It's a claim you can read almost everywhere: bin Ladin was trained and funded by the CIA.
This claim is repeated so often, and in so many places, that you'd be forgiven for thinking that everyone accepted it. And the only difference was that some believe the original relationship ended long ago, while others say it continued up to 9/11, and beyond. This isn't true, though. Hard evidence (as opposed to unsourced assertions) for any such relationship between bin Ladin and the CIA is distinctly limited, while there are plenty of people around who say any such links were indirect, at best.
Take Jason Burke, for instance, a major contributor to the BBC documentary "The Power of Nightmares". In his book "Al Qaeda", he wrote the following:
It is often said that bin Ladin was funded by the CIA. This is not true, and indeed it would have been impossible given the structure of funding that General Zia ul-Haq, who had taken power in Pakistan in 1977, had set up. A condition of Zia's cooperation with the American plan to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet's 'Vietnam' was that all American funding to the Afghan resistance had to be channeled through the Pakistani government, which effectively meant the Afghan bureau of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), the military spy agency.
The American funding, which went exclusively to the Afghan mujahideen groups, not the Arab volunteers [bin Ladin's groups], was supplemented by Saudi government money and huge funds raised from mosques, non-governmental charitable institutions and private donors throughout the Islamic world. Most of the major Gulf-based charities operating today were founded at this time to raise money or channel government funds to the Afghans, civilians and fighters. In fact, as little as 25 per cent of the monet for the Afghan jihad was actually supplied directly by states.
Page 59, Al Qaeda: The true story of radical Islam
Steve Coll, former Managing Editor of the Washington Post, also suggests bin Ladin passed largely unnoticed by the CIA, in his book "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001":
In a Q&A session following the release of his book, Coll said:
Peter Bergen expanded on the supposed CIA/ bin Ladin links in his book, Holy War Inc:
But were the CIA and the Afghan Arabs in cahoots, as recent studies have suggested? One author charges: "The CIA had funded and trained the Afghan Arabs during the war". Another refers to "the central role of the CIA's Muslim mercenaries, including upwards of 2,000 mercenaries in the Afghanistan war". Both authors present these claims as axioms, but provide no real corroboration.
Other commentators have reported that bin Ladin himself was aided by the CIA. A report in the respected British newspaper The Guardian states: "In 1986 the CIA even helped him [bin Ladin] build an underground camp at Khost [Afghanistan] where he was to train recruits from across the Islamic world in the revolutionary art of jihad"...Bin Ladin, meanwhile, had expoused anti-American positions since 1982, and thanks to the fortune derived from his family's giant construction business had little need of CIA money. In fact, the underground camp at Khost was built in 1982 by an Afghan commander, with Arab funding.
A source familiar with bin Ladin's organisation explains that bin Ladin "never had any relations with America or American officials... He was saying very early in the 1980's that the next battle is going to be with America... No aid or training or other support have ever been given to bin Ladin from Americans." A senior offical unequivocally says that "bin Ladin never met with the CIA."
While the charges that the CIA was responsible for the rise of the Afghan Arabs might make good copy, they don't make good history. The truth is more complicated, tinged with varying shades of grey. The United States wanted to be able to deny that the CIA was funding the Afghan war, so its support was funneled through Pakistan's military intelligence agency, Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI). ISI in turn made the decisions about which Afghan factions to arm and train, tending to fund the most Islamist and pro-Pakistan. The Afghan Arabs generally fought alongside those factions, which is how the charge arose that they were creatures of the CIA.
Former CIA officer Milt Bearden, who ran the Agency's Afghan operation in the late 1980's, says: "The CIA did not recruit Arabs," as there was no need to do so. There were hundreds of thousands of Afghans all too willing to fight...
Moreover, the Afghan Arabs demonstrated a pathological dislike of Westerners. Jouvenal says: "I always kept away from Arabs [in Afghanistan]. They were very hostile. They would ask, 'What are you doing in an Islamic country?" The BBC reporter John Simpson had a close call with bin Ladin himself outside Jalalabad in 1989. Travelling with a group of Arab mujahideen, Simpson and his television crew bumped into an Arab man beautifully dressed in spotless white robes; the man began shouting at Simpson's escorts to kill the infidels, then offered a truck driver the not unreasonable sum of five hundred dollars to do the job. Simpson's Afghan escort turned down the request, and bin Ladin was to be found later on a camp bed, weeping in frustration. Only when bin Ladin became a public figure, almost a decade later, did Simpson realise who the mysterious Arab was who had wanted him dead.
