“We Couldn’t Indict Him”

A CIA CASE OFFICER visited Marty Miller regularly at Unocal’s Sugarland, Texas, offices, usually after Miller had returned from a long overseas trip. Miller was not a CIA agent and did not take assignments, money, or instructions from the agency. But like some other American oil executives with access to the Middle East and Central Asia, he voluntarily provided briefings to the CIA’s Houston station. William Casey had revitalized the CIA’s contacts with American businessmen during the 1980s. He thought the agency overvalued its paid sources and missed out on the inside details that international businessmen picked up. Miller told the Houston officer about his negotiations in Turkmenistan and Pakistan, the gossip he overheard about corruption cases, and what he saw and heard when he traveled inside Afghanistan. The briefing sessions were dominated by Miller’s reports, but occasionally the CIA officer would provide some useful detail in exchange. At one stage the CIA became worried about threats to Unocal executives in Central Asia from Iranian intelligence operatives. The agency invited Miller to Langley for a briefing on how to manage his movements to reduce risk. Miller’s impression from his meetings was that the CIA was curious about Unocal’s Afghan pipeline plans but had no special interest in either the project or Afghanistan. In his efforts to win support for Unocal’s pipeline plan within the U.S. government, Miller maintained more active lobbying contacts at the White House and the State Department than at the CIA.1

By early 1996 the agency was more estranged from its former Afghan and Pakistani contacts than at any time since the Soviet invasion in 1979. The U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, Tom Simons, was startled to find the CIA “had nothing” in Afghanistan. “They had taken out all their assets. They were basically past it.”2 Stinger missile recovery remained the only well-funded covert action program in the region. The Islamabad station did continue to collect intelligence on regional terrorism. Its officers tracked and mapped Afghan guerrilla training camps that supplied Islamist fighters in Kashmir. They continued to look for Mir Amal Kasi in the tribal territories along the Afghan border. But the liaison between the CIA’s Islamabad station and Pakistani intelligence—the spine of American covert action and intelligence collection in the region for fifteen years—had cracked. Javed Qazi had been replaced as ISI chief by another mainstream general, Naseem Rana, a Punjabi officer with a background in the signals corps. Some of the Americans who dealt with him found Rana a dull-minded time server who was unwilling to go out of his way to help the United States. Pakistani intelligence offered little cooperation in the search for Karachi terrorists who murdered two Americans in 1995. After a raid on the Kasi family home in Quetta turned up nothing because of faulty intelligence supplied by the Americans, ISI essentially shut down its operations on that case. If the CIA developed hard, convincing evidence about Kasi’s location—evidence that Pakistan could confirm—then ISI would assist in his capture, Rana said. But that was about it. Commission payments to ISI for recovered Stingers provided a thin basis for cooperation, but meetings between the CIA and Pakistani intelligence in Rawalpindi were infrequent and desultory compared to the past.3

Gary Schroen, the longtime CIA Afghan hand who had served two previous tours in Islamabad, arrived as station chief in January 1996. He told colleagues that the Unocal pipeline project was a fool’s errand and that he was not going to pay any attention to it. The pipeline would never be built, Schroen predicted. Besides, the Islamabad station no longer had Afghanistan on its Operating Directive. This bureaucratic designation meant that Schroen and his case officers had no authority to collect intelligence on the Taliban’s strengths, sources of supply, or military prospects. Nor could they develop similar intelligence about Hekmatyar’s militia or Massoud’s Kabul government. The Islamabad station could recruit Afghan agents if they were reporting on terrorism, drugs, or Stinger missiles. But the default assignment of the Afghan account to Langley created occasional confusion within the CIA about how to track the spillover effects of Afghanistan’s civil war.4

CIA headquarters was distracted by scandal, shrinking budgets, a wave of early retirements, controversies in Congress, and leadership turmoil in the director’s office. Not since the late 1970s had so many career agency officers felt so miserable about the place.

Clinton fired James Woolsey in early 1995, after the Aldrich Ames spy case broke. Ames had worked for Russia inside Langley headquarters for years, and his betrayal had gone undetected. The president struggled to find a successor and finally turned to John Deutch, then deputy secretary of defense, who told Clinton adamantly that he did not want the CIA job. Clinton insisted; there was no one else available who could win confirmation, he said. An MIT-educated chemist who had first come to Washington during the 1960s as a “whiz kid” analyst in Robert McNamara’s Pentagon, Deutch was a large, bearish man with an ample belly. He had the independent, inquiring, self-certain mind of an accomplished scientist. He could be warm, sloppy, and professorial but also caustic, dismissive, and arrogant. He was happy at the Pentagon, where he worked with a friend and mathematician, William Perry. He had watched James Woolsey, whom he regarded as a very able man, fail spectacularly at Langley, and he had no desire to follow him. Yet once persuaded by the president, Deutch decided to hit the CIA with all of the force he could muster. Congress and the press were outraged over the Ames case. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a longtime CIA skeptic, had introduced legislation to abolish the agency and fold its role into other departments. Even the CIA’s supporters could not understand how the clues about Ames’s treachery—his outlandish personal spending, for instance—had been missed. Deutch joined the reformers: He pledged at his confirmation hearing to change the CIA “all the way down to the bare bones.”5

Deutch openly described himself as “a technical guy, a satellite guy, a SIGINT guy,” referring to “signals intelligence,” or the art of communications intercepts. He used his early budget requests at Langley to direct more money proportionately to other agencies in the intelligence community, such as the National Reconnaissance Office at the Pentagon and the National Security Agency. He thought the CIA’s historical strength was scientific and technical intelligence collection, and he wanted to concentrate on that. He was not impressed with the agency’s human spying operations. He believed that the leadership of the Directorate of Operations had to be reformed. His sense was that the CIA’s spies were just not very good anymore at their core job of agent recruitment and intelligence collection. They had forgotten the basics of espionage. They were not living up to their own professional standards, and he was not afraid to tell them so. “From what I know, the junior officers are waiting for some new direction,” Deutch said publicly. “Now, I may be unhappily surprised.”6

