Looking for Answers
Original Airdate: October 11, 2001
Eamon T. O'Connor
Martin Smith and
NARRATOR: Sunday night, as U.S. bombers and cruise missiles attack targets in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden released a videotape calling on Muslims worldwide to join his war on America. Next to bin Laden was his close association, an Egyptian named Ayman al-Zawahiri, a man who is certainly as important to the terror network as bin Laden himself.
Tonight on FRONTLINE, the full story of these two men, the story of how the seeds of their hatred for America were sown not in Afghanistan but in two of the U.S.'s greatest allies in the Islamic world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the story of how they joined forces to pursue a common enemy.
LOWELL BERGMAN, Correspondent: And that causes this groundswell of anti-Americanism.
NARRATOR: Correspondent Lowell Berman goes looking for answers to the real roots of the terror that has targeted America.
Six years ago, the FBI was escorting an accused terrorist named Ramzi Yousef by helicopter to a jail in lower Manhattan. A few days earlier, he had been picked up in an Islamabad, Pakistan, guest house linked to Osama bin Laden. He was about to be charged with plotting to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993.
LEW SCHILIRO, Asst. Dir. FBI '98-'00: It was on a very clear night. For a point in time, he was blindfolded, and we allowed him to remove the blindfold. And ironically, he focused his eyes as the helicopter was adjacent to the World Trade Center. One of the agents that was on board the helicopter said to Mr. Yousef that the World Trade Center was still standing. And in no uncertain terms, Yousef's response was, "It would not have been had we had more money."
And I think everybody on board the helicopter that night was almost speechless with that comment, mainly from the standpoint of the seriousness of which it was said. And it left very little doubt in my mind that he was very serious in intent on actually bringing down the World Trade Center at the time that they committed that act.
NARRATOR: Ramzi Yousef was convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and sentenced to life in prison. He was also tried and convicted for a separate but failed plot to hijack 12 airliners and blow them up over the Pacific Ocean.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What kind of man is he?
LEW SCHILIRO: I don't think I ever met anybody, when asked that question, that I looked at as being as serious as he was, an avowed terrorist, so to speak. When you look at the motivation that these people have, I don't think that we can quite understand that. I mean, at least, certainly, my mind doesn't have that capability.
NARRATOR: Ramzi Yousef's inspiration, U.S. prosecutors believe, came from a blind Egyptian cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Although Abdel Rahman was never convicted for the '93 World Trade Center attack, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for plotting to blow up the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations and the Holland Tunnel. To his followers, though, he remains a revered Islamic leader.
AHMED SATTAR: [New York City, 1998] You produced Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman as the mastermind of the World Trade Center, the most evil man on earth, public enemy number one.
LOWELL BERGMAN: This is the blind sheik?
AHMED SATTAR: The blind sheik, yeah.
LOWELL BERGMAN: This is your friend, associate?
AHMED SATTAR: My friend, my mentor, my sheik, my imam, my father, if you want to even put it this way.
NARRATOR: We interviewed Ahmed Sattar, a close aide to Sheik Abdel Rahman, three years ago for a FRONTLINE documentary called Hunting bin Laden. It was then that we first set out to explore why men like Abdel Rahman, Ramzi Yousef and Osama bin Laden want to kill Americans. Tonight we will show previously unaired portions of that interview and travel to Europe, Africa and the Middle East to uncover the roots of militant Islamic terrorism.
AHMED SATTAR: The American government don't get it. You can kill Osama bin Laden today or tomorrow, you can arrest him and put him on trial in New York or in Washington or whatever. This will end the problem? No. Tomorrow you will get somebody else.
NARRATOR: To understand Sheik Rahman's brand of militant Islam, it is necessary to start here, in Egypt. Cairo is the largest Arab city in the world, and Egypt is the birthplace of Ahmed Sattar, Sheik Abdel Rahman and the Muslim Brotherhood.
RIFAT EL SAYED, Egyptian Opposition Leader: It began in Egypt in 1928. This group began the first modern extremist organization in the Islamic world. And the international organization of Muslim Brotherhood extended from Pakistan to Hamburg to Sudan to Algeria to Europe, and so on.
NARRATOR: But the Egyptian government refused to allow the Brotherhood to form a political party. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled Egypt with Soviet backing in '50s and '60s, persecuted, jailed and often tortured Muslim Brotherhood members. Head of Egyptian internal security for 25 years was General Fouad Allam.
Gen. FOUAD ALLAM, Former Head, Egyptian Internal Security: [through interpreter] The Muslim Brotherhood was trying to take power in Egypt, claiming it wanted to create what they called an Islamic state. Sometimes we would detain people. The Brotherhood tried to use violence when the authorities tried to arrest them, and the authorities would respond with guns. And so what happened was that several members of the Brotherhood were killed.
