National Opinions

Five myths about Osama bin Laden

Peter Bergen is the author of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden,” a CNN national security analyst and a vice president at New America.

Osama bin Laden’s decision to launch the 9/11 attacks made him one of the most consequential figures of the early 21st century. The ensuing “war on terror” cost the United States trillions of dollars and the lives of more than 7,000 American service personnel, and tens of thousands more people were killed in seemingly endless wars around the Muslim world. After 9/11, bin Laden was reviled as a mass murderer but also, in some quarters, celebrated as a hero who had ostensibly stood up to the all-powerful United States. As a result, many myths have proliferated about this man who changed the course of history.

Myth No. 1: 9/11 was bin Laden’s brilliant ploy to entangle the U.S. in wars.

The main proponent of this myth was bin Laden himself, who put a post facto gloss on the failure of his actual plan, which was to use the 9/11 attacks to force the United States to pull all of its forces out of the Middle East. When that strategy spectacularly backfired, and instead the United States occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, bin Laden claimed in 2004 that the 9/11 attacks were all along a fiendishly clever plot to embroil the United States in costly wars, asserting in a videotape released by Al Jazeera, “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” Even astute commentators bought this line; Ezra Klein, for instance, wrote in The Washington Post that “superpowers are so allergic to losing that they’ll bankrupt themselves trying to conquer a mass of rocks and sand. This was bin Laden’s plan for the United States.”

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In fact, there was no evidence that this was really bin Laden’s plan. Before 9/11, bin Laden was convinced that the United States was a “paper tiger” and that its likely response to the attacks would be an ineffectual round of cruise missile strikes and perhaps some manned bomber raids. He didn’t anticipate that a relatively small group of CIA officers and U.S. Special Forces calling in massive American airstrikes, allied with Afghan militias on the ground, would overthrow his Taliban hosts in only three months.

Indeed, the U.S. response to 9/11 almost destroyed al-Qaida. According to Abu Musab al-Suri, a longtime associate of bin Laden’s, 1,600 out of the 1,900 Arab fighters living in Afghanistan at the time were killed or captured when the Taliban was overthrown. Saif al-Adel, al-Qaida’s military commander, similarly concluded that 9/11 had decimated the group, writing to a colleague in 2002, “We are experiencing one setback after another and have gone from misfortune to disaster.”

Myth No. 2: Al-Qaida and the Taliban can be easily disentangled.

Experts on the Taliban claimed after the attacks that the militants were never really that close to al-Qaida and had so much to lose from the alliance that, after their fall from power, they’d do the only rational thing and break from bin Laden’s group. A 2012 book by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, “An Enemy We Created,” claimed in its subtitle that the merger between the Taliban and al-Qaida was a myth. This was also the underlying premise of the peace negotiations that the Trump administration began with the Taliban in 2018. Those talks predicated a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on the Taliban separating itself from al-Qaieda.

In fact, documents recovered from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after he was killed in a U.S. Navy SEAL raid on May 2, 2011, show that rather than breaking off contacts after 9/11, the Taliban and al-Qaida maintained warm relations. They continued to cooperate on military operations, and al-Qaida even provided funding to the Taliban. In the months before his death, bin Laden wrote a letter to the Taliban’s leader, Mohammad Omar, emphasizing that the United States would soon start to draw down from Afghanistan. Another letter celebrated a 2010 attack conducted by al-Qaida and a branch of the Taliban against the vast U.S. base at Bagram, Afghanistan, which killed an American contractor and wounded a dozen soldiers.

That friendly relationship persists, according to a United Nations report this year, which concluded that the Taliban and al-Qaida “remain close.” This explains why the Taliban’s “peace” negotiations with the Trump administration were always a charade - and why President Joe Biden will probably come to regret his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of this month.

Myth No. 3: Pakistan protected bin Laden.

When bin Laden was discovered to be living in Abbottabad, not far from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, many believed that he must have been protected by Pakistani officials. Then-Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, told ABC News shortly after the SEAL raid that he believed senior Pakistani officials had known of bin Laden’s location. (Levin died this past week at 87.) In 2018, President Donald Trump asserted to Fox News that “everybody in Pakistan knew he was there.”

Yet in the thousands of pages of letters and memos written by bin Laden or sent to him by his closest associates that were recovered in his compound, there is no evidence that he was in contact with Pakistani officials, nor that they had any clue about where he was hiding. After the raid, I spoke on the record to a range of senior U.S. officials, including President Barack Obama; John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser; and the chairman of the joint chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, all of whom said Pakistani officials had no idea that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad.

Myth No. 4: Iran and al-Qaida were allies.

Before he briefly became Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn co-wrote with leading Iran hawk Michael Ledeen a best-selling 2016 book, “The Field of Fight.” They asserted that Iran had a “close” relationship with al-Qaida and that al-Qaida’s attacks on two U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998, which killed more than 200 people, were “in large part Iranian operations.” They also claimed that al-Qaida was working on biological and chemical weapons with Iran. A 2005 Congressional Research Service report noted that the George W. Bush administration believed that Iran was letting senior al-Qaida figures operate there shortly after 9/11 and that from Iranian soil, the group planned 2003 attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

But al-Qaida’s relations with Iran were quite fraught. After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, a number of bin Laden family members and al-Qaida leaders fled to Iran, where they were placed under house arrest. The documents found in bin Laden’s compound show that he was extremely paranoid about the Iranians and was concerned that they might have planted tracking devices on some of his relatives, whom Iran started releasing from house arrest in 2010. The documents also showed that relations between al-Qaida and Iran were hostile, and there was no evidence in them that they ever cooperated on terrorist attacks.

Myth No. 5: Bin Laden was a blowhard who never fought on the front lines.

Milton Bearden ran the CIA operation to arm the Afghans fighting the Soviets during the 1980s. After 9/11, Bearden was adamant that bin Laden hadn’t personally battled the Soviets, telling PBS that any suggestion that he had been a war hero was “a creation ... a personal history, that I would submit is just simply wrong.” Similarly, the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who also played a key role in arming the Afghans in that conflict,told the Guardian: “He was not a fighter. By his own admission, he fainted during a battle, and when he woke up, the Soviet assault on his position had been defeated.”

In fact, there are a multitude of witness accounts of bin Laden fighting with almost suicidal bravery against the Soviets. He set up a base in Jaji, in eastern Afghanistan, and took part in a pitched battle there in 1987. Bin Laden’s wartime heroics were documented in two books in Arabic and also by a young Saudi reporter named Jamal Khashoggi, who later became a Washington Post contributing columnist. (Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi operatives in Istanbul in 2018.) After 9/11, bin Laden summoned hundreds of his followers to the mountains of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan to fight the Americans. There they holed up in caves for weeks, during which U.S. war planes dropped 700,000 pounds of ordnance. But in the middle of December 2001, bin Laden slipped away, eluding the United States for another decade.

Five myths is a weekly feature from The Washington Post.

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