He was. Many of the CIA’s career officers revolted against Deutch’s change message. They saw his management reform campaign as just the latest wave in a series of attacks against the agency’s core mission and culture. To them President Clinton seemed indifferent about the CIA’s health. The agency’s budget continued to shrink. In mid-1995 there were only a dozen new case officers being trained at the Farm as career spies. The Directorate of Operations now had fewer than eight hundred case officers worldwide, about a 25 percent decline from the peak years of the Cold War. Stations had closed not only in Afghanistan but across the Third World. There was a strong sense in the Directorate of Operations that the CIA was getting rolled in the budget process by the Pentagon and the FBI. After the Ames case, internal investigations into other possible spies operating at Langley placed dozens of case officers under suspicion, contributing to an atmosphere of distrust and uncertainty. When Deutch’s new managers arrived, they emphasized gender and racial diversity as a prime CIA hiring goal, a mission that angered and dismayed the many white males among the agency’s veterans. New management techniques promoted open criticism of supervisors, discussions about the CIA’s purpose, focus groups, more interaction with the media—“California hot tub stuff,” as one unhappy veteran called it. To achieve personnel reductions without firing anyone, CIA managers had to look for experienced officers who were vested enough in their pensions to be able to retire early without hardship. They sought out such veterans and encouraged them to leave. The retirements became wrenching and disruptive.7

On the day he accepted early departure, longtime Soviet analyst Fritz Ermarth filled out paperwork with his retirement counselor, an old acquaintance he had known since the days of CIA directors Stansfield Turner and William Casey. Ermarth posed the kind of question that he used to ask about the Soviet bureaucracies he analyzed: “Look, you process four hundred to five hundred people a year through this little cubicle, right? What’s your portrait of the place?”

The counselor’s eyes filled with tears. “I’ve never seen it so bad,” she said, as Ermarth recalled it. He asked what she meant.

“Everybody says it’s hard to put your finger on it,” she replied, “but it’s the growth in the importance of stuff that shouldn’t matter relative to stuff that should.”8

THE CIA'S COUNTERTERRORIST CENTERE began to emerge as a modest exception to the agency’s downward trend. For the first two years of the Clinton presidency, budgeting and policy making about terrorism had been dispersed and confused. The shock of the Oklahoma City bombing in the spring of 1995 created a new sense of urgency at the National Security Council, however. The bombers turned out to be a domestic cell of antigovernment militia. But their audacious strike coincided with a shocking chemical weapons attack by a Japanese-based cult in Tokyo.White House terrorism analysts believed the Japanese case showed that the United States was vulnerable to terrorists using weapons of mass destruction. Spurred by Clinton, the National Security Council organized its first terrorism policy review during the early months of 1995.

In June, Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive-39, classified Secret, titled “U.S. Policy on Counterterrorism.” The document echoed the presidential directive that President Reagan had signed during the last great wave of anti-American terrorism during the mid-1980s. It was also the first official recognition by any American president of the danger posed to the United States by terrorists who acquired nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.9

The CIA was instructed to undertake “an aggressive program of foreign intelligence collection, analysis, counterintelligence, and covert action.” If necessary, CIA operations would seek to return terrorist suspects “by force ... without the cooperation of the host government” so that the accused could face justice in American courts.

“The acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by a terrorist group, through theft or manufacture, is unacceptable,” the directive continued. “There is no higher priority than preventing the acquisition of this capability or removing this capability from terrorist groups potentially opposed to the U.S.”10

On paper, at least, American policy was now more forceful and clearly stated than it had been in years. The document also centralized authority on counterterrorism policy at the White House for the first time. The challenge now was to put the words into practice.


IN JANUARY 1996 the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center opened a new office to track Osama bin Laden. The agency had never before dedicated a unit of this kind to a single terrorist. Formally known as the “bin Laden Issue Station” and code-named “Alec,” the group leased space in a suburban Virginia office park just a few miles from CIA headquarters. Employing about twelve staff members, it was designated a “virtual station.” This meant that within the CIA’s budgeting and cable routing systems, the unit would have the administrative status, privileges, and autonomy enjoyed by more traditional stations abroad. The idea was born from discussions in the Counterterrorist Center’s senior management group. Bin Laden was still seen by CIA analysts primarily as a money man, but he was an emerging symbol of the new mobility of international terrorism. National Security Adviser Tony Lake, who approved the bin Laden unit at the CIA, recalled that he realized the Saudi had become an important terrorist when classified memos started referring to him by the acronym “UBL” (which referred to a spelling of bin Laden’s transliterated first name as Usama). In Washington having an acronym was the ultimate sign of importance, Lake recalled sardonically. Because he operated across borders, bin Laden presented challenges to the CIA’s old system of country-based intelligence collection. The CIA’s managers wanted to experiment with a new kind of unit, a prototype that might be used against other transnational targets. They would fuse intelligence disciplines into one office—operations, analysis, signals intercepts, overhead photography, and so on. The National Security Agency had tapped into bin Laden’s satellite telephone and kept track of his international conversations. These intercepts could be used by the new station to track his payments and connections in multiple countries.11

They chose bin Laden because by early 1996 there was a rising recognition of his importance, both at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and at the White House. The unit’s first project was to develop a strategic picture of bin Laden’s activity. Some of the new focus on bin Laden came from Richard Clarke, a forceful career civil servant who in the summer of 1995 had been appointed Clinton’s counterterrorism director, working from the National Security Council under the authorities spelled out in PDD-39. In addition, classified evidence about bin Laden was piling up, circulating in cables throughout the intelligence community. The reporting from the CIA’s Khartoum station was by now voluminous. Bin Laden’s name surfaced continually in reports from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Israel, and elsewhere. As one regular reader of these cables recalled, it seemed as if every other cable about terrorism from North Africa contained the phrase “Osama bin Laden, financier of terrorists.” The CIA now viewed bin Laden as “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world,” as a rare public statement put it. There was some new money available for the CIA’s counterterrorism budget by fiscal 1996. Tony Lake chaired an interagency meeting that approved spending it on the CIA’s virtual bin Laden station. Richard Clarke said later that he asked the CIA and the Pentagon to develop plans for “operating against” al Qaeda in Sudan, instead of merely collecting intelligence, but that neither department “was able successfully to develop a plan.” Operators inside the virtual station began drafting plans to capture bin Laden early on, but none of these ideas was approved or carried forward by superiors or the White House. The agency’s plan offered a way to try something new: “Let’s yank on this bin Laden chain and see what happens,” as one participant recalled.12

But before they could get a grip on him, bin Laden slipped beyond their reach into Afghanistan.