NARRATOR: When Nasser died, the new president, Anwar Sadat, eased back on repression and opened the country to Western influence. But rampant inflation and income disparities led to price riots, and religious extremists found new recruits to their cause. The blind cleric, Sheik Abdel Rahman, seen here in the 1970s, preached that the only way to establish an Islamic state in Egypt was through a massive armed struggle or jihad. He attracted mostly disaffected middle-class students like Ahmed Sattar.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You were affected by this.
AHMED SATTAR: I was. Definitely, I was. As a young man growing up in Egypt in the '70s, in the '80s, looking around me, have no hope, seeing things deteriorating to a level that will not be acceptable by anybody. There was no other way except the Islam ideology, to believe in it and try to change things through it.
NARRATOR: As pressure mounted on the Brotherhood, militant splinter groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad attracted even more young, ambitious students.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt '94-'97: The Islamic Jihad- most of the people in that organization and in the other terrorist organizations were educated.
NARRATOR: Edward Walker is former U.S. ambassador to Egypt.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: Because the systems don't prepare people for work that exists, they are out-of-work educated people. And so their sense of- of resentment is even greater.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So when the blind sheik's assistant tells us that the great problem in the 1980s was educated people getting out of college unable to get a job, unable to get an apartment-
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: It's a huge problem.
NARRATOR: -unable to have a future-
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: He's right.
LOWELL BERGMAN: -that's true.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: That's why they turn to Islam. That is why they turn to Islam and why some of them, then, from that group, turn to a more radical form, because they feel abused. They feel that there is no hope, and they look for an out, a way out, and they build on each other's disappointment.
NARRATOR: A young medical student at Cairo University, a follower of the blind sheik, Ayman al-Zawahiri, became the military chief of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Gen. FOUAD ALLAM: [through interpreter] Ayman al-Zawahiri was a medical student in Cairo. He helped establish the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the '70s. One of the things that personally motivated him and pushed him to establish this movement was the agreement between Sadat and Israel.
WALTER CRONKITE, CBS News: Let history record that at 11-and-a-half minutes after 2:00 this afternoon, Eastern time, Egypt and Israel had a peace treaty!
NARRATOR: But American hopes for peace gave way to violence just two years later, when followers of Sheik Abdel Rahman murdered President Sadat while he was reviewing his troops.
LOWELL BERGMAN: How did you feel when he was assassinated?
AHMED SATTAR: I felt good. It was a shock to me at first because I never expected the pharaoh to be assassinated in front of his army.
LOWELL BERGMAN: The pharaoh?
AHMED SATTAR: Sure. The pharaoh, yes. And but, really, you know, after absorbing the shock, I said, "Well, that was well done."
LOWELL BERGMAN: Because?
AHMED SATTAR: Because of what he did. The Western mentality does not understand that your measurement is different than the measurement of the people of the East, your measurement of good and bad. Yes, President Sadat was a media star, but what did he do to the normal man in the slums of Cairo or in upper Egypt. He deceived them.
Web Marker: Read the full interview
NARRATOR: In the wake of the Sadat killing, the new president, Hosni Mubarak, and General Fouad Allam waged a campaign not seen since the days of Nasser. It included unlawful arrest, detention without trial, and torture to force confessions. Thousands of suspected terrorists were rounded up and jailed, among them Sheik Abdel Rahman and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
PRISONER: To the whole world, this is our word by Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri!
Dr. AYMAN al-Zawahiri: Now we want to speak to the whole world! Who are we? We are Muslims! We are Muslims who believed in their religion! We tried our best to establish this Islamic state and Islamic society! We are here, the real Islamic Front against the Zionism, communism and imperialism! We suffered the severest inhuman treatment! And there they kicked us, they beated us, they whipped us with the electric cables! They shocked us with electricity! And they used their wild dogs, and they hanged us over the edge of the dogs with our hands tied at the back! There they arrested the wives, the mothers, the fathers, the sisters and the sons in a trial to put the psychological pressure over these innocent prisoners!
NARRATOR: The government denies the use of torture.
Gen. FOUAD ALLAM: No, no. I am sorry. They try to say that, but it is not true.
NARRATOR: al-Zawahiri was cleared of conspiracy in Sadat's assassination, but convicted of minor weapons charges. He was released after serving three years in jail and eventually moved to Afghanistan. Sheik Abdel Rahman also left Egypt. He emigrated to the United States. The suspected ringleader of the September 11th attacks, Mohamed Atta also came from Egypt.
Egypt's ambassador to the U.S. is Nabil Fahmy.
LOWELL BERGMAN: I'm sitting out- in the American public, watching. And I- especially in the last couple of weeks, reading. And I see, like, in today's New York Times, "Egyptian seen as top aide in successor to bin Laden." And this is Mr. Zawahiri, right, is the pronunciation of his name?
NABIL FAHMY, Egyptian Ambassador to the U.S.: Yes.
LOWELL BERGMAN: And previously, it was the blind sheik, Abdel Rahman, in the bombing of the World Trade Center. Why Egyptians? And how come they're loose in the world?
