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“Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism”: Correspondent John Cooley Discusses the Investigation in Germany, Osama bin Laden’s Financial Assets, and His Book

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Two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, investigators have not yet identified any knowing accomplices in the United States or uncovered a broad support network that assisted the 19 hijackers, this according to a senior law enforcement official in yesterday’s New York Times. The official, who is actively involved in the investigation, said that a key to unraveling the plot might lie not in the United States, but in Germany. A team of agents has been dispatched to pursue leads there. Based on investigators’ portraits of the suspected hijackers and their movements before the September 11th attacks, the official said, federal agents are investigating whether the plot had its origins in Germany and then branched out to hubs in Newark, Boston, Florida and Maryland.

Now, of course, we don’t know if any of this is true. What we just read is according to an unnamed source quoted in The New York Times. That is the problem: So much of what you’re going to read in the papers and hear on television is based on unnamed sources. Some of it may turn out to be true, and a lot of it probably will not.

Germans were shocked to learn that three hijackers had reportedly lived unobtrusively in the city of Hamburg — in one case for at least eight years. According to the Financial Times, Germany’s chief prosecutor is saying that for many months the city has been the base for a cell of Islamic extremists involving the three hijackers, an alleged ringleader who may have now fled to Pakistan, and possibly others. German police are currently investigating financial ties between two of the hijackers and a Syrian businessman who controls a Hamburg bank account belonging to a founder of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

Meanwhile, the Group of 7 leading industrial nations yesterday pledged to pursue a comprehensive strategy to disrupt terrorist funding around the world. The G7 finance ministers considered a new United Nations resolution that would stiffen sanctions against financial centers that failed to comply with money laundering guidelines and require authorities to report suspicious financial activities. Their meeting came a day after President Bush froze assets in the U.S. belonging to Osama bin Laden and 26 other people and groups suspected of supporting him. U.S. officials are planning to travel to Gulf capitals later this month to press their investigation directly with banking authorities and financial institutions.

We’re joined by John Cooley, a U.S. correspondent who has covered North Africa and the Middle East for 40 years and who’s written a book called “Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, investigators have not yet identified any knowing accomplices in the United States or uncovered a broad support network that assisted the 19 hijackers, this according to a senior law enforcement official in yesterday’s New York Times. The official, who is actively involved in the investigation, said that a key to unraveling the plot might lie not in the United States, but in Germany. A team of agents has been dispatched to pursue leads there. Based on investigators’ portraits of the suspected hijackers and their movements before the September 11th attacks, the official said, federal agents are investigating whether the plot had its origins in Germany and then branched out to hubs in Newark, Boston, Florida and Maryland.

Now, of course, we don’t know if any of this is true. What we just read is according to an unnamed source quoted in The New York Times. That’s the problem: So much of what you’re going to read in the papers and hear on television is based on unnamed sources. Some of it may turn out to be true; a lot of it probably will not.

Well, Germans were shocked to learn that three hijackers had reportedly lived unobtrusively in the city of Hamburg — in one case for at least eight years. According to the Financial Times, Germany’s chief prosecutor is saying that for many months the city has been the base for a cell of Islamic extremists involving the three hijackers, an alleged ringleader who may have now fled to Pakistan, and possibly others. German police are currently investigating financial ties between two of the hijackers and a Syrian businessman who controls a Hamburg bank account belonging to a founder of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

Meanwhile, the Group of 7 leading industrial nations yesterday pledged to pursue a comprehensive strategy to disrupt so-called terrorist funding around the world. The G7 finance ministers considered a new United Nations resolution that would stiffen sanctions against financial centers that failed to comply with money laundering guidelines and require authorities to report suspicious financial activities. This move comes a day after President Bush froze assets in the U.S. belonging to Osama bin Laden and 26 other people and groups suspected of supporting him. U.S. officials are planning to travel to Gulf capitals later this month to press their investigation directly with banking authorities and financial institutions.

We’re joined now by John Cooley. He’s a U.S. correspondent who has covered North Africa and the Middle East for 40 years and has written the book Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism.

Welcome to Democracy Now! in Exile, John Cooley.

JOHN COOLEY: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Your book is possibly the most detailed account of the CIA’s backing of the mujahideen in the 1980s, and we want to get to that in a minute. But first, you’re in Munich right now. Can you summarize the investigation that’s underway in Germany?

