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Bin Laden Said to 'Own' The Taliban

Bush Is Told He Gave Regime $100 Million

By Bob Woodward. Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, October 11, 2001; Page A01

Osama bin Laden has provided an estimated $100 million in cash and military assistance to the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan over the last five years, making bin Laden the single greatest supporter of the Afghan regime, according to intelligence information presented recently to President Bush and his senior national security advisers.

As a result of the new information, government sources said, the CIA has concluded that bin Laden "owns and operates" the Taliban, highlighting the pervasive influence that bin Laden and his al Qaeda forces exert within Afghanistan. Bin Laden's military units also provide the Taliban with some of its most committed and effective assault forces.

The sources add that a key component of the U.S. war on terrorism -- drying up bin Laden's sources of money -- is designed to drive a wedge between the Taliban and bin Laden in addition to reducing the funding available to bin Laden for future terrorist attacks.

Four days into the U.S. airstrike campaign, meanwhile, locating bin Laden in the mountainous Afghan terrain remains problematic. Some intelligence reports say bin Laden still changes locations frequently, at times using an ambulance as cover -- all under the protection of the Taliban militia. They say he often spends the night in natural or man-made caves located in mountains. "It's like chasing one particular rabbit in the entire state of West Virginia," one official said.

The CIA has been developing some imaginative and novel -- and even risky -- techniques to pin down his location, the sources said. "The problem," one official said, "is that we get where he was, rather than where he will be."

Tens of millions of the $100 million provided by bin Laden to the Taliban since he arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996 has been directly traced to bin Laden entities through banking and other transfers, sources said. Bin Laden, 44, a member of an extended Saudi family, received a personal inheritance of $30 million when his father died in a plane crash in 1968, according to U.S. officials.

But sources said the money he has been providing to the Taliban does not come from his personal fortune. The money bin Laden has funneled to the Taliban comes from three primary sources: legal and illegal businesses or front companies bin Laden operates directly or indirectly; tribute payments he receives from several Persian Gulf states, companies or individuals that give him funds so he and his al Qaeda supporters will stay out of or minimize activities in their countries; and entities that are masked as charities.

One senior source said the United States already has some evidence that one of bin Laden's key lieutenants is starting to hurt for money as a result of the financial squeeze put on by the United States and its allies since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But another source said the administration does not expect any near-term impact from the efforts to dry up bin Laden's financial support, because his financial network is so large and because expenses for operating al Qaeda are generally low.

In the past al Qaeda operatives have often held low-paying jobs or resorted to petty crime to finance their expenses."There is going to be no instant gratification," the source said.

Bin Laden has also given the Taliban military equipment, training and some of his best fighters for the battle against the Northern Alliance, the opposition coalition trying to topple the Taliban. When bin Laden first moved to Afghanistan from Sudan, he gave the fledgling Taliban militia $3 million at a critical time in the country's civil war, and he was closely involved in the Taliban's subsequent ascent to power.

The Taliban's protection and shelter for bin Laden have been a key reason U.S. intelligence and military forces have not been able to locate him. Members of the Taliban often travel in bin Laden's retinue, according to U.S. officials. They say U.S. intelligence has information that he often uses decoy caravans when he switches locations and frequently gathers women and children around him, increasing the possibility that a U.S. attack on him could result in the killing or wounding of innocent civilians.

Bin Laden's entourage is small, 25 people or fewer, sources said. He has no headquarters, though U.S. intelligence identified the location of a house he no longer uses. Satellite photography of the Afghan mountains presents even experienced photo interpreters with a daunting task because, as one senior official put it, "One Afghanistan mountain looks like every other Afghanistan mountain."

U.S. intelligence has few, if any, good human sources in Afghanistan, and information that comes through various tribes or factions generally turns out to be unreliable. Said one senior administration official, "It's a treacherous country with treacherous people who buy and sell loyalties." U.S. intelligence agencies believe bin Laden's videotaped remarks released Sunday shortly after the U.S. airstrikes began were recorded at least several days earlier. The tape apparently had been pre-positioned with the Qatar-based al-Jazeera news network with instructions or an agreement that it should not be made available until the bombing began.

While he was in Sudan from 1991 to 1996, bin Laden played much the same role with the government in Khartoum as he does now in Afghanistan. During his years in Sudan, bin Laden provided "some direct financial support to the government," a senior intelligence official said yesterday. He also contributed funds to the Military Industrial Corporation, a collection of industrial companies run by the military regime to support the defense industry in Sudan.

Bin Laden's aid to the Sudanese military gained his al Qaeda operatives assistance from Sudan's army and its intelligence arm in the transportation of weapons to other countries. Given bin Laden's pattern in Sudan and Afghanistan over the past decade, one senior administration official said a central U.S. strategy can be reduced to four words: "Dry up the money."

Staff writer Walter Pincus and researcher Jeff Himmelman contributed to this report.

2001 The Washington Post Company

-- Swissrose (, October 11, 2001

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