Amb. NABIL FAHMY: It's not coming from Egypt. The people- the organizations you're talking about that are of Egyptian origin are not working out of Egypt, so it's not something that's sort of we're exporting to the world. They're not in Egypt.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Well, you did export them. I mean they're-
Amb. NABIL FAHMY: We got rid-
LOWELL BERGMAN: I mean, in a manner of speaking.
Amb. NABIL FAHMY: We got rid of them, and other countries welcomed them. But we did not- we did not export them, we were trying to arrest them.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What the people who survived the- the suppression of their movement in Egypt, who have fled to the United Kingdom, to the United States and to other countries, say to us is that Egypt did this through torture, through suspending civil liberties, through basically, becoming an authoritarian state. True?
Amb. NABIL FAHMY: No, I don't think it's true. I think we- we- we- applied the full force of the law. That's the- probably the better interpretation of what we did.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Well, that- that's what you would say. But they say-
Amb. NABIL FAHMY: That's the truth. I'm not a terrorist, they are.
NARRATOR: Throughout the '80s and '90s, as Mubarak continued to crack down hard on Islamic militants, the U.S. continued pouring in massive amounts of economic and military aid. To the militants, the U.S. was as responsible for the repression as Mubarak.
AHMED SATTAR: Mubarak is just a puppet, that he will take orders and he will do. And a military man, you know, he does not think. He just takes order and does it. There is no difference between him and absolute dictatorship. With only different that, you know, we are- we giving him $2 billion a year so he can oppress the people more.
LOWELL BERGMAN: The United States gives-
AHMED SATTAR: Yes.
LOWELL BERGMAN: To the people who are involved, let's say, with bin Laden or with al-Zawahiri, they feel the United States is the friend of their enemy.
AHMED SATTAR: Yes, they do. If not, the United States is an enemy now because then- you know, I mean, years before, then the United States was a friend of our enemy, but it was not as bold as coming out- out, clearly, explicitly like now. Now it's not a secret that the American government, you know, has one enemy, is the Islamic movement all over the world.
LOWELL BERGMAN: By the way, why do we give- I can understand the $700 million a year in economic aid to Egypt, a country with great poverty. But why do we give them $1.3 billion in military aid every year?
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: The reason for the large amount of military aid to Egypt is- well, it's got a lot of reasons. First of all, it helped to buy the peace between Egypt and Israel. It was a promise.
LOWELL BERGMAN: A bribe.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: Well, call it what you will. It was a promise because at that time, if you'll recall, that the Egyptians were alone in the Arab world. They had a security threat. They even lost a president. So I don't really consider it was a bribe. I think it was a necessary thing for the defense of Egypt and for our own self-interests.
LOWELL BERGMAN: And when people say that Mubarak is the butcher of Egypt, that he got peace on the streets by literally rounding everyone up and, in fact, hounding them out of the country, Sheik Omar Rahman and the people who did the World Trade Center-
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: Well, I would- I would venture to say that if you had an absolutely, 100-percent free election in Egypt today, and it was monitored by the U.N. and the United States and everything else, and you put up whoever you wanted to against Mubarak, Mubarak would win the election.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Because he's got more money?
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: No, because he is seen as a man who protects Egypt's interests. And most Egyptians couldn't stand the terrorism.
NARRATOR: One event above all others shocked Egyptians and the world, the massacre at Luxor in which 58 foreign tourists were gunned down and mutilated by members of Sheik Rahman's Gamaa al Islamiya in 1997. Al-Zawahiri was also implicated. By this time, al-Zawahiri was directing his actions from Afghanistan.
Web Marker: Chronology of Islamic terrorism
Al-Zawahiri had come here in the mid-'80s to fight a holy war against the Soviet Union. He first met bin Laden in 1987. Bin Laden was already something of a local legend, but his beginnings were relatively modest. In the early '80s, operating near Peshawar, Pakistan, bin Laden had set up a complex of stations where volunteers came before pushing on to the front. To keep track of them, bin Laden recorded their names and home addresses. It was called "the base," or in Arabic, Al Qaeda.
Dr. SAAD AL-FAGIH, Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia: Al Qaeda was public knowledge. This was common knowledge to many people who went there.
NARRATOR: Three years ago, in London, we spoke to exiled Saudi dissident Saad al-Fagih about Al Qaeda.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: It was a record of people who ended up in Peshawar and joined, and moved from Peshawar to Afghanistan. It was very benign information, a simple record of people who were there, just to make record of- available to bin Laden if he's asked by any family or any friend what happened to Mr. So-and-So.
LOWELL BERGMAN: But so we understand it, it is a group of tens of thousands of people who shared the same experience with bin Laden, fighting in Afghanistan.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: Exactly. Probably what is in this record of Al Qaeda, probably 20,000 to 30,000 of people who shared- who shared the same experience as bin Laden in Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: Milt Bearden ran the CIA's resupply lines to the Mujahadeen during the war against the Soviets.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Did you ever hear about Osama bin Laden operating in Afghanistan?
