(SAUDI ARABIA and EXTREMISTS, to 2000 – continued)

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Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda to 2000

In early 1989, the Soviet Union removed the last of its troops from Afghanistan, and that year Osama bin Laden returned home to Jedda, Saudi Arabia. He was opposed to the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States during his country's 1990-91 crisis with Iraq. He found corruption in Saudi Arabia. He disliked what he thought was insufficient piety, and he disliked the presence of Christian and Jewish-American troops in his country. He disliked U.S. support for Israel, rock music and seeing foreign women wearing trousers. He left Saudi Arabia in April 1991, and ended in Sudan in 1992. Sudan was eager to show solidarity with Islamism. It was welcoming any Muslim without a visa and was becoming a refuge for unhappy men who had returned from their volunteer fighting in Afghanistan.

Perhaps his participation in the anti-Soviet crusade in Afghanistan had given bin Laden a self-image of an activist. At any rate, by the end of 1992, he was talking about overthrowing secular governments in Islamic countries and replacing them with Islamic governments. He had gathered together other veterans of the holy war in Afghanistan – not unlike Mussolini had gathered together veterans of World War I. On December 29, 1992, his group expressed their displeasure with the presence of U.S. troops in Yemen – troops on their way to Somalia. Bin Laden's group exploded a bomb at the hotel where the American soldiers had been staying but had already left, the bomb killing two Austrian tourists. Soon after, the U.S. State Department placed Sudan on the list of countries that were sponsoring terrorist activities.

On February 26, 1993, men connected to bin Laden's network of activists drove a van heavily laden with a bomb into the parking area under the World Trade Center in New York City. Six people died and 1,042 were injured. Meanwhile bin Laden and his group were concerned about U.S. forces in Somalia – a predominately Muslim country. The administration of George Bush Sr. had sent U.S. Marines there on a humanitarian mission, alongside Nigerian, Pakistani and Italian soldiers. Somalia had been suffering from civil war and famine, and the U.S. was hoping to establish order and make possible the distribution of food. In 1993, after Bill Clinton had become president, U.S. forces were trying to pacify a local warlord, Mohamed Aideed. Somalis supporting Aideed were warring against U.S. forces, and bin Laden was to boast that his group was involved in the hostile actions against the U.S. forces. Hundreds of Somalis died. In early October, 1993, eighteen U.S. Army Rangers were killed. Americans saw on television the body of one of their soldiers dragged through the streets. The Clinton administration judged the mission to Somalia a failure, and within six months U.S. troops were out of Somalia. The United Nations would have all of its troops out by early 1995. Bin Laden relished the defeat of the United States and spoke of the Americans as "paper tigers" who "ran in defeat" after taking just a few blows.

In Afghanistan, tribal factions were warring against each other. Fighting in Kabul in 1993 left thousands dead and the city severely damaged. A militia called the Taliban formed under the flag of Islam – Taliban meaning "seekers of truth." Some were veterans of the war against Soviet forces and some had been trained in religious schools in Pakistan. Many were ethnic Pashtuns – a people within Afghanistan and in the northwest of Pakistan along Afghan-Pakistan border. Pakistan hired the Taliban to protect a convoy along a trade route that ran through Afghanistan, and the Taliban proved themselves to be capable bodyguards, driving away groups bent on looting the convoy. In January, 1995, 3,000 Islamists crossed from Pakistan in Afghanistan and joined the Taliban. The Taliban had some appeal in Afghanistan as they brought order, including executing highway thieves, and as they refused to deal with Afghan leaders of questionable morality. By February 11, 1995, the Taliban controlled nine of Afghanistan's thirty provinces.

Bin Laden had been operating training camps in Sudan, and in April, 1994, Saudi Arabia revoked his citizenship. On November 13, 1995, a truck bomb killed five Americans and two Indians at the military base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden denied involvement put praised the action. The Saudi government forced confessions from four men who spoke of having read bin Laden communiqu├ęs, and the four were beheaded. The U.S. and Saudi governments then pressured Sudan into expelling bin Laden. In May, 1996, bin Laden and company, including his wives and children, went to Afghanistan. Bin Laden was hoping to buy a nuclear weapon on the Russian black market, but failing in this he began experimenting with chemical weapons.

