hunting bin laden
Milton Bearden

He was with the Central Intelligence Agency from 1964-1994. As its field officer in Afghanistan, he oversaw the CIA's $3bn covert aid program for Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets. During the 1980's, he was CIA station chief in the Sudan. He evaluates the Afghan war's importance to the Muslim world and bin Laden's role in it. He also questions classifying the Sudan as a 'terrorist state' and criticizes America's retaliatory missile strike in the Sudan against bin Laden.
who is bin laden
trail of evidence
two terrorists
Assess for me the role of Osama bin Laden and his fellow Afghan Arabs in the victory over the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

milton beardenThe Arab element of the ten year engagement in Afghanistan was fundamental to its success, but within the context of fund-raiser. The Saudi dollar for dollar match with the US taxpayer was fundamental.

The Saudi Arabian government, and rich, wealthy princes ... contributed and matched dollar for dollar the US government's money in the Afghan war?

That was within the context of the program that CIA was managing. And that's the way it was funded. And that is known. Beyond that, you had Saudi Red Crescent and all forms of Gulf Arab organizations who were drawn to the only operative jihad at the time, a very major event within the world of Islam. And they were fund-raisers. And they brought additional moneys into the Afghan program, into the resistance from their own sources, and did good works.

For the US, he is public enemy number one.  We've got a $5 million reward out for his head.  We've blamed him for every horrible event in our history except the grassy knoll.They built orphanages, they built homes for widows of martyrs, and brought in, after the war turned to the advantage of the mujahedeen, some ... 20 to 25 million dollars a month. ... So in that regard, they played a very major role. Now, part of your question is what about the combat role. Minimal. There were some Arabs that fought with some mujahedeen groups, but not many. At any given time, inside Afghanistan, [there were] maybe 2,000 Arabs. ... But the people of Afghanistan fought that war, they bled, they died, they were driven out of their country. To suggest that others were engaged in the combat activity to any extent is just simply wrong.

So, when we read about or hear about Osama bin Laden the war hero in Afghanistan, this is not credible?

It is something that is a creation that has taken place post-Gulf War. When Osama bin Laden came on all of our scopes, which was not until really after the Gulf War, he had created by both the media, and now, I think the United States Government, a personal history, that I would submit is just simply wrong. ...

You've talked about in this thing of the sheer and utter nonsense of bin Laden's combat career or importance in Afghanistan as the creating of a new North Star. What do you mean?

What I mean is there are two sides to what I think is a cultural clash here in 1999. You have on the one side essentially the United States and to a much, much smaller degree the United Kingdom, on the other side you have, call it fundamentalist Islam. Both sides are rallied behind what I am calling the North Star, and that's Osama bin Laden. For the United States, he is public enemy number one. We've got a $5 million reward out for his head. We've blamed him for every horrible event in our history except the grassy knoll. And now we have, with I'm not sure what evidence, linked him to all of the terrorist acts of this year ... of this decade, perhaps. That's what he means to us. That's why what I say he is our North Star. On the other side, we have given fundamentalist Islam their North Star, a rallying point. If the enemy of our enemy is our friend, then Osama bin Laden is the North Star to every fundamentalist Muslim who goes to Friday prayers and hears a mullah condemn the United States. So, it seems there's that common bond, the thing that brings us together is the North Star, and we're just viewing it from different perspectives. ...

... Who were the Afghan Arabs?

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.

Basically Muslims from all over the world.

Muslims from all over the world: North Africa, 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 go do the jihad with the fondest hope that they not come back. They didn't die in great numbers. They died in tiny numbers, and they did come back. And my bet is that even the Saudis were terribly happy to see the son Osama bin Laden go off to war. And some might have thought wouldn't it be nice if he didn't return. ...

How important was the Afghan war as an event for the Arabs and for the United States?

In the most cosmic-sense it affected our cultures in a tremendous way.

