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a.k.a. Amin Ali al-Rashidi
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)
Ali Mohamed returns to fight in Afghanistan, even though the Soviets have been defeated and the country is now involved in civil war. He trains rebel commanders in military tactics. This is just one of many such trips, as he later will confess spending several months out of each year training operatives overseas for most of the 1990’s. (Weiser and Risen 12/1/1998; Williams and McCormick 9/21/2001; Williams and McCormick 10/11/2001) US prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald will later say of Mohamed’s visits to Afghanistan, “Mohamed did not [make a loyalty pledge] to al-Qaeda but he trained most of al-Qaeda’s top leadership—including bin Laden and [Ayman] al-Zawahiri—and most of al-Qaeda’s top trainers. Mohamed taught surveillance, counter-surveillance, assassinations, kidnapping, codes, ciphers and other intelligence techniques.” (9/11 Commission 6/16/2004) FBI agent Jack Cloonan will later say that in addition to bin Laden, others who attend Mohamed’s course are Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, al-Qaeda’s first military commander, and Mohammed Atef, its second military commander. (Lance 2006, pp. 104-105) During this 1992 trip he teaches intelligence tradecraft, later admitting, “I taught my trainees how to create cell structures that could be used for operations.” Also around this time, he is detained by Italian authorities at the Rome airport when airport security discovers his luggage has false compartments. He is let go after convincing the Italians that he is fighting terrorists. (Weiser and Risen 12/1/1998; Williams and McCormick 9/21/2001; Williams and McCormick 10/11/2001) Mohamed will regularly return to Afghanistan in years to come, as part of at least 58 trips overseas leaving from the US. (Martin and Berens 12/11/2001) Nabil Sharef, a university professor and former Egyptian intelligence officer, will say, “For five years he was moving back and forth between the US and Afghanistan. It’s impossible the CIA thought he was going there as a tourist. If the CIA hadn’t caught on to him, it should be dissolved and its budget used for something worthwhile.” (Waldman 11/26/2001)
Al-Qaeda operatives train militants in Somalia to attack US soldiers who have recently been posted there. This training will culminate in a battle on October 3-4, 1993, in which 18 US soldiers are killed (see October 3-4, 1993). (Reeve 1999, pp. 182; Piszkiewicz 2003, pp. 100) In the months before this battle, various al-Qaeda operatives come and go, occasionally training Somalis. It is unknown if any operatives are directly involved in the battle. Operatives involved in the training include:
Maulana Masood Azhar, who is a Pakistani militant leader connected with Osama bin Laden. He appears to serve as a key link between bin Laden and the Somali killers of US soldiers (see 1993). (Watson and Barua 2/25/2002)
Ali Mohamed, the notorious double agent, apparently helps train the Somalis involved in the attack (see 1993).
Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, al-Qaeda’s military commander, who is one of the leaders of the operation. (Gunaratna 2003, pp. 77)
Mohammed Atef, al-Qaeda’s deputy military commander. An informant will later testify in an early 2001 US trial that he flew Atef and four others from bin Laden’s base in Sudan to Nairobi, Kenya, to train Somalis (see Before October 1993). (Miller 6/3/2002)
Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, who will later be convicted for a role in the 1998 US embassy bombings, will boast that he provided the rocket launchers and rifles that brought down the helicopters. (Vick 11/23/1998; Lance 2006, pp. 143) Odeh will later say that he is ordered to Somalia by Saif al Adel, acting for bin Laden. (Bergen 2006, pp. 138-139)
Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul), who will also be convicted for the embassy bombings, trains militants in Somalia with Odeh. (Vick 11/23/1998)
Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who will be connected to the embassy bombings and will still be at large in 2007, is linked to the helicopter incident as well. (Lance 2006, pp. 143)
Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah, who will also be connected to the embassy bombings, will be killed in Pakistan in 2006 (see April 12, 2006). (Schuster 10/24/2006)
Saif al-Islam al-Masri, a member of al-Qaeda’s ruling council. He will be captured in the country of Georgia in 2002 (see Early October 2002).
Abu Talha al-Sudani, an al-Qaeda leader who settles in Somalia and remains there. He will reportedly be killed in Somalia in 2007 (see December 24, 2006-January 2007). (DeYoung 1/8/2007)
Bin Laden dispatches a total of five groups, some of them trained by Ali Mohamed. (Lance 2006, pp. 142) Atef reaches an agreement with one of the warlords, General Mohamed Farah Aideed, that bin Laden’s men will help him against the US and UN forces. These trips to Somalia will later be confirmed by L’Houssaine Kherchtou, testifying at the East African embassy bombings trial in 2001. Kherchtou will say that he met “many people” going to Somalia and facilitated their travel there from Nairobi, Kenya. (Bergen 2006, pp. 138-139, 141)
A passenger ferry capsizes on Lake Victoria in East Africa and one of the more than 800 who drown is Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, al-Qaeda’s military commander (his job will be taken over by Mohammed Atef). Al-Qaeda operatives Wadih El-Hage and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul) show up at the disaster scene to find out if al-Banshiri is still alive. There are many journalists covering the disaster and a Western investigator recognizes Fazul and El-Hage when they happen to appear in some of the widely broadcast footage. (Vick 11/23/1998) El-Hage sends a computer file about the drowning to double agent Ali Mohamed in California. Mohamed’s computer hard drive will be copied by US intelligence in 1997 (see October 1997-September 10, 1998). The CIA already has much of El-Hage’s biography on file by this time. It appears this event, along with the defection of Jamal al-Fadl (see June 1996-April 1997), only strengthen knowledge of the Kenya cell gained earlier in the year (see April 1996). By August 1996, if not earlier, the phones of El-Hage and Fazul in Nairobi are bugged and closely monitored by the CIA and NSA. Apparently, not much is learned from these phone calls because the callers speak in code, but the CIA does learn about other al-Qaeda operatives from the numbers and locations that are being called. This information is shared with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), and the JTTF becomes “convinced that flipping El-Hage [is] the best way to get to bin Laden.” (Miller, Stone, and Mitchell 2002, pp. 200)
The FBI installs a wiretap in double agent Ali Mohamed’s computer (the FBI has been monitoring his phone since 1993 (see Autumn 1993 and Late 1994)). According to FBI agent Jack Cloonan, “The Sacramento [FBI] office did a wonderful job of getting into his apartment, wiring it up, and exploiting his computer. So we were able to download a lot of stuff.” (Lance 2006, pp. 276) Not much is known about what is on his computer, but a 2001 trial will mention that Wadih El-Hage, head of the cell in Kenya planning the African embassy bombings (see Between October 1997 and August 7, 1998), sent Mohamed a computer file about the death of al-Qaeda leader Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri by drowning in Kenya in May 1996 (see May 21, 1996). (Lance 2006, pp. 297-298) Journalist Peter Lance believes that, given Mohamed’s apparent foreknowledge of the embassy bombings, the computer probably contained references to that operation. In his book Triple Cross, he asks, “If [US agents] now had access to Mohamed’s phone and hard disk, why didn’t they come to understand his role as a key player in the embassy bombing plot?… If their motive was to lie in wait—to monitor his phone calls and e-mail traffic—why didn’t that surveillance put them right in the middle of the embassy plot?” (Lance 2006, pp. 276)
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