Death of OBL Part Three: Was bin Laden a product of the CIA?

The monster we created-yes, WE-in the 1980s by ARMING, FUNDING, &TRAINING him in the art of terror agnst the USSR, finally had 2 b put down. … Which reporter has the courage to say it? “American-armed terrorist from the 80s, Osama bin Laden, was killed earlier today by America,” – Michael Moore via Twitter

This is an oft repeated though fallacious view on Osama bin Laden. The logic of the argument goes something like this:

1.    The CIA supported and trained the mujahadeen
2.    Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders were part of the mujahadeen
3.    Osama bin Laden was funded and trained by the CIA

On the surface that argument appears valid, but dig a little deeper and it does not stand to reason.

For the first point, yes, the CIA provided billions of dollars of financial and material support to the mujahadeen fighting to liberate Afghanistan in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t like Ronald Reagan wrote a check and handed it directly to the insurgency. There were multiple layers that the money was filtered through for multiple reasons: one, the US has never been particularly concerned about central Asia, thus lacking the intelligence necessary to identify the best opposition groups to support; two, Washington needed to maintain some level of plausible deniability in providing support to an anti-Soviet armed rebellion lest they provoke their nuclear armed rival into taking retaliatory measures elsewhere.

So the money was funneled through a partner willing to take a measure of risk because of its interest in the region, and who possessed solid intelligence regarding the evolving situation on the ground and the personalities involved in the conflict: namely Pakistan. The CIA provided money and arms directly to the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, who then (after taking an exhorbitant cut of the proceeds), passed on the assistance to their partners within the insurgency. The CIA never had to develop a solid working relationship with the mujahadeen so long as it could trust the ISI as a reliable mediary. For its part the ISI discouraged a direct CIA-mujahadeen relationship as it would reduce the sizeable income source that came from fleecing the Americans. As a result, the CIA developed only limited unilateral contacts with certain members of the mujahadeen, contacts that were expanded in the 1990s.

Second, the presentation of the mujahadeen as a monolith is misguided and reflects how uninformed Moore and other neophytes of Afghan history are (and I am no expert!). The mujahadeen was compromised of multiple factions whose relationships with each could be described as “testy” at the best of times. Foremost amongst those factions, and the primary beneficiaries of American largesse (via the ISI) were the so-called fundamentalist groups of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mohammad Yunus Khalis, and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. That these groups were not granted equal sums of money and material when receiving aid as the ISI played favorites (Hekmatyar got the lion’s share despite his reputation of killing more mujahadeen than Communists) only intensified the rivalry between these groups and increased the dependency of some upon sources beyond Pakistan. Stepping in to fill part of the void were the so-called Afghan Arabs, of which Osama bin Laden was a part.

Under the auspices and direction of Palestinian scholar and theologian Abdullah Azzam (perhaps the second most important figure in militant salafism besides Sayyid Qutb) many radicalized Arab youths began assembling in Peshawar, Pakistan in order to provide support to and directly participate in the mujahadeen. Among those youths was a Saudi millionaire and former Azzam student, Osama bin Laden. Azzam established the MAK (Maktab al-Khidamat/Afghan Services Bureau) under the protection of Khalis’ main commander Jalaluddin Haqqani and established relationships with the smaller Sayyaf faction. MAK served primarily as a financial institution, soliciting charitable donations from wealthy Arabs, particularly Saudi and UAE royalty, but also private American and Western sources through front charities. Azzam and bin Laden had established a successful, self-sustaining organization, which following the assassination of Azzam in 1989 would become the base of the al Qaeda conglomerate. As a result they did not depend on support from the ISI and by extension the United States.

Additionally, there has been no evidence presented to date that would suggest a direct relationship between Osama bin Laden and the CIA either for a means of financial support or training. That does not mean that such a relationship did not exist, however, it needs to be proven before making a blanket statement like Moore did above.

And there are avenues for proving such a relationship. Unilateral contacts were made between the CIA and Haqqani (who would go on to be the Taliban’s primary commander). While Abdullah Azzam, and his patron, Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader and later al Qaeda number 2, Ayman al Zawahiri toured the United States in the mid-1980s to solicit support for the mujahadeen (his alleged translator during the trip, Ali Abdul Saoud Mohamed needs particularly close examination), despite their known violent opposition to Israel and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Was their relationship with MAK more involved than we are led to believe? Were they prepared to overlook their, to put it mildly, questionable pasts in order to assist the anti-Soviet insurgency as best possible? Without evidence to support the former, we need to conclude the latter, for the time being. Washington was well aware of the vociferous anti-Americanism of all the mujahadeen commanders, Hekmatyar in particular, but accepted the ISI’s argument that they were merely posturing and, more than that, supporting them was the only option to mount an effective anti-Soviet campaign. So Washington ignored the potential of the negative consequences that could follow for Afghanistan, central Asia, and the United States itself, focusing on its myopic goal of facilitating a Soviet  military defeat.

And this is where Moore and I agree. Even if the CIA did not provide any material support or training to al Qaeda its decision to blindly support the ISI’s unquestionably brutal clients in its proxy war against the Soviet Union was positively amoral. The rationale that the enemy of my enemy is my friend ignores the impact that an erstwhile ally can have on innocents that have no place in the equation. I am empathetic to the innocent victims of violence regardless of their nationality. It is difficult to dispute the point that ordinary Afghans have paid more for the CIA’s Machiavellian calculation than anyone but that does not reduce my anger for the American victims of the same forces. The World Trade Center janitor is no more responsible for the ill-conceived machinations of his government than the goat herder from Herat. Unlike the underlying message of Michael Moore, I do not feel that the two are mutually exclusive.

America has done a number of evil things throughout its history – that can’t be questioned. But insinuating that they were critically involved in the creation of al Qaeda’s membership, infrastructure and had a hand in developing its expertise in terrorism does not hold up to the facts as we presently know them. Forming such an opinion and willfully propagating it over and over again without considering the plethora of worthwhile academic and journalistic investigations of the issue displays a lack of inquisitiveness as well as an absence of humility given the degree of certainty with which it has been repeatedly put forward. Empirical evidence should be the basis of opinion, not our rigid worldview.

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