In the spring of 1996, President Clinton signed a top-secret order authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency to destroy bin Laden's terrorist network. Bin Laden's network – al-Qaeda – struck first. On June 25, 1996, a truck exploded outside barracks housing U.S. soldiers near Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. Nineteen Americans died and 500 were wounded. Bin Laden declared war on the United States, signing and issuing a declaration of intent to drive U.S. forces from the Arabian Peninsula, to overthrow the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, to liberate holy sites and to support Islamic revolution around the world. The U.S. and bin Laden's network were in a declared war without much of the U.S. public conscious of it. Some saw President Clinton as grandstanding regarding terrorism during his 1996 re-election campaign. For example, Richard T. Barnett, in the December 2, 1996 issue of Nation magazine, criticized Clinton for making anti-terrorism a "lynchpin" of his "foreign policy rhetoric" and for proclaiming the United States "the global avenger of terrorism."  "International terrorism," wrote Barnett, "serves as a successor myth to International Communism."

In September, 1996, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan's capital city. In September 1997 the Taliban government began enforcing a regulation that suspended medical services for women in hospitals that serviced men. One poorly equipped hospital in Kabul was designated for the city's half million women. Also in September, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia announced that Saudi Arabia would assist the Taliban in health and educational programs.

In February, 1998, the Taliban had a young woman whipped with 100 strokes for the crime of walking with a man who was not a relative. In June the Taliban closed more than one hundred private schools where females had been trained, and the Taliban decreed that non-government schools must not have female students over the age of eight and that texts could only be copies of the Koran. In July, the Taliban outlawed television. Christians were told that they faced deportation, and the Taliban began a campaign against former Communists.

In June 1998, a federal Grand Jury in the United States issues a sealed indictment charging bin Laden with "conspiracy to attack defense utilities of the United States." On August 7, bin Laden and al Qaeda destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and in Tanzania – again with truck bombs – killing 213 in Kenya and 11 in Tanzania. On August 8, Taliban forces seized the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing Iranian diplomats and thousands of local ethnic Hazara people. In the United States, a federal grand jury indicted 22 men, including bin Laden, for crimes related to the bombings of the embassies. On August 18 the Taliban announced that it would protect bin Laden. On August 20, U.S. submarines launched seventy-nine cruise missiles at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum – U.S. intelligence claiming that the pharmaceutical plant had been producing chemical weapons for bin Laden. The attack on the training camp killed approximately thirty al Quaeda members. Relations between Iran and Afghanistan were at a new low, with Iran massing troops at their border with Afghanistan and the Taliban sending troops to the same border. The media in the U.S. gave much attention to the U.S. operation and questioned President Clinton's motives. There were allegations that he was trying to distract attention from his personal problems. Three days before the attacks Clinton had testified under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The Republican speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, who knew the president well, said the operation was "the right thing to do at the right time," but some of his Republican colleagues added to the chorus of doubt about the seriousness of Clinton's decision.

U.S. intelligence had been in contact with bin Laden by way of his cell phone, but the Washington Times had leaked this information. Bin Laden became aware of it and by late 1998 had stopped using his phone, drying up a way of monitoring his activities.  

In 1999, President Clinton's Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, was considering what he called "new threats and challenges" that required "new thinking and new programs." An independent commission, headed by former Senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart were working on a report soon to be issued, describing the U.S. homeland as "increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack."

In 1999, information from spies gave the U.S. what the 9/11 Commission (2004) would describe as the best opportunity to strike at bin Laden. Staff officers at the CIA and the Pentagon later recalled that the intelligence was as good as it gets. But the head of the CIA, George Tenet, opposed the attack, and it did not take place. During the time of the 9/11 Commission, Tenet could not recall why he had opposed the attack.

By 1999 the U.S. was taking precautions against another attack on the World Trade Center in New York. A new 45 million dollar security system had been built at the center. Trucks were no longer allowed easy access into the garage under the center. The Trade Center employed over 300 security personnel, used 300 security cameras and featured 828 emergency doors.

On March 16, 2000, the Government Accounting Office (GAO ) issued a report criticizing airport security.

On October 17, 2000, a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, entered the port of Aden, in Yemen, to refuel. During the refueling the ship allowed a small boat laden with a bomb to come alongside. The explosion killed seventeen U.S. servicemen. No one claimed responsibility, but U.S. authorities suspected bin Laden and al Qaeda.


The Seige of Mecca: the 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine, by Yaroslav Trofimov, 2008

Sharon: Israel's Warrior-Politician, by Sigalit Zetouni, Anita Miller and Jordan Miller, 2002

The Great War for Civilization, Chapter Two, "They Shoot Russians," by Robert Fisk, 2007

Peace and its Discontents: Essas on Palestine in the Middle East Peace Process, by Edward W Said, 1995

The Emergence of Modern Turkey, by Bernard Lewis, 2002


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