The Northern Group
Bin Laden had reason to resent having to leave Sudan: not only had his assets in the country been seized, but the Saudi monarchy had forced his family to cut him off, leaving him struggling financially. Still, he was returning to Afghanistan, a country that had played a significant role in his development, transforming him from a directionless Saudi millionaire into a respected mujahideen leader. A theme that bin Laden liked to promote to his followers was that their travels were like the Hijra—a reference to the year 622, when the Prophet was forced to leave Mecca and go to Medina. What at first had seemed to be a defeat for the Prophet had turned into a great advantage, as from the safety of Medina he gained followers and developed the religion, then spread it across the globe. Bin Laden often invoked comparisons between himself and the Prophet, whose work he wished to further. He was in the habit of quoting the Prophet, and he tried modeling his life on his—fasting, worshipping, even dressing accordingly—and making sure people noticed. In bin Laden’s mind, as I deduced from investigating al-Qaeda and its leadership, the appropriate prostration, when combined with rigorous, painstaking attention to public image, served to rally his spirits and those of his followers: his belief in himself grew, and the reverence with which his followers viewed him deepened. Through this combination of inner drive and public adulation he could continue the work that the Prophet had begun.
Al-Qaeda wasn’t starting from scratch in Afghanistan. In Sudan, bin Laden had built al-Qaeda into a global network, and this included setting up training camps and guesthouses across Afghanistan and Pakistan. His operatives had also formed relationships with Pakistani intelligence officials, and they had paved the way for bin Laden to be welcomed by the Taliban.
Bin Laden was curious to meet Mullah Omar, his new host and the leader of the Taliban. He didn’t know what Omar looked like; he was something of a recluse, and, as the Taliban had banned photography, no photographs had ever been taken of him, or at least none that were publicly available. He did know that Omar was blind in one eye—he had lost his sight while fighting with the mujahideen against the Soviets and their supporters.
Bin Laden was also eager to obtain a greater understanding of the Taliban itself. They had sprung seemingly out of nowhere in 1994 and had quickly imposed, on the parts of the country under their control, an interpretation of Islam based more on Pashtun tribal rituals than on religious tradition. All forms of entertainment were banned: television, sports—even, famously, kite flying. Girls’ schools were closed down, and women were not allowed out of their homes. Men without beards were arrested. The strictures amounted to a form of religious extremism unprecedented in Afghanistan, where religious tolerance had prevailed historically. The majority of the Muslim population in Afghanistan belong to the Sunni Hanafi sect, which is considered the most liberal of the four schools of law in Sunni Islam; most of the rest are Shiites.
Named after its founder, Imam Abu Hanifa, Hanafi jurisprudence is known for its use of reason in legal opinions, and for its decentralized decision making. These two traits helped make Hanafis into the most tolerant of Sunnis, and explain the historical coexistence and mutual prosperity of Sunnis and other Muslims, as well as Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews.
The shift in Afghanistan came with the Soviet jihad (1979–1989), when Saudi money came pouring into the country and, with these funds, clerics who espoused the far more unyielding Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism, the dominant form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, is seen either as indistinguishable from Salafi Islam (the name means “forefather,” and practice is ideally based on unadulterated, centuries-old principles) or as a more strictly fundamentalist branch of Salafiya. As more and more Wahhabi clerics gained influence, Wahhabism began to spread among Pashtuns. Particularly vulnerable and susceptible to its precepts were the illiterate and the poor, many of whom simply followed what the clerics told them. When Wahhabism mixed with the takfiri ideology popularized by Qutb, intolerance and extremism resulted, and the jihadi Salafi movement was born.
The appeal of an alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda was also based on a shared connection to (or, perhaps more accurately, a manipulation of) traditional Wahhabism. The Taliban had imposed their Pashtun tribal code, Pashtunwali, on the areas they controlled, and then labeled those laws Sharia law. In reality their pre-Islamic tribal laws, while having become infused with elements of Islam over the ages, did not accurately represent Islamic Sharia. The Taliban also lacked the Islamic scholars and jurisprudence to support what they were doing. Wahhabism, with its reverence for old traditions and ancient moral conduct, was the closest form of Islam to the Taliban’s religious interpretations, and so they relied on Wahhabi scholars for religious justification.
