Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 terror hints ‘the coffin business will boom’
Osama bin Laden’s pre-9/11 terror hints ‘the coffin business will boom’
It was dark when we entered the city. Our transport turned from the main road into a maze of semi-paved streets, then on to sand. Most of the houses in the area were built of mud and their condition spoke volumes about their owners’ financial circumstances.
Stopping overnight at a house in Kandahar, I struggled to sleep under the stress of the situation and the scorching heat of the city.
Around 6 a.m., Othman woke me up. It felt as if I had slept less than an hour. Another man entered the room. I did not recognize him at first, but when he introduced himself as Abu Hafs, I knew the name. This was Mohammed Atif, aka Abu Hafs, the military leader of Al-Qaeda.
He joined me and Othman for breakfast: Naan bread, butter, jam and eggs. While we ate, he said they now had enough trained fighters to fight the “coming battle” and were in full mobility mode. In any emergency, he explained, they could evacuate their bases and move to other battle-ready locations within half an hour. After 9/11, I remembered what Abu Hafs had said and how the Tora Bora caves were prepared to shelter Al-Qaeda’s leadership and soldiers.
We resumed our journey after breakfast. I could feel the terrain change from cracked road to rigid and wild track, over which the old rust-bucket bus bounced and juddered most of the way to our destination.
After three hours we stopped at a residence renovated in the form of a fortified compound, with unscaleable boundary walls and a massive gate. This was perhaps the lion’s den. I could see a small contingent of men inside. The compound was like the fortress of an “underground world.” There were enough weapons and ammunition to bring an entire city under siege. After a thorough security inspection and body pat down, I was pointed toward one of the rooms, and men turned monsters stared back as I made my way inside.
Dressed in a white-smoke colored traditional Arabic thobe, and with a typical bright white Middle Eastern turban on his head, a commanding personality stood in the center of the room waiting to greet me along with his trusted companion — a variant of the famous Russian AK-47. This was Osama bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, a declared terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head even then. Next to him was Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the second most-wanted terrorist in the world, who now leads the remnants of Al-Qaeda.
As I stepped farther into the room, Bin Laden moved forward and hugged me in the customary Afghan greeting style. The others followed suit. I was being hugged by the most notorious personality on the planet, surrounded by all his men, declared by the world as “terrorists with evil plans.” The thought of a laser-guided missile striking the compound and annihilating us all at any moment loomed large in my mind.
As we sat down on a cotton mattress on the floor, Bin Laden said: “The plan has changed, I will only give reserved comments.” He said he was restrained by an understanding with the Taliban not to talk to the media. Of course, I had no idea that the twisted statements he gave me later would materialize in the catastrophic attacks on the Twin Towers, which killed over 3,000 innocent people.
Bin Laden had been openly criticized by his followers and the leadership of Al-Qaeda for backtracking on his commitments. His promise to the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, that he would refrain from media statements and meeting journalists, was broken. But his pledge not to use Afghan soil as a base for attacks on any foreign country was the most vital of Bin Laden’s broken accords with the Taliban, a deceit that cost his hosts their fiefdom and led to a war with consequences that have been unfolding since 2001.
I asked him what news he wanted to give me. He repeated that the news was about some future attacks. Abu Hafs intervened, and said: “In the coming weeks, there will be a big surprise; we are going to hit American and Israeli installations.” Chillingly, he added: “The coffin business will increase in the United States.”
I looked at Bin Laden and asked if he was serious, seeking confirmation. He smiled at me and nodded in agreement. Bin Laden had few words, but Al-Zawahiri was anxious to talk. He said they would strike the head of the snake first, meaning the US, and confirmed that the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad had merged with Al-Qaeda in April of that year.
Tea was served, then Bin Laden’s personal photographer was ready to snap a few shots, and to film the three of us as I sat on the right of Al-Zawahiri with Bin Laden on his left.
Bin Laden shook hands with me and said he would be inviting me again after the success of their objective. His parting words to me were: “If something big happens, I will be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That’s where you can come again to interview me.” He left the room, followed by Al-Zawahiri and Abu Hafs.
By “something big,” of course, he meant the 9/11 attacks. It felt odd to hear Bin Laden say this, since a fugitive of his stature, the most wanted man in the world, would surely not disclose his whereabouts or divulge operational secrets. To me, it felt misleading. Later, Abdullah, Bin Laden’s son, wrote that his father actually planned to settle in Kunar province in northeast Afghanistan, but when US forces took control of the province he moved to Peshawar city in Pakistan, then Haripur, before settling in Abbottabad, where he was eventually found and killed.
After the meeting, I was taken back to the same house in Kandahar where I had spent the previous night. I was anxious to get back to civilization and break this news to the world.
After crossing the border to Pakistan, I sat in the departure lounge in Quetta waiting for my flight to Islamabad, deep in thought, wondering about the dilemma I faced. Should I report the truth, the news, however bad? Or would I be projecting violence and terror?