MILT BEARDEN, CIA '64-'94: Only in the vaguest terms, as one of the Saudis that was raising funds in Peshawar and doing this other stuff. And our lines never crossed. The suggestion that he was the beneficiary of CIA training, or that we were linked and had common goals, is just nonsense.
NARRATOR: According to Bearden, bin Laden was less of a fighter than a fundraiser. He made many trips back to Saudi Arabia, enlisting help from wealthy Saudis, including members of the royal family. The Americans contributed billions of dollars, as well, to the Mujahadeen. Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan helped coordinate much of the U.S. and Saudi aid.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN, Saudi Ambassador to the U.S.: Osama bin Laden used to come and say, "Thank you. Thank you for bringing the Americans to help us to get rid of the secularist, atheist Soviets."
NARRATOR: You had a conversation with him-
LOWELL BERGMAN:: You had a conversation with him-
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: I had a personal conversation. Other people had more conversations. I had a very short meeting. I met him some- and he didn't impress me as somebody who would be a leader of anything. Actually, at that time, I thought he couldn't lead eight ducks across the street.
NARRATOR: Many of the Arabs who flocked to Afghanistan, like al-Zawahiri, were unwanted by their homelands. It's been reported that he came with several hundred fellow Egyptians, including a deputy named Mohamed Atef.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Who were the Afghan Arabs?
MILT BEARDEN: The Afghan Arabs were a mixture. In some cases, they were people of intense belief in Islam and in the struggle of the Afghan people, who were drawn to that struggle to provide some support to it, to the jihad, in the way of fund raising and building hospitals and all of the other good works that nobody should complain about.
NARRATOR: These are, basically, Muslims from all over the world.
MILT BEARDEN: It's Muslims from all over the world- North Africa, the Persian Gulf, but from all over the world. Other than that, you had a rag-tag bunch of Muslims that were taken from one jail or another, whether it's in Cairo or in Algiers or any other country in the Gulf, and put on an airplane and flown to Pakistan to go do the jihad, with the fondest hope that they not come back.
NARRATOR: But many did come back, including bin Laden. And the victory over the Red Army left them all extremely confident.
AHMED SATTAR: That was a great thing. That gave them a sense of pride to-, "Well, we can do things. We can achieve things." The Afghani Mujahadeen who were fighting, you know, occupying force, you know, the second military power in the world, that, you know, some people here and there were fighting with AK-47s and some hand grenades and defeated them. This- nobody can imagine this. Now it was reality, came out to life. I mean, it was a dream come out to life. And why not do it somewhere else?
LOWELL BERGMAN: You mean, if you can defeat the- what Ronald Reagan called the "evil empire"-
AHMED SATTAR: Yes, if I can defeat the "evil empire," I can defeat anybody else.
NARRATOR: And as one superpower retreated, another one advanced. In 1990, the Americans arrived in Saudi Arabia to oust Saddam Hussein from neighboring Kuwait. Bin Laden had hoped to use his Al Qaeda registry to assemble a Saudi defense force made up of Mujahadeen. But he failed to convince King Fahd that his men could do the job. The presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia remains bin Laden's primary obsession.
AHMED SATTAR: You send your troops to defend us. Nobody asked for the American troops to go there. You went there to protect your own interest. You went there to protect some corrupted regimes that are working against their own people. You went there not to get rid of Saddam Hussein. And if you did, it would have been very, very nice of you, but you decided not to so you can keep a foot and a hand in this area.
LOWELL BERGMAN:: We have our young people there, willing to give their lives. And you're saying you don't want them there?
AHMED SATTAR: No. We don't want them there. Get out.
NARRATOR: Saudi Arabia is a country unlike secular Egypt. It's a country where strict observance of Islamic law is enforced by religious police and a country that is the home of Islam's two most holy sites, the mosques of Mecca and Medina.
Bin Laden's family is inextricably linked to the mosques. Because of close family ties to King Fahd, the bin Laden construction conglomerate was granted a multi-billion-dollar contract to enlarge capacity and expand access to these holy sites, and Osama's older brother, Bakr, oversaw the project.
The stationing of U.S. troops only a few hundred miles away is, according to Osama bin Laden, the most profound sacrilege imaginable. How deep this feeling runs in this closed society is unknown, but around half of the September 11th hijackers were Saudi citizens. We interviewed Saad al-Fagih a second time, after the September 11th attacks.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: If it is a military unit, then it is a huge and massive insult and humiliation to Muslims in the Arabian peninsula to accept this sort of presence.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Why do we have troops in Saudi Arabia, since this seems to be a grievance in Saudi Arabia itself?
Richard Armitage is Colin Powell's deputy secretary of state.