Page 67/68, Holy War Inc,
This level of hostility to Westerners doesn't suggest a warm working relationship with the US, and there's some confirmation in a story retold by Richard Miniter:
...the handful of Americans who had heard of bin Ladin in the 1980's knew him mainly for his violently anti-American views. Dana Rohrabacher, now a Republican congressman from Orange County, California, told me about a trip he took with the mujihideen in 1987. At the time, Rohrabacher was a Reagan aide who delighted in taking long overland trips inside Afghanistan with anti-Communist forces. On one such trek, his guide told him not to speak English for the next few hours because they were passing by bin Ladin's encampment. Rohrabacher was told, "If he hears an American, he will kill you."
Page 16, Disinformation
bin Ladin was himself asked about US funding by Robert Fisk:
And Ayman al-Zawahiri, second-in-command of al Qaeda, explains more in his text "Knights under the Prophet's Banner". Here he claims the "Afghan Arabs" had plenty of funding from various Arab sources, and points to other indications that they never supported the US:
"While the United States backed Pakistan and the mujahidin factions with money and equipment, the young Arab mujahidin's relationship with the United States was totally different.
"Indeed the presence of those young Arab Afghans in Afghanistan and their increasing numbers represented a failure of US policy and new proof of the famous US political stupidity. The financing of the activities of the Arab mujahidin in Afghanistan came from aid sent to Afghanistan by popular organizations. It was substantial aid. "The Arab mujahidin did not confine themselves to financing their own jihad but also carried Muslim donations to the Afghan mujahidin themselves. Usama Bin Ladin has apprised me of the size of the popular Arab support for the Afghan mujahidin that amounted, according to his sources, to $200 million in the form of military aid alone in 10 years.
Imagine how much aid was sent by popular Arab organizations in the non-military fields such as medicine and health, education and vocational training, food, and social assistance (including sponsorship of orphans, widows, and the war handicapped. Add to all this the donations that were sent on special occasions such as Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha feasts and during the month of Ramadan."
"Through this unofficial popular support, the Arab mujahidin established training centers and centers for the call to the faith. They formed fronts that trained and equipped thousands of Arab mujahidin and provided them with living expenses, housing, travel, and organization."
Changing Bin Ladin's Guard
About the Afghan Arabs' relationship with the United States, Al-Zawahiri says in his book: "If the Arab mujahidin are mercenaries of the United States who rebelled against it as it alleges, why is it unable to buy them back now? Are they not counted now-with Usama Bin Ladin at their head-as the primary threat to US interests? Is not buying them more economical and less costly that the astronomical budgets that the United States is allotting for security and defense?"
"The Americans, in their usual custom of exaggeration and superficiality, are trying to sell off illusions to the people and are ignoring the most basic facts. Is it possible that Usama Bin Ladin who, in his lectures in the year 1987, called for boycotting US goods as a form of support for the intifadah in Palestine, a US agent in Afghanistan? ...
"Furthermore, is it possible that the martyr-as we regard him-Abdallah Azzam was a US collaborator when in fact he never stopped inciting young men against the United States and used to back HAMAS with all the resources at his disposal?
"Is it possible that the jihadist movement in Egypt can be a collaborator movement for the United States when Khalid al-Islambuli and his comrades killed Anwar al-Sadat, even before the phenomenon of the Arab mujahidin in Afghanistan emerged?"
"Is it possible that the jihadist movement in Egypt can be a US collaborator movement when in fact it brought up its children, ever since the movement started, to reject Israel and all the agreements of capitulation to it and to consider making peace with Israel as a contravention of Islamic Shari'ah?" Web Archive source
Richard Miniter has a little more on this in "Dispelling the CIA-Bin Ladin Myth", and while you may not exactly trust the source, there were further comments worth at least a look on the US State Department's old “Identifying Misinformation” site.
[NOTE: We’re aware that this page is just scratching the surface of what is a substantial, and hotly-disputed topic. It will be expanded in the future, as time allows]
There are plenty of people who think the supposed bin Laden/ CIA links are overblown or entirely fictitious, then. But what if you've read something like this?
