Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Osama Bin Laden’s obsession with America was the principal reason behind the first split within the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, a former member has revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Khalid Al-Johani said that Bin Laden’s pre-September 11 decision to focus his ire on America was a source of contention among the nascent organization’s members, particularly those from Arab states.
Johani said: “At the time, the matter led to the defection of the Yemeni Hamza Al-Quaiti from the organization. He established another camp, thanks to the external support he had received, before eventually resolving his dispute with Bin Laden, closing his new camp, and returning under the Al-Qaeda banner. However, this did not happen with other groups that had left Al-Qaeda for the same reason.”
Johani entered Afghanistan in 1996 via the Khyber Pass, facilitated by some influential Al-Qaeda members who had links with Pakistani border guards. He first met Osama Bin Laden two years later through Abu Faraj Al-Libbi. He informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Al-Qaeda leaders advised Bin Laden to tone down his anti-Americanism, and opposed attacks on the US on the grounds that it had not attacked Afghanistan, unlike the Soviet Union.
Moreover, they warned that Afghanistan’s institutions were undergoing a process of reconstruction under the Taliban, and the country could not afford to make an enemy of the US. However, Bin Laden rejected this advice and carried out his threat to strike the World Trade Center in New York.
The former Al-Qaeda member revealed that he had his own reservations about Bin Laden’s grandiose terrorist plans. During a meeting with the Al-Qaeda leader prior to the 9/11 attacks, he expressed his hesitation. Zayn Al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn AKA Abu Zubaydah and Abu Faraj Libbi subsequently offered to transfer him to the Ramzi Yousef battalion,of which Khaled Sheikh Mohammed was a notable member of. The battalion’s stated mission was to attack targets outside of Afghanistan. Johani rejected the transfer. He revealed that during this period, Bin Laden personally told him, “Don’t let us down, and we won’t let you down.”
He added that when the US Air Force began its bombardment of Afghanistan, the Al-Qaeda leadership ordered 350 fighters to retreat to the mountains of Tora Bora, along with Osama Bin Laden. The US bombardment led to the deaths of 10 Al-Qaeda members in less than a month, which greatly affected the morale of the fighters.
One member, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, attempted to mitigate the situation by releasing a statement announcing that the organization would re-order its ranks , while Bin Laden himself stressed that Al-Qaeda would emerge victorious and the US would withdraw from the country in light of its daily losses. Not long after this, Al-Qaeda’s fighters were ordered to withdraw from Tora Bora. Osama Bin Laden himself led the retreat, along with his 20 bodyguards, heading to an unknown location. While Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri headed elsewhere.
Johani explained that he attempted to flee to Pakistan with his unit, with the assistance of some Afghans. However, they were soon caught by US forces who detained them at their base in Kandahar. He revealed that Al-Qaeda members were not even aware that all Afghan cities had fallen under the control of the US as they were isolated from events in Tora Bora.
Johani also recounted the story of his arrest and transportation to Guantanamo Bay on an American aircraft, with a stop-over in Turkey. He arrived in Cuba on January 01, 2002. He was subsequently detained for nearly four years until he was handed over to Saudi Arabia in late 2005. Johani told Asharq Al-Awsat that he quickly became disillusioned during his time with Al-Qaeda, admitting that he initially believed those traveling to fight with the group were divine beings, but he soon realized that they were only ordinary people seeking money and power.
According to Johani, Bin Laden only had a few followers in 1998, with his recruits limited to three camps known as “Jihad”, “Farouk”, and “Omar.” However, in that year alone Nasir Al-Wuhayshi was able to recruit 30 new members along with 20 fighters. Wuhayshi had extensive relations in Yemen and Saudi Arabia through which he was able to attract young fighters with the call for jihad in Afghanistan, providing them with monthly salaries of up to USD 200 and guarantees of housing for married recruits.
Johani’s experience with jihadi groups also included a stint with an Islamist group in the Philippines led by Hashim Salamat, which was fighting to protest the massacres committed against Muslims at the hands of President Ferdinand Marcos’s forces. Johani revealed that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi used to send weapons shipments to Islamist fighters in the Philippines, after relations with its government deteriorated. However, Johani’s experience here did not last long and this group broke up after one of its most prominent leaders, Omar Al-Faruq, was arrested in Jakarta.