Al-Qaeda claims to be a Wahhabi group, and it mixes traditional Wahhabism with Salafi and takfiri ideas—popular among jihadists—to create its own brand of terror. With both al-Qaeda and the Taliban claiming similar interpretations of Islam, an alliance between them in many ways was a natural theological marriage. Of course, al-Qaeda and the Taliban practice versions of radical Islam that are very different from each other. Al-Qaeda, for example, doesn’t subjugate women to the same extent as the Taliban. And both al-Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s forms of Islam are very different from traditional Wahhabism as practiced in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, it took the victorious mujahideen another three years to topple the Soviet-backed dictator President Muhammad Najibullah. Various mujahideen commanders now in charge subsequently took control of different parts of the country, and most ordinary fighters returned home; others went to madrassas to study Islam. The fighters who returned home eventually saw that the mujahideen commanders were as corrupt as the regime they had replaced, and that true Islam, as they understood it from the standpoint of their Saudi-funded madrassas, was not being practiced or enforced. Groups of fighters, led by Mullah Omar, the leader of one small madrassa, began to come together with the idea of taking control of the country.
They called themselves the Taliban, from talib, meaning “student,” particularly a student of Islam. Supported by Pakistan and endorsed by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Taliban groups began growing in size and imposing their ultrastrict version of Islam. It was not a coincidence that the leaders of the Taliban came from the most uneducated and backward of Pashtun tribes. In Mullah Omar’s town, for example, girls had never had any schools in the first place.
As the Taliban gained control of more and more parts of the country, it began hosting radical Islamist groups from across the world, inviting them to use Afghanistan as a base. One such group was al-Qaeda. Worldwide reaction to the gradual takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban was decidedly mixed. The United States initially supported the Taliban, which was seen as a barrier to the Shiite Iranian expansion in Afghanistan, and U.S. officials also welcomed the Taliban’s opposition to the drug trade. The fact that the Taliban was religiously intolerant—infamously destroying (together with al-Qaeda) two sixth-century Buddhas carved into a cliff in central Afghanistan—and were oppressive to women was not enough to change U.S. policy.
When the Taliban captured Kandahar in April 1996, Mullah Omar removed the rarely seen eighteenth-century Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad from the mosque in which it resides, showing it to the assembled crowd as part of an effort to demonstrate that he had been ordained by God to lead Afghanistan. His followers named him Amir al-Mu’minin, “commander of the faithful”—the emir of the country.
The Taliban took Kabul on September 26, 1996, and their first action was to capture Muhammad Najibullah, who had been driven from power and was living in a United Nations compound. They castrated the former president, dragged his body around the city tied to a jeep, shot him, and hanged him and his brother from a pole. The action brought forth a stream of recruits from madrassas, including those in Pakistan.
The largest grouping of opponents of the Taliban was the Northern Alliance, led by the charismatic mujahideen general Ahmed Shah Massoud. Called the Lion of Panjshir after the valley in which he was born (Panjshir means “valley of five lions”), Massoud, a Tajik and a devout Muslim, was one of the most successful commanders fighting the Russians, with numerous victories to his credit. He had also fought the communists in Afghanistan. The Soviets had come to see him as an unbeatable master of guerrilla warfare. However, Massoud’s weakness was that he was a poor diplomat, and the fact that he was a Tajik in a tribal society with a Pashtun majority prevented his rise to power before the Taliban came to dominate the country—and prevented would-be allies from joining the Northern Alliance. Nonetheless, many in the West eventually came to see him as the best hope in stopping the Taliban.
“Brothers, listen to me, I have something important to say.” Muhannad bin Attash stood up and raised his hands in the air to silence the young men who had been chatting among themselves. They fell silent and turned to face him. It was mid-1996, and they were gathered at an al-Qaeda–funded guesthouse on October Street in Sanaa, where young men in the neighborhood sympathetic to the radical jihad movement frequently gathered. Muhannad first reminded his audience of the heroics of the previous generation of mujahideen who had expelled the Russians from Afghanistan, and then, having sufficiently riled them up, told them that their opportunity had now come. He had, he continued, an important message from Osama bin Laden for them.