The claim looks like it's taken straight from this November/ December 2001 International Socialist Review piece:
However, there's a distinct lack of any references for this claim, which should automatically make you suspicious. So we went searching. We found nothing relevant in the Boston Globe archives, however this personal site seems to be hosting a relevant New York Times story:
October 16, 2001 - New York Times
U.S. Sent Guns to bin Laden in 1980s
WASHINGTON (AP) -- More than a decade ago, the U.S. government sent 25 high-powered
sniper rifles to a group of Muslim fighters in Afghanistan that included Osama bin Laden, according to
court testimony and the guns' maker.
The rifles, made by Barrett Firearms Manufacturing Inc. of Murfreesboro, Tenn., and paid for by the
government, were shipped during the collaboration between the United States and Muslims then
fighting to drive the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.
Experts doubt the weapons could still be used, but the transaction further accentuates how Americans
are fighting an enemy that U.S. officials once supported and liberally armed.
In a trial early this year of suspects in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, Essam Al-Ridi, identified as a former pilot for bin Laden, said he shipped the weapons in 1989 to Sheik Abdallah Azzam, bin Laden's ideological mentor. The weapons had range-finding equipment and night-vision scopes.
During the late 1980s, the United States supplied arms worth $500 million a year to anti-Soviet
fighters including Afghanistan's current Taliban rulers, bin Laden and others. The supplies included a
range of weapons from small arms to shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
Al-Ridi, an American citizen born in Egypt, testified that Azzam liked the rifles because they could be
"carried by individuals so it's made in such a way where you could have a heavy cannon but mobile
by an individual."
While in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al-Ridi said he saw bin Laden several times with Azzam.
Ronnie Barrett, president of Barrett Firearms, likened sale of the .50-caliber armor-piercing rifles to
the supply of the Stinger surface-to-air missiles given to anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan.
"Barrett rifles were picked up by U.S. government trucks, shipped to U.S. government bases and
shipped to those Afghan freedom fighters," Barrett said.
The sale was publicized by the Violence Policy Center, gun-control advocates who want for more
restrictions on the sale of high-powered weapons such as the specialized Barrett exports.
"These .50-caliber sniper rifles are ideal tools for terror and assassination," VPC analyst Tom Diaz said... http://www.bartcop.com/117guns.htm
Barrett here says this was a US government operation, however Essam Al-Ridi said he shipped them, and doesn't talk of any assistance at all. Is this a contradiction? Al-Ridi's trial testimony reveals more, beginning with another item he shipped:
Al-Ridi was in the US. He sent them the goggles as passenger luggage with Wadih el Hage, who 3 or 4 years later would work as bin Laden's personal secretary. Did the US really sent equipment to Afghanistan in suitcases, one set of items at a time? That's hard to believe. But if this is a freelance, amateur effort then it all fits very well.
Here's what al-Ridi has to say about the rifles:
17 Q. What else did you ship?
18 A. I shipped Barrett rifles, 50 calibers.
19 Q. B-A-R-R-E-T-T. How many of those did you ship?
20 A. 25.
21 Q. And so we're clear, did Wadih El Hage have anything to do
22 with that transaction?
23 A. No.
24 Q. And can you tell us what a 50 caliber rifle is?
25 A. This is supposed to be a heavy caliber, but the advantage
1 of it is carried by individuals so it's made in such a way
2 where you could have a heavy cannon, but mobile by an
3 individual. That's basically it. And it's very compatible to
4 the Russian caliber 12.7.
5 Q. And, again, was it your understanding that these weapons
6 were to be used in the jihad against the Russians in
8 A. Yes, of course.
9 Q. Now, did you ever see the rifles in Afghanistan yourself?
10 A. Yes.
11 Q. Can you tell us how it came to be that you saw the rifles
12 in Afghanistan?
13 A. How what, sir?
14 Q. How did it happen that you were in Afghanistan and you saw
15 these rifles?
16 A. I received a fax of them having difficulty sighting the
17 scopes on the rifles, so I was asked --
18 Q. Can you explain what "sighting the scopes" means?
19 A. It's lining the scope with the rifle barrel so whatever
20 you see you'd have a hit. That's as simple as I can put it.
21 Q. So what did you do after you received the fax?
22 A. I planned a trip and I went to Peshawar and sighted the
23 scopes for them.
