Bin Laden CIA links
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.