The 1998 Embassy Bombings, Osama bin Laden and the CIA

The Afghan Connection

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 761, 6 July 2001.

In late May, a federal jury in New York City convicted four Islamic fundamentalists allegedly linked to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in which more than 200 people were killed and another 4,000 wounded, overwhelmingly local residents. But on June 12, the jury announced that it would not grant the Feds the death sentence they had demanded for one of the four, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-’Owhali. Coming only a day after the government put to death Timothy McVeigh in the first federal execution in 38 years, the jury’s decision was a courageous statement against the barbaric notion of “justice” upheld by the U.S. bourgeoisie in common with the Islamic fundamentalists it has targeted.

An American diplomat who survived the Kenya bombing denounced the jury for failing “to send an unambiguous message to the malcontents of the world intent on terrorizing the United States and its citizens abroad.” America’s imperialist rulers, wielding an arsenal of terror far more formidable than anything bin Laden can muster, do not need juries to send a “message” to those they deem malcontents. Less than two weeks after the bombings, the U.S. fired 80 cruise missiles at training camps in Afghanistan and at a “bomb factory” in Sudan, which was in fact the country’s only pharmaceutical plant.

The NYC trial was a propaganda platform for U.S. imperialism’s war against “global Islamic terrorism.” In the wake of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, Washington has sought to find a surrogate for the “red menace” in the spectre of “Islamic terrorism.” That spectre is today used to justify everything from imperialist terror abroad (and even Bush’s plans for a “Star Wars II” nuclear missile defense) to draconian attacks on immigrant rights and civil liberties at home. Arab immigrants and Arab Americans, including leftist opponents of Islamic fundamentalism, have been witchhunted and rounded up in “anti-terrorist” dragnets. On June 28, Secret Service agents even evicted from the White House a young Congressional intern who was there as part of a delegation of Muslim American leaders.

In language redolent of Cold War diatribes against the Soviet KGB, prosecutors raved that Al Qaeda trained “sleeper” agents or “submarines” to live undetected among local populations. As the trial opened, Newsweek (19 February) ran a cover story on bin Laden blaring, “Danger: Terror Ahead.” The FBI has a $5 million bounty out on bin Laden, the latter-day equivalent of “Carlos the Jackal,” the all-purpose, omnipresent terrorist bogey of the 1970s and ’80s. Among other things, bin Laden is blamed for the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen last fall, and on June 19 Yemeni police rounded up eight alleged bin Laden operatives for “conspiring” to blow up the American embassy.

But bin Laden and his cohorts were armed, trained and financed by U.S. imperialism as part of its war to smash the Soviet Union. “The reason he knows those [bombing] tactics,” al-’Owhali’s attorney told the jury, “is because we opened the bottle and gave them to them. He knows as much as probably the people in the C.I.A. do, because they were his teachers.” This is the literal truth, right down to bomb “recipes” provided by the CIA. Throughout its decade-long proxy war against the Red Army in Afghanistan, American imperialism embraced bin Laden and his fellow mujahedin (holy warriors) as “freedom fighters.” It was only after they had served their purpose in the imperialist crusade against the Soviet Union that these onetime CIA assets were denounced as terrorists.

The methods of indiscriminate, mass terror are fully in keeping with the theocratic aims of the Islamic zealots, who seek to roll back a millennium of human progress. In their eyes, non-believers, trade unionists, leftists and unveiled women are all infidels deserving of god’s wrath. In its essence, their outlook is no different than that of Christian fundamentalist bigots who bomb abortion clinics in the U.S. or of fascistic Zionists who seek to “cleanse” the Palestinian nation from what is deemed to be the Jewish “holy land.”

But the terrorist acts ascribed to bin Laden & Co. pale in comparison to the mass terror perpetrated by America’s “democratic” bourgeoisie in defense of its reactionary capitalist order. As al-’Owhali’s attorney noted during his sentencing hearing, this government that screams for the execution of a Muslim convicted of terrorism is itself responsible for the terror bombing and starvation of over a million and a half Iraqi men, women and children. He might have cited as well the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the slaughter of upwards of three million people each in the Korean and Vietnam wars and the countless others murdered in “counterinsurgency operations” carried out by U.S. imperialism and its agents from the Philippines to Central America.