24 Q. Do you recall approximately what year this was?
25 A. It's the year of it must have been 1989 because that's the
1 same year where Sheik Abdallah was assassinated.
Again, this is "I shipped", not that he used anyone else. al Ridi's amateur status is reinforced by what happened next. From his testimony it seems he was living in the US, yet when there were problems with the rifles, they faxed al Ridi, he flew out to Pakistan and fixed them. Why would the CIA do that, rather than pass the job to local personnel or the Pakistani military? We'd say this only makes sense if al Ridi was part of a much smaller operation.
It could of course be argued that Essam al Ridi is lying, but then that only underscores the point we're making: the trial testimony does not prove a direct bin Laden/ CIA link.
There's still Barrett's statement that "Barrett rifles were picked up by U.S. government trucks, shipped to U.S. government bases and shipped to those Afghan freedom fighters," of course. But does he have any direct evidence of that? Certainly there's no substance to back up his claims here. And the Violence Policy Center expressed their doubts on the issue in a 2002 paper, which began as follows:
Still, let's suppose that's incorrect, and Barrett was right. Even then this doesn't support the original contention that "the CIA shipped high-powered sniper rifles directly to bin Laden's operation".
Barrett's account, for instance, makes no mention of the CIA, or the destination, other than "Afghan freedom fighters".
al-Ridi also fails to mention the CIA, makes it clear he's acting as an intermediary, and that the weapons were going to Abdallah Azzam, not bin Laden. (He and bin Laden were working together, yes, but this is another level of indirection.)
And as there's nothing from either man to show that anyone in the US knew where the weapons were going, beyond Afghanistan (if we accept Barrett knew that), the story makes remarkably poor evidence for a bin Laden/ CIA link.
Read Essam al Ridi's testimony to find out more.
One account of supposed links between bin Laden and the US has him touring the US under a CIA code name, "Tim Osman", as long ago as 1986:
Search online and you'll find this document, which is supposed to offer confirmation:
This is claimed to be an official document produced as the result on an FOIA request, however there are several reasons to doubt that.
First, there's nothing on the document itself to identify where it came from, which agency or department.
Second, the document covers a surprisingly wide area. Why would a document mentioning a bin Laden visit then mention a software upgrade (the PROMIS UPGRADE reference), bringing multiple classified references into one place?
Third, an opening like “Just a simple and continuing reminder of previous USG field reports on file and fully documented” doesn’t make it sound like an official Government record, more someone's text notes.
Fourth, we find it inconceivable that the Government would release this information in 2003. Take another look at this quote from Ghost Wars author Steve Coll:
We're supposed to believe that "CIA officials" would deny "under oath" contacts with bin Laden, however the Government would then release a document like this? Experience tells us that it's incredibly difficult to get anything under FOIA, let alone something as important as this.
Fifth, what was the FOIA request that caused it to be released? We don't see how any single request could uncover all the information in this document. Even if they had been asked about "Tim Osman" and decided to release those details, everything else on that page could have been redacted. So why was every word released?
Sixth, where is the cover letter that came with this page? We haven't seen that, or anything else to support the claim that this was an official release as the result of an FOIA request.
We have our doubts, then. But perhaps we can learn more by looking at Ted Gunderson and Michael Riconosciuto, the two US representatives who were apparently at this meeting.
Gunderson at first appears a good witness, being a former “Senior Special Agent-in-Charge” in Los Angeles up to his retirement in 1979. However, all is not necessarily as it seems. His web site (now dead) hosted all kinds of bizarre articles, on satanism, “sexual child abuse - elite involvement”, “plans for civilian internment”, and more. We’ve no problem with anyone expressing their views, but Gunderson wants to cash in, too: the most interesting claims here (“TERRORISTS' ACTIVITIES: ADVANCED KNOWLEDGE FURNISHED TO THE FBI 6 MONTHS PRIOR TO 9-11!”) were only available to those willing to pay out $10 to $25 for his reports (a Web Archive copy of his "Products-Reports" page).
Further, Gunderson appears to have an uncertain reputation, even amongst the conspiracy community.
See www.stewwebb.com/Ted%20Gunderson.html for more.
What you will discover at the site is Gunderson’s own account of the meeting (much more at the link):
Even if there was a meeting, then, how can we be sure this Osman was bin Laden?