By this point the young men were listening intently. Muhannad was a persuasive speaker, and bin Laden was well known and admired for his role in the first Soviet jihad. Most of the young fighters were not newcomers to jihad, having served in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Bosnia. Once again the enemy was the Russians, Muhannad said. And this time Russia had sent fighters into Tajikistan—to take control of that country and from there expand further into Muslim lands. The young men asked Muhannad how they could help Sheikh Osama counter the Russians. Muhannad replied that he was traveling the next day to Afghanistan to see bin Laden and would send back instructions.
Muhannad returned to Afghanistan, accompanied by another al-Qaeda member, Sa’ad al-Madani, later a bin Laden bodyguard. The two men went to see the al-Qaeda leader at the Jalalabad training camp. Muhannad had known bin Laden for most of his life. Their fathers had been friends growing up in Yemen, and Muhannad’s father had sent Muhannad to fight with bin Laden; he had soon become one of his most trusted aides.
Muhannad reported to bin Laden that he had the recruits that the al-Qaeda leader had asked him to find.
When bin Laden returned to Afghanistan from Sudan, his terrorist organization was in bad shape. Not only had the forced move from Sudan damaged morale, but funds were severely depleted, and, even more importantly, new recruits were not lining up. The death of Abu Ubaidah on Lake Victoria, too, had left a hole.
There was no shortage of young Muslims willing to engage in jihad. Many had been inspired by the Afghan jihad against the Soviets and by the theological arguments put forward by leaders like Abdullah Azzam to fight “oppressors” in Bosnia and Chechnya. They traveled to those places through the same infrastructure that supported the Afghan jihad—the recruitment channels, funding, NGOs, and travel facilitators were all still in place. The problem was that al-Qaeda’s jihad was nontraditional, and most young Muslim fighters didn’t relate to it. Their definition of the obligation of jihad centered on physically righting wrongs and expelling aggressors who were actually occupying Muslim lands or oppressing Muslims. According to this thinking, the first Afghan war was justified because the Soviet Union had invaded Muslim lands. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya because they were told that Muslim women and children were being raped and slaughtered.
The idea of a secret war of terrorism was unfamiliar to them. (Egyptians, through Zawahiri and others, were the only ones truly familiar with this type of war and its theological justifications.) The broad goal of fighting America didn’t make sense to the young fighters. What Muslim lands was America occupying? What crimes was America perpetrating against Muslims? These were the questions young men asked al-Qaeda recruiters. Their past experience with America had been positive—the United States had been on the side of Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya.
Bin Laden realized that to rope these young men in, he needed to create a traditional enemy for them to fight. The Tajik militants fighting the Russians at the time announced that they would welcome new fighters. Providing conventional battles and an enemy would surely bring some of the former mujahideen and veterans of the Bosnian and Chechnyan wars back to Afghanistan: the land of jihad, as bin Laden loved to call it.
After discussing details with bin Laden, Muhannad sent a fax to the guesthouse in Sanaa about two weeks following his and Sa’ad al-Madani’s return to Afghanistan, instructing the emir in Sanaa to inform those who had been present when he had spoken that the Tajik front “was open for jihad.” He provided directions for those wishing to join him at the front. Among the young men who would heed the call to arms was Abu Jandal.
Later in 1996, forty fighters showed up in Taloqan, Afghanistan, which served as the base camp for the Tajik jihad. Most of the forty were from the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen and Saudi Arabia); two were from Pakistan. The Tajik contingent called themselves Katibat al-Shimal, literally “the Northern Battalion” but known as the Northern Group (not to be confused with the Northern Alliance) because of the location of their operations: in the north of Afghanistan, near the Tajik border. Muhannad introduced the new fighters to the leader of the group, Hamza al-Ghamdi, standing unnoticed in their midst. When he came forward, a hush fell over the group: Hamza was a legend in Afghanistan from the first Soviet war. He had fought many storied battles against the Soviets; in the 1987 Battle of Jaji, in Jalalabad, he, bin Laden, and fifty mujahideen were said to have held off two hundred Soviet Spetsnaz. Hamza was muscular and strong and loved to wrestle.