RICHARD ARMITAGE, Deputy Secretary of State: Saddam Hussein has several times attempted to- at least made feints toward the oil-rich regions of the Persian Gulf, and we're not satisfied and confident that he's going to- absent U.S. troops, would be content to leave the neighborhood alone. It's very essential that we protect the survival of those states, that we protect our access to the oil which flows out of the Persian Gulf.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Even though we hear from all kinds of people in the Islamic world that it is something that makes them very nervous, that there are infidels that close to their holy sites.
RICHARD ARMITAGE: You know, we're all people of the book, whether you're a Jew, whether you're a Christian or whether you're an adherent- an adherent of Islam. And I don't think there's- there's really a place for terms like "infidels," et cetera. I think what concerns the people is their own stability and their own security, and that's been the overriding concern. And I can't gainsay that there are voices that want us gone, but I would say that the majority appear to want us to stay.
SAUDI PROTESTER: We are here to ensure that the decadent, corrupt, vile, violent, syphilitic family in the house of al Saud be taken out forever!
NARRATOR: The presence of American troops is one issue, another is the royal family itself. Saudi exiles in London charge that corruption has driven this oil-rich country deeply into debt.
SAUDI OPPOSITION LEADER: [subtitles] Some reports talk about $160 billion debts. Others talk of less. But even if it's one tenth of that, there'll be consequences.
NARRATOR: This tape of a Saudi opposition leader speaking to his followers was smuggled out of the country.
SAAD AL FAGIH: Who can believe that a country pumping nine million barrels a day, with a huge- with a small population, between 15 million and 20 million, is in a $200 billion debt now? Why would this country go into this debt? Why would this happen unless, their people say, unless there is a massive loot of our resources by a conspiracy between the royal family and the Americans?
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: The way I answer the corruption charges is this. In the last 30 years, we have made- we have implemented a development program that was approximately- close to $400 billion worth, OK? Now, look at the whole country, where it was, where it is now. And I am- I am confident you know, after you look at it, you could not have done all of that for less than, let's say, $350 billion.
Now, if you tell me that building this whole country and spending $350 billion out of $400 billion that we had misused or get corrupted with $50 billion, I'll tell you, "Yes." But I'll take that any time. There are so many countries in the third world that have oil that are still 30 years behind.
But more important - more important - hey, who- who are you to tell me this? I mean, I see every time all the scandals here or in England or in Europe. What I'm trying to tell you is, so what? We did not invent corruption, nor did those dissidents who are so genius they discovered it! This happened since- since Adam and Eve.
NARRATOR: Saudi dissidents seem even more concerned about repression. But fundamentalists don't favor democracy as much as they want to replace the current authoritarian monarchy with a Saudi Arabian Islamic republic.
LOWELL BERGMAN: When these people say you don't have democracy, what they're saying is that there is substance to their grievance.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: No, there's no substance to their grievance. I'm not cocky on this issue because governing is no joke. If you get too cocky or you lose touch with the majority of your people, you're finished. I don't care who you are, and I don't care what system. In a democracy, in a Western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections. In a monarchy, you lose your head, probably. If you maintain the support of the majority of your people, who feel what you do serves their interest, you are safe. That doesn't mean you cannot find 10, 100, 1,000 or maybe 100,000 people who don't like it.
Web Marker: Read the full interview
LOWELL BERGMAN: What do you say to people that we've spoken with - Saudis, Egyptians - who say, "The United States is perceived in our communities as the backer of the repressive regime in our country"?
RICHARD ARMITAGE: If you look at our relationships both with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, although we have relatively close relationships, yeah, they're full of scratchy and neuralgic issues because we're constantly talking about need for religious freedom or need for further democratization, needs to raise living standards, the need for education, things of this nature.
NARRATOR: After the Gulf war, U.S. troops remained. King Fahd, fearing that bin Laden was unpredictable, confined him to the city of Jedda. But with the help of sympathizers inside the Saudi royal family, bin Laden escaped to Sudan.
Sudan, like Afghanistan, was an anti-Western Islamic republic suspected of harboring terrorists. It was while bin Laden was in Sudan that the U.S. government and the Saudi royal family began to be more alarmed by what they were hearing.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You invited people like bin Laden to come here.
HASSAN TURABI, Former Speaker of Sudanese Assembly: Oh, no. Bin Laden came here as- from a family which is a construction family known in Saudi Arabia. They build roads.
NARRATOR: Hassan Turabi was known as the "pope of terrorism." His government hosted many terrorist organizations in the early '90s, like Hamas and Hezbollah. But Bin Laden, he claims, was a benign presence.
HASSAN TURABI: He was building a road here. He was building a road. And he built an airport. He had no cultural status, I mean, in the country or relationship in this country. He didn't even publish his literature.