More recently, Gunderson has been making other, ah, extreme claims:
And the Southern Poverty Law Center has a brief biography of Gunderson on their site:
Gunderson's CV may look good, but his credibility right now really isn't.
Perhaps we can learn more from the other participant in the meeting, Michael Riconosciuto. Or perhaps not... The primary article from his point of view appears to be “When Osama Bin Laden was Tim Osman”, and it contains no more hard evidence than you’ll find anywhere else (but don’t take our word for that -- follow the link and find out for yourself).
Riconosciuto’s credibility isn’t enhanced by the fact that he’s been locked up in prison since 1991, after being found guilty of drug offences (charges the above article says were “trumped up”, without offering any support for that), but that’s not our only problem with him. Here’s a timeline detailing some of the claims surrounding Riconosciuto that have been made over the years.
Most of these reports are second-hand, so we can’t be sure that Riconosciuto was behind every claim here. However, if only half of these stories originated with him then it would be enough to make us sceptical of what he’s saying, not least because the Osman story didn’t materialise until after September 11. Why not? bin Ladin had been in the press for years, so why not mention it earlier? Are we supposed to believe that he knew of the 1998 Embassy attacks, but then forgot to mention the US connection to bin Ladin, the supposed culprit? And if Riconosciuto didn’t know Osman was bin Ladin at the time, then how can we be sure he was now?
We’re not the only people who are sceptical of Riconosciuto. Here’s what Chip Berlet wrote back in the 1990’s:
Another oft-cited source in the October Surprise story was Michael Riconosciuto, who provided many tantalizing leads to investigative reporter Danny Casolaro before the free-lancer's death, which was ruled a suicide (see "The Octopus File," CJR, November/December 1991). Riconosciuto claimed to have specialized knowledge in computer science and software design, the kind of knowledge that, he said, made him useful to intelligence operatives. Casolaro was looking into the alleged theft by the Justice department of a privately owned software program called Promis. Riconosciuto offered an explanation: he told Casolaro that someone in the Justice department had given the software to American intelligence operatives for resale to intelligence agencies in Canada and abroad. One form of payment, he told the journalist, was the orchestration of the release of the American hostages being held in Iran.
Riconosciuto went on to weave a tale involving the Cabazon Indian reservation in southern California, purportedly the site of a supersecret research and testing base for weapons of interest to intelligence operatives. Casolaro began to see the reservation as part of a globe-spanning entity of untold power, which he called The Octopus.
Jerry Uhrhammer of the Tacoma, Washington, "Morning News Tribune" was the only reporter to cover Riconosciuto's three-week-long drug trial, held in Tacoma in April 1991. In the July/August 1992 "IRE Journal", Uhrhammer wrote:
"Any reporter who checked the court file prior to Riconosciuto's trial could have found documents that offered a psychiatric explanation for [his] conspiracy tales. Psychiatrists who examined him in 1972, prior to his first drug conviction, portrayed him as a mentally unstable person who had trouble discerning between fact and fiction."
"I have been dismayed and appalled by some articles in which Riconosciuto is quoted as a primary source, if not sole source, in support of some conspiracy theory, but without any warning to the reader that his credibility is suspect or nonexistent."
Free-lance reporter Jonathan Littman spent four months investigating charges regarding the Cabazon Indian reservation, including those circulated by Casolaro, who had been using Riconosciuto as a source. Littman wrote a fascinating three-part series for the "San Francisco Chronicle" on how outsiders were abusing tribal sovereignty. Littman and "Chronicle" reporter Michael Taylor also wrote a story about Riconosciuto's claims about several murders linked to persons associated with the Cabazon reservation. "We had to throw out tons of stuff from Riconosciuto wholesale," says Taylor.http://www.publiceye.org/media/spooky.html
We’re uncertain about the witnesses to this meeting, then. The only document purporting to show that “Tim Osman” was bin Ladin is unsourced, as far as we can see. And even if we take the story as literally true, it doesn’t offer strong support for the common “bin Ladin was trained by/ funded by the CIA”. claims. In fact Gunderson’s account has him picked to meet Osman exactly because he didn’t work for a Government agency any more, therefore this story could be used to show there weren’t strong links between bin Ladin and the CIA at this time.
Given these issues, it’s hard to see how the Osman story can tell us very much on its own. More evidence is essential before we can begin to form a reliable picture about what, if anything, this means.