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Context of 'October 1998: Military Analyst Finds Sensitive Information on Terrorism in Afghanistan, but US Authorities Confiscate Data'

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After the Taliban takes control of the area around Kandahar, Afghanistan, in September 1994, prominent Persian Gulf state officials and businessmen, including high-ranking United Arab Emirates and Saudi government ministers such as Saudi Intelligence Minister Prince Turki al-Faisal, frequently secretly fly into Kandahar on state and private jets for bird hunting expeditions. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] General Wayne Downing, who will later serve as one of President Bush’s counterterrorism “tsars,” says: “They would go out and see Osama, spend some time with him, talk with him, you know, live out in the tents, eat the simple food, engage in falconing, some other pursuits, ride horses.” [MSNBC, 9/5/2003] One noted visitor is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Defense Minister and Crown Prince for the emirate of Dubai. Another is Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of the UAE. While there, some develop ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and give them money. Both Osama bin Laden and Taliban ruler Mullah Omar sometimes participate in these hunting trips. Al Maktoum allegedly hunts with bin Laden once in 1999 (see 1999). [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 120-121] On one occasion in 1999, the US will decide not to attack bin Laden with a missile because he’s bird hunting with important members of the UAE’s royal family (see February 11, 1999). US and Afghan officials suspect that the dignitaries’ outbound jets may also have smuggle out al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] The CIA also develops suspicions that many royals use the hunting trips as cover to fly out of Afghanistan with large amounts of heroin, but they are unable to prove it (see 1998).

Entity Tags: Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Turki al-Faisal, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Wayne Downing

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Robin Raphel.Robin Raphel. [Source: Mark Wilson / Agence France-Presse]Robin Raphel, Deputy Secretary of State for South Asia, speaks to the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister about Afghanistan. She says that the US government “now hopes that peace in the region will facilitate US business interests,” such as the proposed Unocal gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan. [Coll, 2004, pp. 330]

Entity Tags: Unocal, Robin Raphel, Russia

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In 1996, al-Qaeda assumes control of Ariana Airlines, Afghanistan’s national airline, for use in its illegal trade network. Passenger flights become few and erratic, as planes are used to fly drugs, weapons, gold, and personnel, primarily between Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Pakistan. The Emirate of Sharjah, in the UAE, becomes a hub for al-Qaeda drug and arms smuggling. Typically, “large quantities of drugs” are flown from Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Sharjah, and large quantities of weapons are flown back to Afghanistan. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] About three to four flights run the route each day. Many weapons come from Victor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer based in Sharjah. [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/2002] Afghan taxes on opium production are paid in gold, and then the gold bullion is flown to Dubai, UAE, and laundered into cash. [Washington Post, 2/17/2002] Taliban officials regularly provide militants with false papers identifying them as Ariana Airlines employees so they can move freely around the world. For instance, one flight on a Ariana small plane in 2000 lists 33 crew members. A former National Security Council official later claims the US is well aware at the time that al-Qaeda agents regularly fly on Ariana Airlines. (However, US intelligence will not learn of the widespread use of forged Ariana IDs until after 9/11.) The CIA learns of Bout’s connection to Ariana and the Taliban in 1998, but takes no action (see 1998). The US presses the UAE for tighter banking controls, but moves “delicately, not wanting to offend an ally in an already complicated relationship,” and little changes by 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 139] Much of the money for the 9/11 hijackers flows though these Sharjah, UAE, channels. There also are reports suggesting that Ariana Airlines might have been used to train Islamic militants as pilots. The illegal use of Ariana Airlines helps convince the United Nations to impose sanctions against Afghanistan in 1999, but the sanctions lack teeth and do not stop the airline. A second round of sanctions finally stops foreign Ariana Airlines flights, but its charter flights and other charter services keep the illegal network running. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] About nine of the 9/11 hijackers work at the Kandahar airport in 2000, which is Ariana’s main hub (see Summer 2000).

Entity Tags: Taliban, United Arab Emirates, United Nations, Al-Qaeda, Ariana Airlines, Victor Bout

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Taliban forces conquering Afghanistan.Taliban forces conquering Afghanistan. [Source: Banded Artists Productions]The Taliban conquer Kabul [Associated Press, 8/19/2002] , establishing control over much of Afghanistan. A surge in the Taliban’s military successes at this time is later attributed to an increase in direct military assistance from Pakistan’s ISI. [New York Times, 12/8/2001] The oil company Unocal is hopeful that the Taliban will stabilize Afghanistan and allow its pipeline plans to go forward. According to some reports, “preliminary agreement [on the pipeline] was reached between the [Taliban and Unocal] long before the fall of Kabul .… Oil industry insiders say the dream of securing a pipeline across Afghanistan is the main reason why Pakistan, a close political ally of America’s, has been so supportive of the Taliban, and why America has quietly acquiesced in its conquest of Afghanistan.” [Daily Telegraph, 10/11/1996] The 9/11 Commission later concludes that some State Department diplomats are willing to “give the Taliban a chance” because it might be able to bring stability to Afghanistan, which would allow a Unocal oil pipeline to be built through the country. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]

