In 1997, CNN’s Peter Arnett, Peter Bergen, and news photographer Peter Jouvenal interviewed Osama bin Laden at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. They spent little more than an hour with the man who would become the world’s most wanted terrorist (and eventual casualty of a SEAL Team 6 raid).
At that time, however, bin Laden was just known as a “major financier of terrorism,” although he had already masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, a bombing in Riyadh in 1995, and one in Dhahran in 1996. He ran terrorist training camps in Sudan as well as Afghanistan and essentially declared war on the United States. Few in the West took notice of the interview or bin Laden’s declaration.Bin Laden held the U.S., through its support for Israel and the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, responsible for the deaths of Palestinians, Iraqis, and Lebanese Palestinians. He also called the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia an “occupation.” He declared the jihad against U.S. troops and would not guarantee the safety of American civilians. These are all things he always admitted and openly discussed.
What was different about the Bergen interview was that bin Laden discussed how his network trained Somalis to fight Americans when the U.S. intervened in the Somali Civil War. In Bergen’s book Holy War, Inc., he recalls what bin Laden said about the “Black Hawk Down” incident:
“‘Resistance started against the American invasion because Muslims did not believe the U.S. allegations that they came to save the Somalis. With Allah’s grace, Muslims in Somalia cooperated with some Arab holy warriors who were in Afghanistan. Together they killed large numbers of American occupation troops.’ He exulted in the fact that the United States withdrew from the country, pointing to the withdrawal as an example of the weakness, frailty and cowardice of the U.S. troops.”
In 1993, an al-Qaeda commander named Abu Hafs went to Somalis to scout how U.S. troops were most vulnerable. Bin Laden was openly living in nearby Sudan at that time. During the Battle of Mogadishu (the one depicted in the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down”) on October 3 and 4, three U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were taken down by RPG fire. U.S. officials told Bergen that the accurate use of RPGs by Somali forces was not a skill they would have learned on their own. Journalist Mark Bowden confirms this in his book Black Hawk Down.
The most powerful weapons warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid had after the U.S. decimated his tanks and larger guns were RPGs. Arab Mujahideen veterans of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan trained Somalis to shoot down helicopters. The Arabs taught Aidid’s forces to target tail rotors. The Mujahideen addressed the inaccuracy of RPGs by replacing the detonators with timing devices so they would explode in mid-air and thus wouldn’t have to hit the rotor directly.
The Arabs also taught the Somalis to wait until the helo passed over in order to hit the aircraft from behind. Somalis would hide the tube of the RPG inside trees, in holes in the streets, anything except aiming from rooftops. Helos could spot the RPGs well before they could be aimed and fired.
Bergen notes bin Laden’s multiple assertions of having a “military commander” in Somalia. That commander, Haroun Fazil, was in Mogadishu during the “Black Hawk Down” incident. He also notes that members of bin Laden’s network trained members of forces that were rivals of Aidid’s, in favor of anyone fighting the Americans.
The leader of the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab recently confirmed that three al-Qaeda operatives were aiding the Somalis at this time: Yusuf al Ayiri, Saif al Adel, and Abu al Hasan al Sa’idi. Al Ayiri was killed by Saudi security forces in 2003, and Al Sa’idid died in a suicide attack against Americans in Afghanistan. Saif al Adel is still alive, believed to be hiding in Pakistan. He masterminded the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt, fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and temporarily took bin Laden’s place after he was killed.