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After being recruited by Abdullah Azzam, an Arab Afghan leader and Osama bin Laden’s mentor, Essam al Ridi travels to Pakistan to join the mujaheddin fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He works for the mujaheddin for about 18 months, mostly as a purchaser of equipment abroad. He buys two sets of scuba diving equipment and six range finders in Britain, as well as night vision goggles and six night vision scopes from the US. He also purchases video equipment and batteries, and acquires equipment in Japan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Al Ridi will later say, as a witness in a US trial, that he travels “extensively almost every 15 days to 20 days” and that he has so many stamps his passport is nearly full by 1985. Al Ridi leaves Asia to return to the US in late 1984 or early 1985, apparently due to an argument about Osama bin Laden’s role in the jihad, but he will continue to send equipment to the mujaheddin. For example, he will later purchase assassination rifles for the jihad, apparently with the CIA’s knowledge, but it is unclear whether the CIA knows about these earlier transactions (see Early 1989). (United States District Court for the Southern District of New York 1/14/2001)
Osama bin Laden, his mentor Abdullah Azzam, and Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf meet two unnamed men in Peshawar, Pakistan. The two men are “supposed to be from somewhere in Europe” and cannot speak Arabic. As a result, Essam al Ridi, an Egyptian who has lived in the US, attends the meeting as a translator. Al Ridi will later say that the two men speak English “with an accent” and that he was invited to the meeting to translate between the men on the one hand and Sayyaf and Azzam on the other, indicating that bin Laden did not need a translator and could speak English. This is the first of several meetings between bin Laden and al Ridi, who purchases equipment for anti-Soviet fighters (see Early 1983-Late 1984 and Early 1989). (United States District Court for the Southern District of New York 1/14/2001)
Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor, and Abdullah Anas, Azzam’s son-in-law, create an organization called Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), known in English as the Services Office. It is also known as Al-Kifah. This organization will become a key node in the private funding network for the Afghan war. (Bergen 2006, pp. 28-30) The US government will later call it the “precursor organization to al-Qaeda.” (9/11 Commission 8/21/2004, pp. 89 ) Initially, Azzam runs it while bin Laden funds it. They create a guesthouse in Peshawar, Pakistan, to help foreign volunteers connect with rebel forces in Afghanistan. Prior to this time, the number of such volunteers is very small, perhaps only several dozen. But the number begins to dramatically expand. (Engelberg 1/14/2001; Bergen 2006, pp. 28-30) Donors will include the Saudi intelligence agency, the Saudi Red Crescent, the Muslim World League, and private donors, including Saudi princes. (Rashid 9/23/2001) MAK/Al-Kifah begins fundraising in the US one year later (see 1985-1989).
Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor, makes repeated trips to the US and other countries, building up his Pakistan-based organization, Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), or “Services Office” in English. It is also known as Al-Kifah, which means “struggle.” Azzam founded the Al-Kifah/MAK in 1984 (see Late 1984). Branches open in over 30 US cities, as Muslim-Americans donate millions of dollars to support the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. The most important branch, called the Al-Kifah Refugee Center, opens in Brooklyn, New York (see 1986-1993). Azzam is assassinated in a car bomb attack in late 1989 (see November 24, 1989). Bin Laden soon takes over the organization, which effectively morphs into al-Qaeda. His followers take over the US offices and they become financial conduits for al-Qaeda operations. (Lance 2003, pp. 40-41)
The Central Intelligence Agency, which has been supporting indigenous Afghan groups fighting occupying Soviet forces, becomes unhappy with them due to infighting, and searches for alternative anti-Soviet allies. MSNBC will later comment: “[T]he CIA, concerned about the factionalism of Afghanistan made famous by Rudyard Kipling, found that Arab zealots who flocked to aid the Afghans were easier to ‘read’ than the rivalry-ridden natives. While the Arab volunteers might well prove troublesome later, the agency reasoned, they at least were one-dimensionally anti-Soviet for now. So [Osama] bin Laden, along with a small group of Islamic militants from Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian refugee camps all over the Middle East, became the ‘reliable’ partners of the CIA in its war against Moscow.” The CIA does not usually deal with the Afghan Arabs directly, but through an intermediary, Pakistan’s ISI, which helps the Arabs through the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) run by Abdullah Azzam. (Moran 8/24/1998) The agreement is sealed during a secret visit to Pakistan, where CIA Director William Casey commits the agency to support the ISI program of recruiting radical Muslims for the Afghan war from other Muslim countries around the world. In addition to the Gulf States, these include Turkey, the Philippines, and China. The ISI started their recruitment of radicals from other countries in 1982 (see 1982). This CIA cooperation is part of a joint CIA-ISI plan begun the year before to expand the “Jihad” beyond Afghanistan (see 1984-March 1985). (Rashid 2001, pp. 128-129) Thousands of militant Arabs are trained under this program (see 1986-1992).
Bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam frequently travels all over the world with the apparent support of the CIA. Slate will later write, “Azzam trotted the globe during the 1980s to promote the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. By the time of his death in 1989, he had recruited between 16,000 and 20,000 mujaheddin from 20 countries to Afghanistan, visited 50 American cities to advance his cause, and dispatched acolytes to spread the gospel in 26 US states, not to mention across the Middle East and Europe.” Slate calls him “the Lenin of international jihad,” noting that he “didn’t invent his movement’s ideas, but he furthered them and put them into practice around the world.” (Suellentrop 4/16/2002) At the time, the US is supporting the Afghans fighting the Soviets and it will later be alleged that the CIA supported Azzam as part of this effort. Barnett Rubin, a Columbia University professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, will claim in 1995 that sources told him Azzam was “enlisted” by the CIA to help unite the fractious Afghan rebel groups. Rubin claims Azzam was considered a prime asset because of his “close connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi intelligence, and the Muslim World League.” But Azzam made no secret of his desire for a no compromise jihad to conquer the entire world. In 1988 in New Jersey, he says, “Blood and martyrdom are the only way to create a Muslim society” and he wants “to ignite the spark that may one day burn Western interests all over the world.” He is frequently accompanied on his US lecture tours by El-Sayyid Nosair and Clement Rodney Hampton-El, both of whom will later be convicted of al-Qaeda-linked attacks in the US. (Friedman 3/17/1995) CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Executive Director Nihad Awad is a leader in the IAP (Islamic Association for Palestine) at this time. ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) affiliates, such as IAP and the MAYA (Muslim Arab Youth Association), host Azzam and arrange his visits to Islamic centers throughout the US. (Braude 2/27/2007)
By the mid-1980s, Osama bin Laden and his mentor Abdullah Azzam jointly founded a charity front based in Pakistan which is called Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) (which means “services office”) and is also known as Al-Kifah (which means “struggle”) (see 1984). Branches start to open in the US; the first one apparently opens in Tucson, Arizona, where al-Qaeda has a sleeper cell (see 1986). But around 1986, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, the right hand man of double agent Ali Mohamed, informally founds the branch in Brooklyn, New York, and it soon becomes the most important US branch. (Weiser, Sachs, and Kocieniewski 10/22/1998; Burr and Collins 2006, pp. 269-270) On December 29, 1987, three men, Mustafa Shalabi, Fawaz Damra, and Ali Shinawy, formally file papers incorporating Al-Kifah, which is called the Al-Kifah Refugee Center. At first, it is located inside the Al Farouq mosque, which is led by Damra. But eventually it will get it own office space next to the mosque. Shalabi, a naturalized citizen from Egypt, runs the office with two assistants: Mahmud Abouhalima, who will later be convicted for a role in bombing the World Trade Center in 1993 (see February 26, 1993), and El Sayyid Nosair, who will assassinate a Jewish leader in New York in 1990 (see November 5, 1990). (Mitchell 4/11/1993; Hosenball 10/1/2001; Sullivan, Garrett, and Rutchick 11/4/2001) Jamal al-Fadl, a founding member of al-Qaeda and future FBI informant (see June 1996-April 1997), also works at the Al-Kifah Refugee Center in its early days. (Miller, Stone, and Mitchell 2002, pp. 155) The Brooklyn office recruits Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans to go fight in Afghanistan, even after the Soviets withdraw in early 1989. As many as 200 are sent there from the office. Before they