NARRATOR: Bin Laden did build a road between the capital, Khartoum, and the Red Sea. But in 1993, Al Qaeda sent men to help Somalis shoot down a U.S. helicopter in Mogadishu. And bin Laden showed up on CIA radar as having financial links to Ramzi Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber. In response, the U.S. and Saudi governments pressured the Sudanese to send bin Laden back to Saudi Arabia.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: And that's when his family had meetings with him, and he just told them they all are sacrilegious, they all are corrupt, they are all infidels. And if they stay in Saudi Arabia under this government, they are [unintelligible]. So they legally disowned him. Once they did that, the government then stripped him from his nationality.
NARRATOR: That was in 1994. Then there were two more bombings, one in 1995 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the other in 1996 at Khobar barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In total, 24 American soldiers died. Four men arrested for the Riyadh bombing said that they had been inspired by bin Laden, but the links to bin Laden were still unclear.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: We warned him. We warned him. And then we found that- we found out that he was going to draw his money from the kingdom.
LOWELL BERGMAN: He was going to-
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: To take his money, to draw his account-
LOWELL BERGMAN: The alleged $300 million.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: There is no $300 million, trust me. When his father died, his share was something like 84 million riyal or $25 million, so-
LOWELL BERGMAN: In 1996, though, his- he is being asked by the Sudanese to leave.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Exactly.
LOWELL BERGMAN:: Because of pressure from the United States and from your government.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Correct.
LOWELL BERGMAN: They tell us they offered him to you, and you didn't want to take him.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Well, I think there the- I am not fully aware of the details of this, but I think it's a gray area. I think it could go either way.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Which could go either way?
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: The argument.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Well, he flew out over Saudi airspace. I mean, he was, you know-
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Yes, but-
LOWELL BERGMAN:: And he arrives with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Correct, but he didn't get an aircraft and say, "Hey guys, I'm coming across." I think he would have- that would have had a different outcome to it.
But I think, to be honest with you- look, we never gave him the weight that now everybody is giving him. We just thought he was nuisance and he was bad for image of Saudi Arabia, of Islam, his family. We never thought of him as the bin Laden who is doing all this- this- just get rid of the guy. Just go away and disappear.
LOWELL BERGMAN: So have- did you underestimate him, the way we have apparently underestimated him?
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: We underestimated the power of the people around him that created this- what we see today, yes.
LOWELL BERGMAN: The infrastructure.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: Infrastructure that was developed. And it is not his infrastructure.
LOWELL BERGMAN: Whose is it?
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: I think it's the brain child of the people around him. One of them is this Egyptian, al-Zawahiri, and-
LOWELL BERGMAN: Because he's-
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: He is- I think he's more educated, more trained for that. He was part of a jihad organization in Egypt. And that's the same group who planned the assassination of President Sadat and all the trouble that went into Egypt. And I think they he- he had the brain to bring specialists, if you want, in different areas. And now we discover maybe we should not have underestimated. Maybe- maybe we should have paid more attention to how far an evil brain can go.
NARRATOR: In February of 1998, Osama bin Laden held a press conference. Flanking him were his two top lieutenants, Ayman al-Zawahiri on his right and al-Zawahiri's long-time deputy, Mohamed Atef, on bin Laden's left. According to recent intelligence reports, Mohamed Atef is the man who plotted the details of the African embassy bombings and the September 11th attacks.
They announced that bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization was merging with Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman's Gamaa al Islamiya to form something they called the World Islamic Front for Fighting Crusaders and Jews.
The formation of the World Front was virtually ignored by the world's media, but these terrorists went to great lengths to announce their new unified strategy. Instead of waging disparate struggles against governments back in their homelands, they would come together to fight one war against one common enemy, the United States.
Bin Laden even summoned a major U.S. news organization, ABC News, to come record his threats against America. He spoke to ABC's John Miller in May of 1998.
JOHN MILLER, ABC News: Mr. bin Laden, you've issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill Americans where they can, when they can. Is that directed at all Americans, just the American military, just the Americans in Saudi Arabia?
OSAMA BIN LADEN: [subtitles] We do not have to differentiate between military and civilian. As far as we are concerned, they are all targets, and this is what the fatwa says.
NARRATOR: A few months later, two U.S. embassies were bombed in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Two hundred twenty-four people died. Twelve were Americans.
A couple of weeks after the East Africa bombings, the Clinton administration retaliated with missile attacks on the Sudan and Afghanistan. The attack in Afghanistan killed 24 members of Al Qaeda, but bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and Atef escaped. The attack in Sudan hit a pharmaceutical plant.
Shock over what had happened in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam became anger at America. The world was turned upside down. Bin Laden was a hero, as we were told by the President of the Council of Imams in Kenya.
LOWELL BERGMAN: What is Osama bin Laden's image in the Islamic community here?
SHEIK ALI SHEE, Chairman of the Council of Imams: He's a hero.
LOWELL BERGMAN: A hero? His friends have blown up two embassies. He has declared war on America. And people in East Africa think he's a hero?
