of weapons-grade uranium. Another, anonymous, "walk-in" source (apparently L'Hossaine Kherchtou) "corroborated" al-Fadl's claims. (See 'The CIA's Bin Laden Unit and the "New Qaeda", 1996-98'.)

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ("KSM"): "9/11 Operational Mastermind"

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was also in the United States in the mid 1980s. Born in Kuwait, he was a student at colleges in North Carolina from 1983 through 1986, when he obtained a degree in mechanical engineering. KSM allegedly claimed, at a later US intelligence interrogation, that he had considered assassinating the right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane when the latter gave a lecture at one of the colleges in 1984. (Nosair, an Ali-Mohammed trainee, was later convicted on Kahane's assassination.)

KSM went straight on to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, working for MAK boss Abdullah Azzam (see above, "The Breeding-Ground and Birth of al-Qaeda"), and later meeting bin Laden on the front.(9/11 Commission Report, chapter 5, p.68 [HTML version]; ibid, Notes, p.488 note 4 [HTML version])

The CIA's Qaeda: Protégé to Patsy, 1996—9/11 »