go, the office arranges training in the use of rifles, assault weapons, and handguns, and then helps them with visas, plane tickets, and contacts. They are generally sent to the MAK/Al-Kifah office in Peshawar, Pakistan, and then connected to either the radical Afghan faction led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf or the equally radical one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (Mitchell 4/11/1993) The CIA has some murky connection to Al-Kifah that has yet to be fully explained. Newsweek will later say the Brooklyn office “doubled as a recruiting post for the CIA seeking to steer fresh troops to the mujaheddin” fighting in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Brooklyn office is where “veterans of [the Afghan war arrived] in the United States—many with passports arranged by the CIA.” (Hosenball 10/1/2001) Robert I. Friedman, writing for New York magazine, will comment that the Brooklyn office was a refuge for ex- and future mujaheddin, “But the highlight for the center’s regulars were the inspirational jihad lecture series, featuring CIA-sponsored speakers.… One week on Atlantic Avenue, it might be a CIA-trained Afghan rebel traveling on a CIA-issued visa; the next, it might be a clean-cut Arabic-speaking Green Beret, who would lecture about the importance of being part of the mujaheddin, or ‘warriors of the Lord.’ The more popular lectures were held upstairs in the roomier Al-Farouq Mosque; such was the case in 1990 when Sheikh [Omar] Abdul-Rahman, traveling on a CIA-supported visa, came to town.” One frequent instructor is double agent Ali Mohamed, who is in the US Special Forces at the time (see 1987-1989). Bin Laden’s mentor Azzam frequently visits and lectures in the area. In 1988, he tells “a rapt crowd of several hundred in Jersey City, ‘Blood and martyrdom are the only way to create a Muslim society.… However, humanity won’t allow us to achieve this objective, because all humanity is the enemy of every Muslim.’” (Friedman 3/17/1995) Ayman Al-Zawahiri, future Al-Qaeda second in command, makes a recruiting trip to the office in 1989 (see Spring 1993). (Wright 9/9/2002) The Brooklyn office also raises a considerable amount of money for MAK/Al-Kifah back in Pakistan. The Independent will later call the office “a place of pivotal importance to Operation Cyclone, the American effort to support the mujaheddin. The Al-Kifah [Refugee Center was] raising funds and, crucially, providing recruits for the struggle, with active American assistance.” (Marshall 11/1/1998) Abdul-Rahman, better known as the “Blind Sheikh,” is closely linked to bin Laden. In 1990, he moves to New York on another CIA-supported visa (see July 1990) and soon dominates the Al-Kifah Refugee Center. Shalabi has a falling out with him over how to spend the money they raise and he is killed in mysterious circumstances in early 1991, completing Abdul-Rahman’s take over. Now, both the Brooklyn and Pakistan ends of the Al-Kifah/MAK network are firmly controlled by bin Laden and his close associates. In 1998, the US government will say that al-Qaeda’s “connection to the United States evolved from the Al-Kifah Refugee Center.” Yet there is no sign that the CIA stops its relationship with the Brooklyn office before it closes down shortly after the 1993 WTC bombing. (Weiser, Sachs, and Kocieniewski 10/22/1998)
Osama bin Laden establishes the first training camp, known as Maasada—the Lion’s Den—especially for Arabs fighting in the Soviet-Afghan War. The camp is near the village of Jaji, close to the Pakistani border in eastern Afghanistan. Previously, the Arabs had been integrated with local Afghan forces, although there have been problems with the language barrier and the Arabs’ readiness for battle, which sometimes meant they were used as cannon fodder. A later account by author Lawrence Wright will say that Bin Laden sees the camp as the “first step toward the creation of an Arab legion that could wage war anywhere.”