JOHN COOLEY: Well, the German local police, particularly in Hamburg, kicked it off almost immediately after the attacks. It was picked up by the German counterintelligence service and the BKA, which is the German equivalent of the FBI, the federal German law enforcement agency. And it has spread from Hamburg, where this cell that you mentioned of the hijackers and of their supporters did live and work and study, in some cases for a number of years. It has spread to here, to Munich. It has spread to Berlin and Frankfurt. In Frankfurt, there were arrests of several people, who were — these go back to last New Year’s, actually, when apparently the bin Laden network planned simultaneous attacks in several parts of the world, including the Algerian who infiltrated Washington state from Vancouver and with intention to attack Los Angeles airport, who has been convicted since. In the United States or operations planned in Jordan against tourist hotels and tourist sites, these were thwarted. Here in Germany, the New Year’s party was to have been in Strasbourg, France, apparently, an attempt to blow up, if possible, the European Parliament there, among other things. And the police have gone back to Frankfurt now, since the attacks in the United States, to further investigate that particular group, and have detained and raided a couple of more — detained more people and raided a couple more localities in Frankfurt in that connection.

The financial trail is being followed in Germany carefully, but without much results so far. The central bank and the German federal authorities have frozen 13 bank accounts believed to be associated with bin Laden. Since 1999, the European Union asked that it be done in ’99, and only one of those 13 was frozen after the attacks in the United States this month. But the pickings have been very slim so far. Only a million dollars, or, I think, $1.27 million, has been gleaned in freezing these accounts so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you just back up for a minute in terms of how they tied the hijackers, the people who they believe to have been the hijackers, to Germany in the first place?

JOHN COOLEY: Well, it’s very interesting. German journalists that I’ve been talking to, one just an hour ago, who have worked in law enforcement matters and are very senior, assure me that the — both the American FBI and the German counterintelligence service had these people under surveillance as early as 1998. And German police sources, I won’t say — I think “complain” would be too strong a word, but express annoyance that the FBI, they say, did not share all the information they had with the Germans. The FBI is very active in Germany. They’ve got a full station in Berlin, and have had for some time, as the German Federal Police do in Washington.

Mohamed Atta, who piloted the first plane that hit the World Trade Center, was a student at this technical university in Hamburg, as were two of his companions, as was Sabihi and — rather, Shehri. One of the two Shehri brothers, at least, studied there. He was piloting the second plane, we think. There was a third man, very important, named Bahaji, who has disappeared. His mother and his wife say that he’s gone to Pakistan for an internship and he’ll be back, but he’s listed as missing and wanted by the German police, and there are warrants out for a number of others with the Hamburg group.

The German police remarked that immediately after the attacks in New York, they asked the FBI for anything that would help them in the investigation in Germany, and instantly the FBI produced a full database on these people, particularly against Mohamed Atta. And the Germans were struck by the fact that they must have been under surveillance by the Americans for some time to have built up such a big database.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Cooley. He’s author of Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism. So you’re saying the FBI was monitoring them even as they were getting trained at U.S. aviation schools?

JOHN COOLEY: It would appear that they were monitoring them even in Germany, before they left for the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any knowledge of them being trained at U.S. military schools?

JOHN COOLEY: No, I have — I don’t know the details about that. It’s been reported in the States, as you know, that they took pilot training in civilian schools. I don’t know of military training for these particular people. Of course, the military training for bin Laden-type terrorists goes way back to the Afghan War of ’79 to ’89, when the CIA and Pakistani military intelligence took charge of training this army of Muslim mercenaries, who were to fight and eventually expel the Russians from Afghanistan in the ’80s. But more recent military training in the States, I have not heard of.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the CIA and the mujahideen and your whole investigation of them over many, many years. But first, on the issue of Bush’s executive order freezing financial assets, what do you think of it? How do they identify the financial assets of Osama bin Laden? And what do you think, in particular, of the charity Al Rashid, which is very angry and well known, as I was just reading in the news headlines, for providing limbs to amputees, supplying sewing machines, is seen throughout Afghanistan and has been put on the terrorist list?

