“Osama bin Laden was trained and funded by the CIA” – you’ll read the claim everywhere, and it’s rarely opposed: everyone just seems to accept that it’s true. But why? How much evidence have you ever seen presented to support this?
The reality is that there are many people who say this is simply a myth. And we’re not just talking about neo-con friendly journalists, either.
Take Jason Burke, for instance, a major contributor to the BBC documentary “The Power of Nightmares”. In his book “Al Qaeda”, he wrote the following:
It is often said that bin Ladin was funded by the CIA. This is not true, and indeed it would have been impossible given the structure of funding that General Zia ul-Haq, who had taken power in Pakistan in 1977, had set up. A condition of Zia’s cooperation with the American plan to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet’s ‘Vietnam’ was that all American funding to the Afghan resistance had to be channeled through the Pakistani government, which effectively meant the Afghan bureau of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the military spy agency. The American funding, which went exclusively to the Afghan mujahideen groups, not the Arab volunteers [bin Ladin’s groups], was supplemented by Saudi government money and huge funds raised from mosques, non-governmental charitable institutions and private donors throughout the Islamic world. Most of the major Gulf-based charities operating today were founded at this time to raise money or channel government funds to the Afghans, civilians and fighters. In fact, as little as 25 per cent of the monet for the Afghan jihad was actually supplied directly by states.
Page 59, Al Qaeda: The true story of radical Islam, Jason Burke
Steve Coll, former Managing Editor of the Washington Post, also suggests bin Ladin passed largely unnoticed by the CIA, in his book “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001”:
…According to [Ahemd] Badeeb, on bin Ladin’s first trip to Pakistan he brought donations to the Lahore offices of Jamaat-e-Islami, Zia’s political shock force. Jamaat was the Pakistani offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood; its students had sacked the US embassy in Islamabad in 1979. bin Ladin did not trust the official Pakistan intelligence service, Badeeb recalled, and preferred to fund his initial charity through private religious and political networks.From the beginning of the Afghan jihad, Saudi intelligence used religious charities to support its own unilateral operations. This mainly involved funneling money and equipment to favoured Afghan commanders outisde ISI or CIA control… “The humanitarian aid-that was completely separate from the Americans”, Badeeb recalled. “And we insist[ed] that the Americans will not get to that, get involved–especially in the beginning,” in part because some of the Islamist mujahedin objected to direct contact with Western infidels…
In spy lexicon, each of the major intelligence agencies began working the Afghan jihad–GID [General Intelligence Department, Saudi Arabia], ISI and the CIA– began to “compartment” their work, even as all three collaborated with one another through formal liasons…
bin Ladin moved within Saudi intelligence’s compartmented operations, outside of CIA eyesight…
Page 86/ 87, Ghost Wars, Stevel Coll
In a Q&A session following the release of his book, Coll said:
Wheaton, Md.: There have been accusations from the left that have directly accused the CIA of funding and training bin Laden. Is there any truth to this ? Steve Coll: I did not discover any evidence of direct contact between CIA officers and bin Laden during the 1980s, when they were working more or less in common cause against the Soviets. CIA officials, including Tenet, have denied under oath that such contact took place. The CIA was certainly aware of bin Laden’s activities, beginning in the mid- to late-1980s, and they generally looked favorably on what he was doing at that time. But bin Laden’s direct contacts were with Saudi intelligence and to some extent Pakistani intelligence, not with the Americans.
Peter Bergen expanded on the supposed CIA/ bin Ladin links in his book, Holy War Inc:
But were the CIA and the Afghan Arabs in cahoots, as recent studies have suggested? One author charges: “The CIA had funded and trained the Afghan Arabs during the war”. Another refers to “the central role of the CIA’s Muslim mercenaries, including upwards of 2,000 mercenaries in the Afghanistan war”. Both authors present these claims as axioms, but provide no real corroboration.Other commentators have reported that bin Ladin himself was aided by the CIA. A report in the respected British newspaper The Guardian states: “In 1986 the CIA even helped him [bin Ladin] build an underground camp at Khost [Afghanistan] where he was to train recruits from across the Islamic world in the revolutionary art of jihad”…Bin Ladin, meanwhile, had expoused anti-American positions since 1982, and thanks to the fortune derived from his family’s giant construction business had little need of CIA money. In fact, the underground camp at Khost was built in 1982 by an Afghan commander, with Arab funding.
A source familiar with bin Ladin’s organisation explains that bin Ladin “never had any relations with America or American officials… He was saying very early in the 1980’s that the next battle is going to be with America… No aid or training or other support have ever been given to bin Ladin from Americans.” A senior offical unequivocally says that “bin Ladin never met with the CIA.”
While the charges that the CIA was responsible for the rise of the Afghan Arabs might make good copy, they don’t make good history. The truth is more complicated, tinged with varying shades of grey. The United States wanted to be able to deny that the CIA was funding the Afghan war, so its support was funneled through Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI). ISI in turn made the decisions about which Afghan factions to arm and train, tending to fund the most Islamist and pro-Pakistan. The Afghan Arabs generally fought alongside those factions, which is how the charge arose that they were creatures of the CIA.