THE CIA STATION in the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, had been conditioned during Cofer Black’s 1993–95 tour to threats of violence from bin Laden’s followers. After the aborted plot to assassinate or kidnap Black, an informant who walked into the embassy volunteered details about supposed plots to kill Tony Lake in Washington. (A State Department official relayed to Lake an assurance from Sudan’s foreign minister: “He says that he’s not trying to kill you.” Lake answered, “It’s the darndest thing, but I’m not trying to kill him, either.”) CIA officers and embassy diplomats regularly faced hostile surveillance by Sudanese and foreign Arab radicals on the streets of Khartoum. Two CIA contractors reported being threatened on a Khartoum street, although the seriousness of this incident was debated within the agency. Even when one of the station’s walk-in sources proved to be a liar, there remained a thick file of threats against the U.S. embassy and its personnel. The chancery building faced a crowded street in central Khartoum, vulnerable to car bombs, but Sudan’s government did not respond to requests for new protection measures. By the fall of 1995 the embassy’s Emergency Action Committee—which included the CIA station chief, the State Department’s security officer, and senior diplomats—had drafted a cable to Washington recommending that the Khartoum embassy be closed to protect American employees. Under this plan the CIA station housed in the embassy would also close, ending the agency’s up-close perch for intelligence collection against bin Laden.13

The newly arrived U.S. ambassador to Sudan, Timothy Carney, a feisty career diplomat, thought this was a terrible idea. Carney believed his colleagues overstated the dangers. Cofer Black agreed with him, but Black had transferred from Khartoum to another assignment in the summer of 1995, and his successor at the Khartoum station expressed a more cautious attitude. Carney questioned the integrity of some of the intelligence sources on which the Emergency Action Committee based its threat analysis. Moreover, he thought that closing the embassy would send exactly the wrong signal to Sudan. The United States sought to end Sudan’s support for terrorists, among other goals. Carney believed this could only be achieved through direct engagement with the Khartoum government. If the United States shut its embassy and pulled out, it would leave Sudan all the more isolated and desperate. The United States could reduce the threat of Islamic radicalism if it learned to interact with Islamists in more sophisticated ways, distinguishing between peaceful movements of religious revival and those bent on violence. Instead it was clinging to alliances in the Middle East with corrupt, failing secular regimes such as Egypt’s, which encouraged Washington to lump all Islamic political groups into one “terrorist” camp. With this myopia, Carney believed, the United States was inadvertently pushing governments such as Sudan’s toward more radical postures.14

When Carney set up shop in Khartoum in November, he found a draft Emergency Action Committee cable recommending the embassy’s closure. He was appalled at the tone of the cable and its conclusion. But he had been a diplomat in the Vietnam era and had vowed that he would never suppress a cable from an embassy where he served even if he disagreed with it. The lesson of Vietnam was that the American government worked best when decision makers had all the arguments, even the ones they did not want to hear, Carney believed. He let the cable recommending closure go through to Washington.15

Based on its arguments, CIA director John Deutch told the White House formally that he believed the Khartoum embassy should be shut. Clinton’s national security cabinet met two or three times to discuss the issue. Past attempts to negotiate with Sudan had yielded no improvements in its record of coddling terrorists and waging a brutal civil war against Christian rebels in the south, the cabinet group concluded. If closing the embassy isolated Khartoum’s government, perhaps that would be the right signal after all, some of the participants in the meetings said. For his part Deutch focused on the security question: The risks of staying in Khartoum outweighed the benefits, he said.16

Carney flew to Washington and argued passionately to Secretary of State Warren Christopher that closing the embassy would be a catastrophic error. “An embassy’s a tool,” he said. “You need to keep the tool in place.” But Deutch persisted in his judgment that the Khartoum station was just too dangerous to operate. Late in January 1996, Christopher acceded to Deutch’s request. Carney flew back to Khartoum and told Sudan’s foreign minister that the United States was pulling out because of terrorist threats to American personnel.17

The Sudanese were outraged. The Khartoum government had lately moved to curtail the influence of Islamic radicals in the country. The American decision would say to the world that Sudan was unsafe for investment and travel, that it was an outlaw government.

Carney said there was nothing he could do; the decision had been made. On February 6, 1996, he attended a farewell dinner at the Khartoum home of Sudanese vice president Ali Osman Taha. That night he and Taha fell into their first serious conversation about Sudan’s support for terrorists. Carney said that if the Sudanese ever expected Washington to reconsider its decision, they had to show they were serious. Osama Bin Laden was one of Sudan’s biggest sources of grief in Washington, Carney said. Sudan should expel him and provide information to the United States about his finances and his support for North African terrorists.18

With Carney’s assistance Sudan arranged one month later to send a secret envoy, General Elfatih Erwa, to Washington for more talks. Erwa met with Carney and two CIA officers from the Africa Division in the Hyatt Hotel in Rosslyn, Virginia. On March 8, 1996, meeting alone with Erwa, the CIA officers handed him a list of demands that had been developed and endorsed by a working group at the White House. The CIA, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, and the State Department had all helped formulate this list. The two-page proposal was titled “Measures Sudan Can Take to Improve Relations with the United States.” The second item on the list asked for intelligence about bin Laden’s Khartoum followers: “Provide us with names, dates of arrival, departure and destination and passport data on mujaheddin that Usama Bin Laden has brought into Sudan.” The memo also demanded details about the owners of specific cars and trucks that had been surveilling CIA personnel in Khartoum.19