He trained the new recruits hard, and they gained deep respect for his skill and commitment. Once he deemed them ready, the group moved to Badakhshan, which served as a staging area before the entry into Tajikistan. They settled outside the city of Fayzabad; Hamza knew its Afghan military commander, Khirad Mand, from the first Afghan jihad, and Mand agreed to give the Northern Group his protection. A week later they marched toward Tajikistan. It was snowing when they arrived at the border, making it impossible for them to travel any further, so they set up camp there for the night.
The next morning they were visited by Abdullah Noori, the leader of the Tajik mujahideen and of Hizb Wahdat Islami, a Tajik Islamic party. Abdullah Noori addressed the fighters. “Thank you for coming. We are honored that you are helping us. We need you to remain here for now while my Tajiks scout the area for Russians. My men are more familiar with the terrain and are less likely to be spotted and captured.”
Hamza agreed to the plan. Eight hours later Noori returned to announce that his scouts had found Russians stationed at the border and that entering Tajikistan would be prohibitively dangerous. They would have to wait until the Russians moved on. Asked how long that would take, Noori replied, “Days, or even weeks, we don’t know.” The Northern Group settled in uncertainly.
One evening Hamza summoned Salim Hamdan, a promising recruit. “We can’t stay here much longer,” he told the young man. “Our group members are having problems with the local Afghanis. They keep demanding more money, weapons, and supplies from us. We keep giving them things, and they keep asking for more. We worry that if we don’t give them what they want, they’ll try to hand us over to the Russians.”
Hamdan was considered trustworthy and honest. Hamza told him, “I need you to travel to Fayzabad and tell Khirad Mand what is going on.” The Afghan military commander who had given the new mujahideen his protection had not accompanied them.
Hamdan did as he was told, returning two days later. “Mand says we should leave this area,” he told Hamza, “and if we go to Fayzabad, he’ll give us his protection.” Hamza agreed that they had to leave. They traveled back to Taloqan and then went to Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan, where they stayed at a Tajik refugee camp, one of several set up for those fleeing the civil war. Their aim was to get to Jalalabad or Kabul. The main routes, however, were cut off, as the Taliban and the Northern Alliance were engaged in heavy fighting.
Hamza contacted a Northern Alliance commander he knew from the Soviet jihad; the commander helped the new fighters leave, and they eventually made it to Kabul. Hamza, Hamdan, and another operative, known as Qutaybah, stayed behind at the border to tie up loose ends. They then boarded a Northern Alliance helicopter in Taloqan and flew to the Panjshir Valley.
In Kabul, the young Northern Group fighters fell into a period of disgruntlement and began assailing Muhannad with questions about the purpose of their being in Afghanistan. They had several legitimate gripes: that they had come to fight but were instead running; that they had come to engage the Tajiks in battle but that that conflict appeared to have ended; and that they did not wish to get caught in an Afghani civil war.
“Brothers, I understand your frustration,” Muhannad told the young men, “but before you go home, I want you to meet Sheikh Osama. He has specifically asked to see ‘the brothers of the Northern Group.’ You’ve come all this way—at least hear what this great jihadist has to say.”
The al-Qaeda leader hosted them at his Jihad Wal training camp, where he and his top associates, Abu Hafs al-Masri, Saif al-Adel, and Saleh (by now using the alias Abu Mohammed al-Masri), greeted them and explained al-Qaeda’s goals. Bin Laden spoke of what was going on in Saudi Arabia: “the plundering of oil by the Americans and their imperialist plans to occupy the Arabian Peninsula and the Holy Lands.”
Of the forty fighters, twenty-three members of the group left the training camp to return home. Abu Jandal, who remained, explained to me years later: “The brothers from the Northern Group are fighters who fight the enemy face-to-face. They don’t understand bin Laden’s war and the new jihad, so they went home.”
