Al-Qa’ida's American Connection

American intervention in the Soviet-Afghan war did not assist in the physical creation of al-Qa’ida and the CIA had little to do with the Arab militants, a topic much misunderstood in contemporary debates on jihadi terrorism. Rather, the fundamental element that can be attributed to the creation of al-Qa’ida is Arab Muslim financiers; including Usama bin Laden’s personal wealth.

To date, there is no evidence pointing to American governmental assistance in the physical establishment of al-Qa’ida, whether financially, operationally, or logistically. Rather, according to the US State Department, Arab militants1 involved in the Soviet-Afghan War “functioned independently and had their own sources of funding.” 2 The cornerstone of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) involvement in the war was carried out by a decade-long, covert relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), and the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (GID). 3 The covert relationship was initiated to assist the indigenous Afghan Mujahideen,not the Arab militants, in defeating the Soviets on what would be the last hot battlefield of the Cold War. When the Arab militants began creating al-Qa’ida in Pakistan, it was diminutive and disjointed. Further, the group was of little consequence to the larger actors in Afghanistan’s theatre of war. Additionally, the Arab militants were receiving vast amounts of capital from numerous foreign Arab Muslim sponsors. As such, there was no reason to suspect that the CIA would support, let alone benefit from, such an embryonic and disorganized group.

Limiting the expansion of communism was always a priority for the US government though other factors caused the CIA to become involved in the Soviet-Afghan War. Ultimately, these misunderstandings helped lead to calamitous events. Yet, the most formidable consequence to rise from the ashes of war was the formation al-Qa’ida.

CIA Intervention

Shortly after the Soviets crossed the border into Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979, a plan was devised that allowed US aid to be transferred to Pakistan’s ISI and from there funneled to the Afghan Mujahideen. This covert relationship became the primary mechanism by which Americans funded the Afghan resistance. In the beginning, the amount of aid was petty ($500,000) when compared with the increase in aid within a 5-year period; further, the aid was wholly indirect.4 The CIA preferred it this way, giving the agency “plausible deniability”. The CIA eventually became directly involved with the Afghans by the mid-1980s.5 Though direct contact was limited, given the CIA’s crucial relationship with Pakistani intelligence, it was a relationship the Americans could not afford to jeopardize. Pakistan’s General Zia ul Haq demanded that all American assistance be channeled through the Afghan Bureau of the ISI.6 The methods devised by the Pakistanis ensured that the only destination for American aid was the Afghan Mujahideen. According to Burke, “It is often said that bin Laden was funded by the CIA. This is not true and, indeed, would have been impossible given the structure of funding that General Zia ul-Haq, who had taken power in 1979, had set up.”7

In the beginning, US President Jimmy Carter agreed to CIA covert action in an attempt to “harass” the Soviets, not to cause a military withdrawal. Harassment was taken to a new level under Reagan with the introduction of the National Security Directive (NSD) 166. NSD 166 introduced, inter alia, “long-range sniper rifles, wire-guided antitank missiles” and the US-made Stinger anti-aircraft in 1986.8 As former ISI-Afghan Bureau Brigadier Yousaf noted, “… nothing moves, in peace and war, without money. The Mujahideen could achieve nothing without financial support … cash to arm, train, and move my forces.”9 The structure of contributors and the destination of capital have been illustrated by Yousaf; his “Money Flow” shows no capital going towards Arab militants.10

The Arab Militants

Concurrent to CIA covert action for the Mujahideen was the influx of the Arab militants, including Usama bin Laden. Aside from religion, the key commonality between Arabs and the Afghan Mujahideen was the desire to oust the invading Soviets. The Afghan Mujahideen were the main fighters, numbering approximately 150,000 to 200,000. They were physically trained by the ISI and funded by the CIA and Saudi government, as well as non-governmental sources. The Saudi GID would eventually match the CIA for every dollar it spent on the war. According to Cole, the Mujahideen often complained that the Arabs were a hindrance, poor fighters, and showboats that came for the glory of jihad and promises of paradise. Moreover, there were only a few hundred Arab militants fighting in the jihad at any given point and participation in military operations was “negligible”. In fact, Anas has stated that in 1984 there were only “thirteen Arab Mujahideen”. That number increased to around 3,000 to 5,000 by 1989 but only 10% were on the battlefields.11 Moreover, when al-Qa’ida was formed on 10 September 1988, there were only 15 “brothers”.12 Their financing came from mosques, non-governmental organizations, charities, and private sponsors from overseas.13