The document did not specifically request bin Laden’s expulsion from Sudan, but that idea surfaced in the discussions with Erwa and others. Bin Laden seemed to pick up on the talks. For the first time he granted an interview to an American journalist at his compound in Khartoum. “People are supposed to be innocent until proved guilty,” bin Laden pleaded. “Well, not the Afghan fighters. They are the ‘terrorists of the world.’ But pushing them against the wall will do nothing except increase the terrorism.”20

Years later the question of whether Sudan formally offered to turn bin Laden over to the United States became a subject of dispute. Sudan’s government has said it did make such an offer. American officials say it did not. “We told the Americans we would be willing to hand him over if they had a legal case,” according to a Sudanese official. “We said, ‘If you have a legal case, you can take him.’ ” But several of the most senior American officials involved said they had never received such a message. Investigators with the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks later concluded there was no “reliable evidence” to support Sudanese claims of such an offer.21

At the White House, counterterrorism aides held a hypothetical discussion about whether the United States had a legal basis to take bin Laden into custody. Would the Justice Department indict him? Was there evidence to support a trial? At the meeting, a Justice representative said there was no way to hold bin Laden in the United States because there was no indictment, according to Sandy Berger, then deputy national security adviser. Berger, for his part, knew of no intelligence at the time showing that bin Laden had committed any crime against Americans.22

That was all the insight the White House and the CIA could obtain from Justice. Privately, federal prosecutors were considering a grand jury investigation of bin Laden’s support for terrorism, a probe that could eventually produce an indictment. American law prohibited Justice prosecutors or the FBI agents who worked with them from telling anyone else in government about this investigation, however. They kept their evidence strictly secret.23

Saudi Arabia seemed the most logical place to send bin Laden if it was possible to detain him. Bin Laden had been expelled from the kingdom for antigovernment agitation. There was also a chance that another Arab country, under assault from violent Islamists who took money from bin Laden, might be willing to accept him for trial. Through CIA channels the United States separately asked Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan whether they would accept bin Laden into custody. Nothing came of it. Overall the White House strategy about bin Laden at the time was “to keep him moving,” Lake remembered. American officials told Sudan that Saudi Arabia would not accept bin Laden for trial. The Saudis did not explain themselves, but it seemed clear to Clinton’s national security team that the royal family feared that if they executed or imprisoned bin Laden, they would provoke a backlash against the government. The Saudis “were afraid it was too much of a hot potato, and I understand where they were,” Clinton recalled. “We couldn’t indict him then because he hadn’t killed anybody in America. He hadn’t done anything to us.” As for Egypt and Jordan, if Saudi intelligence and the Saudi royal family were unwilling to accept the political risks of incarcerating bin Laden, why should they?24

Nonetheless, Sudan’s government opened discussions with Saudi Arabia about expelling bin Laden back to the kingdom, according to senior officials on both sides. Around the time of General Erwa’s secret visit to Washington, the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, traveled to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj pilgrimage to the holy sites at Mecca. He met there with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah. Accounts of this meeting differ. According to Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, Abdullah told Bashir that Saudi Arabia would be “happy” to take bin Laden into custody. But he quoted Bashir as insisting that bin Laden “must not face prosecution” in Saudi Arabia. “Nobody is above the law in the kingdom,” Abdullah replied, according to Turki. By his account Saudi Arabia refused to accept bin Laden only because of the conditional terms proposed by Sudan.25

A Sudanese official recalled the discussion differently. By his account Abdullah and Prince Turki both announced that Saudi Arabia was not interested in accepting bin Laden for trial. Bashir did ask Abdullah during the Mecca meeting to pardon bin Laden for his provocative political writings. But Sudan never insisted on a Saudi promise to forgo prosecution, according to this account. Bashir recalled that in multiple conversations with Saudi officials about bin Laden, the Saudis “never mentioned that they accused Osama bin Laden of anything. The only thing they asked us was to just send him away.” The Saudi attitude at Mecca, according to the Sudanese official, was “He is no more a Saudi citizen. We don’t care where he goes, but if he stays [in Sudan], he may be a nuisance in our relations.”26 The Saudis did make clear that bin Laden’s “presence in Sudan was considered an obstacle to the development of relations,” said the Sudan cabinet minister Sharaf al-Din Banaqa, who was involved in the talks.27

It is difficult to know which account to credit. Either way, the long personal ties between bin Laden and Saudi intelligence may also have been a factor in the Saudi decision. Ahmed Badeeb, Prince Turki’s chief of staff, recalled being torn over bin Laden’s fate when the possibility of his expulsion from Sudan first arose. One of bin Laden’s brothers told Badeeb, “Osama is no longer the Osama that you knew.” This pained Badeeb: “I loved Osama and considered him a good citizen of Saudi Arabia.”28

For their part White House counterterrorism officials regarded Sudan’s offer to turn bin Laden over to Saudi Arabia as disingenuous. Sudan knew Saudi Arabia was unlikely to accept bin Laden for trial, the White House officials believed. They interpreted Sudan’s offer as a safe way to curry favor in Washington since Khartoum knew it would never be called upon to act.29

By all accounts, Saudi Arabia had a serious chance early in 1996 to explore taking bin Laden into custody. Crown Prince Abdullah declined to press. The Saudi royal family regarded bin Laden as an irritation, but it would not confront him.

Sudan did not act promptly on the list of demands presented in March by the CIA. President Bashir concluded that he could never win back Washington’s confidence—or American investment dollars—as long as bin Laden maintained his headquarters in Khartoum. Through an intermediary, Bashir told bin Laden to move out. Bin Laden replied, according to a Sudanese official involved in the exchange, “If you think it will be good for you, I will leave. But let me tell you one thing: If I stay or if I go, the Americans will not leave you alone.”30 Osama bin Laden now had every reason to believe that the United States was his primary persecutor. His political theology identified many enemies, but it was America that forced him into flight.

