Profile: Steve Coll
Steve Coll was a participant or observer in the following events:
Juhayman al-Otaibi. [Source: Public domain]One or two of the bin Laden brothers are arrested over the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Medina. One of the brothers is Mahrous, the other is, according to author Steve Coll, “probably Osama.”
Inside Job? - The mosque had been seized by about five hundred rebels opposed to the Saudi royal family, led by a militant named Juhayman al-Otaibi. The rebels had apparently used Bin Laden company vehicles to stock ammunition and food in the mosque prior to its seizure, indicating some people at the company were sympathetic to them. According to one account, the two brothers are not held for long; a bin Laden company employee will say the arrest is a mistake as the arresting policemen wrongly think the two brothers are conspirators just because they are monitoring police radio traffic. [Coll, 2008, pp. 225-228]
Mahrous bin Laden - Other accounts say that Mahrous, who joined a rebel group opposed to the Saudi government in the 1960s, is held for longer and only eventually released from prison because of the close ties between the bin Ladens and the Saudi royal family. Mahrous will abandon the rebel cause and join the family business, eventually being made a head of the Medina branch and a member of the board. He will still hold these positions on 9/11, although a newspaper will report that “his past [is] not forgiven and most important decisions in the [bin Laden family business] are made without Mahrous’ input.” [Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 10/7/2001; New Yorker, 11/5/2001; Ha'aretz, 12/18/2002]
Later Comment by Osama - Osama’s position on the seizure of the mosque at this time is not known, although he will later criticize the Saudi king for not negotiating a surrender. Coll will suggest that, although he is one of the most devout members of the bin Laden family at this time, he is not in league with the rebels as he is more concerned with his own material wellbeing. [Coll, 2008, pp. 229]
Older Bin Ladens Assist Besiegers - In contrast to Osama, several other family members, including Salem, Mustafa, Yahya, and Yeslam, work extremely hard to take back the mosque. As the bin Ladens actually renovated the mosque, they are able to provide the Saudi government with detailed plans to help their assault. After the rebels retreat underground, the family brings in equipment to drill holes in the floor, so that government troops can drop grenades down on holdouts. [Coll, 2008, pp. 225-226]
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. [Source: BBC]As Osama bin Laden gets involved with the mujaheddin resistance in Afghanistan, he also develops close ties to the Saudi intelligence agency, the GIP. Some believe that Saudi Intelligence Minister Prince Turki al-Faisal plays a middleman role between Saudi intelligence and mujaheddin groups (see Early 1980). Turki’s chief of staff is Ahmed Badeeb, and Badeeb had been one of bin Laden’s teachers when bin Laden was in high school. Badeeb will later say, “I loved Osama and considered him a good citizen of Saudi Arabia.” Journalist Steve Coll will later comment that while the Saudi government denies bin Laden is ever a Saudi intelligence agent, and the exact nature of his connections with the GIP remains murky, “it seems clear that bin Laden did have a substantial relationship with Saudi intelligence.” [Coll, 2004, pp. 72, 86-87] The GIP’s favorite Afghan warlord is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, while Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is the Pakistani ISI’s favorite warlord. Bin Laden quickly becomes close to both Sayyaf and Hekmatyar, even though the two warlords are not allies with each other. [Dreyfuss, 2005, pp. 268] Some CIA officers will later say that bin Laden serves as a semi-official liaison between the GIP and warlords like Sayyaf. Bin Laden meets regularly with Prince Turki and Saudi Interior Minister Prince Naif. Badeeb will later say bin Laden developed “strong relations with the Saudi intelligence and with our embassy in Pakistan.… We were happy with him. He was our man. He was doing all what we ask him.” Bin Laden also develops good relations with the ISI. [Coll, 2004, pp. 72, 87-88] Bin Laden will begin clashing with the Saudi government in the early 1990s (see August 2, 1990-March 1991).