The Mujahedin and the CIA

In a three-part series titled “Holy Wars,” tracing the origins of bin Laden’s organization, the New York Times (14-16 January) acknowledged: “Al Qaeda grew out of the jihad inspired by Muslim scholars to combat the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.” It further claimed: “Participants in nearly every plot against the United States and its allies during the last decade have learned the arts of war and explosives in Afghan camps.” But this mouthpiece for American imperialism, which supported the anti-Soviet crusade to the hilt, does not say who was doing the teaching. Typically, the Times covers up the real story of bin Laden’s Afghan connection.

As far back as 1950, Cold Warrior John Foster Dulles pointed to a “common bond” with “the religions of the East” in fighting Communism. In his Unholy Wars (2000), ABC News reporter John Cooley described how 30 years later, “Western analysts in the think tanks and intelligence services in Washington, London, Paris, Rome and elsewhere asked themselves, who or what is the principal enemy of our enemy, communism?... The tacit consensus was that the Muslim religion, fundamentally anti-Communist, if translated into politics, could be harnessed as a mighty force to oppose Moscow in the Cold War.”

Washington started funneling arms to the mujahedin from the moment the Soviet-allied People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power in April 1978. As modernizing left nationalists, the PDPA attempted to implement a program for redistributing land, lowering the bride price, educating women and freeing them from the prison of the head-to-toe covering called the burqa. In the context of backward, benighted Afghanistan, these relatively modest reforms were nothing short of revolutionary. As the huge Islamic hierarchy launched a fierce insurgency against the PDPA, the Soviet Union intervened in December 1979 to prevent the collapse of its client regime. Beginning with Democrat Jimmy Carter and continuing under Republican Ronald Reagan, the U.S. seized on the Red Army intervention to launch a renewed anti-Soviet offensive across the globe—Cold War II—in particular waging a proxy war aimed at killing Soviet soldiers and officers in Afghanistan.

For Marxists, there was no question which side working people and the oppressed the world over had in this conflict. The threat of a CIA-backed Islamic takeover on the USSR’s southern flank posed pointblank the need for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union, a bureaucratically degenerated workers state. Moreover, the Soviet military intervention opened the possibility of social liberation for the Afghan masses, particularly women (see “Afghanistan: Women Enslaved by Islamic Reaction,” WV No. 756, 13 April). This was, as we wrote at the time, the first war in modern history in which a central issue was the rights of women. We Trotskyists proclaimed: Hail Red Army! Extend social gains of October Revolution to Afghan peoples!

Nothing more thoroughly exposes the imperialist rulers’ occasional pretense of defending “human rights” than the fact that this was their justification for promoting the Islamic fundamentalists’ savage war to keep Afghan women enslaved. But most of the reformist and centrist left was so driven by anti-Communism that it marched in lockstep behind the CIA-backed mujahedin cutthroats and echoed the imperialist demand, “Soviet troops out of Afghanistan!”

Under that battle cry, U.S. imperialism undertook the biggest covert CIA operation in history. The CIA’s “Black Budget” quadrupled from an estimated $9 billion in 1980 to $36 billion in 1990. Some was used to fund a war of terror by the CIA’s contra mercenaries against the left-nationalist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. But most of those billions went to an array of mujahedin groups based in Peshawar, Pakistan and to Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), headed by Lieutenant General Hameed Gul, a fervent Islamist. By the mid-1980s, the mujahedin were getting 65,000 tons of war matériel annually.

In 1986, Congress approved a three-pronged plan by CIA director William Casey to step up the U.S. proxy war in Afghanistan. Instead of supplying the Afghan reactionaries only with Soviet- and Chinese-made weapons purchased from Egypt, China, Israel and South Africa—so that the U.S. could “plausibly deny” a direct role in the war—the CIA began delivering American Stinger surface-to-air missiles, along with American military trainers. Secondly, the CIA, the ISI and Britain’s MI-6 agreed to launch guerrilla attacks into the Soviet Union itself, targeting the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which supplied many of the troops for duty in Afghanistan.

Finally, the CIA joined in the crusade initiated by ISI chief Gul to recruit Islamic zealots from throughout the Muslim world, so-called “Arab Afghans,” to join the mujahedin. According to the CIA’s own estimates, as many as 70,000 Islamic fundamentalists from more than 50 countries were trained at the “jihad universities” or madrassas which still flourish in Peshawar and elsewhere. “We are fighting a jihad and this is the first Islamic international brigade in the modern era,” crowed Gul. “The communists have their international brigades, the West has NATO, why can’t the Muslims unite and form a common front?” The organizing center for this international effort was the Office of Services (Makhtab al Khadimat) set up in 1984 by an Islamic scholar in Islamabad.

Among those who flocked to Peshawar to enlist in the U.S.-sponsored “holy war” against Communism was Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden. According to Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000) by Ahmed Rashid, “The ISI had long wanted Prince Turki bin Faisal, the head of Istakhbarat, the Saudi Intelligence Service, to provide a Royal Prince to lead the Saudi contingent in order to show Muslims the commitment of the Royal Family to the jihad.” Though not a royal, bin Laden was the son of a construction magnate who had been a close friend of the former Saudi king, Faisal. Bin Laden, Turki and Gul “were to become firm friends and allies in a common cause.” Another firm friend was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a major recipient of American largesse who got his start as a “holy warrior” throwing acid at women university students in Kabul. It was Hekmatyar whom the ISI chose to lead the raids and rocket attacks inside Soviet Tajikistan in 1987.

After several visits to Peshawar beginning in 1980 to deliver Saudi funds, bin Laden moved there in 1982. It was not only the Pakistani ISI that welcomed bin Laden’s presence. As John Cooley reports in Unholy Wars: “By 1981, when CIA chief Casey and his Saudi associates, Kamal Adhan and Prince Turki, were casting around for new sources of secret financing for the Afghan campaign, the bin Laden enterprises were all on a short list of possibly helpful families.” In 1986, the CIA commissioned bin Laden to help build a huge tunnel complex in Khost, under the mountains near the border with Pakistan. The CIA’s aim was to provide its Afghan killers with a major arms storage depot, training facility and medical center. It was here that bin Laden decided to set up his own training camp for “Arab Afghans.” He later recounted that his “volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis” (quoted in Taliban).

Cold War Chickens Come Home to Roost

By 1989, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev had pulled the last Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, echoing imperialist propaganda that Afghanistan had become a military quagmire, “Russia’s Vietnam.” Gorbachev’s betrayal flowed from the whole outlook of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which subordinated the interests of the international proletariat to the defense of its own privileged position as a parasitic layer resting on the collectivized economy, thus undermining the defense of the Soviet workers state itself. We fought for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and return the Soviet Union to the Bolshevik internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky.

Rehashing an old canard, the New York Times series claims that “the tide of the Afghan war” turned when the Stingers supplied by the U.S. beginning in 1986 “forced Soviet aircraft to fly far above the battlefield.” But as American military analyst Alan Kuperman observed in a 1999 article titled “The Stinger Missile and U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan” in Political Science Quarterly: “The Stinger effectively was neutralized by technical and tactical counter-measures well before the Soviets actually completed their withdrawal. Thus, there is no evidence the Stinger even hastened Soviet withdrawal.”

Where these high-tech weapons did come in handy was in terrorizing civilians. And there was no outcry from Washington against “Islamic terror” when mujahedin in Khost used a Stinger in March 1987 to shoot down a civilian airliner taking Afghan children to study in the USSR, killing all 52 aboard.

