Evidence now available from various sources, including recently declassified U.S. State Department documents, shows that the Taliban regime led by Mullah Mohammad Omar imposed strict isolation on Osama bin Laden after 1998 to prevent him from carrying out any plots against the United States.
The evidence contradicts the claims by top officials of the Barack Obama administration that Mullah Omar was complicit in Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the al Qaeda plot to carry out the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sep. 11, 2001. It also bolsters the credibility of Taliban statements in recent months asserting that it has no interest in al Qaeda’s global jihadist aims.
A primary source on the relationship between bin Laden and Mullah Omar before 9/11 is a detailed personal account provided by Egyptian jihadist Abu’l Walid al-Masri published on Arabic-language jihadist websites in 1997.
Al-Masri had a unique knowledge of the subject, because he worked closely with both bin Laden and the Taliban during the period. He was a member of bin Laden’s Arab entourage in Afghanistan, but became much more sympathetic to the Afghan cause than bin Laden and other al Qaeda officials from 1998 through 2001.
The first published English-language report on al-Masri’s account, however, was an article in the January issue of the CTC Sentinal, the journal of the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, by Vahid Brown, a fellow at the CTC.
Mullah Omar’s willingness to allow bin Laden to remain in Afghanistan was conditioned from the beginning, according to al-Masri’s account, on two prohibitions on his activities: bin Laden was forbidden to talk to the media without the consent of the Taliban regime or to make plans to attack U.S. targets.
Former Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told me in an interview that the regime “put bin Laden in Kandahar to control him better.” Kandahar remained the Taliban political headquarters after the organisation’s seizure of power in 1996.
The August 1998 U.S. cruise missile strikes against training camps in Afghanistan run by bin Laden in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa on Aug. 7, 1998 appears to have had a dramatic impact on Mullah Omar and the Taliban regime’s policy toward bin Laden.
Two days after the strike, Omar unexpectedly entered a phone conversation between a State Department official and one of his aides, and told the U.S. official he was unaware of any evidence that bin Laden “had engaged in or planned terrorist acts while on Afghan soil”. The Taliban leader said he was “open to dialogue” with the United States and asked for evidence of bin Laden’s involvement, according to the State Department cable reporting the conversation.
Only three weeks after Omar asked for evidence against bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader sought to allay Taliban suspicions by appearing to accept the prohibition by Omar against planning any actions against the United States.
“There is an opinion among the Taliban that we should not move from within Afghanistan against any other state,” bin Laden said in an interview with al Jazeera. “This was the decision of the Commander of the Faithful, as is known.”
Mullah Omar had taken the title “Commander of the Faithful”, the term used by some Muslim Caliphs in the past to claim to be “leader of the Muslims”, in April 1996, five months before Kabul fell to the Taliban forces.
During September and October 1998, the Taliban regime apparently sought to position itself to turn bin Laden over to the Saudi government as part of a deal by getting a ruling by the Afghan Supreme Court that he was guilty of the Embassy bombings.
In a conversation with the U.S. chargé in Islamabad on Nov. 28, 1998, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, Omar’s spokesman and chief adviser on foreign affairs, referred to a previous Taliban request to the United States for evidence of bin Laden’s guilt to be examined by the Afghan Supreme Court, according to the U.S. diplomat’s report to the State Department.
Muttawakil said the United States had provided “some papers and a videocassette,” but complained that the videocassette had contained nothing new and had therefore not been submitted to the Supreme Court. He told the chargé that the court had ruled that no evidence that had been presented warranted the conviction of bin Laden.
Muttawakil said the court trial approach had “not worked” but suggested that the Taliban regime was now carrying out a strategy to “restrict [bin Laden’s] activities in such a way that he would decide to leave of his own volition.”
On Feb. 10, 1999, the Taliban sent a group of 10 officers to replace bin Laden’s own bodyguards, touching off an exchange of gunfire, according to a New York Times story of Mar. 4, 1999. Three days later, bodyguards working for Taliban intelligence and the Foreign Affairs Ministry personnel took control of bin Laden’s compound near Kandahar and took away his satellite telephone, according to the U.S. and Taliban sources cited by the Times.
Taliban official Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, who was then in the Taliban Embassy in Pakistan, confirmed that the 10 Taliban bodyguards had been provided to bin Laden to “supervise him and observe that he will not contact any foreigner or use any communication system in Afghanistan,” according to the Times story.
The pressure on bin Laden in 1999 also extended to threats to eliminate al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan. An e-mail from two leading Arab jihadists in Afghanistan to bin Laden in July 1999, later found on a laptop previously belonging to al Qaeda in and purchased by the Wall Street Journal , referred to “problems between you and the Leader of the Faithful” as a “crisis”.
The e-mail, published in article by Alan Cullison in the September 2004 issue of The Atlantic, said, “Talk about closing down the camps has spread.”
The message even suggested that the jihadists feared the Taliban regime could go so far as to “kick them out” of Afghanistan.
In the face of a new Taliban hostility, bin Laden sought to convince Mullah Omar that he had given his personal allegiance to Omar as a Muslim. In April 2001 bin Laden referred publicly to having sworn allegiance to Mullah Omar as the “Commander of the Faithful”.
But al-Masri recalls that bin Laden had refused to personally swear such an oath of allegiance to Omar in 1998-99, and had instead asked al-Masri himself to give the oath to Omar in his stead. Al-Masri suggests that bin Laden deliberately avoided giving the oath of allegiance to Omar personally, so that he would be able to argue within the Arab jihadi community that he was not bound by Omar’s strictures on his activities.
Even in summer 2001, as the Taliban regime became increasingly dependent on foreign jihadi troop contingents, including Arabs trained in bin Laden’s camps, for its defence against the military advances of the Northern Alliance, Mullah Omar found yet another way to express his unhappiness with bin Laden’s presence.
After a series of clashes between al Qaeda forces and those of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Taliban leader intervened to give overall control of foreign volunteer forces to the Tahir Yuldash of the IMU, according to a blog post last October by Leah Farrall, an Australian specialist on jihadi politics in Afghanistan.
In Late January, Geoff Morrell, the spokesman for Defence Secretary Robert Gates, suggested that the United States could not negotiate with Mullah Omar, because he has “the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands,” implying that he had knowingly allowed bin Laden’s planning of the 9/11 attacks.
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.