JOHN COOLEY: Right. Well, if I had to characterize the whole effort to identify and run down bin Laden and affiliates’ worldwide assets, I would refer to Greek mythology, where, as you know, Hercules was assigned, I think, 12 labors. And this would certainly be the 13th and most difficult of all. It’s going to be an immense task. I have just read a 70-page intelligence report. It’s over a year old, but extremely detailed with names and addresses around the world of bin Laden’s assets and the companies he has invested in or helped and the people and firms he has been associated with in various ways. The list reaches all the way from Saudi Arabia, of course, Bin Laden construction group, which is the biggest — still the biggest construction group, I believe, in the world, all the way to the Far East, to Kuala Lumpur, to the Philippines, to the main — to many main European, as well as Arab banks. And untangling all this and determining responsibilities and who are the real owners of bank accounts is really a Herculean task. And I would almost think that it might be called mission impossible.

AMY GOODMAN: So, who are the groups whose financial assets have been seized?

JOHN COOLEY: Well, they’ve been listed in the U.S. media. I think there were 12 or 15. They were mostly individuals known to have been associated with bin Laden, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was an Egyptian surgeon and also sometimes reported to be a psychiatrist, who has been with bin Laden. He’s is probably his main deputy, for many years, who lived in Switzerland after his exile from Egypt. He was in charge of one of the most militant Egyptian Islamist groups, the one whose people originally murdered Anwar Sadat in '81. Zawahiri, just to take this one example, is believed to have controlled bank accounts in Switzerland when he lived there. And, of course, the Arab banks which have helped bin Laden, the names of them are known. The Saudi Commercial Bank is one that's under great suspicion. It’s run by a man named bin Mahfouz, who is a Yemeni, as was bin Laden’s father. And the bin Laden construction dynasty, their origins were Yemen. And the list goes on and on, and it includes people in the city of London, includes people in the United States, in New York. And the job of sorting these out is going to be immense.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Cooley. He is the author of Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism. We’re going to be back with him in just a minute. We’re also going to have a debate later in the program over whether the U.S. should fund the Northern Alliance, which is fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. And in our second hour, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese peace activist and Buddhist monk, will speak. It’s a recording of his speech last night at the historic Riverside Church in New York, where thousands came to hear his words. We’re also going to talk about where the money for war comes from. We’ll talk about the effects of military spending on poor people in the United States. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “World Without End,” Laurie Anderson, here on Ground Zero Radio’s War and Peace Report. This is Democracy Now! in Exile. I’m Amy Goodman. The New York Times is reporting today German police are investigating financial ties between two hijackers who rammed airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and a Syrian businessman who controls a Hamburg bank account belonging to a founder of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network. If the links are proved, they would appear to provide strong evidence of al-Qaeda’s involvement in the September 11th attacks on the trade center and the Pentagon. We are talking to John Cooley,, who is a longtime investigator of the mujahideen in Afghanistan, wrote the book Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism and is a longtime U.S. correspondent. We’re speaking to him in Munich, Germany. What about this latest information? And are you convinced that the al-Qaeda network is behind the September 11th attacks?

JOHN COOLEY: Well, the signs point that way. The Syrian gentleman that you mentioned is actually a German citizen. His name is Mamoun Darkazanli. He had a one-man company in Hamburg. The police questioned him but did not arrest him. And then he seemed to vanish, but he’s reappeared now in Berlin. He gave an interview to the Financial Times of London. He denied any link to the hijackers or terrorists, but he did admit that he was doing business and controlled a bank account belonging to Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, who has almost certainly been a senior financial aide to bin Laden and who was extradited from Germany to the United States and faces terrorism charges now in the United States. Darkazanli has lived in Germany for 18 years. He’s got a — as I said, he has German citizenship. And the bank account in question was, of course, in a Hamburg bank. But it’s very — these things are very elusive, and the Germans don’t have enough information to charge him with anything. It’s all supposition and suspicion based on this one circumstance that he controlled a bank account of this man Salim. And you could repeat similar examples from many, many places, especially in Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: Salim is also charged, the man who is being held in the United States, awaiting trial both on charges he participated in bin Laden’s, as the Times put it, “global terrorism conspiracy” and that he stabbed and critically wounded a guard last November 1st at the federal prison in Lower Manhattan. He has pled not guilty to all charges. Let’s go, John Cooley, to your investigation of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and your book. Can you talk about how the mujahideen got their start, as well as the involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency?

