Al-Qaeda sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction, jihadist says
Analysis by Rajeh Said in London
Osama bin Laden did not expect a ground attack in Afghanistan. Above, coalition troops at an abandoned al-Qaeda base in Tora Bora in 2002 [ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images]
A Libyan jihadist leader revealed that al-Qaeda sought to acquire weapons of mass destruction to ensure that Americans would not strike Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban regime in response to the attacks that Osama bin Laden's organisation was planning against the United States on September 11th, 2001.
Noman Benotman, a former leader in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, said he was witness to those plans during meetings he held with al-Qaeda leaders in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, during the summer of 2000 -- about a year before al-Qaeda's attack with hijacked aircraft in New York and Washington, D.C.
The information provided by Benotman (Abu Mohammad al-Libi), currently a researcher at the British counter-extremism foundation Quilliam, came in a series of articles published by the London-based al-Hayat newspaper in commemoration of the 9-year anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, 2001.
The series surveys al-Qaeda's preparations for its attacks against the United States and shows that the organisation did not anticipate the nature of the US response and did not know how to deal with it.
The series also chronicles Osama bin Laden's organisation's transformation into agencies or branches scattered around the world.
The first and second parts (published Saturday and Sunday, September 25th-26th) include intriguing information about al-Qaeda's preparations for the September 11th attacks.
Mohammed Atef quoted as wanting WMD
Benotman quotes Mohammed Atef (aka Abu Hafs al-Masri) -- who served as al-Qaeda's military commander before being killed in Afghanistan in 2001-- as saying he wanted to acquire weapons of mass destruction of any kind -- whether chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The goal was to threaten the Americans if they tried to strike Afghanistan and overthrow the regime of Mullah Mohammed Omar in response to the attacks al-Qaeda had been preparing to launch on US soil.
Benotman adds that al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, repeated in the meetings that the Americans bombed al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan with dozens of cruise missiles in response to the bombings of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. They predicted that their response this time might only involve 200 cruise missiles, and they would not come to fight on the ground in Afghanistan because they were "cowards."
For that, the US decision to send its troops into Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime probably came as a shock to bin Laden, who wagered that the US administration would not send troops to fight him but would only strike from the air with missiles or try to assassinate him. He also wagered that Pakistan would not side with the Americans against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. These two wagers proved mistaken, according to Benotman.
Al-Qaeda leaders had different views on September 11 attacks
The al-Hayat series shed light on some of the differences that arose among al-Qaeda leaders regarding the legality of carrying out an assault on the United States in the manner of the September 11th attacks.
It reveals, for instance, that some of al-Qaeda's top leaders opposed bin Laden on the grounds that what he was doing constituted a violation of Mullah Omar's instructions not to launch attacks against the Americans from Afghanistan.
A public argument reportedly erupted on the eve of the attacks between Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, and Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, head of its Sharia Committee. The former was touring the camps in Afghanistan and justifying the impending attack against the United States by saying that it was a jihad, and saying that the Taliban regime was trying to impede the jihad (in reference to its request that al-Qaeda not launch any operations). Al-Zawahiri would say that those who try to stop the jihad should "not be heard or obeyed."
Al-Zawahiri's position led to an argument with Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, who publicly opposed it. This prompted al-Zawahiri to ask Osama bin Laden to control the Sharia Committee head because he was adversely influencing the combatants.
Afghan Arab discussed in paper
The paper also published details about the battles of the so-called Afghan Arab during the US attack on Afghanistan beginning in October 2001.
A leader in the Fighting Group, Abu Laith al-Libi, reportedly led the battle of defending Kabul out of his conviction that protecting the Afghan capital meant preventing the fall of Taliban rule.
The Libyan leader asked bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership to supply fighters to help him defend Kabul, specifically at the northern front, which was for many years the dividing line between Taliban forces and the opposing Northern Alliance forces.
According to the paper, al-Qaeda promised to supply 200 fighters for the Kabul battle but then reduced the number to 50. It ultimately did not send any fighters because it was pre-occupied with two major battles in Kandahar (the capital of the south) and Tora Bora (in Nangarhar province in southeast Afghanistan).
In Kandahar, the newspaper says al-Qaeda prepared to face off against the Americans at the Kandahar airport compound, about 10 miles outside of the city. Saif al-Adel, head of al-Qaeda's Military Committee, assumed the leadership of this battle.
But according to the paper, Saif al-Adel was not on the battlefield. He instead issued orders and instructions from a remote location through a communication device.
The outcome of that battle was a foregone conclusion of course, as the fighters deployed at the airport had no chance against US air superiority. US aircraft destroyed their positions and eliminated dozens of them.
Tora Bora presented challenges
They fared no better at the battle of Tora Bora, even though Osama bin Laden had relocated there in the first days after the September 11th attacks, after it became clear that the Americans were determined to teach al-Qaeda a lesson.
Bin Laden moved to Tora Bora with his best fighters, but residents of the area, cognizant of its nature, laughed at these "Arab lunatics", as they called them, who went up into the high mountains -- covered in snow at this time of year (December) -- without realising that the cold would kill them if the Americans and their Afghan allies did not manage to do so first.
The newspaper said Libyan Fighting Group leader Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq at the time went to Tora Bora, but then informed al-Qaeda leaders of his refusal to fight alongside bin Laden.
He said he could not take responsibility for members of his group dying in a futile battle such as that al-Qaeda was preparing to fight in Tora Bora. Al-Sadiq did not reject fighting out of cowardice, for he is a well-known fighter wounded by a missile in the days of the first Afghan jihad. But he refused to fight this time with bin Laden, because the battle the latter was preparing for could not be won. He reportedly felt responsible for the blood of those who died in it.
The soundness of the Libyan leader's analysis was soon validated.
Bin Laden found himself forced to withdraw before the Americans and their Afghan allies could reach him.