Whether bin Laden explored alternatives to exile in Afghanistan is not known. Mohammed al-Massari, a prominent Saudi dissident, recalled that he had often warned bin Laden that “Sudan is not a good place to stay. One day they will sell you to the Saudis.” He urged bin Laden to find an alternative base. At some stage that spring bin Laden did contact Afghans in Jalalabad whom he had known during the anti-Soviet jihad. “They said, ‘You are most welcome,’ ” according to a Sudanese official. “He was like a holy man to them.” Sudan’s government leased an Ariana Afghan jet and arranged to aid bin Laden’s departure. It required two flights back and forth to move bin Laden, his three wives, his children, his furniture, and his followers to Jalalabad, according to the Sudanese official.31

According to Prince Turki and his chief of staff, Ahmed Badeeb, bin Laden arranged with the small Persian Gulf state of Qatar to land for refueling. Qatar, a tiny country on Saudi Arabia’s flank that was perennially at odds with its larger neighbor, was in the midst of a succession crisis in its royal family. Radical Islamists held office in its ministry for religious affairs. Bin Laden chose Qatar because it “had good relations with both Sudan and Yemen,” according to Badeeb, and because it was “safer than any other country” between Sudan and Afghanistan. American investigators later reported that according to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, bin Laden refueled not in Qatar, but in nearby United Arab Emirates. In any event, his tank replenished, bin Laden lifted off a few hours later for Afghanistan.32

Sudan’s government informed Carney and the White House of bin Laden’s departure only after he was gone. The CIA station in Islamabad did not monitor bin Laden’s arrival at Jalalabad’s airport because it had no active sources in the area.33

The Americans were the “main enemy” of Muslims worldwide, an angry bin Laden told a British journalist who visited him in an eastern Afghan mountain camp weeks after his arrival in Jalalabad. Saudi Arabian authorities were only “secondary enemies,” he declared. As bin Laden saw it, the world had now reached “the beginning of war between Muslims and the United States.”34

THE UNCHALLENGED FLIGHT from Sudan was an inauspicious beginning of the CIA’s experimental bin Laden station and the White House’s beefed-up counterterrorism office. In those first months of 1996 it got worse.

Ever since Ramzi Yousef’s arrest early in 1995 and the discovery of evidence about his plot to blow up American planes over the Pacific Ocean, the CIA and the FBI had been on the lookout for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. After Yousef’s arrest investigators discovered a $660 financial wire transfer sent by Mohammed from Qatar to New York to aid the World Trade Center bombers. When the CIA received the wire record and looked into it, officers determined that Mohammed was Yousef’s uncle and had married a sister of Yousef’s wife. Working from clues discovered among Yousef’s possessions, investigators traced his movements. The CIA received evidence that Mohammed was hiding in Qatar. The agency eventually tracked him to Qatar’s water department where he was employed as a mechanical engineer. The White House asked the CIA if it could quickly arrest Mohammed and fly him to the United States. The CIA reported that it did not have the officers or agents in Qatar to carry out such an operation. The Qatari minister of religious endowments, Sheikh Abdullah bin Khalid al-Tahni, was known to harbor Islamists loyal to bin Laden. If they asked the Qatar government for help in seizing bin Laden, it was likely that Mohammed would be alerted. The White House then turned to the Pentagon to plan a Special Forces raid to take Mohammed. The Pentagon came back with a large-scale plan that involved flying aircraft first into Bahrain and then launched a smaller attack force via helicopters for Qatar.Deputy National Security Adviser Sandy Berger chaired a White House meeting to consider this option. One problem with the Pentagon plan was that Bahrain and Qatar had been feuding recently over disputed islands in the Persian Gulf.What if Qatar interpreted the helicopters as an attack force arriving from Bahrain? While seeking to arrest a single terrorist clandestinely, the United States might inadvertently start a war. The Justice Department cited legal problems with the Pentagon plan. The White House noted that it was negotiating an important air force basing agreement with Qatar. In the end the plan was discarded. Investigators awaited a sealed indictment against Mohammed. It was handed down in January 1996. The FBI moved to arrest him through regular diplomatic channels. Qatar’s government waffled; Mohammed escaped. “I have received disturbing information suggesting that Mohammed has again escaped the surveillance of your Security Services and that he appears to be aware of FBI interest in him,” an angry Louis Freeh, the FBI director, wrote to Qatar’s foreign minister. Nor did the CIA have a clear understanding of Mohammed’s growing affinity for bin Laden’s global war: The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center did not assign his case to its new bin Laden unit, but chased him separately as a freelance extremist.35

It was the start of a pattern that would persist for several years as the Clinton administration’s secret war against bin Laden and his Islamist network deepened. They had few reliable allies in the Middle East and Central Asia. The CIA’s paramilitary forces were small and sometimes less than nimble. The Pentagon’s planners thought in terms of large attack operations. Tactical intelligence about the enemy was patchy, fleeting.

If their campaign against bin Laden was to be waged this way, they would have to learn to thread a very small needle.

AT THE TIME OF bin Laden’s arrival, Jalalabad was controlled, if not governed, by a regional shura of eastern Pashtun tribal leaders and former anti-Soviet guerrilla commanders. Many of them were involved in lucrative smuggling and trade rackets across the Pakistan border. They had resisted overtures to join the Taliban but had also kept their distance from Hekmatyar and Massoud. Their most prominent leader was Haji Qadir, sometimes referred to as the mayor of Jalalabad. Their most prominent patron from the anti-Soviet era was Younis Khalis, now an octogenarian who took teenage wives. Khalis and other Jalalabad shura leaders maintained contacts with Pakistani intelligence.36

Bin Laden certainly knew some of the Jalalabad group from the 1980s and early 1990s, and he had kept in touch during his years in Sudan. He may also have remained in touch with ISI. It is notable that bin Laden did not fly into Afghan territory controlled by the Taliban. Some American analysts later reported that bin Laden had sent money to the Taliban even prior to his return to Afghanistan.37 Yet bin Laden apparently did not have a comfortable enough relationship with the Taliban’s isolated, severe,mysterious leadership group to place himself and his family under their control.