For three days the remaining members of the group listened as bin Laden presented them with news clippings and BBC documentaries designed to convince them that the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula was an “occupation.” “You therefore have a duty to expel the infidels from the peninsula, as the Prophet has ordered,” bin Laden told them. He said that if they had any additional questions, they should address Muhannad. The problem was that a degree of unease had begun to infiltrate the group, with certain members having grown suspicious of Muhannad. They had come to realize that Muhannad was much closer to bin Laden than they had previously understood. Muhannad told those who consulted him that bin Laden’s jihad was just, and that they—Arabs from the Gulf—needed to ensure that Egyptians who had surrounded bin Laden didn’t run al-Qaeda.
Jihad meant different things to different fighters. The Egyptians had what they viewed as jihad back home: assassinations and bombs to try to topple their government. Others, who had fought in Bosnia, Somalia, and Chechnya, saw the Egyptian version of “jihad” as terrorism; to them, jihad meant fighting face-to-face.
Eventually all of the remaining fighters agreed to pledge bayat, or allegiance, to bin Laden. A few offered only a conditional bayat, agreeing to join al-Qaeda and fight America with the proviso that if a jihad effort with a clearer justification existed on another front, they would be free to join that instead.
In addition to Abu Jandal, among the members of the Northern Group who joined al-Qaeda at this time were Walid bin Attash (a younger brother of Muhannad’s), whose nom de guerre was Khallad; Abdul Rahim Hussein Muhammad Abda al-Nashiri; Salim Hamdan; Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali; and Jaffar al-Hada. Not only Abu Jandal but all of the rest of this group were fighters bin Laden had privately marked as future key operatives. Their names became central to the subsequent al-Qaeda attacks on the embassies in Africa, the USS Cole bombing, and 9/11.
In mid-1996, a few weeks before bin Laden had departed for Afghanistan, Madani al-Tayyib had called Jamal al-Fadl into his office in Khartoum. Since the uranium job, Fadl had continued to handle missions for al-Qaeda. He walked into Tayyib’s office with his usual big smile. “As-Salamu Alaykum. Brother, how are you?”
“Wa Alaykum as-Salam,” Tayyib replied without a smile.
“What’s wrong?” Fadl asked.
“I want to speak to you about a serious matter. Somebody told me that you’re taking a commission on our goods that you are selling.” One of Fadl’s jobs at the time was to sell goods al-Qaeda produced to local businesses.
“That’s not true.”
“Somebody very reliable told us that you are.”
“I’m not,” Fadl replied. “Have them bring evidence. It’s a lie!”
Fadl was taken to a meeting with more al-Qaeda officials. Again Tayyib confronted him, and again Fadl denied it.
“Look, Jamal, a guy named Fazhil who you do business with—you know him, right?” Fadl nodded. “He told someone, who told us, that you take a commission.”
Confronted with more evidence, Fadl relented. “Okay,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m sorry, I did take a commission.” He had been charging local businesses a commission in exchange for selling them al-Qaeda’s goods, netting himself around $110,000.
“I must say that we cannot believe you did this. You were one of the first people to join al-Qaeda. How could you steal from us?”
Fadl’s face went red and he stared at the floor to avoid the look of condemnation in Tayyib’s eyes. “Please forgive me,” he said. “I will try my best to get the money back.”
“What should we tell bin Laden? He knows you swore bayat to him. We know that you’re basically a good person, and that you fought hard in Afghanistan. Why do you need the money?”
“The truth is that we are working hard, but the Egyptians are earning more money than the rest of us,” Fadl replied. His reply was a reflection of the constant tension in al-Qaeda between Egyptians, who dominated leadership positions and who were therefore paid more than other operatives, and members from elsewhere. Many of the Egyptians came with more experience, which is why they were higher up in the group. There was general resentment over the perceived inequity.
“That’s no excuse to steal.”
Fadl returned to Tayyib with about a quarter of the money he owed. The rest he had already spent, buying land for his sister and for himself. He had also bought a car. When he confessed to Tayyib that he could not come up with the remainder of the money, Tayyib told him that he needed to speak to bin Laden.