The Camp - The equipment at the camp includes a bulldozer, Kalashnikov machine guns, mortars, some small anti-aircraft guns, and Chinese rockets (although there are no rocket launchers for them). Most of the people at the camp are Egyptians associated with Ayman al-Zawahiri, or young Saudis. The camp is only three kilometers from a Soviet base, meaning there is a serious danger it could be attacked and fall.
Opposition from Azzam - However, the camp is opposed by bin Laden’s mentor, Abdullah Azzam, because he wants all the Muslims—both Arabs and Afghans—to work together, not a separate camp for Arabic speakers. In addition, Azzam thinks the camp is expensive and, given the guerrilla style of warfare in Afghanistan, impractical.
Construction Work - Bin Laden soon brings in construction vehicles to make the camp more easily defensible. Using equipment from his family firm, he builds seven hidden man-made caverns overlooking an important supply route from Pakistan. Some of the caves are a hundred yards long and twenty feet high, and serve as shelters, dormitories, hospitals, and arms dumps. (Wright 2006, pp. 111-114)
Osama bin Laden commands his first company-sized attack in the Soviet-Afghan War, but the assault is an abject failure. Bin Laden has planned for the attack for months in advance and assembled a force of 120 fighters, including ones not usually based at his Maasada camp and jihad leader Abdullah Azzam (see Late 1986). The Arabs are to attack an Afghan government base just before darkness under covering artillery fire provided by two Afghan rebel commanders, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Following a quick strike, the Arabs will then withdraw, using the night to hide from Soviet aircraft. However, the logistics are badly handled: ammunition is not supplied to forward positions, the Arabs forget electrical wire to connect rockets to detonators, and they run out of food. In addition, an Afghan government soldier overhears their preparations and opens fire with a machine gun, pinning them down. The Arabs are forced to withdraw without even having begun their attack, suffering three casualties, including one killed. This incident is a serious blow to their pride, and Pakistani authorities even begin shutting down Arab guest houses at the mujaheddin staging centers in Pakistan. (Wright 2006, pp. 115-116)
The Boston Globe will later say that throughout the 1980s, the “Blind Sheikh,” Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, “was a spiritual leader of the CIA-backed mujaheddin.” (Sennott 6/21/1995) The Atlantic Monthly will later report that in the late 1980s in Peshawar, Pakistan, Abdul-Rahman “became involved with the US and Pakistani intelligence officials who were orchestrating the [Afghan] war. The sixty or so CIA and Special Forces officers based there considered him a ‘valuable asset,’ according to one of them, and overlooked his anti-Western message and incitement to holy war because they wanted him to help unify the mujaheddin groups.” He is unable to unify the groups, but he helps coordinate some of their activities. He tends to favor the two most radically anti-Western factions led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. He also has close links to Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor. (Weaver 5/1996) According to Barnett Rubin, a Columbia University professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Azzam was also working with the CIA to help recruit for and unite the mujaheddin groups (see 1985-1989), and when he is assassinated in 1989, the CIA relies even more heavily on Abdul-Rahman. Rubin claims the CIA pays to send him back to Peshawar “to preach to the Afghans about the necessity of unity to overthrow the Kabul regime.” As a reward for his help, the CIA gives him a visa to the US, even though he is on a terrorism watch list (see July 1990). (Friedman 3/17/1995) One source who worked with the CIA supply operation at this time will later say that Abdul-Rahman’s ties to Hekmatyar, the CIA’s most favored Afghan warlord, “put Sheikh Omar in the [CIA’s] good books. And believe me, later on when the Sheikh wanted to come to the States, he cashed in those chips.” (Lance 2006, pp. 20)