But in very separate ways. In the first instance for the United States it was the last act of a 50-year cold war that had cost us $13 trillion of our Treasury, maybe 100,000 of our sons and daughters, counting Korea and Vietnam. It set in motion all of the events of 1989 that brought you all of the events that culminated in 1991 with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the liberation of 300 million people in Russia and East Central Europe. It's a very major event and will be accepted as such. On the other hand, it was a small Islamic nation of 15 million people that stood up to the Soviet Union with assistance from others--mainly the United States and a covert coalition--and forced the Soviet Red Army to withdraw. And that's a great victory. A [jihad]. It's the first of a great moment in [resurgent] Islam. It's a very big deal.

They knocked off a super power.

They knocked off a super power. Okay. So in the cosmic sense, of course there are consequences of that. Now, what happened is after 1989 and the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, the United States and the West dropped Afghanistan like a hot potato. Not because we are uncaring and cynical. But because the events beginning with the Hungarians cutting the wire with Austria and the Poles bringing in that electrician from [Gdansk] and throwing out all those old Communist bosses and the people of East Germany going out on the streets ... [in] a few tens of thousands and then in the million, until November 9 of that same very year the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the Berlin wall is breached and 329 days later, Germany is reunified, the Warsaw pact is dead. It's over. That's a very big event for the Bush administration.

And nobody turned back. Somebody caught up with the senior administration official at that time and said something about Afghanistan and the word was,"Is that thing still going on?" Afghanistan by 1990 is going through its own tribal resolution and the Arabs are still over there. It's a totally failed state. People are still milling about.

These are the Afghan Arabs?

The Afghan Arabs are all--you know, they couldn't go home. The ones that were sent over there, by their own governments, from Egypt and Algeria and the Gulf states, couldn't really go back. They were filled with something. This thing that you point out. They knocked off a superpower. But they were most interested in changing problems at home.

And most of these governments today will say, "Well, it was CIA and the United States government that gave these guys all these bad ideas," and I would say, "Well, let's not go too quickly with that one." Then it was CIA and the Afghan war that brought about the assassination of Anwar Sadat? Except the chronology gets a little shaky. Of course there were problems and these guys couldn't go home. So they hang out.

And then, some of them came here with [Osama bin Laden] and there's still problems. And then we pick up on this thing and things start happening. There's the Gulf War. There's terrorism in Saudi Arabia. The suspects in the Riyadh bombing in 1995 and their confessions[where they said] they were inspired by [bin Laden] and then they're execut[ed], we don't know what that means.

We've heard from people in the Muslim community that the fact that the Muslim world, mostly the Afghanis, was able to defeat the Soviet Union, gave them a sense of confidence that they could do things when they went back home. ... And that when they look at these regimes [at home] when they are rigid or in power, they see that their good friend is the United States. So therefore, that's what justifies attacking us.

That's part of it. I'm sure that's part of it. But, who else are you going to attack? Who else do you lash out at in 1999? I mean, certainly not the Soviet Union. To a very, very tiny extent the United Kingdom. But it's going to be the United States. Particularly, if the case can be made, and I'm not sure how fair the case is, that we're supporting all of these regimes that are found so obnoxious to so many of these veterans of the jihad. ...

Let me switch to the Sudan. The national security advisor calls the Sudan a "terrorist state," "harbors terrorism," "fosters terrorism," "is involved in the production of chemical weapons," "starves its own people." All around bad place. That's why we bombed them.

... The accusation is they were implicated in the assassination attempt against President Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995. ... [It's said that] it's a safe haven for terrorists. [But] the Sudanese at our request kicked bin Laden out of Sudan, he went to Afghanistan. They handed Carlos [the Jackal] over to the French. ... They restricted the activities [of] Hamas ... . And they have openly invited the United States to come and say, "Let's work together on this terrorist thing that you say is a problem here, a vipers nest of terrorism. Let's work. We'll listen." I can't get a better list than that from anybody who's in the position to know what the Sudan could possibly be doing that would warrant this. Now, on the attack against Al Shifa, I'm just not sure that that's going to withstand long term scrutiny as having been an act that was justified.

