ISLAMABAD: While Al-Qaeda’s terror attacks on the US came as a shock to the world, its leader made the threat almost three months before, in an interview with Baker Atyani, our South Asia bureau chief
It was around 7 a.m. in Islamabad, on September 12, 2001, when I received a phone call from a familiar voice: The man wanted me to deliver a message.
I immediately realized that the caller was Al-Qaeda’s messenger.
I picked him up from one of the busiest local markets in Islamabad. His message was: There is a comment by “Sheikh Abu Abdullah,” another name for bin Laden, for the media if I wished to carry it.
“Osama bin Laden is thankful to Allah for what happened yesterday. Al-Qaeda wants the world to know that they are ready for any type of war and have nuclear capability.”
Interestingly, the messenger was sent a few days before the attacks, waiting for it to happen, so he could deliver bin Laden’s comments on them firsthand.
That was not the “news” I was looking for, especially after the tragic attacks in the United States. It was propaganda by Al-Qaeda, and I decided not to use it.
I had an interview with bin Laden almost three months before the attacks took place, which was broadcast on MBC on June 23, 2001. The threat was: “In the coming weeks, there will be a big surprise; we are going to hit American and Israeli interests.” Chillingly, he added: “The coffin business will increase in the United States.”
The Taliban kept insisting that no attack on US installations would be made by Al-Qaeda, while the US kept its forces in the Middle East on a heightened state of alert.
Mustafa Hamid, a well-known historian on Arab Afghans, wrote in his book “A Crusade in the Sky of Kandahar” that it was no secret Al-Qaeda was up to something soon. “Days before 9/11, if you spoke to a shopkeeper or stopped a man (in Kandahar) on the street, he would tell you there are rumors of a big attack that Al-Qaeda plans to launch soon,” Hamid said.
The news of the 9/11 attacks did not come as a surprise to those who were following the news from Afghanistan. Some Arab, British and US intelligence agencies were receiving reports of a potential attack to hit soon. They all failed to stop it. While they were in the process of identifying the type and nature of the threat, the attacks happened.
The surprise was the nature of the attacks, and that they happened on US soil.
Although Israel had also been threatened, it was only the US that was targeted. Israel was perhaps thrown into the mix by bin Laden to exhibit his loyalty to the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who had asked him not to plan strikes against any country other than Israel while bin Laden was in Afghanistan.
According to Hamid’s book, “Mullah Omar told bin Laden not to use the Afghan territory to plan or launch any attacks against any country other than Israel.” This permission was given to bin Laden in 2000 during what is known as the Al-Aqsa Uprising in Jerusalem, according to Hamid.
This had sparked a debate, and bin Laden was blamed by some of his close aides for working against the loyalty pledge that he gave to Mullah Omar. Even his exclusive interview with me was against the arrangement with the Taliban.
Bin Laden was asked clearly not to meet the media, according to Hamid’s book. Recalling his last meeting with bin Laden in Kandahar in August 2001, Hamid said Bin Laden asked him: “Have you heard about the latest statements on MBC?”
Hamid replied: “It’s not statements; it’s a declaration of war ... you have breached the loyalty pledge you gave to Mullah Omar by speaking to MBC. Mullah Omar gave you permission to only attack Israel from Afghanistan and not any other country.”
Bin Laden replied: “But I didn’t speak directly. It was indirect, and it was the journalist’s words. It was just a threat, not a declaration of war.”
Hamid replied: “Are you fooling us? The journalist reported accurately what he had heard from you, and I know from the people who were present in the interview that the reporter didn’t misquote what he heard and saw. You also provided him with the footage from the media section. It is then a proper media engagement, even if you didn’t speak directly to the camera. Mullah Omar isn’t that naive and simple a person to this extent, (to believe) that you say you didn’t meet the media.”
In that interview, back in June 2001, bin Laden told me that he would provide me with footage that would help my story. It was from a film produced by Al-Qaeda, titled “The Destruction of the Destroyer,” referring to the USS Cole, which was attacked on the coast of Yemen on October 12, 2000. Al-Qaeda claimed credit for the attack, now considered a precursor to 9/11.