The US government sends 25 high-powered sniper rifles to a group of fighters in Afghanistan that includes bin Laden. The armor-piercing weapons have range-finding equipment and night-vision scopes. In an early 2001 US court trial, Essam al Ridi, a pilot for bin Laden in the early 1990s (see Early 1993), will recall that he helped ship the weapons to Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor. Azzam and bin Laden are close to each other at this time, and al Ridi will later testify he sometimes saw the two of them together. The president of the US company that made the rifles will later state that the rifles “were picked up by US government trucks, shipped to US government bases, and shipped to those Afghan freedom fighters.” The rifles are considered ideal for assassination. (Hopper 10/16/2001) The order, worth about $150,000 at the time, is a significant one for the manufacturer, accounting for 15-25% of its annual turnover on the guns. Their export would usually require an end user certificate from the US Department of State, but the circumstances of the sale are unknown, as al Ridi is not asked how he manages to purchase such a large number of rifles. (Dao 10/7/2001; Moloney 10/15/2001) The CIA will deny being involved in the transfer. (Central Intelligence Agency 3/7/2002) However, al Ridi will say that the CIA was aware that bin Laden ended up with some of the guns. (Miller 6/3/2002) This shipment is especially significant because there was a protracted debate within the Reagan administration about sending sniper rifles to Afghanistan due to worries that it could violate a US law against assassinations and put US officials in legal jeopardy. In the end, the US gave less than 100 of such rifles without night-vision scopes to the government of Pakistan to pass on to mujaheddin, but the ones sent to Azzam had night-vision scopes. The timing is also significant since the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in 1988 and complete the pull out in February 1989, around when these rifles are sent. The rifles given to Pakistan appear to have arrived before 1987. (Coll 7/20/1992)
Bin Laden’s mentor Sheikh Abdullah Azzam is killed by a car bomb in Afghanistan. The killing is never solved. Azzam has no shortage of enemies. Suspects include the Mossad, CIA, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ISI, and bin Laden. The reason bin Laden is suspected is because he and Azzam were increasingly at odds over what approach to take since the Soviet Union had been driven from Afghanistan earlier in the year (see February 15, 1989). (Suellentrop 4/16/2002; Coll 2004, pp. 204) In 1998, Mohammed Saddiq Odeh will be arrested and later convicted for a role in the 1998 African embassy bombings. He reportedly will tell US interrogators that bin Laden “personally ordered the killing of Azzam because he suspected his former mentor had ties with the CIA.” However, it is not known if Odeh was just passing on a rumor. (Gunaratna 2003, pp. 32) Regardless, in the wake of Azzam’s death, bin Laden takes control of Azzam’s recruiting and support network, Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK)/Al-Kifah, and merges it with al-Qaeda, which was formed the year before (see August 11-20, 1988). (Suellentrop 4/16/2002; Coll 2004, pp. 204)
On April 24, 1992, Houston pizza deliveryman Ahmad Ajaj and San Antonio cabdriver Ibrahim Ahmad Suleiman fly together from Texas to Pakistan. Suleiman is a Texas contact of the Al-Kifah Refugee Center, the Brooklyn-based Islamist militant organization linked to both the CIA and al-Qaeda (see 1986-1993). Suleiman had begun raising funds for the Afghan war in Texas in the late 1980s, and acquaintances said he traveled to Pakistan several times, carrying a briefcase full of cash to fund the mujaheddin fighting in Afghanistan. When they arrive in Pakistan, they stay at a hostel in Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border, known as the Abdullah Azzam House. Named after Osama bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam, this hostel is owned by Al-Kifah and also houses its Pakistan headquarters. Ajaj and Suleiman stay there off and on over the next several months. Al-Qaeda bomber Ramzi Yousef also sometimes stays there during the same months. Ajaj also allegedly receives explosives training at an Afghanistan training camp with Yousef. His letter of introduction to the camp is signed by an Azzam House official. On September 1, 1992, Ajaj and Yousef arrive together in New York City on a flight from Pakistan. Ajaj is carrying some bomb manuals; investigators will later find the fingerprints of Ajaj, Yousef, and Suleiman on them. Both men are carrying identification cards that give the PO box number in Tucson, Arizona, that matches an al-Kifah branch there. Ajaj is briefly detained at the airport, but Yousef is allowed to go. (McGonigle and Reaves 6/8/1997) He gets into a taxi and tells the taxi driver to drive him to the building that houses the al-Qaeda headquarters in Brooklyn as well as the closely associated Al Farooq mosque, led at the time by the “Blind Shiekh,” Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. (Lance 2003) Ajaj and Yousef will later be sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the 1993 WTC bombing (see February 26, 1993). Suleiman will only be sentenced to 10 months in prison for lying to a grand jury about his travels with Ajaj. (New York Times 11/25/1998) A CIA internal report will conclude the agency is “partly culpable” for the WTC bombing, mainly due to its support for Al-Kifah (see January 24, 1994).