[You mean the assertion] that Al Shifa was producing chemical weapons, or involved in the production.

That's right.

Mr. Berger and others have said, "Rest assured we have intelligence, it's there."

"Trust us" ... I'm not attacking the administration, I'm not suggesting anything other than, share the intelligence with us...

So what was your initial reaction to the missile strike at Al Shifa?

I spent thirty years as a public servant working for the United States government. Very, very proud of it and have had a terrific career doing that. So instinctively, my reaction is, "Dear God, what do they know? What is this about?" Not at that time saying, "What nonsense."

But that instinct has changed rather rapidly. And with the early statements from the administration, almost all of which turned out to be non-operative within 24-hours, I was moved to write an Op Ed piece for the New York Times within a week of the strike against [Al Shifa Pharmaceutical plant] wherein I suggested to the government, "Look, if you've got intelligence sources that matters to protect, don't worry about it. Bite the bullet, lay the intelligence on the table. If you've got to move somebody up for safety, do that, but lay it on the table now. Let us see it. This is not going to go away. The doubts are not just lingering, they're growing." And I believe that to this day. That didn't happen.

The doubts about?

The doubts about what this is about. Why did we strike? Why did we commit an act of war against the sovereign state with whom we have diplomatic relations. Commit such an act without a single warning ahead of time? You know, a nation state like the United States can do those things. But you must have your reasons and you must share those good reasons with your people.

Well the reasons given are Sudan is a terrorist state. Osama bin Laden used it as a base of operations...not good enough?

Probably not ... I would ask, rhetorically, give me three examples of what terrorist activities the Sudanese have been engaged in that in any way threatened US interests? I mean, interests in the broad, broad sense. [Osama bin Laden] was resident here. That is absolutely known until we approach the Sudanese off-line in 1995, '96 and said get him out. They said okay. They told the Saudis, do you want him? The Saudis said no. Send him anywhere but Somalia, get him out. So off he goes to Afghanistan, which I comment is probably the best move since the Germans put [Ilyich Lenin] in a box cart and sent him to St. Petersburg in 1970.

You mean, by letting him leave. Or forcing him to leave you incited...?

By forcing him to leave ... where perhaps we could have controlled or monitored him more closely and then see what he was doing. This is a very flat, easy-to-monitor space on the earth, here in Sudan, but not to debate that. Your other points, [regarding the bombed plant in the Sudan] that's disputed. I don't dispute it because I'm not a chemist. The people who built this plant dispute it. Others dispute it and the sense in Washington is that it was a third country ... So we're back to where I was on the 21st of August saying,"Put it on the table. Let us, you know, please share it with us." That's not yet "forthcoming."

Assistant Secretary of State Pickering said to us on the [issue of the Sudanese inviting the US to come inspect ] "They're not serious, we've asked them to sign the chemical weapons treaty. They said they would. They didn't. We don't need to inspect on their invitation. We know what's going on.' ... [He] was dismissive of these claims by the Sudanese that they're willing to open their doors and be cooperative. That the United States knows through its own intelligence gathering that, in fact, they are up to all these different things, and the fact that they're not willing to sign this treaty means that they are unwilling to have knowledgeable people on the ground actually look for chemical weapons or make sure that they're complying to any kind of international order of behavior.

Well, I'd have to look and see what other countries haven't signed the chemical weapons convention before one could just single the Sudan out on that one. I'd have trouble with the suggestion that it's ever good to be collecting intelligence on a country as a denied area where you're not actually able to collect on the ground and with an official presence, and also to deal with the local authorities. I find that situation always produces an inferior level of intelligence. And if you base the [decision to] attack or not to attack military operations on intelligence that's collected through third hand, you're always going to have at least very serious challenge to your actions. ...