The al-Qaeda leader had been briefed on the matter. “I don’t care about the money,” bin Laden told him. “I care about you. You were with us from the start in Afghanistan. We give you a salary, we give you everything. When you travel we give you extra money. We pay your medical bills. So why do you need to steal?”
“For the reasons we have spoken about before, Abu Abdallah—because the Egyptians get more money than the rest of us, and they joined al-Qaeda later. It’s not fair.”
“That’s still no reason to steal,” bin Laden replied. “If you need the money you can always come to us. You can say, ‘I want a house’ or ‘I want a car’—and we’d give it to you. But you didn’t do that. You just stole the money.”
“I’m sorry, and I’ve given back what I have left, but I don’t have any more. I ask for your forgiveness and hope that you can grant it, and that you can accept my apology. I did my best, and I wish to remain a member of al-Qaeda.”
“There’s no forgiveness until you bring all of the money back,” bin Laden replied. The two men had arrived at a stalemate: Fadl continued to maintain that the salary scale was biased, and bin Laden argued that if he forgave Fadl, other members of the organization would think that it was all right to steal as long as they sought forgiveness.
Finding himself in a bind, Fadl walked into an American embassy in one of the countries in the Horn of Africa. He waited in a line for visa applications, and when he got to the front of the line, he was was greeted by a female clerk. “I don’t want a visa,” Fadl said, “but I have some information for you about people who want to do something against your government.”
The woman hesitated, unsure what to do. A brief conversation ensued, and she explained to Fadl that she would bring the issue to a colleague. She disappeared to another part of the embassy. Twenty minutes later she returned and asked Fadl to come into an inner office to resume the conversation.
“I was in Afghanistan,” Fadl began, “and I work with a group that is trying to make war against your country. They are trying very hard to do this. Maybe war inside the United States or maybe against the U.S. Army outside. They also are planning to bomb an embassy.”
The clerk asked Fadl how he had come by this information. “I worked with them for more than nine years,” Fadl said, “and now I’ve left the group. If you help me, I’ll tell you everything you need.” She asked Fadl where he was living, and he explained that he was living in a hotel and gave her the address.
“Don’t leave the hotel,” the clerk instructed him. “Stay out of sight.” She left the room to obtain cash for Fadl. “Here’s some money to keep you going,” she told him.
Fadl returned to the embassy a few days later and met with the same clerk. She had more questions and was trying, he sensed, to verify that he was a credible source. He answered all of her questions, and she asked him to return later that week, which he did, meeting more officials. Eventually Fadl met with Dan Coleman and two assistant U.S. attorneys from the Southern District of New York, Patrick Fitzgerald and Kenneth Karas.
Originally he didn’t tell them why he had left al-Qaeda, but he gave them enough information for them to determine that he could be believed. He returned to the embassy repeatedly for further questioning. About two weeks into the process, his interlocutors told him that they knew he had committed some offense in Sudan, and that if Fadl could not tell them what it was, they couldn’t trust him. Assuming that they must have somehow found out about the money he had been skimming off the top of his deals with local businesses, he sheepishly confessed, and with that he opened up: telling his questioners, in great detail, about an organization called al-Qaeda, its structure, its leaders, its members, and its operations.
Being back in Afghanistan reconnected bin Laden to the “golden chain” of money from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere that had once funded the mujahideen and that now was funding the Taliban in the same way. Funding rippled out to al-Qaeda through Taliban channels, but bin Laden reactivated his own connection to the network. In this way he was able, beginning in 1996, to begin adding to his Afghani bases, buying construction equipment to help him build caves and facilities; he also continued to build his operations around the world. The cash that poured in from sympathetic Saudis, in particular, enabled him to make deeper inroads into countries such as Albania and Yemen, as well as into London.
Bin Laden’s oath of loyalty to Mullah Omar, which by 1997 had become public knowledge, gave al-Qaeda freedom of movement, allowing the group to use the Afghani national airline to transport money, weapons, and operatives, and relieving them of any worries about crossing controlled borders. Bin Laden in turn provided money to the Taliban, and among the gifts he lavished on Mullah Omar was a house for him and his family.