According to reports, the failed US missile attack against bin Laden on August 20, 1998 greatly elevates bin Laden’s stature in the Muslim world. A US defense analyst later states, “I think that raid really helped elevate bin Laden’s reputation in a big way, building him up in the Muslim world.… My sense is that because the attack was so limited and incompetent, we turned this guy into a folk hero.” (Gellman 10/3/2001) An Asia Times article published just prior to 9/11 suggests that because of the failed attack, “a very strong Muslim lobby emerge[s] to protect [bin Laden’s] interests. This includes Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, as well as senior Pakistani generals. Crown Prince Abdullah has good relations with bin Laden as both are disciples of slain Sheikh Abdullah Azzam (see 1985-1989).” (Shahzad 8/22/2001) In early 1999, Pakistani President Musharraf complains that by demonizing bin Laden, the US has turned him into a cult hero. The US decides to play down the importance of bin Laden. (Waterman 4/9/2004)
The US and United Nations designate Wael Hamza Julaidan a terrorist financier and freezes the funds of the Rabita Trust. Julaidan worked with bin Laden’s mentor Abdullah Azzam in the Muslim World League in Pakistan in the 1980s and was one of the founders of al-Qaeda in 1988 (see August 11-20, 1988). (Kaplan, Ekman, and Latif 12/15/2003) Julaidan’s name was on the “Golden Chain” list of early al-Qaeda funders (see 1988-1989), serving as an intermediary between bin Laden and Saudi multimillionaires. Beginning in 2000, he became director general of the Rabita Trust, a Pakistani charity which the UN determined has been funding al-Qaeda. The US froze the bank accounts of the Rabita Trust shortly after 9/11 due to suspected terrorist links, but the organization changed its name and continued to operate (see Mid-September-October 12, 2001). Julaidan is considered highly connected in Saudi Arabia and even though the Saudi government officially goes along with the terrorist designations of Julaidan and the Rabita Trust, some top Saudi officials publicly defend him. For instance, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz publicly suggests that Julaidan is innocent. Julaidan is not arrested and the Saudi government offers no proof that they seized any of his or Rabita’s bank accounts. In December 2003, the Washington Post will report that US and UN officials believe Julaidan continues to work with charity fronts and handles large sums of money. (Farah 12/14/2003; Burr and Collins 2006, pp. 100-101)
In 2005, Hutaifa Azzam, son of Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor and a longtime acquaintance of militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says al-Zarqawi had “no relations with Osama until he left to Iraq. His relation with Osama started [in 2004] through the Internet.” (Bergen 2006, pp. 363-364) The Atlantic Monthly will later report that negotiations between al-Zarqawi and bin Laden about an alliance between them begin in early 2004. Al-Zarqawi will pledge loyalty to bin Laden in October, “but only after eight months of often stormy negotiations” (see October 17, 2004). (Weaver 6/8/2006)
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