What led to the Soviet withdrawal was the treachery of the Stalinist bureaucracy, then in terminal decline, and its bottomless attempts to appease U.S. imperialism. In fact, by the mid-1980s the Red Army had the mujahedin on the run. Many of the Soviet troops who fought there truly believed they were fulfilling their internationalist duty, especially the Central Asians, who saw in the poverty and backwardness of Afghanistan the conditions that had existed in their homelands only three generations earlier, before the October Revolution had catapulted them from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

The Soviet military intervention cut against the grain of the nationalist Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country.” From the outset, we warned that the Kremlin bureaucracy might cut a deal with the imperialists and pull out. At the time of Gorbachev’s withdrawal, we stressed to Soviet workers and soldiers that it was far better to defeat counterrevolution in Afghanistan than to confront it in Leningrad. To the beleaguered Afghan government, we extended an offer to organize international brigades to “fight to the death” against the mujahedin cutthroats. This offer was refused, but the Partisan Defense Committee took up the PDPA’s appeal to organize an international aid campaign for the besieged city of Jalalabad. For the next three years, the Kabul government forces, especially the women’s militias, fought valiantly, but were finally overrun by the U.S.-backed fundamentalists.

The Stalinists’ betrayal of women, workers and leftists in Afghanistan was to prefigure the triumph of capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union itself in 1991-92. The imperialists congratulated themselves over their victory in the Cold War, duly acknowledging the role played by their Islamic allies. Crazed anti-Communist Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under Carter, ranted: “What was more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

But the “stirred-up Muslims” arrogantly dismissed by Brzezinski had their own agenda. As Ahmed Rashid notes in Taliban: “Most of these radicals speculated that if the Afghan jihad had defeated one superpower, the Soviet Union, could they not also defeat the other superpower, the US and their own regimes?” When King Fahd allowed the U.S. to use Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest of Muslim sites, as a staging ground for the imperialist war against Iraq, this sacrilege outraged bin Laden and his fellow fundamentalists. By 1992, bin Laden’s disgust for the Saudi regime was open enough that he was forced to flee to Sudan, where another Islamic regime was in power. Driven out of Sudan as well in 1996, bin Laden returned to the training base he had set up at Khost in league with the U.S. during the anti-Soviet war. It was this base that was bombed by the U.S. in ’98.

In 1995, a special unit on counterterrorism created by the CIA and the FBI began investigating bin Laden. But, as the Times series reported, “The investigation followed leads that dated back even further, to a group of Islamic militants who frequented a small office in Brooklyn whose stated purpose was to raise money and recruit fighters to help in the effort by the American-backed mujaheden in the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980’s. Some of the militants in this circle were later convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing case.” The alleged mastermind of that bombing, Egyptian cleric Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, who is currently serving a life sentence in the U.S., was another bin Laden ally from the Afghan war. At the time, Rahman was deemed a “valuable asset” by the CIA. Despite being on a U.S. “terrorism” blacklist, Rahman was able to enter the country in 1990 on a special visa issued by American intelligence officers in Khartoum, Sudan.

“Human Rights” Imperialism: Cynical and Barbaric

Today, America’s rulers want to bury the close relationship they once had with bin Laden & Co. When the head of the FBI’s New York office mentioned that the CIA had trained several of those convicted of the World Trade Center bombing during a 1993 TV broadcast, he was quickly transferred out of his position. In its selective account of bin Laden’s origins, the Times studiously avoids citing any direct links between the CIA and bin Laden (or Rahman), omitting even the CIA’s role in building the Khost complex.

But facts are stubborn things. When prosecutors in the recent trial introduced an Arab-language “terrorism manual” as evidence of bin Laden’s complicity in the embassy bombings, it turned out to be strikingly similar to manuals issued by the CIA to its contra assassins and Afghan mujahedin in the 1980s. Among the recipes in the CIA manual was one for a bomb—made from a mixture of fertilizer and fuel oil—of the kind that blew a 200-foot-wide gash in one of the World Trade Center twin towers. That bomb was built by an FBI informant!