Former CIA officer Milt Bearden, who ran the Agency’s Afghan operation in the late 1980’s, says: “The CIA did not recruit Arabs,” as there was no need to do so. There were hundreds of thousands of Afghans all too willing to fight…
Moreover, the Afghan Arabs demonstrated a pathological dislike of Westerners. Jouvenal says: “I always kept away from Arabs [in Afghanistan]. They were very hostile. They would ask, ‘What are you doing in an Islamic country?” The BBC reporter John Simpson had a close call with bin Ladin himself outside Jalalabad in 1989. Travelling with a group of Arab mujahideen, Simpson and his television crew bumped into an Arab man beautifully dressed in spotless white robes; the man began shouting at Simpson’s escorts to kill the infidels, then offered a truck driver the not unreasonable sum of five hundred dollars to do the job. Simpson’s Afghan escort turned down the request, and bin Ladin was to be found later on a camp bed, weeping in frustration. Only when bin Ladin became a public figure, almost a decade later, did Simpson realise who the mysterious Arab was who had wanted him dead.
Page 67/68, Holy War Inc, Peter Bergen
This level of hostility to Westerners doesn’t suggest a warm working relationship with the US, and there’s some confirmation in a story retold by Richard Miniter:
…the handful of Americans who had heard of bin Ladin in the 1980’s knew him mainly for his violently anti-American views. Dana Rohrabacher, now a Republican congressman from Orange County, California, told me about a trip he took with the mujihideen in 1987. At the time, Rohrabacher was a Reagan aide who delighted in taking long overland trips inside Afghanistan with anti-Communist forces. On one such trek, his guide told him not to speak English for the next few hours because they were passing by bin Ladin’s encampment. Rohrabacher was told, “If he hears an American, he will kill you.”
Page 16, Disinformation, Richard Miniter
Bin Ladin was himself asked about US funding by Robert Fisk:
Fisk: …what of the Arab mujahedin he took to Afghanistan – members of a guerilla army who were also encouraged and armed by the United States – and who were forgotten when that war was over? bin Ladin: “Personally neither I nor my brothers saw evidence of American help…
Fisk interview, 1996
And Ayman al-Zawahiri, second-in-command of al Qaeda, explains more in his text “Knights under the Prophet’s Banner”. Here he claims the “Afghan Arabs” had plenty of funding from various Arab sources, and points to other indications that they never supported the US:
“While the United States backed Pakistan and the mujahidin factions with money and equipment, the young Arab mujahidin’s relationship with the United States was totally different.”Indeed the presence of those young Arab Afghans in Afghanistan and their increasing numbers represented a failure of US policy and new proof of the famous US political stupidity. The financing of the activities of the Arab mujahidin in Afghanistan came from aid sent to Afghanistan by popular organizations. It was substantial aid. “The Arab mujahidin did not confine themselves to financing their own jihad but also carried Muslim donations to the Afghan mujahidin themselves. Usama Bin Ladin has apprised me of the size of the popular Arab support for the Afghan mujahidin that amounted, according to his sources, to $200 million in the form of military aid alone in 10 years.
Imagine how much aid was sent by popular Arab organizations in the non-military fields such as medicine and health, education and vocational training, food, and social assistance (including sponsorship of orphans, widows, and the war handicapped. Add to all this the donations that were sent on special occasions such as Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha feasts and during the month of Ramadan.”
“Through this unofficial popular support, the Arab mujahidin established training centers and centers for the call to the faith. They formed fronts that trained and equipped thousands of Arab mujahidin and provided them with living expenses, housing, travel, and organization.”
Changing Bin Ladin’s Guard
About the Afghan Arabs’ relationship with the United States, Al-Zawahiri says in his book: “If the Arab mujahidin are mercenaries of the United States who rebelled against it as it alleges, why is it unable to buy them back now? Are they not counted now-with Usama Bin Ladin at their head-as the primary threat to US interests? Is not buying them more economical and less costly that the astronomical budgets that the United States is allotting for security and defense?”
“The Americans, in their usual custom of exaggeration and superficiality, are trying to sell off illusions to the people and are ignoring the most basic facts. Is it possible that Usama Bin Ladin who, in his lectures in the year 1987, called for boycotting US goods as a form of support for the intifadah in Palestine, a US agent in Afghanistan?….
“Furthermore, is it possible that the martyr-as we regard him-Abdallah Azzam was a US collaborator when in fact he never stopped inciting young men against the United States and used to back HAMAS with all the resources at his disposal?
“Is it possible that the jihadist movement in Egypt can be a collaborator movement for the United States when Khalid al-Islambuli and his comrades killed Anwar al-Sadat, even before the phenomenon of the Arab mujahidin in Afghanistan emerged?”
“Is it possible that the jihadist movement in Egypt can be a US collaborator movement when in fact it brought up its children, ever since the movement started, to reject Israel and all the agreements of capitulation to it and to consider making peace with Israel as a contravention of Islamic Shari’ah?”
Book, His Own Words: A Translation of the Writings of Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri
Richard Miniter has a little more on this in “Dispelling the CIA-Bin Ladin Myth“, and while you may not exactly trust the source, there were further comments worth at least a look on the US State Departments “Identifying Misinformation” site.