According to author Steve Coll, US President Ronald Reagan may be given a briefing about Osama bin Laden’s charitable work in the Soviet-Afghan War, and may also see a video showing aspects of the work. If this is true, the briefing and video would come from Salem bin Laden, head of the bin Laden family, who made the video recently when visiting his brother Osama (see Early 1985).
Summit - Salem is in Washington at this time to attend a summit between Reagan and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. It is unclear what Salem’s role is at the summit, although one of the key areas of co-operation between the US and Saudi Arabia is support for the Afghan mujaheddin, and his brother Osama is a key figure who frequently travels between Saudi Arabia and mujaheddin bases in Pakistan. An attorney will later recall seeing a photograph of Salem and Reagan together at the meeting, but the photo will apparently be destroyed before it can be published.
Possible Briefing - Coll will comment: “It seems probable that when Salem reached Washington that winter, he would have passed to King Fahd, if not directly to the White House, the video evidence he had just gathered documenting Osama’s humanitarian work on the Afghan frontier.” Coll will add that Reagan takes pains to acknowledge Saudi Arabia’s efforts to support Afghan refugees on the Pakistani frontier, saying: “Their many humanitarian contributions touch us deeply.… Saudi aid to refugees uprooted from their homes in Afghanistan has not gone unnoticed here.” Coll will point out that the leading Saudi provider of such aid is Osama bin Laden, and that “Reagan’s language suggested that he had been given at least a general briefing about Osama’s work.” [Coll, 2008, pp. 11-12]
The CIA is aware of Osama bin Laden’s operations in Afghanistan by this point, at the latest. The CIA learns that bin Laden has stepped up his support for the anti-Soviet mujaheddin by helping to establish a network of guesthouses along the Afghan frontier, not for local fighters, but for Arabs arriving to help out the Afghans. The network is centered in the border city of Peshawar, where bin Laden is “spreading large sums of money around.” According to author Steve Coll, the CIA also knows that bin Laden is “tapping into” camps run by Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency and funded by the CIA to train anti-Soviet fighters. Reports of this activity are passed to the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. Stanley Bedington, a senior analyst at the center, will later say, “When a man starts throwing around money like that, he comes to your notice.” He will also say that at this time bin Laden was “not a warrior,” and that he was “not engaged in any fighting.” [Coll, 2004, pp. 146]
Osama and Salem bin Laden purchase anti-aircraft missiles for Arab volunteers fighting in Afghanistan in a deal concluded at the Dorchester Hotel in London. The transaction results from a request by Osama that Salem help him with two purchases, of the anti-aircraft missiles and of equipment to refill ammunition shells for AK-47 assault rifles.
Middleman - Salem attempted to obtain the missiles from the Pentagon, but was rebuffed (see (Early-Mid 1986)), and brought a German acquaintance named Thomas Dietrich in to help him complete the deal. It is difficult to arrange as, even though the bin Ladens are backed by the Saudi government, they do not have clearance to buy the missiles from Western authorities. Dietrich has contacts at the arms manufacturer Heckler & Koch and also gets an arms salesman to meet Salem and Osama in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. However, the salesman tells Osama that refilling the ammunition makes no sense and it would be simpler to just purchase it on the international market. For the missiles, Osama, Salem, Dietrich and Dietrich’s contacts meet two or three times at the Dorchester Hotel over a period of six to eight weeks. Dietrich will later learn that his contacts help arrange the purchase of Soviet SA-7 missiles in South America, as well as the ammunition.