SHEIK ALI SHEE: Not in East Africa, everywhere. We take him as a hero for Islam because he has declared his loyalty to Islam. But he's not a terrorist at all.
NARRATOR: Over the next two years, the CIA and the FBI continued their hunt for bin Laden and his associates. Assassination attempts were planned, then scrapped. Negotiations with the Taliban to get them to turn over bin Laden failed. All the while, Al Qaeda was plotting. It is estimated that 5,000 or more men have trained in bin Laden's camps in the last decade. From Afghanistan, they have spread out across the world to perhaps 50 countries in which Al Qaeda operates.
At least four of the September 11th hijackers were trained in Al Qaeda camps and then made their way Hamburg, Germany, New Jersey, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and California.
During the Clinton administration, Mike Sheehan, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former Green Beret, was head of counterterrorism at the State Department.
MICHAEL SHEEHAN, Counterterrorism, State Department '98-'01: The primary terrorist threat against the U.S. right now is the al Qaeda network and its network within- of networks, in association with other groups, like the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations, that is very loosely affiliated. Sometimes operations come from a central leadership, which is primarily located within Afghanistan, and-
LOWELL BERGMAN: From the top down.
MICHAEL SHEEHAN: From the top down. Other times it may come from a cell that's operating perhaps, say, in Nairobi, with the Nairobi bombings. Some of the initiative came from that cell itself.
LOWELL BERGMAN: You mean the people themselves, sitting around, said, "Why don't we bomb an embassy"?
MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Or "We're available to conduct an operation." And then they may meet with someone- "Well, how about an embassy bombing?" So it comes from- ideas come from the top and they come from the bottom.
Bin Laden is a symbol, but he's more important than a symbol. He is the psychological leader, the spiritual leader, of sorts, for these people. But he also is important in terms of financing and providing a sanctuary for them in Afghanistan, where they're able to organize themselves, train and get- and also flee, too, after an attack.
NARRATOR: News of al-Zawahiri and bin Laden and their World Islamic Front spread rapidly in the Middle East through a new force, Al Jazeera, the Arabic all-news channel. Broadcasting via satellite from the tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, Al Jazeera reaches 22 countries in the region and has become a widely watched alternative to state television monopolies run by the conservative governments of many Gulf countries.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt '94-'97: You know, it's a new phenomena because you've got people who are every day getting in their living rooms and their television sets footage from the occupied territories or from Iraq, showing people that are suffering or being shot, things like this. And that's having an enormous impact. It didn't use to be that way, that kind a freedom to see- outside television or uncensored television was never there in the past, so it was easier for governments to control the situation.
Prince BANDAR BIN SULTAN: I would rather ignore it, to be honest with you, because to me it's fake. It's fake freedom of the press, theory practiced by this station called Al Jazeera. Why? Because they- they remind me of the saying, "My mind is made up. Don't confuse me with facts." They have a program, three people to discuss an issue. The problem is, all three agree with each other!
NARRATOR: In June of this year, eight months after the bombing of the USS Cole, Osama Bin Laden launched a new propaganda offensive. In a 90-minute videotape broadcast in part on Al-Jazeera and circulated widely in the Middle East, Bin Laden attacked the United States on all the familiar grievances: that U.S. troops were still in the holy land, that the corrupt governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia had sold out to the Americans.
But the World Islamic Front had clearly widened its agenda, as Bin Laden also indicted the U.S. for its complicity in a whole string of other Islamic hot spots, from Chechnya and Kashmir to U.S. support of Israel in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict to the bombing and sanctions against Iraq.
It was all designed to appeal to broad Islamic audience.
NABEEL MUSSAWI, Iraqi National Congress: By the end of the day, the United States is the only superpower.
NARRATOR: Nabeel Mussawi is a leader of the Iraqi opposition trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Although he is an ally of the United States, like many Arabs, he is deeply critical of American policy in the region.
NABEEL MUSSAWI: You're not going to be a superpower unless - and respected as a superpower and dealt with as a superpower - unless you fulfill the obligations that you have towards the people in the street. This is not about appeasing King Fahd. This is not about appeasing Hosni Mubarak. Because you'll only create more angry individuals.
LOWELL BERGMAN:: Bin Laden's litany of grievances - that we tilt towards Israel, that we support corrupt regimes who are repressive - that we have sanctions on Iraq that hurt the people of Iraq, that we bomb Iraq - are the same litany we hear from many people in the Arab world who are not allied with him, disown his tactics. Are we going to address those issues in this crisis?
RICHARD ARMITAGE, Deputy Secretary of State: Well, I think you're playing ball on his turf, and I'm not willing to do that. Yes, we bomb Iraq. Iraq invaded a neighbor, killed women and children, raped, murdered and plundered, and would have gone on to do that further in the Gulf if not faced by a mighty coalition. I think what Osama bin Laden does is to take the fact that some peoples lack hope and lack opportunity and twist it to his own ends, and that's what you're seeing. I would suggest you don't play ball in his court.