The national security advisor in reaction to our questioning the bombing of the pharmaceutical plant, [said] "What would you do if we haven't done this and chemical weapons were to show up on our New York subway? You're second guessing us, when all we're trying to do is protect the American people."... He's saying that Sudan is a terrorist country which is harboring all kinds of bad people, it's engaged its military industrial corporation in the manufacture of chemical weapons, this factory through that military industrial corporation is somehow linked together. The factory has evidence of chemical weapons production. It's not clear right now, if it is production, or mixing or storage. Therefore, we decided to take this threat out before the chemicals wind up on the New York subway.

Fair. What I'm saying is, all of those justifications for the attack on Al Shifa could be debated by honest people. I would say there are honest, respected people that are saying the science on the collection of the single soil sample, is [bad]. It's no secret in Washington or any other capital in the world. All of the other intelligence that was used in the day after the bombing to reinforce the propriety of the strike has fallen by the wayside. Simply not there anymore. The other accusations that Sudan is a safe haven for terrorism have got to be supported. Now, I would say, stop making these broad statements, inflammatory statements and say that Abu Nidal lives in Khartoum North ... start listing these people and laying some information on the table. American people are very honest and open. And if you explain some things to them, they are liable to accept your rationale.

From your visit to the Sudan, and obviously your study of this, what was Osama bin Laden up to [when he was there]?

He probably found it, at that time when he left Afghanistan and after he left Pakistan after the Gulf War period and floated into Sudan, as a reassembled "safe haven," in quotes, for him. The established links between Saudi industrial concerns and his own father's company and Sudan were well established. ... It's not unusual to go across the Red Sea from your home in Saudi Arabia and set up in the Sudan. That has been back and forth, a two-way street for many, many years. In the early years of the Bashir regime, it [would] also [have] been easy to do this because at that time, no visa requirements were on the books for Arab business men that had just come to Sudan. I would say it was a benign atmosphere [when] he came there. And then in 1995, the United States and Saudi Arabia started making very, very specific [demands] to the Sudan saying, "Look, this is not working. bin Laden is a problem to us. Your open visa policy is also a problem for us." Well, the Sudanese kicked out Osama bin Laden, sent him to Afghanistan and changed the visa [policy]. ...

The US Government is saying that when Osama bin Laden was in the Sudan, they have now been able to link him to everything from the World Trade Center bombing in terms of supporting various people ... to apparently the Riyadh bombing as well as the Khobar bombing. That he was an active terrorist on the ground, in Khartoum, being allowed to operate openly by the government of the Sudan.

... Nothing I have said suggested Osama bin Laden is not a component in international terrorism. What I am saying is that I challenge the fact that Sudan [is] always assumed to be a component in all of the current international terrorism. I think any of those statements that you made should have been trumped at about the time the Sudanese said, "Okay, this is a bad guy, we'll kick him out." And they took that step which was very visible, absolutely documentable, and they did it. ...

You're not saying Osama bin Laden is not a terrorist or is not an enemy of the United States?

Osama bin Laden has chosen to make himself an enemy of the United States. He has issued these disputable fatwahs, these Islamic proclamations, to kill all ... Americans and Jews. Therefore, he's made himself a component, and I think that the United States is absolutely justified in taking out Osama bin Laden. But to oversimplify it by linking him to every known terrorist act in the last decade is an insult to most Americans. And it certainly doesn't encourage our allies in this to take us very seriously. Osama bin Laden is a legitimate target for the United States, period. But then, to completely reinforce it with all of these insupportable accusations, I think is a disservice and an oversimplification.

And you think that we're a target just simply because we're a superpower.

Partly, but we're also a superpower who insists on being perceived by the least fortunate of the Islamic world as being somehow against them. It is not missed in Friday prayers that we sent 75 million dollars worth of missiles flying against the two poorest Islamic countries in the world, Afghanistan and Sudan. I spent too many years living in the shadow of one mosque or another not to take what happens at Friday prayers seriously. And that's what's going on. ...

Because so much of what we hear about Osama bin Laden comes out of his Afghanistan experience, I'm trying to get this straight, he was mostly a philanthropist and a financial contributor, and a minor combat figure, who happened to dabble in combat?