It should be noted that the CIA was aware of the growth of the Arab jihadists and even “looked favorably” on the ongoing recruitment, given that the goal was one in the same: to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. According to one State Department official, the Americans should not “see them as the enemy.”14 Aside from this favorable view, the CIA did not partake in any operations with the Arab militants. Concomitantly, the CIA and the ISI did not hinder their recruitment activities either. As such, Pakistan was excellent peripheral territory for the Arab militants to freely organize. It was on Pakistani territory that the seeds of al-Qa’ida were planted. Dr Abdullah Azzam, one of bin Laden’s mentors, founded the “Brigades of Strangers”, a small band of Arabs that made their new home close to the Khyber Pass.15 By 1984 this brigade was molded by Azzam, bin Laden, and Anas into the Makhtab al-Khidmat (MAK or The Office of Services). It was structured to be a type of Da’wa center and not a militant organization.16 The goal of the organization was to provide aid and faith for the Mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan and to coordinate the Arab volunteers coming to participate in the jihad. According to Azzam, “We came to serve these people, that’s why it’s called the Office of Services.”17

Financing the Arab Militants

By 1986, foreign Arab sponsors were sending exorbitant amounts of capital into Arab organizations in Pakistan for Arab fighters. According to Bearden, the overseas donations totaled up to $25 million per month ($300 million per year).18 The money derived from private Saudi and other Arab sponsors. According to Coll and Burke, the Saudi Red Crescent, the International Islamic Relief Organization the Muslim World League, and the Kuwaiti Red Crescent, all set up offices in Peshawar and financially supported the Arabs.19 Additionally, one FBI report “describes bin Laden’s use of ‘the Golden Chain’, an informal financial network of prominent Saudi and Gulf individuals originally. US officials state that this network collected funds and funneled them to Arab fighters in Afghanistan.”20 According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “Donations flowed through charities or other NGOs. Bin Ladin and the ‘Afghan Arabs’ drew largely on funds raised by this network, whose agents roamed world markets to buy arms and supplies for the mujahideen …”21 Further, according to one 2002 CFR report, “Saudi nationals and charities were previously the most important sources of funds for the mujahideen …”22

Azzam was successful in raising large sums of money overseas and bin Laden had his own personal wealth estimated to be around $20 million.23 According to Ismail, bin Laden was “one of the main financers of the Services Office”.24 Bin Laden was able to not only finance the MAK but he was also able to utilize his family’s construction company, the Saudi Binladen Group, to import bulldozers and other machinery to aid Saudi and Pakistani intelligence in building up infrastructure that could withstand the Soviet Special Forces, Spetsnaz. Bin Laden would also use the machinery to assist in building his first base and his own personal capital to fund new recruits. Cole states, “Azzam announced that bin Laden would pay the expenses-about $300 per month-of any Arab who wanted to fight on Afghanistan’s battlefields.”25 Additionally, Azzam traveled to the United States in a bid to raise funds for the jihad. This became an annual trip, most likely due to its success. “The efforts made by Azzam … were also paying off. Branches of the MAK had even been opened in Brooklyn, New York.”26 Azzam also traveled from “Kansas City, St. Louis, Dallas, all over the heartland and the major cities as well looking for money and recruits …”27

An ideological split between Azzam and bin Laden began to form once bin Laden’s idea of the MAK expanded. Bin Laden disagreed and shortly thereafter opened up his first training camp, the “Lion’s Den”, in the Afghan border town of Jaji.28 It was in Jaji that bin Laden received his holy warrior status, though only being wounded in the foot. As Bergen notes, this is when bin Laden went from “donor to holy warrior”.29 He would cease his personal aid to the MAK. Within a year, 15 men formed al-Qa’ida with money received from overseas donors and sponsors, not from the CIA covert operations.

