The CIA's mysterious links to Osama bin Laden

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, did the U.S. fund, arm and even train Afghan Arab fighters, including bin Laden?

Neil Churchill May 3, 2015

Yesterday, Saturday 2nd May, marked four yours since the death of Osama bin Laden. Many will know of the infamous founder and former leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist group for his claims to being responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States.

The Saudi national did of course have close ties to this region - he was a son of the wealthy bin Laden family, whose construction business has projects across the Gulf. But it was his ties to the CIA, the American intelligence service which eventually killed him, that makes for more startling reading.

In 1979 at 22 years old, Bin Laden travelled to Afghanistan to join the Afghan Arab fighters who were supporting the local Mujahideen groups - the term for people engaged in jihad - fighting against the Soviet Union's invasion. They were a comparatively small group when compared to the Afghani fighters, about 2,000 of them, and many outside observers doubted their significance as a fighting force.

But while they may have been short in numbers, they had the backing of the world's biggest superpower. Along with Saudi Arabia, the CIA is believed to have armed and funded the Mujahideen groups and the Afghan Arab fighters through secret bank accounts at BCCI, the world's dirtiest bank, as we explained in our story last week. Some commentators even suggest that the CIA offered them training. Osama bin Laden CIA. The late Robin Cook, the UK's foreign security in the late '90s, once said a source had confirmed to him that the CIA provided arms to the Mujahideen groups and the Afghan Arab fighters, including Osama bin Laden. He said: "Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by Western security agencies. Throughout the '80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan."

As a result of the American funding of the Mujahideen groups against the Soviet Union, there are several reports that Osama bin Laden was at that time pro-American. The late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, once said as much to the former British defence secretary Michael Portillo. Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005 and a member of the House of Saud, also confirmed the same.

After the September 11 attacks in 2011, bin Sultan gave an interview to the New York Times in which he said: "Bin Laden used to come to us when America through the CIA and Saudi Arabia, were helping our brother Mujahideen in Afghanistan, to get rid of the communist secularist Soviet Union forces. Osama bin Laden came and said 'Thank you. Thank you for bringing the Americans to help us.'"

The U.S. and the CIA have always denied that they had contact with or supported the Afghan Arabs in any way, including bin Laden. They say that they only supported the indigenous Mujahideen groups, pointing out that with 250,000 local Afghans willing to fight, and with millions of dollars in funding from non-American sources, they had no need to fund or arm the foreign fighters.

CNN journalist Peter Bergen, conducted the first television interview with Osama bin Laden in 1997. On the subject of the CIA funding bin Laden's Afghan Arab fighters, he said: "The story about bin Laden and the CIA - that the CIA funded bin Laden or trained bin Laden - is simply a folk myth. There's no evidence of this.

"They all agree that they didn't have a relationship in the 1980s. And they wouldn't have needed to. Bin Laden had his own money, he was anti-American and he was operating secretly and independently. The real story here is the CIA did not understand who Osama was until 1996, when they set up a unit to really start tracking him." Bandar bin Sultan CNN journalist Peter BergenPerhaps the most simplistic and conclusive argument on the debate however comes from Mohammad Yousaf, a Pakistani Brigadier who ran the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Afghan operation between 1983 and 1987. He was quoted as saying that while the CIA certainly did fund the Mujahideen, it had no control on how exactly their money was spent, or whose hands their weapons ended up in.

"It was always galling to the Americans, and I can understand their point of view, that although they paid the piper they could not call the tune," he said. "The CIA supported the Mujahideen by spending the taxpayers' money, billions of dollars of it over the years, on buying arms, ammunition, and equipment... It was, however, a cardinal rule of Pakistan's policy that no Americans ever become involved with the distribution of funds or arms once they arrived in the country. No Americans ever trained or had direct contact with the Mujahideen, and no American official ever went inside Afghanistan."

One may argue that given this all happened in the early '80s, 20 years before September 11 and the worldwide manhunt for bin Laden, should it matter if the CIA did or did not fund or arm the Afghan Arab fighters? As those with a good knowledge of that period will know, after defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, many of the foreign fighters returned to their home countries as heroes. Restless and battled-hardened, some waged jihad against their own governments, and the Afghan Arab fighters became one of the main channels that led to the creation of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda.

A timely reminder with the current ongoing struggles in Iraq and Syria.