... I can possibly give him credit for having been present and accounted for at one major battle in ... Baktia Province in 1987. Beyond that, I simply cannot say that there is any war record at all. What I can say is that the hype that surrounds Osama bin Laden--most of it generated by the US media and backed up by statements that verge on hyperbole from the United States government--that this man was literally swinging through the valleys of the Hindu Kush with a dagger in his teeth and single-handedly driving out the Soviet army, this did not happen. The Afghan people did that. The Arab role in the combat situation on the ground was minimal to nonexistent, period. And to suggest otherwise is simply to either gloss over history or to create history for your own reasons.

I can imagine someone out there watching saying. "This is the CIA talking." You're not going to admit that you created the most dangerous public enemy in the world.

You bet I would. If I could look you in the eye and say, "Trust me, Osama bin Laden was my guy. If it wasn't for the CIA he wouldn't be anything then, he wouldn't be anything today," if I could say that with a straight face, I think that would speed up the process of removing Mr. bin Laden as a source of great, great concern for the United States. I can't say that because it's simply not true. You can find nobody who is familiar with the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan in those years that would say bin Laden played any role other than the fund-raiser. ...

We've talked to people that say not only was bin Laden in combat, but there are photographs of him with a helmet on, a rifle, commanding troops.

... Afghanistan, the jihad, was one terrific photo op for a lot of people. I will give you that he possibly was engaged in a battle in 1987 where the Saudi contingent and the Gulf Arab group carried off their role reasonably well. I have said that. ... But to carry that beyond ... that series of battles, I simply won't go along with [that] regardless of how many pictures someone can cough up showing bin Laden with a walkie talkie or bin Laden with a Kalishnakov. Anybody that goes in can get a photo op in Afghanistan in those years. ...

So, really what we're looking at is some fact but a lot of fiction.

There's a lot of fiction in there. But we like that. It's the whole Osama bin Laden mythology. It's almost part entertainment. We don't have a national enemy. We haven't had a national enemy since the evil empire slipped beneath the waves in 1991. And I think we kind of like this way. We like this whole international terrorist thing oddly enough at a time when it probably is changing its character dramatically.

Incidents are down. Casualties are down.

State sponsorship of terrorism is just about done for. We try to continue to keep this alive. ... [Of the seven countries the US has classified as terrorist nations], we're in a kabuki dance with Iran. Sudan, I don't think is involved in the state sponsorship of terrorism. Cuba is on the list, but that's Florida electoral politics. North Korea, we're in a strange relationship there. We're trying to provide a nuclear reactor and to nurse them through their current nightmare. Syria is always part of the peace process. So, we have that strange relationship there. Iraq, well, we're bombing them everyday. So we can certainly count on state sponsorship of terrorism from Iraq ... And Libya is possibly ready to cough up the suspects on Pan Am 103. If that happens, that will change the character of Libya to a fair degree. So, there is a transformation in the world of international terrorism, at least on state sponsored terrorism. And finally, we've just declared that's our major problem.

So, how do you make sense of this? ... The president of the United States just announced new initiatives on biochem warfare because it's possible that Osama bin Laden and various people will get their hands on it. The deputy national security advisor has apparently begun to talk about the United States as having a new policy of retaliation against any country that harbors "terrorists." That national security advisor tell us that terrorism, even though he agrees the numbers are decreasing, potentially is going to be [a] major problem in the future. Then, you sit here and say the state sponsors of terrorism are wilting. Other people have told us that the casualties are lower than ever. What's going on?

There's some of this driven by the budget realities of Washington. ... I won't discount the possibility that there will be a significant terrorist incident in this country or somewhere else. ... But what I think can and must be done is to take the seven countries that we have left on our list, and see what we can do with each one of them to draw that wilting list down to one or two. What I mean by that is, I think we could deny the would-be terrorists of the world safe havens by dealing, for example, with the Sudan to the point that it no longer makes sense as a safe haven to any of them. ... Working with Iran, which I support, I think is a smart thing to do, at this point in history, to start that dialogue could take care of a major element that has been there for a decade or more ... . And Iraq is Iraq. So, if you ended up with Abu Nidal and Osama bin Laden and every other bad actor in Baghdad, that's all right. At least you've got people where you want them. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union really did deny international terrorists any place to go. ... Sudan was the end of the bus line, the last stop. I think we can deny the would-be terrorists, the aging, slightly besotted, slightly befatted terrorists of today all their safe havens.