JOHN COOLEY: When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in summer 1979 — and again, just as the American countermeasures were not unanimously decided by the Carter administration, the Soviet operation was not unanimously decided at all. It was Brezhnev and Andropov and a couple of other politburo members. And as an appendix to my book, you can find a Soviet — declassified Soviet document, the minutes of the politburo meeting that decided on this, and you’ll see how few people wanted to do it and how many even some of the Soviet senior military people opposed it.

Anyway, when it happened, the Carter administration decided — and certainly, Mr. Brzezinski, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser, was very prominent in this decision — to recruit a worldwide network of Muslims. They were actually mercenaries, because they were very well paid. They were volunteers, and they came from all of the Muslim and Arab countries, and they came from Muslim communities in non-Muslim states, such as the United States. There were American Black Muslims and others, from Los Angeles and Brooklyn and other places in the U.S. They came from the Philippines. They came from Iran. They came from Turkey. They were — the program was managed by the CIA. The CIA in the United States trained, in their camps and in Army and Navy SEAL-Special Forces camps, the trainers of the mujahideen. And those trainers were mostly senior Pakistani military officers, many of them from ISI, which is the Pakistani intelligence service, umbrella intelligence service, called Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, which is extremely powerful, which, incidentally, fathered the Taliban and probably still watches them very closely and has been helping them all along. But they took charge of the program.

My view is — and this is my personal judgment, and I express in the book — that it was a mistake to hire mercenaries to do this job. The Carter administration, of course, didn’t want to send the U.S. military into Afghanistan to fight the Russians. They didn’t want a Russian-American war, and that’s extremely understandable.

But the second and much more serious error, in my view, was that once this was decided and the program begun, the Pakistanis, President Zia-ul-Haq, General Zia-ul-Haq, who was the virtual dictator of Pakistan then, was given total control, by the Carter administration, of all of the supply, the financing, the arming and even the deployment, in some cases, of the seven main mujahideen guerrilla groups. And the CIA was allowed only to help finance it, to send the material, in some rare cases, to send some senior CIA officers to Pakistan for special training tasks, such as the Stinger missile, which really, in 1985, ’86, turned the war around and gave victory to the mujahideen and the coalition supporting them — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and some others, Britain.

And actually, this was — this involvement of the Pakistanis as control made it possible for the Pakistanis, after the war was over and the Russians were gone, when the Americans turned their back on Afghanistan — they didn’t care anymore what happened. The country was in misery and in ruins, but there was very little American concern about what went on after, once the Russians were out. Well, the Pakistani military continued to train guerrillas for their own agendas, especially Kashmir, and still do. I see that, only today, the bank accounts of one of the Kashmiri groups has been frozen by Pakistan. That is quite a radical step for them to take, and shows that General Musharraf really means what he says when he’s going to help the Americans. But these guerrillas continue to train, and bin Laden himself, who was acting as a helper for Saudi intelligence, working parallel with the CIA, building military installations for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the tunnels and caves, which, ironically, the United States attacked with cruise missiles after our embassies in East Africa were bombed, in August ’98 — bin Laden was an important contributor to all this effort, but always with the controlling hand of the Pakistanis on it, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi intelligence, which supported him and supported one or two of the seven main mujahideen groups. That support continued, in some cases, after the war was over.

And one of those seems to have been the Abu Sayyaf Group, which was transplanted to the Philippines. They were the youngest of the seven mujahideen groups. Their founder, who was an Afghani professor of Islam, Islamic studies, named professor Abdel Rasul Abu Sayyaf, founded what was really a “terrorism university,” as The New York Times termed it, outside Islamabad. These people were transplanted to the Philippines, and they became little more than a kidnap gang. And they’ve made quite a lot of money kidnapping and holding people, including Americans, for ransom there. And they’re still doing it. So, you see, the consequences of Pakistani control and lack of American control have extended this contagion all around the world. Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, the Philippines, New York, the World Trade Center bombing in ’93, and many other terrorist acts were perpetrated by the alumni of the Afghan War. And the Arab volunteers are still called the Arab Afghanis in their own countries, and many of them are wanted, and some of them are under death sentences in absentia.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking —

JOHN COOLEY: Bin Laden was simply a coordinator of many, many of these activities.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Cooley, U.S. correspondent and author, who’s covered North Africa and the Middle East for 40 years. In a minute, we’re going to have a debate on whether the U.S. should fund the Northern Alliance, which is fighting in northern Afghanistan against the Taliban. But I wanted to ask you, as you — first, have you met Osama bin Laden?

