While these changes were being made, however, U.S. aid to the mujahideen continued to increase. The CIA also committed support to guerrilla attacks in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and to a Pakistani intelligence initiative to recruit Muslims worldwide to fight with the mujahideen.
The biggest problem was that Washington did not have a strategy in place for what would happen after the Soviet withdrawal in 1988. Instead, Washington’s focus was on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War, along with the fall of the Soviet Union. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, was busy setting up a Nairobi cell to arm and train Somali warlords to fight the U.S. troops deployed to the country.
I often met with John to discuss terrorism matters, and his focus never shifted; he was married to his work and to the FBI. Pat D’Amuro used to get annoyed when John would call him every hour during investigations to ask questions and micromanage. Pat wanted him to ease up and give him a break. John’s reply didn’t vary: “You have to let it consume you; there is no break.” Years later, during the USS Cole investigation, when I was the case agent and John was out of the country, I understood how Pat felt. John called me every hour; and he told me, as he had told Pat, that I needed to let it consume me.
To John the reality was simple: “The bad guys work nonstop, so do we.” To be in John’s trusted inner circle you needed to give your all, as he did, or you were out. People who were pushed out resented John for it. I understood their anger—it’s natural to want to spend time with your family—but I saw John’s perspective, too: we were in a race against the clock.
What upset other people about John was that he liked to be the center of attention. During a dinner at Cité with Pat D’Amuro and another agent, Kenny Maxwell, who much later succeeded Pat as head of the JTTF, John repeatedly referred to New York as “my city.” Kenny—Irish, like John—had lived in New York his entire life. John, born in Atlantic City, had worked mainly in Chicago and Washington, DC.
Kenny told John, “This is my city. You’re from Chicago.” John didn’t like the insinuation, and soon the two Irish guys were yelling at each other and Pat had to calm them down. Anybody who didn’t acknowledge John’s need to be center stage or who tried to outshine him might be told off for it.
John was killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Center, and stories came out afterward about his messy personal life. He was a complicated human being, but as a boss, I never saw anything but the best from him—and I worked with him on many high-profile cases. I never saw his personal life affect his work or judgment.
In April 1988 the Soviets announced that within nine months they would withdraw from Afghanistan. The question for the mujahideen, after celebrating their victory, was what should come next. Some decided to stay in Afghanistan and use it as a base of operations for jihad elsewhere. Others returned home, seeing their religious duty as having been fulfilled and wishing to resume normal lives. Many went off in search of new conflicts—in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, and Algeria.
Those who decided to stay gathered in Peshawar to decide upon their next steps. They were in agreement that the network they had built to fight the Soviets shouldn’t be allowed to collapse, and that the momentum should be maintained, so they set up a new group, called The Base—al-Qaeda in Arabic—to coordinate their actions. Bin Laden was chosen as the leader of the new group, which had a defined structure, with a shura, or advisory, council, along with military, political, financial, security, religious, and media committees. His rise to prominence was in large part due to his wealth and fund-raising ability, which brought him friends, influence, and power among the mujahideen.
Among the mujahideen leaders there was disagreement over direction and priorities. MAK head Abdullah Azzam, who had been bin Laden’s mentor, wanted to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan, and then to support the Palestinians against Israel. Bin Laden, however, wanted to focus on “the head of the snake,” namely the United States—a position he was supported in, and encouraged to take, by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had considerable influence among Egyptian Islamists. Zawahiri was one of the leaders of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the underground group aimed at creating an Islamic state in Egypt and then using Egypt as a launching pad for jihad against the West. In 1980 he had traveled to Pakistan to join the Afghan jihad, believing that his group could obtain in Afghanistan the training they needed for success in Egypt.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri bonded and had great use for each other: Zawahiri and his group found bin Laden’s financial support and network indispensable, and bin Laden, in turn, was attracted to Zawahiri’s sense of direction and his experience. After warning bin Laden of his need for enhanced security, Zawahiri offered his own men as protection; hence the al-Qaeda leader came to be surrounded by Egyptians, who helped shape his and his organization’s focus.
Among the Egyptians was Amin Ali al-Rashidi, known as Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri—he acquired the name al-Banshiri in Afghanistan, where he had fought in an area called the Panjshir Valley. Banshiri was a former Egyptian police officer who became al-Qaeda’s military commander. His deputy, Tayseer Abu Sitah, better known as Mohammed Atef or by his al-Qaeda alias Abu Hafs al-Masri (al-Masri meaning “the Egyptian”), had also served as a police officer. The fact that someone like Abu Sitah operated under multiple names shows the complexity of trying to unravel the identities of everyone in the group.
The head of al-Qaeda’s religious committee was Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, who took the name Abu Hajer al-Iraqi. He was a Kurd who had fought in Saddam’s army and alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan, where the two became close friends. While Abu Hajer wasn’t a cleric—he was an engineer by training, and had memorized the Quran—bin Laden believed that he was a pious figure, and he loved to hear him recite passages from the Quran. The Islamic thinkers whom Abu Hajer liked to quote included Qutb and Ibn Tamiyyah.
The disagreement between Azzam and bin Laden ended on November 24, 1989, when an improvised explosive device (IED) that had been placed under Azzam’s car killed him and his two sons. Responsibility was never assigned, but it was suspected that Zawahiri was connected. While before Azzam’s death Zawahiri had denounced him in public, after his death he pretended that they had been the best of friends.
Bin Laden, as head of al-Qaeda, wasn’t supreme over all mujahideen; al-Qaeda was only one among many Sunni groups vying for dominance. Another leader offering a vision was Omar Abdul Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh,” so called because childhood diabetes had left him sightless. Rahman led al-Gamma’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), a rival of Zawahiri’s group. Others influential in Afghanistan were Ramzi Yousef and his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who operated independently and had no desire to be under bin Laden’s command.
When bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990, he was welcomed as a hero among ordinary people, but the Saudi regime was wary, having grown concerned about his actions. He was seen as a troublemaker, having worked in 1989, for instance, on a plot to overthrow the Marxist government in South Yemen.
The ultimate break between bin Laden and the royal family came when Saddam invaded Kuwait. Bin Laden told the royals that he and his army of mujahideen could defend the kingdom, but his offer was rebuffed, as the Saudis knew that bin Laden and his band of fighters would be no match for Saddam’s army. Instead they welcomed U.S. troops to fight Saddam.
Bin Laden was furious at being spurned, and at the royals for allowing “infidel” troops into Saudi Arabia. He publicly denounced the royal family. They took away his passport as a form of punishment, but in the spring of 1991, with the help of sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, he made it to Peshawar. He was later securely transported, by an Egyptian named Ali Mohamed, to Sudan.