One of the people we spoke with said the other problem is the failed states that exist: Afghanistan, Somalia, to a certain extent Sudan. That these are countries where is no central government really controlling what's going on. ...

Afghanistan would be classified as a failed state. We turned our back by the spring of 1989 after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. The United States went on to other matters. And they went on to the stunning events that were rolling across East Central Europe and all the way into the Soviet Union that resulted in the Berlin Wall going and the Soviet Union collapsing. And we didn't look back, and there was no after care. ... So, there was partly a responsibility that has not yet been fulfilled there. And I think we could talk to them. But it's not politic to talk to them, not because of terrorism, but because of other policies that the Taliban hold dear to themselves. Sudan, when we can't list the causes of terrorism, we go into the civil war, then we go into slavery, and we go into other accusations against the Sudan, all of which could be dealt with if we had a dialogue with Sudan. I'm convinced. So, we could say there is a state that is just this side of a failed state. ...

You had a long career in the CIA, director of operations. You were involved, let's say, as a cowboy cold warrior in some people's minds from the Sudan to Afghanistan. ... Now, you sound like a peacenik.

Not a peacenik. I never did anything in a thirty year career in intelligence that I didn't think fit into some more cosmic national policy ... . It wasn't a cowboy operation to be chief of the Soviet East European division and the director of operations for the last three years of the existence of the Soviet Union. The things that were being conducted out of there were related to an overall policy ... . The covert action that supported the Afghan resistance was part of a larger concept. ... Helping the Afghans wasn't in the abstract. It was also pulling one leg of a three legged stool out from under the Soviet Politburo, the Red Army, the Party, and the KGB. But what I'm saying now, what I'm speaking to you about here are things that don't seem to make sense ... a world where it's no longer a bipolar contest. It's just us that lays claim to being the sole remaining superpower. And I think that our behavior doesn't match up to that. ...

I'm suggesting that the main item that we're discussing here is this clash between the United States and fundamentalist Islam. And down to the specifics of the missile attack against the pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. What I'm saying is, these acts don't necessarily fit in to the continuum of what the United States has been about for the last half century. And it's just simply time to maybe address that seriously.

Are you saying that in the cold war, you had a sense of the United States in sort of a historical process and you were working within that context in any specific thing that you did, but that now, it looks like there is no real strategy, there is no real sense of the United States in the world? It's really just almost smoke and mirrors?

Well, that's not to point a finger or even to shake a finger at the United States Government or the current administration. The set piece of the fifty year cold war was pretty simple. It was us and them. The shirts and the skins, all the way from Churchill's speech in Fulton, Missouri to the bringing down of the Hammer and Sickle above the Kremlin in Christmas of 1991. ... That wasn't something terribly hard to deal with. It was something that two or three generations of Americans who came through this city of Washington were able to understand and say, "This is easy to deal with." After 1991, then we've got this world out there that's been described by directors of Central Intelligence as no longer one big dragon in front of his lair, but we have a rain forest full of vipers. Well, we've been at that now long enough to where I think we should stop for a moment and say, "What is it?" "Where do we want to go?" Do we want to have what is being proclaimed by fundamentalist Islam as a great clash of the Judeo-Christian world against Islam? That's not a goal of ours. It cannot be a goal of ours. But there are an awful lot of people out there that think it is. So, everything we do now, has consequences that are infinitely heavier. ...

home + introduction + who is bin laden? + trail of evidence + two terrorists + join the discussion
interviews + reporting from the times + links + press reaction + tapes & transcripts
frontline + pbs online + wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation