Following his departure from Sudan in 1996, Bin Laden had received sanctuary deep in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan territory, protected by his own well-armored militia and hundreds of holy warriors who trained in his terrorist camps. The notion of a successful "snatch" operation in neutral or allied territory-like the capture of Lebanese hijacker Fawaz Younis in the Mediterranean in 1989, or the arrest of Ramzi Yousef in Pakistan in 1995 – was not considered feasible. Younis had been lured into the Mediterranean in a classic sting operation and flown back to the United States. Ramzi Yousef was brought back to the United States with the direct support of the Pakistan government. For Bin Laden, there was no chance of luring him away from his safety in the mountains of Afghanistan, nor was U.S. intelligence able to track his travels on a real time basis. Thus, there were only two remaining ways that Bin Laden could be arrested: either the Taliban could be persuaded to hand him over to the United States, or U.S. Forces would have to go in to Afghanistan and get him. The choices were stark and not encouraging. Given the Taliban's financial hatred of the West and its proclamations of support to Bin Laden, the odds of the first option being successfully realized were not good. As for the latter option, the only person that the U.S. had sent an army into arrest was Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
Though far more difficult than arresting Noriega, launching a successful raiding party into landlocked Afghanistan to arrest Bin Laden was not beyond the realm of the military capabilities of the United States. Some officials argued that from a political perspective, any number of America's casualties would pose a potential nightmare. The casualty-wary American public would not support a bloody military operation unless its necessity could be easily and persuasively justified. Even when American casualties were not at risk, the American public did not automatically support military intervention overseas. Still, this was not an issue of launching cruise missiles from off the coast of Pakistan, but of bringing in commandos to fight an adversary on enemy territory with a difficult terrain that overwhelmingly favored the Afghan denizens. That lesson was learned painfully by the SOVIETS. The Option of bombing Bin Laden but cruise missiles or other types of delivery systems was not considered because of the Executive Order prohibiting assassinations and because of the imprecision of such attacks.
The decision about whether to use American forces could not be authorized at the Justice Department: it could only be decided at the presidential level. Within the internal governmental debate, some argued that spilling American blood to arrest Bin Laden would have been a pyrrhic victory if, at the end of the legal process, Bin Laden would eventually walk in the event of an acquittal. Others argued that a commando style arrest operation should be aggressively pursued. And others argued against any action at all.
That decision was up to the President and his foreign policy advisors. According to knowledgeable sources, the President opted to pursue a two-track policy: preparations for a commando extrication team would be authorized territorial insertion into Afghanistan, while at the same time, the Administration would try to get the Taliban to cooperate in forcing the surrender of Bin Laden to the United States. In mid-April of this year, Bill Richardson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was dispatched to Afghanistan and Pakistan to negotiate with the Taliban for the handing over of Bin Laden. Discussions with key Taliban officials in the United Nations and with other visiting Taliban officials had proved to be encouraging. Some factions in the Taliban wanted to elicit American goodwill to end its international isolation and prosecute American investment and technology. At the same time that Richardson went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, American military and counterterrorist teams were secretly sent to Peshawar, in the event that the commando operation were launched or a hand-over of Bin Laden were facilitated by the Taliban.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, rumors of the U.S. counterterrorist force abounded throughout the press and media. Obviously exaggerated, reports of "one-thousand men commando teams" sent in to arrest Bin Laden appeared in Pakistani papers. In several interviews, Bin Laden himself declared that he was the target of American commando teams, but scoffed at the notion that he would ever be captured.
In the end, Ambassador Richardson failed in persuading the Taliban to hand over Bin Laden. Although he showed them some of the evidence revealing Bin Laden's direct hand in international terrorist, the Taliban would not play ball. Bin Laden would remain a protected "guest" of the Taliban, although they said that he would not be allowed to carry out activities against the interests of the Taliban. As for the possibility of a direct commando-style operation, strategies deemed the operational difficulties and risks too high and the possibility of a surprise operation too low for any chance of success.
The U.S. Prosecutors, the FBI, and the U.S. National Security apparatus would have to return to the proverbial drawing board in devising new ways to arrest Bin Laden. As the grand jury continued efforts to build a stronger case against Bin Laden, his devastation was visited upon the United States by the two simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania where more than 200 people were killed. On August 20, the United States struck bask, launching cruise missiles at Bin Laden's camps in Khost, Afghanistan and the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plants in Khartoum, Sudan.
Osama and the Al Kifah Center It had been more than five years since Bin Laden had come under government security immediately following the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993. Bin Laden's name came up as one of the associates of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and as the financial backer of the Martyr Azzam Hostel in Peshawar where Ramzi Yousef had stayed. Bin Laden's name, along with names of more than 118 others (plus the Sudanese mission to the United States), was included on a list, distributed by federal prosecutors, of potential unindicted co-conspirators.
On one level, the efforts to unravel Bin Laden's empire struck an errie parallel with the efforts of the prosecutors in 1993 to unravel the jihad terrorist organization secretly operated by Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. Then, as now, prosecutors painstakingly revisited and reexamined existing documents and materials in their possession in the belated realization that they possessed some of the answers to their questions but were unable to see how the pieces had fit together. In 1993, immediately following the World Trade Center bombing, federal prosecutors and FBI agents reexamined raw materials, documents, and data they had collected since the assassination of right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane by El Sayyid Nosair in November 1990 and the murder (still unsolved) of the fundamentalist head of the Al Kifah office in Brooklyn, Mustapha Shalabi, in February 1991. Although it was too late to prevent the bombing, the boxes of material seized from Nosair's apartment following his arrest in 1990 contained the very seeds of the World Trade Center explosion. In 1993, the same materials seized in 1990 were found to be a roadmap to the jihad conspiracy in the United States of the previous three years.
Similarly, the documents and materials seized in 1990 – many of which have been reexamined immediately following the twin embassy bombings – have now provided at least a partial roadmap to understanding and reconstructing the Bin Laden network. In particular, new attention has been focused on the Al Kifah Refugee Center, known in Arabic as the Office of Services of the Mujahideen, that gave birth, as prosecutors laid out in their complaints and indictments, to Bin Laden's secret terrorist organization.
The Al Kifah Center was established in the early 1980's in Peshawar, Pakistan by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian fundamentalist who spearheaded the jihad, or holy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Azzam mobilized the Arab youth with the call to participate in a modern day jihad against the "enemies of Islam,"Azzam started off in one storefront in Peshawar, but, by the end of the decade, had succeeded not only in establishing scores of jihad recruiting centers around the world in addition to the network of mosques and Islamic centers that he pulled into the jihad orbit, but has activated tens of thousands of Arabs from all over the world to volunteer for jihad.
By 1985, according to Azzam's own statements and acounts published by Al Kifah, Azzam had teamed up with the person who would bankroll the Al Kifa organization, Saudi financier Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden would soon emerge in his own rights as the largest single financial backer of the Office of Services of the Mujahideen and of the "Arab-Afghar jihad movement. Having heard the spell-binding call of Sheikh Azzam to join the jihad, Bin Laden left the comfort of his family's multi-billion dollar construction company in Saudi Arabia to participate in the jihad against the Russians. During the 1980's, unlike the overt role Bin Laden has assumed today as head of a self-declared jihad against the United States, Bin Laden scrupulously stayed behind the scenes, far away from the glares of publicity.
Azzam built up the Al kifah Center to be the most effective jihad recruiting ground in the world, with officers in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and throughout the Middle East. Al Kifah opened dozens of centers throughout the United States, mostly at mosques and Islamic community centers. Major Al Kifah Centers were set up in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Brooklyn, Jersey City, Pittsburgh, and Tucson, while 30 other American cities were the sites of subsidiary Al Kifah offices.
The call to participate in the jihad against the infidel Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan resonated throughout the Muslim world, in the Middle East and the West. Indeed, the jihad in Afghanistan became the battle cry heard in mosques around the globe.
By the mid 1980's, Azzam's call for jihad was heeded throughout the Arab world, with thousands of young Muslim men volunteering for the opportunity to partake in a real jihad. Resurrecting the doctrine of an earlier Islamic era long time gone, Azzam represented a new type of Muslim leader, the first modern-day transnational fundamentalist, who inspired an entire generation to rally to the cause of jihad. Azzam provided a sense of empowerment to Muslim youth. His talents were beyond that of a religious leader; he was a military leader and an indefatigable orator who could give mesmerizing religious speeches for hours on end.
Al Kifah published a monthly magazine called "Al-Jihad," a full-color Arabic language magazine that detailed the battle stories from the front lines of the Mujahideen. The issues were frequently full of gory pictures of young men whose limbs had been severed as well as inspiring culogies to the shahids (Martyrs) who gave their lives for jihad. In its heyday, "Al Jihad" reached 50,000 people, at least half in the United States according to interviews with "Al Jihad" leaders conducted by this writer in 1994. "Al Jihad" soon became a vehicle by itself in mobilizing support for the worldwide jihad. Articles frequently contained incendiary attacks and conspiratorial allegations against the United States, Europe, Christians, and Jews, exposing their "crimes" against Islam. From Palestine to Bosnia, "Al Jihad" called for Muslims to pick up the gun and wage jihad to kill the infidels and "all enemies of Islam."
As the mujahideen realized victory in their jihad against the Soviets, the duty of jihad against the Soviets, the duty of jihad was expanded around the globe – any place that the enemies of Islam were deemed active. Al Kifah soon became an umbrella organization for worldwide jihad movements. Beyond mobilizing support for the jihad in Afghanistan, internal documents show that Al Kifah members in the United States became involved in shipping bombs, timers, and explosives to Hamas in Gaza; counterfeiting tens of thousands of dollars for purchase of weapons; reconfiguring passports to enable Muslim volunteers to visit the United States as well as enter jihad battle fronts; and raising money and enlisting new recruits for the jihad in the Philippines, Egypt, Bosnia, Algeria, Kashmir, Palestine, and elsewhere.
In November 1989, Azzam, along with two of his four sons, was killed in a sophisticated car bombing in Pakistan. In the wake of Azzam's death, a power struggle soon developed for control of Al Kifah, not in Pakistan but in the United States, where Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman – who came to the United States in 1990 from the Sudan – vied with Mustapha Shalabi, an Egyptian-born militant appointed by Azam. The sheikh settled in Brooklyn and New Jersey where he had developed from his base in the Sudan and Pakistan an intensely loyal following among a cadre of Islamic militants. One of them, El Sayyid Nosair, had carried out the assassination of Meir Kahane in November 1990, an act that apparently was sanctioned by Abdul-Rahman.
At stake in the battle over Al Kifah was a transnational Islamic militant power base – the de facto control over hundreds of thousands of dollars and a network of thousands of jihad veterans and future jihad volunteers. Shalabi wanted to plow the money back into the Afghanistan effort, while Sheikh Abdul Rahman wanted to expend the funds on jihad in Egypt and new jihad fronts around the globe.
Shalabi, who by all counts resented the intrusion of the Sheikh, tried to stand up to the Sheik and his supporters, especially Mahmud Abuhalima, an Egyptian veteran of the Afghanistan jihad and loyal follower of the blind Sheikh. By early January 1990, Shalabi had received threats from the Sheikh's followers, but still would not agree to hand over control of the funds. Shalabi decided to move back to Afghanistan where he could count on the protection of Mohammed Yusof Abbas, who took over the Peshawar-based side of Al Kifah and editorship of "Al-Jihad," following Sheikh Azzam's death in 1989. The man who was supposed to take over the Al Kifah offices in BROOKLYN AS SUCCESSOR TO Shalabi was Wadih El Hage.
Wadih El Hage, born in Lebanon in 1960, had come to the United States in the late 1970's to attend school at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. In 1987, he moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he became an active member of the Al Kifah office at the Islamic Center. He soon became caught up in the jihad fervor, catching the attention of senior Al Kifah officials in both Tucson and in New York.
In December 1988, according to federal documents, El Hage met other Islamic fundamentalists, including Mahmud Abuhalima (later convicted in the World Trade Center bombing) and top officials of the Al Kifah Center at a major radical Islamic conference held at the convention center in Oklahoma City. The conference was sponsored by the Muslim Arab Youth Association, a militant Islamic group in the United States and the Islamic Association for Palestine, a front group for Hamas in the United States, (then headquartered in Tucson). The major speaker at the event was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, the founder of the Al Kifah Center. According to videotapes of the conference and other records, Islamic militants from around the globe converged in Oklahoma City to raise the banner of Jihad not only in Afghanistan but in Palestine and elsewhere. Feverish exhortations to carry out terrorist attacks were made by Azzam and the other guest speakers, which included Ilamas leader Muhammad Siyyam, militant cleric Ahmed Al-Quattan, radical cleric from Lebanon Sheikh Muharram Al-Aarifi, and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mustapha Mashhout. According to records of the conference, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militant Islamic groups set up stands for recruiting and fundraising. Hamas leaders, according to intelligence sources, also set up training sessions at which various terrorist techniques were taught to a select group of designated recruits.
The Oklahoma Conference, like later ones (including a much larger one held in Oklahoma City in December 1992), allowed Islamic militants from around the globe to network and coordinate fundraising, political strategies, and terrorist planning. According to federal records, the December 1992 conference in Oklahoma City provided a venue for several of the World Trade Center conspirators to get together again with their brethren who visited from outside the United States.
In early 1990, a black Muslim cleric named Rashid Khalifa was murdered in Tucson. Khalifa had practiced a sect that was deemed heretical by fundamentalist Muslims. He was soon marked for death.
According to federal prosecutors and to information volunteered by El Hage in interviews he gave to FBI agents, a still unidentified man was sent to Tucson to do surveillance on Khalifa. This person visited El Hage at his home, had lunch together and then was driven by El Hage to Khalifa's mosque where the visitor recorded the movements of Khalifa. El Hage admitted before the grand jury that he never reported this visit to the authorities even though Khalifa was later found murdered. Federal records show that Kalifa was killed by a member of the Al-Fuqra organization, a black Muslim fundamentalist group that has engaged in a series of murders, robberies, and other attacks in Colorado and Canada. Members of AlFuqra were also indicted and convicted in the World Trade Center bombing conspiracy trials. Sources familiar with the investigation say that Al-Fuqra as early as 1988 in acquiring weapons and recruiting volunteers for the jihad in Afghanistan.
From Tucson, El Hage, sometime in 1991, moved to Arlington, Texas, where he went to work for a tire store. At the same time, according to federal prosecutors, El Hage stayed very active with Al Kifah and in the expanding jihad battlefront. El Hage would rise to such a senior position that he was anointed the successor to Al Kifah Director Shalabi, who had planned on leaving Al Kifah in Brooklyn and returning to Peshawar in March 1991. Shalabi would never make it. On February 26, 1991, police would later determine, Shalebi opened the door to someone he knew. His body was found five days later with a bullet hole to his head and multiple stab wounds. No one was ever charged in the killing, but federal officials believe that Shalabi was killed pursuant to a fatwa issued by Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. For reasons still unknown, El Hage did not ultimately take over Al Kifah in Brooklyn as had been expected. But, according to El Hague's statements provided to investigators, he showed up in New York on the day Shalabi was killed; the length of his stay is unknown. Phone records of Al Kifah show a series of phone calls between Al Kifah and El Hage's residence in Arlington, Texas on March 2,3, 5, and 6. It appears that El Hage was calling his home from Brooklyn. Prison records cited by the Dallas Morning News show that on March 11, 1991, El Hage visited El Sayyid Nosair in jail. Nosair, prosecutors later determined, had been secretly plotting to carry out additional terrorist attacks and murders while meeting with various visitors in his jail cell in 1991 and 1992.
El Hage left the United States in late 1992 or early 1993 and moved to the Sudan where he went to work directly for Bin Laden and with Bin Laden's military commanders. In 1995, he set up the Help Africa Foundation in Kenya, which served as a cover group for Bin Laden. In 1997, El Hage returned to the United States.