Paid in Oil - However, there is a problem with the deal because the bin Ladens want to pay for the weapons not with cash, but with oil, “just a tanker offshore,” according to Dietrich. This causes trouble as “a company like Heckler & Koch, they don’t want oil, they want money.” Dietrich is not aware of the source of funding for the purchases, but author Steve Coll will note, “The best available evidence suggests it probably came at least in part from the Saudi government,” because the bin Ladens are “working in concert with official Saudi policy” and “seem to fit inside a larger pattern.” This is a reference to the Al Yamamah arms deal (see Late 1985). [Coll, 2008, pp. 284-288]
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]
Richard Blee. The only known public photo of Blee is this one taken from a school yearbook, when he was nine years old. [Source: Public domain]Following the firing of Michael Scheuer, the founding head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see June 1999), a new chief of the station is appointed. The chief, Richard Blee, worked in Algeria as a case officer during the civil war there in the early 1990s (see January 11, 1992) and prior to his appointment as station chief was an executive assistant to CIA management. [Coll, 2004, pp. 456] He also served on an Iraqi task force attempting to destabilize Saddam Hussein’s regime in the mid-1990s. [Harper's, 1/28/2007] According to author Steve Coll: “Since he came directly from [CIA Director George] Tenet’s leadership group, his arrival was seen as a signal of renewed high-level interest in the bin Laden case. The new chief’s connections presumably would help attract resources to the cause and smooth decision-making.” In addition, “He [knows] the bin Laden issue, he [knows] the Third World and he [does] not mind high-risk travel.”
Criticism of Management Style - However, Blee’s management style will attract some criticism. Coll will say that he is “intense and sometimes emotional and combative” and that he is seen by some colleagues as “typical of the unyielding zealots” at Alec Station. [Coll, 2004, pp. 456, 540] Author James Bamford will comment, “But the most serious problem was [Blee]‘s lack of management, his myopic obsession with bin Laden, and his focus on the fun and adventure part of the job.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 218-9] Journalist Ken Silverstein will say: “[S]ources have told me that [Blee] has frequently been divisive and ineffective in previous positions.… His reputation and relationship with the military, especially the special-ops community, is very bad, based on substantive issues that arose during his time [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] post-9/11.… Another former official called [Blee] a ‘smart guy‘…, but described him as a terrible manager.” [Harper's, 1/28/2007]
The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center concludes in a classified report that bin Laden wants to inflict maximum casualties, cause massive panic, and score a psychological victory. He may be seeking to attack between five and 15 targets on the Millennium. “Because the US is bin Laden’s ultimate goal… we must assume that several of these targets will be in the US.” [Time, 8/4/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003] CIA Director George Tenet delivers this warning to President Clinton. Author Steve Coll later comments that Tenet also “grabbed the National Security Council’s attention with that prediction.” [Coll, 2004, pp. 482] The US takes action in a variety of ways (see Early December 1999). It will turn out that bin Laden did plan many attacks to be timed for the millennium celebrations, including ones inside the US, but all failed (see December 31, 1999-January 1, 2000).
Gen. Anthony Zinni [Source: US Marine Corps.]Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry Shelton prepares a paper with 13 options for using force against bin Laden. Several of the options describe Special Forces raids to capture or kill bin Laden. But counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later say that when military operations on al-Qaeda were discussed, “the overwhelming message to the White House from the uniformed military leadership was, ‘We don’t want to do this.’” Shelton’s chief of operations will later describe the paper as a tool to “educate” National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Clarke, and others about the “extraordinary complexity” of going ahead with any of the options. The military repeatedly complains that the CIA’s intelligence about bin Laden isn’t good enough while the CIA complains that the military’s intelligence requirements are too demanding. One CIA document notes that there is “lots of desire” for a military strike against bin Laden amongst lower-level US military officials, but “reluctance at the political level.” [Los Angeles Times, 7/25/2003; Coll, 2004, pp. 533] One reason for such reluctance is the close ties between the US military and Pakistan. Author Steve Coll will later note, “The Pentagon, especially General Anthony Zinni at Centcom, who remained close to [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf personally, emphasized the benefits of engagement with Pakistan’s generals.” [Coll, 2004, pp. 490]
