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Context of 'May 1986: Bin Laden Leads Arab Fighters into Afghanistan, but Mission Ends in Failure'

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Salem and Osama bin Laden hold a series of meetings with South African arms dealers to discuss supplies for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin in Afghanistan. One meeting is held at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan, and a person who attends this meeting will later discuss it with a lawyer acting for victims of the 9/11 attacks. The person’s name is not known. The meeting is attended by Osama bin Laden, Afghan commander Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and two South African officers. The attendees discuss weapons and training. There are other meetings in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, between South African suppliers and Salem bin Laden, Osama’s older brother. Arms purchases are also discussed there. Reportedly, some of the financing for the weapons comes from the Saudi government. (Coll 2008, pp. 287)

Osama bin Laden leads a small force of Arab anti-Soviet fighters into Afghanistan to join local forces near the village of Jaji, a few miles from the Pakistan border. The territory where the group sets up is controlled by Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an associate of bin Laden’s. One night, the Arabs’ tents are pelted by what appears to be debris from a distant explosion, and in the morning the men find that they are surrounded by mines. As they are withdrawing, they are hit by a missile, which lands a few meters from bin Laden, and there is a huge explosion on a nearby mountain. Three men are wounded and one dies. Finally, the local Afghan forces ask them to withdraw, because, in the words of author Lawrence Wright, “they were so useless.” This appears to be the first time bin Laden fires a weapon or is fired upon during the war. (Wright 2006, pp. 111)

Bin Laden in Afghanistan, around 1988.Bin Laden in Afghanistan, around 1988. [Source: Getty Images]Soviet forces assault a position held by forces commanded by Osama bin Laden, but are repelled. This is the best-known battle in which bin Laden is involved in Afghanistan, and takes place at Jaji, around bin Laden’s Lion’s Den camp (see Late 1986). The attack may be the result of a small skirmish shortly before in which bin Laden’s Arabs attacked a group of Soviet troops, forcing them to withdraw.
Attack - In the initial assault, the Soviets are repulsed by mortar fire, and the defenders are also successful against the second wave, killing and wounding several enemy soldiers. The Soviets then shell bin Laden’s positions for weeks, but the mujaheddin cannot be dislodged. (Wright 2006, pp. 115-116) Estimates of the number of troops vary. According to author Steve Coll, there are about 50 Arabs facing 200 Soviet troops, including some from an elite Spetsnaz unit. (Coll 2004, pp. 162)
Withdrawal - However, bin Laden begins to worry that his men will all be killed if they stay longer. As a result, he forces his men to retreat, although some of them protest and have to be cajoled into doing so. Before pulling out, the camp is destroyed so that the Soviets cannot use it; the canons are pushed into a ravine, the automatic weapons buried, and the pantry grenaded.
Ordered to Return - Bin Laden’s men fall back on a camp run by a leading Afghan commander, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, one of the key mujahidden leaders in the area. However, Sayyaf has come to recognize the Lion’s Den’s strategic value, and is angry they pulled back without his approval. Sayyaf orders the Arabs back and sends about twenty of his own men to make sure they hold their position.
Attacked Again, Victorious - After he returns, bin Laden, who has been ill, is too distraught at the camp’s poor condition and lack of food to give orders, and one of his senior assistants, Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, takes over. Bin Laden is sent to guard one of the camp’s flanks, but his small group of men encounters a Soviet advance and comes under heavy mortar fire. Bin Laden will later comment, “It was a terrible battle, which ended up with me half sunk in the ground, firing at anything I could see.” Many accounts will say that at this point bin Laden falls asleep under enemy fire, although, according to author Lawrence Wright, he may actually faint due to low blood pressure. In any event, late in the day al-Banshiri is able to outflank the Soviets and force them to withdraw, securing a great victory for the Arabs.
Significance of Battle - The Lion’s Den is only a small part of a larger engagement mostly fought by the Soviets against Sayyaf’s Afghans, but it is a hugely important propaganda victory for the Arabs. Bin Laden, who is given a Soviet AK-47 by al-Banshiri after the battle, will later comment, “The morale of the mujaheddin soared, not only in our area, but in the whole of Afghanistan.” Wright will later comment that it gives the Arabs “a reputation for courage and recklessness that established their legend, at least among themselves,” and becomes “the foundation of the myth that they defeated the superpower.” (Wright 2006, pp. 118-120) Coll will add: “Chronicled daily at the time by several Arab journalists who observed the fighting from a mile or two away, the battle of Jaji marked the birth of Osama bin Laden’s public reputation as a warrior among Arab jihadists… After Jaji he began a media campaign designed to publicize the brave fight waged by Arab volunteers who stood their ground against a superpower. In interviews and speeches around Peshawar and back home in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden sought to recruit new fighters to his cause and to chronicle his own role as a military leader.” (Coll 2004, pp. 163)


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