WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden had no idea the U.S. would hit al-Qaida as hard as it has since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, a former bin Laden associate tells WTOP in an exclusive interview.
“I’m 100 percent sure they had no clue about what was going to happen,” says Noman Benotman, who was head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the summer of 2000.
“What happened after the 11th of September was beyond their imagination, ” says Benotman, who adds that al-Qaida thought the U.S. was a “paper tiger.”
Sitting on the floor at bin Laden’s compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan during a meeting the summer before the attacks, Benotman shocked bin Laden and more than 200 other international jihadist leaders by telling the al-Qaida leader his jihadi strategy was “a total failure.”
Benotman, a highly regarded associate of bin Laden’s at the time, says he surprised him again by rebuffing a plea for help. “He asked for my help. Bin Laden asked me personally, you know. I responded immediately on the spot …’No. I’m not going to help you.'” Bin Laden was stunned.
“Because he used to like to sit next to me, you know. My right hand side,” Benotman says. The seating location meant he was someone bin Laden respected. Benotman says he spoke frankly because his reputation allowed him to. “I’ve spent time in the front line engaging with the enemy more than bin Laden and [Ayman Al-]Zawahiri and the entire group of al-Qaida.” Zawahiri laughed when he warned those at the 2000 meeting that the U.S. response would be swift, hard and long, Benotman says.
Benotman attributes al-Qaida’s overconfident attitude to the United States’ response to al-Qaida attacks on its in embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998. Zawahiri, according to Benotman, expected only a missile attack. “When they attacked the embassies in East Africa, they estimated the U.S. launched 75 cruise missiles and eight people got killed. So they said this time, maybe they will launch 200 and they laughed about this.”
Benotman’s assessment is backed up by a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, who was active in the fight against al-Qaida. The officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says “several captured terrorists have said publicly that al-Qaida never expected the towers to fall. Their goal was to frighten people and impact the U.S. economy, so they really didn’t plan for the massive response the U.S. launched.”
Bin Laden got more than one warning, says Benotman.
“I told him several times before the Sept. 11th attacks that if you do this, the U.S. is going to retaliate in a very harsh way. At least twice I reminded him about the serious orders he was given by Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban to stop fighting the U.S., and he disobeyed the order.”
Now living in London and openly campaigning against organizations like al-Qaida, Benotman – according to some – is simply trying to avoid going to jail in his native Libya.
“I would like to believe that bin Laden was shocked and dismayed by what we did after 9/11, but I come hard up against an awful lot of evidence that that’s exactly what he wanted,” says Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit.
Scheuer questions whether Benotman is speaking out freely.
“Clearly, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is holding a hammer over his head,” Scheuer says, noting some of Benotman’s ex-LIFG colleagues are in prison and Benotman still has relatives in Libya. Benotman, who still believes in the commitment Jihad requires, laughs at the notion he’s afraid of being arrested. “I’m not afraid of the Americans or any other country. My speaking out is a conscious decision and it’s based on my entire experience and understanding of jihadism.”
Not only does Benotman reject al-Qaida’s ideology, but he says “killing civilians is a crime. I don’t care if it’s Jews, Christians, Muslims or anyone. It’s a crime and we shouldn’t help them (al Qaida).”