While President Bush is in Uganda, a reporter asks him, “Why—can you explain how an erroneous piece of intelligence on the Iraq-Niger connection got into your State of the Union speech? Are you upset about it? And should somebody be held accountable, sir?” Bush replies, “I gave a speech to the nation that was cleared by the intelligence services…” National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice responds more specifically a short time later, “I can tell you, if the CIA, the director of central intelligence, had said ‘take this out of the speech,’ it would have been gone, without question,” Instead, after some changes sought by the CIA were made, “the agency cleared the speech and cleared it in its entirety.” Later in the day, CIA Director George Tenet accepts blame for allowing the allegations into the January 2003 speech (see 9:01 pm January 28, 2003), saying the information “did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches and the CIA should have ensured that it was removed” (see 3:09 p.m. July 11, 2003). [Washington Post, 7/12/2003] Reporter Steve Coll will later comment, “I don’t know what George Tenet felt as he saw that unfold, but I can imagine that he was dismayed and increasingly resentful that he was being singled out for blame. At the same time, he’s such an operator and such a student of Washington that surely, he understood what was happening, that he was being asked, in effect, to fall on his shield so that the president could be reelected.” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006]
President Bush awards Tenet the Medal of Freedom. [Source: Associated Press]President Bush gives the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former CIA Director George Tenet, former Iraq war leader General Tommy Franks, and former Iraq functionary Paul Bremer. The Medal of Freedom is the highest honor the president can bestow. Bush comments, “This honor goes to three men who have played pivotal roles in great events and whose efforts have made our country more secure and advanced the cause of human liberty.” [Associated Press, 12/14/2001; Washington Post, 12/14/2004] However, the awards will come in for some criticism, as Tenet, CIA director on 9/11, wrongly believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
(see December 21, 2002), Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army (see May 23, 2003), and Franks, responsible for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, failed to assign enough troops to the hunt for Osama bin Laden, thereby enabling him to escape (see Late October-Early December 2001). [Washington Post, 12/14/2001] John McLaughlin, Tenet’s deputy director, will later say that Tenet “wishes he could give that damn medal back.” [New York Times, 10/2/2006] White House press secretary Scott McClellan will later write that this “well-intentioned gesture designed to create positive impressions of the war seemed to backfire.” Instead of holding these three accountable for their role in the deepening Iraq crisis, Bush hails them as heroes. McClellan will observe: “Wasn’t this supposed to be an administration that prided itself on results and believed in responsibility and accountability? If so, why the rush to hand out medals to people who had helped organize what was now looking like a badly botched, ill-conceived war?” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 250-251] David Wade, a spokesman for Senator John Kerry (D-MA), says, “My hunch is that George Bush wasn’t using the same standard when honoring Tenet and Bremer that was applied to previous honorees.” Previous recipients include human rights advocate Mother Teresa, civil rights icon Rosa Parks, and Pope John Paul II. Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) says he “would have reached a different conclusion” on Tenet. “I don’t think [he] served the president or the nation well.” [Associated Press, 12/14/2001] Reporter Steve Coll will later comment: “I presume that for President Bush, it was a signal that he wasn’t making Tenet a scapegoat. It would be the natural thing to do, right? You’ve seen this episode of ‘I, Claudius.’ You know, you put the knife in one side and the medal on the other side, and that’s politics.” And author James Bamford will say: “Tenet [retired], and kept his mouth shut about all the things that went on, about what kind of influence [Vice President Dick] Cheney might have had. They still have a CIA, but all the power is now with his team over at the Pentagon. They’re gathering more power every day in terms of intelligence. So largely, Cheney won.” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006] Author and media critic Frank Rich will later write: “The three medals were given to the men who had lost Osama bin Laden (General Tommy Franks), botched the Iraq occupation (Paul Bremer), and called prewar intelligence on Saddam’s WMDs a ‘slam dunk’ (George Tenet). That the bestowing of an exalted reward for high achievement on such incompetents incited little laughter was a measure of how much the administration, buoyed by reelection, still maintained control of its embattled but not yet dismantled triumphalist wartime narrative.” [Rich, 2006, pp. 158]
Entity Tags: John E. McLaughlin, Steve Coll, L. Paul Bremer, Scott McClellan, Thomas Franks, James Bamford, George W. Bush, John Kerry, Frank Rich, George J. Tenet, Carl Levin, David Wade
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Iraq under US Occupation
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