The Taliban were entering a new phase of power and ambition just as bin Laden arrived. They were no longer the humble, consultative Pashtun country folk of late 1994 and early 1995. They had evolved into a political-military movement with national goals. Some of their leaders, such as Prince Turki’s favorite, Mullah Rabbani, continued to hint to foreign visitors and United Nations diplomats that the Taliban were just a transition force. He and other “moderate” Taliban leaders, as they were now being called by American diplomats, said the Taliban would cleanse Afghanistan of its criminal warlords and create a fresh political start, perhaps including a return of the exiled king. But increasingly such claims had to be reconciled with menacing scenes of the Taliban’s appetite for power. Its leaders openly denounced the Massoud-defended government in Kabul as “the root cause of all evils in Afghanistan.”38

Omar summoned more than one thousand Pashtun religious scholars and tribal leaders to Kandahar for a two-week grand assembly in the early weeks of spring 1996. It was the most overt political meeting of Pashtuns under Taliban leadership since the movement’s birth. Omar chose his ground and his symbols carefully. At the meeting’s climax he called the delegates to the great stone-and-tile square across from the Kandahar governor’s house. Within the square’s gates stood the tomb of the eighteenth-century king Ahmed Shah Durrani and the tile-inlaid Mosque of the Cloak of the Holy Prophet.

Omar climbed to the mosque’s roof and unveiled the holy cloak. As the crowd roared approval, he wrapped himself dramatically in the relic. The assembled delegates formally ratified him as Amir-ul-Momineen, “Commander of the Faithful.” They created and sanctified a new name for the expanding territory under Taliban control: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They called for jihad against Massoud. Some denounced Zahir Shah as a criminal. Surrounded by the symbolic remnants of a lost Durrani empire, they had proclaimed their own one-eyed king.39

VIRTUALLY BY HERSELF in the Clinton administration, Robin Raphel tried to drum up a climate of urgency about all-party Afghan peace talks then being sponsored by the United Nations. Raphel had support from a few members of Congress but hardly any backing from the White House. The State Department’s South Asia bureau, which Raphel ran, saw the Taliban as a distasteful but well-established faction on the Afghan checkerboard. The United States now endorsed Pakistan’s view that peace talks must include the movement’s leaders. By its secret support for the Taliban and its continual public lies, Pakistan had made the Taliban a fact of international diplomacy—and the Americans accepted their legitimacy. At the same time Raphel’s public statements made clear that State opposed all efforts to solve the Afghan war by military victory, whether by the Taliban or Massoud.

Raphel traveled to Kabul, Kandahar, and Islamabad on April 19 and 20, 1996. “Tell President Clinton and the West that we are not bad people,” a Taliban leader told her in the Pashtun capital. Raphel and U.S. ambassador Tom Simons concluded that the Taliban’s humble, simplistic messages might reflect “a growing awareness, previously absent, of their own limitations,” as Simons wrote in a cable to Washington. Raphel and the ambassador believed—wrongly—that “a consensus has emerged” in the Pakistan government’s civilian and military leadership about the need to broaden their policies toward Afghanistan. As she had done before, Bhutto lied to Raphel in meetings and “emphasized that Pakistan was not providing military support to the Taliban and insisted that only minimal, nonlethal aid was being delivered.” Raphel absorbed Pakistan’s hostility toward Massoud and carried it into her meetings with the commander in Kabul. “Massoud outlined a vision for a bottom-up democracy” in Afghanistan, but Raphel and Simons dismissed this “rosy scenario” in a Confidential cable to Washington and denounced the “self-righteousness” of Massoud’s besieged government. For their part, Massoud and his aides were put off by what they saw as Raphel’s lecturing. Raphel seemed to treat Afghanistan “as a wilderness threatening the stability of Pakistan,” as one of Massoud’s intelligence officers put it. Massoud and his intelligence advisers worried that the CIA had covertly joined with ISI to engineer a Taliban takeover of Kabul to create favorable conditions for the Unocal pipeline. Massoud’s government had signed an agreement with Unocal’s Argentine rival, banking a $1 million payment in a New York account belonging to one of Massoud’s advisers. They feared they had been branded as Unocal’s—and therefore America’s—enemy.40

In truth, nobody in Washington cared enough to conspire about Afghan politics. Still, Raphel and her State Department colleagues heard accusations about a CIA-led, Unocal-driven plot in Afghanistan over and over that spring. A decade of covert action in the 1980s had conditioned many Afghans and Pakistanis to see the CIA as a powerful force in their affairs. Raphel and her colleagues heard the CIA-Unocal-Taliban conspiracy stories so often and in such credible detail that they privately asked Langley a few times for confirmation that there was no fire beneath all this smoke. They were assured that the CIA was clean.

More than any other American official at the time, Raphel outlined publicly the dangers an unstable Afghanistan posed to the world. The country “has become a conduit for drugs, crime, and terrorism that can undermine Pakistan [and] the neighboring Central Asian states and have an impact beyond Europe and Russia,” she predicted. She warned that terrorist incidents in the Middle East had been traced back to Afghan training camps. She argued that the Taliban’s severe interpretations of Islam defied Afghan traditions and that ultimately the balance of power would shift toward a more tolerant theology. Yet her policy prescriptions were all vague or narrowly drawn around commercial interests. The United States was “concerned that economic opportunities here will be missed,” Raphel said publicly during her visit to Kabul that spring. She told a Russian counterpart in a private meeting, “The United States government now hopes that peace in the region will facilitate U.S. business interests.” In Islamabad she declared that Unocal’s pipeline “will be very good for Turkmenistan, for Pakistan and for Afghanistan as it will not only offer job opportunities but also energy in Afghanistan.”41

It was a tawdry season in American diplomacy. After years of withdrawal and disengagement American policy had been captured by the language of corporate dealmaking. In the absence of alternatives the State Department had taken up Unocal’s agenda as its own. Whatever the merits of the project, the sheer prominence it received by 1996 distorted the message and meaning of American power. American tolerance of the Taliban was publicly and inextricably linked to the financial goals of an oil corporation. There were by now about 1.5 million Afghan war dead, dating back to the Soviet invasion. The land was desolate, laced with mines. The average life expectancy for an Afghan was about forty-six years. The country ranked 173 out of 175 countries on the United Nations human development index.42 Yet the few American officials who paid attention to Afghanistan at all talked as if it was a tax-free zone ripe for industrial revival, a place where vocational education in metallurgy could lead to a political breakthrough.

For Afghans themselves the central question in the spring of bin Laden’s return was the military potential of the Taliban. For more than a decade the key to internal power in Afghanistan had been access to outside military supplies and cash—especially from Pakistan. Here, too, the ground was now shifting.

In Islamabad, in the secret councils of her national security cabinet, Benazir Bhutto had entered into a new phase of debate with Pakistani intelligence about the Taliban. By the spring of 1996 she had capitulated, she said later, to ISI’s persistent requests for unlimited covert aid to the Islamic militia. But as the Taliban gathered strength and territory, Bhutto and her civilian allies clung to the hope that they could use the Taliban to force a negotiated, all-party political deal under the auspices of the United Nations. As Bhutto recalled it, ISI Director-General Naseem Rana and several of his key brigadiers asked her for permission to arm, equip, and train the Taliban for a final drive on Kabul. If the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, ISI’s officers argued, Pakistan would have at last achieved General Zia’s dream: a loyal, Pashtun-led Islamist government in Kabul.

Bhutto resisted. She feared that a Taliban government would press its Islamic militancy on toward Central Asia, damaging the trade-driven relationships she sought to build there. It would be much more profitable to use the Taliban’s clout to negotiate for a peace deal in Afghanistan that would include Massoud and other northern ethnic militias that had strong ties to Central Asia.

Bhutto turned for support to her secular-minded chief of army staff, General Jehangir Karamat, Pakistan’s supreme military commander. “When the pressure would get too much,” she recalled, “I would have a meeting with the army chief and with my defense cabinet and all of the military brass—the air force chief and the navy chief—and they would support my idea that, no, you must work with the U.N.”43 But Pakistani intelligence was more and more insistent, she recalled. It seemed evident that they intended to push the Taliban into Kabul without telling Bhutto. Whether ISI also evaded orders from Karamat or privately received a supportive nod from the army high command was never clear to Bhutto. All the while the prime minister and her aides continued to lie to American officials about the nature and extent of Pakistan’s covert support to the Taliban.

The American ambassador to Pakistan, Tom Simons, talked repeatedly with Karamat and other senior generals as the Taliban approached Kabul’s gates in the late spring and early summer of 1996. It seemed to Simons that the Pakistani army felt trapped by the momentum of its own policies in Afghanistan. The Punjabi secularists in their senior ranks viewed the Taliban cynically and worried that they had cooked up “a recipe for endless war” and that “Pakistan was going to be drained, and it was going to weaken Pakistan.” Yet the generals told Simons “they also felt that there was no alternative, no realistic alternative for the country.”44

KABUL'S FALL CAMES WIFTLY. Osama bin Laden, now Afghanistan’s wealthiest sheikh, hurried it along.

Taliban forces launched a surprise attack against the Jalalabad shura in August. Haji Qadir and the rest of bin Laden’s original greeting party fled across the border to Pakistan. The Taliban took control of the area, and bin Laden was now in their midst. The Saudi may have provided about $3 million from his personal treasury to pay off the remaining commanders who stood between the Taliban and Kabul, although bin Laden was under some financial pressure at the time. The Taliban may also have collected funds for these crucial bribes from other Saudi and Gulf patrons, the local trucking mafia, heroin traders, Pakistani intelligence, and other sources.45

Bin Laden spent his first summer back in Afghanistan writing a lengthy fatwa about the alliance of enemies that had delivered him to this exile. His “Declaration of Jihad on the Americans Occupying the Two Sacred Places” laid out his belief that the Saudi royal family had become “the agent” of an alliance between imperialist Jews and Christians. He protested that he had been “pursued in Pakistan, Sudan and Afghanistan.” He referred to his new haven as Khorasan, a reference to a lost Islamic empire that had once encompassed Central Asia. He faxed his proclamation to London newspapers as the Taliban turned their speedy pickup trucks toward Kabul.46

Massoud lost the Afghan capital after forging one last ill-advised alliance with his old enemy, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Fearing (correctly) that ISI had abandoned him for the Taliban, Hekmatyar reached out to Massoud for help. Massoud had little choice. Hekmatyar’s militia, however untrustworthy, extended his defensive perimeter east and south and held the Taliban farther out from Kabul. But Hekmatyar kept asking Massoud to bring his troops out from the capital to attack the Taliban. “Every day Hekmatyar was worried [saying], ‘They’re working to a plan. They’ve taken Paktia. . . . And you’ve done nothing, you’re not cooperating, you’re not fighting,’ ” Massoud said later. President Rabbani told Massoud, “Well, maybe Hekmatyar’s right.” But Massoud was now leading his troops into eastern and southern territory that he had never held during the long anti-Soviet war. He was not familiar with the terrain. He and his aides moved to meet the Taliban while studying their maps. “We came out,” Massoud said, but “we didn’t pay attention to the defensive line.”47

The trap sprang shut on September 25 at Sarobi, Kabul’s eastern gateway. Hekmatyar’s local commanders sold out to the Taliban and stood aside. The Taliban had perfected mobile fighting with a cavalry of Japanese pickup trucks armed with powerful machine guns in their beds. They darted and swooped up the gorges from Sarobi and across Kabul’s open southern plains. Massoud’s helicopter and fighter-bomber strikes could not ward off these potent swarms. On September 26, Massoud told a council of generals that they had to withdraw. Overnight they rolled as many tanks and armored vehicles as they could organize north from the capital toward the Panjshir Valley, Massoud’s fortified rock-gorge homeland.48

THE TALIBAN POURED INTO KABUL the next day. They wore black turbans and smeared their eyes with decorative kohl. They walked unopposed into pockmarked ministry buildings and unfurled their blankets on the floors. Within a day every major government building, palace, and military base in the city had been occupied by bands of Pashtun fighters.

