How the Taliban pressed bin Laden
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Evidence now available from various sources, including recently
declassified United States 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
The evidence contradicts claims by top officials of the Barack Obama
administration that Mullah Omar was complicit in bin Laden's involvement in the
al-Qaeda plot to carry out the terrorist attacks in the United States on
September 11, 2001. It also bolsters the credibility of Taliban statements in
asserting that they have little interest in al-Qaeda's global jihadi aims.
A primary source on the relationship between bin Laden and Mullah Omar before
9/11 is a detailed personal account provided by Egyptian jihadi Abu'l Walid
al-Masri and 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
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
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 US
Former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil told Inter Press Service
in an interview that the regime "put bin Laden in Kandahar to control him
better". Kandahar remained the Taliban political headquarters after the
organization seized power in 1996.
The August 1998 US cruise missile strikes against training camps in Afghanistan
run by bin Laden in retaliation for the bombings of two US embassies in East
Africa on August 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 US
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
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 Mullah Omar against planning any actions against the United
"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
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 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
In a conversation with the US charge in Islamabad on November 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 US
diplomat's report to the State Department.
Muttawakil said the United States had provided "some papers and a video
cassette". but he complained that the video had contained nothing new and had
therefore not been submitted to the Supreme Court. He told the charge that the
court had ruled that none of the 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 February 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 March 4, 1999. Three days later, bodyguards working for
Taliban intelligence and Foreign Affairs Ministry personnel took control of bin
Laden's compound near Kandahar and took away his satellite telephone, according
to the US 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 to bin Laden from two
leading Arab jihadis in Afghanistan in July 1999, later found on a laptop
previously belonging to al-Qaeda and purchased by the Wall Street Journal,
referred to "problems between you and the Leader of the Faithful" as a
The e-mail, published in an 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 jihadis feared the Taliban regime could go
so far as to "kick them out" of Afghanistan.
In the face of 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 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 defense against the military advances of the Northern Alliance, Mullah
Omar found yet another way to express his unhappiness with bin Laden's
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 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 US Defense 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 specializing
in US 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.