Bin Laden promised the Taliban that he would keep a low profile, but soon he was attracting attention, notably following his March 1997 interview with Peter Arnett on CNN. Shortly after, Mullah Omar had bin Laden moved to Kandahar, where he himself was headquartered, so that he could keep a closer watch on him.
The CNN interview was bin Laden’s first television appearance, and questions were submitted in advance. When asked about criticisms he had made of the Saudi royal family, he accused them of being “but a branch or an agent of the U.S.,” and he spoke about his jihad against America. The Saudis were furious—especially so because they were funding the Taliban—and Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, director general of al-Mukhabarat al-Aamah, the Saudi Arabian intelligence agency, received a promise from Mullah Omar on behalf of the Taliban that bin Laden would be expelled.
On February 23, 1998, al-Qaeda issued its second fatwa declaring war against the United States:
The Arabian Peninsula has never—since God made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas—been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. . . . For over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples. . . . The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [the Grand Mosque] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God: “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.”
“Enough about al-Qaeda,” Jamal al-Fadl said to me one day after we had spent the morning talking about bin Laden at an FBI safe house, “let’s play soccer.” He had a big grin and the look of a little kid. Soon after he had agreed to cooperate, Fadl had been moved to the United States and put into the Witness Protection Program. He became known to the U.S. intelligence community as “Junior” and was a source of extensive information for us.
Before he arrived, we had little understanding of what exactly al-Qaeda was and how it operated. Even in 1997, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center described bin Laden as an “extremist financier.” It was information that Fadl told us that enabled the United States to credibly indict bin Laden in 1998. He explained the organization’s structure, cover businesses, and the entire network from its inception until 1996, the day he walked into the U.S. Embassy in the Horn of Africa.
Junior, to my initial surprise, didn’t seem to be religious. Nonwork conversations focused on money, women, and soccer. Fadl was born in 1963 in Ruffa, Sudan, and had lived in the United States. He had worked at al-Farouq Mosque, helping Mustafa Shalabi raise funds for Afghanistan. On Shalabi’s recommendation he had traveled to Afghanistan to fight, picked up the alias Abu Bakr Sudani, and joined al-Qaeda—becoming only the third member of the organization, he claimed.
I met Junior only a few times; he was primarily handled by my fellow FBI agents Mike Anticev (John Anticev’s brother) and Mike Driscoll, who had the tough job of managing him: Junior’s taste for the good life made it difficult, at times, to keep him under control. At one point he tried to coach a local girls’ soccer team, and another time, while he was meant to be hiding his identity, he told a state trooper who’d pulled him over for speeding that he knew Osama bin Laden. Dan Coleman also had to weigh in as a father figure to push Junior to do the right thing.
All the trouble was worth it. The information Junior gave the FBI on al-Qaeda included details of its setup, payroll, and banking networks, even its travel warnings: don’t dress like a Muslim (wear Western clothes and shave your head); carry cologne and cigarettes. It was also Junior who outlined the story of al-Qaeda’s efforts to purchase the bogus uranium.
Eight months before September 11, 2001, Junior appeared as a key prosecution witness in federal court in Manhattan in the trial of various al-Qaeda members, including Wadih el-Hage, accused of involvement in the 1998 East African embassy bombings. He explained to the judge and jury what he had told Dan Coleman and the prosecutors years earlier—how al-Qaeda operated, what he did for them, what the front companies were, and the individuals he knew.
The U.S. government’s indictment of bin Laden, informed largely by intelligence gained from Junior, had been secured almost three years earlier: on June 10, 1998, bin Laden was charged with being the leader of a terrorist organization and with planning, and taking part in, terrorist activities. On November 4, 1998, the indictment was unsealed and updated to include the East African embassy bombings.
While the United States was thus pursuing bin Laden, he continued to be a cause of concern to Saudi Arabia. He had persisted in publicly criticizing the Saudi government, and he supported terrorist acts against the kingdom. In the spring of 1998, Prince Turki, on behalf of Saudi Arabia, had asked the Taliban to expel bin Laden. According to Turki, Mullah Omar agreed. The promise, however, wasn’t kept.