Between 1996 and 1998, Bin Laden rebuilt al Qaeda in Afghanistan. However, “Pakistan was the nation that held the key to [Bin Laden’s] ability to use Afghanistan as a base from which to revive his ambitious enterprise for war against the United States.” (p. 95.) Pakistan is a failed democracy in which the army’s most recent intervention in politics had led to an appeal to Islamist sentiment as a form of legitimization. Pakistan also is a failed economy in which large numbers of refugees from the Afghan war were educated in Saudi-funded Wahhabist “madrasas” that taught religious fervor in place of life skills. Bin Laden had long-standing ties with Pakistan’s intelligence service. [NB: Which is scary when you think about the ties between the ISI and A.Q. Khan.]
Bid Laden was hurting for financial resources, a number of al Qaeda members or allies went off on their own on the assumption that he was in decline, and one of his chief operations people had died in a ferry boat accident on Lake Victoria.
Not everything was against Bin Ladin by any means. Most of Afghanistan was governed by the Taliban, a bunch of religious fanatics who thought that anything and everything OBL said made a lot of sense. While the Pakistanis may have wanted a friendly government in Afghanistan to give their country “strategic depth,” Pakistan also provided Afghanistan with the same sort of strategic depth against American retaliation. Afghanistan swarmed with terrorist-wannabes and jihadist from all over the Muslim world. Various veterans of the war against the Soviets ran terrorist training camps, and supplied weapons, and arranged travel for jihadis. Donations from all over the Arab world, but especially from Saudi Arabia, kept most of these enterprises afloat. As one of the American counter-terroism people would later phrase it, “Under the Taliban, Afghanistan is not so much a state sponsor of terrorism as it is a state sponsored by terrorists.” (p. 263.)
Bin Laden revived his activities of the Afghan war and shared the results with the Taliban: the “Golden Chain” fund-raising system provided money and the recruiting system among Islamic fundamentalists provided manpower. Bin Laden seems to have creamed off the best of both for his own movement. (pp. 97-99.) Thus, the “Golden Chain” raised about $20-30 million a year. Al Qaeda paid the Taliban about $10-20 million a year for protection and support, so al Qaeda had about $10 million a year to spend on all his projects. (pp. 247-248.) Al Qaeda ran terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. About 70 percent of the people in the al Qaeda camps were Saudis; another 20 percent were Yemenis; and 10 percent came from various other places. (p. 336.) By 1998, after a year to a year-and-a-half of hard work, Bin Laden and al Qaeda were back in business.
Along the way, Bin Ladin renewed contact with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They had known each other in the Afghan war in 1987, but had not been in contact since 1989.
One thing worth noting is that Bin Laden was rebuilding al Qaeda at the same time that George Tenet was rebuilding the CIA. While bin Laden’s efforts were smaller than were those at CIA, they were also more tightly focused. Who would be ready first?
Thomas H. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton, The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press