The Rise of bin Laden


As millions of people around the world gathered in front of their TV sets in March and April to observe the public hearings held by the independent commission investigating the September 11 attacks, the one name that seemed to hover over the room was Osama bin Laden. While they watched, one senior official after another from the Clinton or Bush administrations spoke of the numerous attempts by the CIA before September 11 to capture or kill him.

Some of the stories of their efforts to capture bin Laden had already been told. Those who had followed recent accounts of the work of US intelligence knew that the Clinton administration would not give an order to kill him in February 1999, when he was at a hunting camp in southern Afghanistan with a group of Arab princes. They also knew that the CIA hired both an Afghan mercenary group to kidnap him from an al-Qaeda farm in Kandahar in Afghanistan and a group of Pakistani commandos to do the same. Some of the listening public probably knew as much as the members of the commission.

Among the best informed were those who had read Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, a remarkable book published a few weeks before the public hearings began, which got much attention among people who follow intelligence matters, although nothing like the publicity given shortly afterward to Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies.1 Clarke, after all, was one of the most powerful experts on terrorism in the White House. That he would openly say that the administration he once worked for was fighting the wrong war was wholly unexpected. Steve Coll’s background is quite different. He was a reporter in Afghanistan, and he has been the managing editor of The Washington Post since 1998.

Ghost Wars, which has taken him twelve years to write, spells out the CIA’s covert work in Afghanistan ever since the Soviet Union invaded that blighted country in 1979. Coll recounts in detail the CIA’s encouragement and support of the Islamic jihad against the Soviets, and the consequences of this support for the rise of radical Islamists like bin Laden. Not surprisingly, the book gives particular emphasis to the critical period during the late 1990s after bin Laden established himself in Afghanistan and then, with the help of the Taliban regime, began his global jihad against the US and the West.
Coll was able to secure secret documents about the CIA’s operations. He talked not just with its officials, but with spymasters and spies in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and other countries. No one else I know of has been able to bring such a broad perspective to bear on the rise of bin Laden; the CIA itself would be hard put to beat his grasp of global events. Rarely hasa book been able to anticipate, as Coll’s has, the revelations of government bureaucrats, such as Richard Clarke, about intelligence. It does so, moreover, in a more comprehensive way than the recent…

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