By the war’s end, the CIA spent approximately $2 billion in cash and weaponry in order to assist the Afghan mujahideen in driving out Soviet forces.30 No American assistance was spent on Arab militants. According to Sageman, “They had their own sources of money and … contacts with the Pakistanis, official Saudis, and other Muslim supporters” and, in any fact, they “did not participate in any significant fighting."31 The creation of al-Qa’ida was made possible by Muslim and Arab donations. According to al-Suri, “It is a big lie that Afghan Arabs were formed with the backing of the CIA ...”32 Additionally, al-Zawahiri, has stated “The truth that everyone should learn is that the United States did not give one penny in aid to the [Arab] Mujahideen.”33

This is not to purport that American action did not indirectly influence al-Qa'ida's post-war organizational and ideological abilities; in fact, it did influence the organization. Insofar as American assistance in creating al-Qa’ida, there is no evidence to show that CIA funds were designated for anything other than the Afghan Mujahideen. As Sageman expresses, “The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Arab backing for the ‘Afghan Arabs,’ and bin Laden's own decisions ‘created’ Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, not the United States.”34

  1. “Afghan Arabs” and “Arab militant” will be used interchangeably.  

  2. “Did the United States ‘Create’ Osama Bin Laden?” US Department of State. International Information Programs. 14 January 2005.  

  3. The 9/11 Commission Report. Staff Statement. 2004  

  4. Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars. 2004  

  5. Coll, Steve. ‘Anatomy of a Victory’. Washington Post Archives, 1989.  

  6. Burke, Jason The True Story of Radical Islam. 2004  

  7. Ibid  

  8. Coll, Steve. ‘Anatomy of a Victory’. Washington Post Archives, 1989.  

  9. Yousaf, Mohammad and Adkin Mark. The Bear Trap. 1992  

  10. Ibid  

  11. Bergen, Peter. The Osama Bin Laden I know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda’s Leader. 2006.  

  12. Ibid.  

  13. “CRS Report for Congress: Saudi Arabia: Terrorist Financing Issues.” 14 September 2007.  

  14. Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars. 2004  

  15. Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower. 2006  

  16. It should be noted that Azzam was one of many important influences in bin Laden’s life. Others include Muhammad Qutb, brother of the radical Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb. Dr Ayman Al-Zawahiri would play a much greater role in bin Laden’s life by 1989, after al-Qa’ida was formed.  

  17. Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars. 2004  

  18. Ibid  

  19. Ibid  

  20. Congressional Research Service “CRS Report for Congress: Saudi Arabia: Terrorist Financing Issues.” 14 September 2007.  

  21. 9/11 Commission Report. Chapter 2. 2004  

  22. Congressional Research Service. “CRS Report for Congress: Saudi Arabia: Terrorist Financing Issues.” 14 September 2007.  

  23. Bergen, Peter. The Osama Bin Laden I know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda’s Leader. 2006.  

  24. Ibid  

  25. Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars. 2004  

  26. Burke, Jason The True Story of Radical Islam. 2004  

  27. Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower. 2006  

  28. Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars. 2004  

  29. Bergen, Peter. The Osama Bin Laden I know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda’s Leader. 2006.  

  30. Coll, Steve. ‘Anatomy of a Victory’. Washington Post Archives, 1989.  

  31. Sageman, Marc. Understanding Terror Network. 2004  

  32. Bergen, Peter. The Osama Bin Laden I know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda’s Leader. 2006.  

  33. Al-Zawahiri in Bergen, Peter. The Osama Bin Laden I know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda’s Leader. 2006.  

  34. Sageman, Marc. Understanding Terror Network. 2004