The Feds also produced a witness in the embassy bombing trial to testify that bin Laden once tried to buy uranium on the black market in Sudan. But the Islamic Afghan war veterans already have plenty of “weapons of mass destruction” courtesy of their former American patrons. It’s estimated that over 500 Stingers “went missing” after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Bin Laden alone allegedly has at least a dozen of these sophisticated missiles.

A New York Times (18 June) profile on U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, a Clinton appointee, noted that virtually all of the investigations and prosecutions against “Islamic terrorism” have been run out of her New York City jurisdiction—including the bombing of the Cole in Yemen! This is no accident. The New York FBI and CIA offices were the linchpin for recruitment of mujahedin in the U.S., largely organized through the Alkifah Refugee Center (“a small office in Brooklyn”). In her book A Portrait of Egypt, Mary Anne Weaver reports that a leading Egyptian official told her that Alkifah was “a front organization for the CIA during the jihad: money, he said, had been laundered through it, weapons transferred, and Arab Americans recruited and trained.”

Fanatical even by the standards of the mujahedin, the Taliban militia was born and bred under the patronage of the ISI secret police in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. The Taliban ultimately emerged as the strongest of the mujahedin factions in the internecine feuding that broke out after the downfall of the PDPA regime. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia viewed the Taliban—Sunni Muslims based on the Pashtun, the largest of the local ethnic groupings—as a force for stability in Afghanistan and a counterweight to Shiite Iran.

For these reasons, the U.S. also supported the Taliban’s rise to power. But Washington had an additional interest in supporting a strong central government under Taliban rule. The American-based Unocal Oil was seriously investigating the idea of building a pipeline through Afghanistan to exploit rich natural gas and oil fields being opened up in Central Asia. There wasn’t a word of criticism from Washington when the Taliban forced thousands of girls to leave school after capturing Herat in 1995 or when it seized Kabul a year later and subjected women to virtual house arrest under the Islamic stricture of purdah (seclusion). On the contrary, the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia averred that “it is not in the interests of Afghanistan or any of us here that the Taliban be isolated.”

In late 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright signaled a shift in U.S. policy by cynically chastising the Afghan rulers for their treatment of women. The Taliban regime had refused to accede to U.S. demands to hand over bin Laden, and the economics of the proposed Unocal pipeline no longer added up. As well, the plight of Afghan women under Taliban rule had become something of a cause among U.S. liberals and feminists, who had earlier supported the mujahedin against the Soviet intervention force. Washington imposed economic sanctions on Afghanistan, deepening the starvation and devastation resulting from nearly two decades of civil war and exacerbated by a recent drought. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to fund rival mujahedin warlord Shah Massoud, another old CIA friend who controls a small slice of northern Afghanistan.

The U.S.-backed war of terror against the Red Army in Afghanistan forced five million people to flee the country, devastated what economy and infrastructure had been built up during the Soviet presence and led to the re-enslavement of Afghan women. That war paved the way to capitalist counterrevolution throughout the Soviet Union and East Europe, reducing tens of millions of working people there to penury. From the Algerian Armed Islamic Group to the Islamic Jihad in Egypt, the “Arab Afghans” spawned and nurtured by the anti-Soviet war went on to foment reactionary movements elsewhere, capitalizing on popular hatred for brutal nationalist regimes and the imperialist austerity measures they impose.

Today, the U.S. cynically declares war on “Islamic terror” in order to impose its will on oppressed peoples around the world. While Osama bin Laden and his ilk are plenty sinister, the most dangerous terrorists on the face of the planet are America’s capitalist rulers. Indeed, mass terror to suppress any semblance of social revolution by the worker and peasant masses is integral to the defense of this system based on exploitation of the many by the few.

The horrors produced by U.S. imperialism’s “holy war” against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan lay bare that the capitalist system long ago ceased to be an agency for social progress and became instead a breeding ground for barbaric reaction. They put in sharp relief the Marxist understanding that the choices facing humanity are socialism or barbarism. We fight to reforge a Trotskyist Fourth International to lead the proletariat in the U.S. and around the world to victory in new October Revolutions.

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