JOHN COOLEY: No, I have never met Osama bin Laden myself. A few journalists have. A few Western journalists have, and several — and more Pakistani journalists have. But he has now chosen the Al Jazeera television network, based in the Gulf in Doha, in Qatar, which is a relatively independent and free-thinking, liberal, if you like, Arab television network, not under the influence of any government — except they probably would not attack the Saudi royal family, but they will attack almost any other icon in the Arab world. He, bin Laden, now has chosen them as his selected outlet. And when he has something to say, he makes a tape for them. This has happened again quite recently. And so, I have no — no, I have no direct — I have never encountered him, and I have no direct knowledge of him through meeting him.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the privatization of terror?

JOHN COOLEY: Well, I call the privatization of terror the gradual relaxation or the gradual drying up of government funds from the United States, from Saudi Arabia, from other contributors, such as Egypt, towards the end of the war, towards the end of the ’80s, the end of the Afghan War, when the Soviets were about to withdraw and were withdrawing. This was replaced by private fortunes of men and companies, like Osama bin Laden and his construction companies. It was replaced by certain Arab banks. It was replaced by certain financiers. But by far the most important was Osama bin Laden.

Now, another aspect of privatization of terrorism has been the income from the drug traffic. And as I point out in my book, both the United States and the Soviet Union encouraged or tolerated — certainly, “encouraged” is a proper word, in some cases — the drug traffic in Afghanistan to earn money to finance the war. And that became more and more important as the output of opium, opium base — or, rather, morphine base and even refined heroin became greater and greater through the years, the last years of the war, and into and through the ’90s, as well, until — Afghanistan — until very recently, when the Taliban seemed to be clamping down on it, was the biggest source of opium and its products in the world, along with Burma and some of the Golden Triangle countries in the Far East. So, drug traffic was another important source of the privatization of terrorism and still is.

This is true also in the Balkans, where mujahideen veterans have fought in Bosnia and in Kosovo, and they’re still there. They have had some bases in Albania. And there is a very lively traffic in drugs and arms there, which certainly goes to finance various guerrilla and terrorist causes, including some that have been backed by the West, such as the Kosovo Liberation Army, the UÇK, UÇK, as they call it.

AMY GOODMAN: There was some talk in Belgrade, our correspondent Jeremy Scahill said, of Osama bin Laden being connected to the KLA.

JOHN COOLEY: Yes. The Serbs believe that. And I have seen reports, I have seen Greek reports, that maybe bin Laden, in person, visited the Balkans, although I think that’s doubtful. But certainly, people affiliated with him have worked with the KLA — there’s no doubt about that — and mostly from, as I say, bases originally in Albania, but now you see their — you see traces of this in Macedonia and, as always, in Kosovo. That was the European aspect of bin Laden’s very, very loose, but very widespread network.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask, as an opening to the debate we’re about to have when we end with you, whether you think that the U.S. should be funding the Northern Alliance in their battle with the Taliban.

JOHN COOLEY: The U.S. ignored pretty much the Northern Alliance when they were fighting very hard and almost came — at one point a couple of years ago, they seemed — it seemed likely that they might recapture Kabul. But as far as I know, there was little or no American aid to them. I think perhaps this is the moment when the U.S. should get involved in helping them. Even though Ahmad Shah Massoud is dead — he’s been killed by terrorists, probably associated with bin Laden — the Northern Alliance fights on, and they do control some strategic territory, perhaps 5% of the country. And the U.S. badly needs allies on the ground. It needs local allies. And those are the most likely. I would help them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, John Cooley. Again, he is author of the book Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, U.S. correspondent and author who’s covered North Africa and the Middle East for 40 years, speaking to us from Munich, Germany, Germany the site of a large part of the investigation into who hijacked the planes that rammed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

You’re listening to Democracy Now! in Exile. When we come back, a debate on the Northern Alliance and whether the U.S. should fund them. And in our second hour, we’ll hear Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese peace activist, who spoke last night at Riverside Church. Thousands of people came out to hear him, as the Buddhist monk talked about anger, war and peace. We’ll also have a discussion about what happens to poor people in times of war, war and welfare. Stay with us.

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