Entity Tags: Taliban, US Department of State, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Unocal, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Julie Sirrs.Julie Sirrs. [Source: Julie Sirrs]Julie Sirrs, a military analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), travels to Afghanistan. Fluent in local languages and knowledgeable about the culture, she made a previous undercover trip there in October 1997. She is surprised that the CIA was not interested in sending in agents after the failed missile attack on Osama bin Laden in August 1998, so she returns at this time. Traveling undercover, she meets with Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. She sees a terrorist training center in Taliban-controlled territory. Sirrs will later claim: “The Taliban’s brutal regime was being kept in power significantly by bin Laden’s money, plus the narcotics trade, while [Massoud’s] resistance was surviving on a shoestring. With even a little aid to the Afghan resistance, we could have pushed the Taliban out of power. But there was great reluctance by the State Department and the CIA to undertake that.” She partly blames the interest of the US government and the oil company Unocal to see the Taliban achieve political stability to enable a trans-Afghanistan pipeline (see May 1996 and September 27, 1996). She claims, “Massoud told me he had proof that Unocal had provided money that helped the Taliban take Kabul.” She also states, “The State Department didn’t want to have anything to do with Afghan resistance, or even, politically, to reveal that there was any viable option to the Taliban.” After two weeks, Sirrs returns with a treasure trove of maps, photographs, and interviews. [ABC News, 2/18/2002; ABC News, 2/18/2002; New York Observer, 3/11/2004] By interviewing captured al-Qaeda operatives, she learns that the official Afghanistan airline, Ariana Airlines, is being used to ferry weapons and drugs, and learns that bin Laden goes hunting with “rich Saudis and top Taliban officials” (see Mid-1996-October 2001 and 1995-2001). [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] When Sirrs returns from Afghanistan, her material is confiscated and she is accused of being a spy. Says one senior colleague, “She had gotten the proper clearances to go, and she came back with valuable information,” but high level officials “were so intent on getting rid of her, the last thing they wanted to pay attention to was any information she had.” Sirrs is cleared of wrongdoing, but her security clearance is pulled. She eventually quits the DIA in frustration in 1999. [ABC News, 2/18/2002; New York Observer, 3/11/2004] Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) will claim that the main DIA official behind the punishment of Sirrs is Lieutenant General Patrick Hughes, who later becomes “one of the top officials running the Department of Homeland Security.” [Dana Rohrabacher, 6/21/2004]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Unocal, Osama bin Laden, US Department of State, Northern Alliance, Patrick Hughes, Defense Intelligence Agency, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Al-Qaeda, Julie Sirrs, Central Intelligence Agency, Dana Rohrabacher, Ariana Airlines

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Ahmed Shah Massoud. [Source: French Ministry of Foreign Affairs]Worried about intercepts showing a growing likelihood of al-Qaeda attacks around the millennium, the CIA steps up ties with Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance fighting the Taliban. The CIA sends a team of agents, led by bin Laden unit chief Richard Blee, to Massoud’s headquarters in a remote part of northern Afghanistan, seeking his help to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The CIA team and Massoud meet twice, and Blee tells him, “We have a common enemy.” Massoud complains that the US is too focused on bin Laden, and is not interested in the root problems of Taliban, Saudi, and Pakistani support for terrorism that is propping him up. He agrees to help nonetheless, and the CIA gives him more aid in return. However, the US is officially neutral in the Afghan civil war and the agents are prohibited from giving any aid that would “fundamentally alter the Afghan battlefield.” The CIA team will later be reported to admire Massoud greatly. They see him as “a Che Guevara figure, a great actor on history’s stage,” and “a poet, a military genius, a religious man, and a leader of enormous courage who defied death and accepted its inevitability.” Author Steve Coll will write: “The CIA team had gone into the Panjshir [Valley, where Massoud’s headquarters is located] as unabashed admirers of Massoud. Now their convictions deepened even as they recognized that the agency’s new partnership with the Northern Alliance would be awkward, limited, and perhaps unlikely to succeed.” Perhaps because of this, the team members agree with Massoud’s criticism of US policy and agree to lobby for a policy change in his favor in Washington. [Coll, 2004, pp. 469-472; Washington Post, 2/23/2004] DIA agent Julie Sirrs, newly retired, is at Massoud’s headquarters at the same time as the CIA team (see October 1998). She gathers valuable intelligence from captured al-Qaeda soldiers while the CIA agents stay in their guesthouse. She will publish much of what she learns on this trip and other trips in the summer of 2001. [Washington Post, 2/28/2004]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Richard Blee, Northern Alliance, Central Intelligence Agency, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Alec Station, Al-Qaeda, Julie Sirrs

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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