In the end, the truth won, as it should. My story was broadcast on MBC on June 23, 2001. In my concluding remarks, I said the coming days would reveal who would attack first, and how big this attack would be. As we all now know, it was huge, catastrophic and terrifying, and it shook the world, but the ripple effect brought much chaos and disaster back to where it was planned. Southeast Asia in general, and Afghanistan in particular, still yearn for peace and stability 16 years on.
In November 2001, my phone rang again. It was Othman. “The person” was ready to meet me as promised, he said. “Will you?”
US sanctions on Iran threaten vital Afghanistan trade project
- Chabahar is among a number of projects of transport and energy networks projects designed to boost Afghanistan’s trade
- After 17 years of US-led invasion to oust the Taliban from power, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries, highly dependent on foreign aid
WASHINGTON/KABUL: US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord and re-impose sanctions on Tehran threatens to derail a project to help build Afghanistan’s economy, endangering a key goal of the US strategy to end America’s longest war.
The Indian-backed Chabahar port complex in Iran is being developed as part of a new transportation corridor for land-locked Afghanistan that could potentially open the way for millions of dollars in trade and cut its dependence on Pakistan, its sometimes-hostile neighbor.
Building Afghanistan’s economy would also slash Kabul’s dependence on foreign aid and put a major dent in the illicit opium trade, the Taliban’s main revenue source.
But Trump’s decision to re-impose sanctions on Iran and penalize financial institutions for doing business with Tehran is clouding Chabahar’s viability as banks, nervous they could be hit with crippling penalties, pull back from financing.
“President Trump’s decision has brought us back to the drawing board and we will have to renegotiate terms and conditions on using Chabahar,” a senior Indian diplomat said. “It is a route that can change the way India-Iran-Afghanistan do business, but for now everything is in a state of uncertainty.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Launched in 2016, the joint Iran-India-Afghanistan Chabahar project already was facing holdups. It has yet to see significant traffic apart from some containers of donated wheat from India, and the first shipments of Afghan dried fruit to India are not expected before July.
At least three contracts to build infrastructure at the port now have been delayed, with two Chinese companies and a Finnish group left hanging while bankers seek clarity from Washington before approving guarantees, a person close to the project said.
In addition, Afghan traders, who were hoping for an alternative to Pakistan’s port of Karachi, now find themselves cut off from funding and forced to rely on the traditional hawala money transfer system, which is insufficient on its own to transform an economy. Hawala is a trust-based system commonly used in Afghanistan that involves the movement of funds between agents in different countries.
“We know our correspondent banks would not let us pay for imports coming through that port,” said a senior executive at one major Afghan lender.
Chabahar is among a number of projects of transport and energy networks projects designed to boost Afghanistan’s trade and lay the foundations for a mining industry capable of exploiting its billions of dollars in untapped mineral reserves.
Bypassing the border with Pakistan, which last year was closed for some 50 days over various disputes, Chabahar is seen as a way for Afghanistan to consolidate its relationships with India and other regional powers.
“The only way to get India more involved” in Afghanistan’s economic development “is through Chabahar,” said Barnett Rubin, an expert with New York University’s Center for International Cooperation and a former adviser to the State Department and the United Nations. “Our Iran policy is headed for a train wreck with our Afghanistan policy.”
Some 17 years after the US-led invasion to oust the Taliban from power, Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries, highly dependent on foreign aid.
Apart from illegal opium exports estimated at some $2 billion by the International Monetary Fund, its main products are dried and fresh fruits, and carpets, none of which amount to more than a fraction of the value of the drugs trade.
Initially, Afghanistan would export agricultural produce – such as pomegranates and grapes — through Chabahar, utilizing a section of a road India paid for and then an extension to the Iranian border that New Delhi built, experts said.
Eventually, those exports could expand to mineral resources, something Trump has expressed an interest in gaining for US firms. For India, this would mean using a planned railroad to Chabahar to export iron ore from two tracts at the Hajjigak iron mine in central Afghanistan that it won the rights to exploit, the experts said.
“The economic piece is really important to get a glimmer of hope for Afghanistan to move beyond a land-locked, poppy-based economy. We are now shooting that in the head,” said Thomas Lynch, a National Defense University expert and a former US Army officer who advised the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on South Asia policy.
“There is no other legitimate and reliable way to do that. You can’t do it by air, you can’t do it through Pakistan because they just extort for everything they do,” said Lynch. “The lifeline runs through Chabahar.”
In addition, by hindering the development of Chabahar, the United States will leave Afghanistan dependent on Pakistan, historically its main trade partner and outlet to the world.
That would undermine another Trump goal of pressuring Islamabad to shutter Afghan insurgent sanctuaries on its side of the border and force the militants into peace talks.
Afghan officials have lobbied hard for exemptions to the sanctions for Afghan companies operating through Chabahar without success and are waiting for clarity from Washington.
“Now the uncertainty is that we don’t know what’s going to happen with Chabahar,” said Atiqullah Nusrat, Chief Executive of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We haven’t heard anything so we have to wait and see what happens.”