After Kabul fell to the mujahedin in April 1992, the former Afghan president Najibullah lived under house arrest at a United Nations compound in the city. Rabbani and Massoud never brought the former communist and secret police chief to trial, nor were they willing to release him into exile. Najibullah spent his years of incarceration watching satellite television, lifting free weights, and translating a history of British-era Afghanistan called The Great Game from English into Pashto. “Afghans keep making the same mistake,” he told one visitor, reflecting on his translation.49

The Taliban burst into Najibullah’s house on September 27 while his brother was visiting. Judging by the conditions of their bodies when they were strung up above a traffic circle hours later, the brothers died slowly and painfully under blows from fists, stones, and sticks. The former president of Afghanistan—whose career began in the torture chambers of the secret police and ended at roundtables with international diplomats—probably expired before the wire tied around his neck pulled him up the ten-foot gallows pole selected by the Taliban for its visible location in central Kabul. “We killed him because he was the murderer of our people,” Mullah Omar declared.50

The capital’s new laws were announced as edicts on Kabul Radio, quickly renamed the Voice of the Sharia, or Islamic law. Toothpaste should be abandoned in favor of the natural root favored by the Prophet, the radio announcers declared. Their lists of banned items and activities unfurled as a roll call of life’s small pleasures: marbles, cigarettes, dancing, music, singing, homing pigeons, kite-flying, television-watching. Businessmen and traders were warned that they should no longer wrap their goods in paper in case they inadvertently used pages from the Holy Koran. The Saudi-inspired Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice announced a ban on both sorcery and American-style haircuts.

Taliban leaders ordered women to disappear. “All of those sisters who are working in government offices are hereby informed to stay at home until further notice,” the radio announced on the first day. Also: “Since satar [Islamic dress] is of great importance in Islam, all sisters are seriously asked . . . to cover their faces and the whole of their body when going out.” Eight thousand female undergraduate students at Kabul University lost their places at the school. A similar number of schoolteachers lost their jobs. Thousands of women who worked as civil servants in bloated government ministries, contributing meager but steady salaries to their extended families, were banned from their offices.51

Six weeks later the Taliban announced a numbered list of regulations that would be enforced by their religious police. Number one said that to prevent “sedition and uncovered females,” taxi drivers could not stop for any woman who did not wear a full Iranian-style burqa. Number twelve announced that all women found washing clothes in any river would be picked up by the religious police in a “respectful and Islamic manner” and returned to their homes, where their husbands would be severely punished. Number fifteen listed jail terms for tailors who took female body measurements or displayed fashion magazines.52

The State Department greeted these announcements with little protest. Its diplomats hoped to appease Kabul’s new rulers. “We wish to engage the new Taliban ‘interim government’ at an early stage,” declared a classified instructions cable sent from Washington to embassies abroad on September 28. In official meetings with the Taliban, American diplomats should strive to “demonstrate [American] willingness to deal with them as the new authorities in Kabul; seek information about their plans, programs, and policies; and express [U.S. government] views on areas of key concern to us—stability, human rights, narcotics, and terrorism.” Bin Laden ranked last on the cable’s more detailed list of issues for discussion. Washington’s confidential talking points suggested two very gentle questions for Taliban leaders. One was: “We welcomed your assurances that you were closing the terrorist and militant training camps formerly run by Hekmatyar, Sayyaf, or Arab groups. Can you tell us the current status of those camps?” The second: “Do you know the location of ex-Saudi financier and radical Islamist Osama bin Laden? We had heard previously that he was in the eastern provinces. His continued presence here would not, we believe, serve Afghanistan’s interests.” Taliban leaders telephoned American diplomats in Islamabad and said they had no idea where bin Laden was.53

Ambassador Tom Simons met at the shaded Islamabad embassy compound on November 8 with Mullah Ghaus, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, who like Omar had only one eye. “I wish to say some things about America,” Simons announced, according to notes taken by an American diplomat at the meeting. “The Americans are the most religious people in the Western world. They have great respect for Islam, which is now the fastest growing religious community in America. There are, in fact, now more American Muslims than American Jews,” he added, as if this might assuage Taliban attitudes toward the United States. Yet Americans, Simons continued, “have learned that it is very difficult to discern the will of God. Their experience has taught them that it is dangerous for one group to try to impose its interpretation of the will of God on others, and especially dangerous to try to do so by force.” Ghaus listened politely. He said the Taliban hoped for peace—but they would never yield to their enemies, especially not to Massoud and his allies to the north. On December 6 Simons’ deputy relayed a letter to the Taliban from Secretary of State Warren Christopher offering engagement, but adding: “We wish to work with you to expel all terrorists and those who support terrorism” from Afghanistan. Robin Raphel handed the original to the man the Taliban hoped would agree to represent them at the United Nations: Hamid Karzai.54

Raphel outlined American policy to a closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York. For the sake of peace, she argued, all nations should engage with the Taliban. “The Taliban control more than two-thirds of the country; they are Afghan, they are indigenous, they have demonstrated their staying power,” Raphel said. “The real source of their success has been the willingness of many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, to tacitly trade unending fighting and chaos for a measure of peace and security, even with severe social restrictions.”

The Taliban were now a fact of international life, Raphel argued: “It is not in the interests of Afghanistan or any of us here that the Taliban be isolated.”55

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