NABEEL MUSSAWI: You need to play fair. You need to be perceived- you're the godfather now. You're the superpower. So you have an obligation to play fair. If you- if you play an imbalanced policy in the region, this is what happens. This is the outcome.
NARRATOR: Bin Laden's new tape was clearly the World Islamic Front's latest attempt to recruit young men to the jihad, full of fiery speeches, violent footage of what they call "outrages" against Muslims and stirring scenes of young men taking military training in Al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan.
[bin Laden videotape]
MEN: [singing] Revolt! Revolt! Revolt! Sacrifice your blood!
TRAINER: This is how to attach the battery. It should be inserted this way.
NARRATOR: The videotape was just one of a series of warnings this summer that Al Qaeda was planning a major new terrorist attack against American interests. The flurry of threats picked up by intelligence agencies in June suggested that a big attack was planned for July 4th. But the 4th came and went, and nothing happened.
But the threats continued. In July, the U.S. State Department issued warnings that attacks could be imminent against American installations in locations from the Arabian peninsula to South Korea and Japan. But again nothing happened, until September 11th.
LOWELL BERGMAN: They took the World Trade Center in 1993. They did the Nairobi bombing.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER, U.S. Ambassador to Egypt '94-'97: Right.
LOWELL BERGMAN: They got the Cole. One little boat takes down a billion-dollar ship.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: Right.
LOWELL BERGMAN: And now the World Trade Center.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: And the Pentagon.
LOWELL BERGMAN:: And the Pentagon.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: Never pays to underestimate your enemy. I mean, let's face it, this is an organization that has tentacles throughout the world.
LOWELL BERGMAN:: And all the assets of the United States government, our flaunted power to intercept all the electronic communications in the world and decipher them, all the power of the CIA, the FBI, the $10 billion we spend on counterterrorism-
Web Marker: More on 9/11 intelligence failure
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: Yeah, well-
LOWELL BERGMAN: It doesn't work.
Amb. EDWARD WALKER: People tend to think that we're a superpower, we can do anything. We have limits, just like everybody else. Now, the organizations you mentioned do a lot, but can't- there is no such thing as an impermeable barrier against this. It has to be a constant vigilance and a constant effort. And you can't do it one day and then relax the next.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against Al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
NARRATOR: On Sunday, October 7th, as the U.S. bombing campaign began, another Al Qaeda videotape arrived at the Al Jazeera office in Kabul, Afghanistan.
BIN LADEN: [subtitles] Every Muslim should come out and fight for his religion. The winds of change are blowing.
NARRATOR: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri's response to President Bush was broadcast across the Islamic world.
BIN LADEN: [subtitles] America will never enjoy peace unless we enjoy it in Palestine. And before all the disbelievers leave our holy land.
NARRATOR: The world waits to see what will happen next.
Looking For Answers
Martin Smith and
Eamon T. O Connor
Michael H. Amundson
ABCNews Video Source
America By Air
AP Worldwide Photos
Al Jazeera Satellite Channel
NBC News Archives
Sekani/Hot Shots Cool Cuts
SENIOR AVID EDITOR
Michael H. Amundson
The Caption Center
Erin Martin Kane
SENIOR STAFF ASSOCIATE
Lee Ann Donner
Douglas D. Milton
WEBSITE MANAGING EDITOR
FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR
DIRECTOR OF TV PROGRAMMING
Louis Wiley Jr.
A FRONTLINE Co-Production with
The New York Times and Rain Media, Inc. in association with Granada Factual USA
WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.
ANNOUNCER: There's much more of this FRONTLINE/New York Times report at our Web site, including interviews with top Saudis and Egyptians on the roots of Islamic extremism in their countries, a four-decade-long chronology of the rise of militant Islamic movements around the world, a collection of The New York Times reporting on the war on terrorism and the trail of evidence, plus readings on Islamic civilization and the Islamic revival. Then join the discussion at pbs.org, or you can send us an email at email@example.com or write to this address [DEAR FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134].
Next time on FRONTLINE
Before September 11th, the tension between China and Taiwan was a major military concern for America.
EXPERT: Once the war erupt here, many countries are going to be drawn in.
ANNOUNCER: But now President Bush needs China's support in the war on terror.
ANNOUNCER: Dangerous Straits
For a videocassette copy of Looking for Answers call PBS Home Video at 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$19.98 plus S&H]
National corporate funding for FRONTLINE is provided by Earthlink and by NPR.
In Denver, Skopje, in Teheran, Omaha, in Istanbul, in Hong Kong, Belgrade, in Decatur, in Seattle, Beijing, in Pittsburgh, in Johannesburg. This is NPR News.
FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
saudi arabia +
intelligence failure +
reporting from the ny times +
tapes & transcripts +
pbs online +
photo copyright © afp/corbis
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation