One of the five senior Taliban leaders transferred to Qatar in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl played a key role in al Qaeda’s plans leading up to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Mohammad Fazl, who served as the Taliban’s army chief of staff and deputy defense minister prior to his detention at Guantánamo, did not have a hand in planning the actual 9/11 hijackings. Along with a notorious al Qaeda leader, however, Fazl did help coordinate a military offensive against the enemies of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan the day before. And Osama bin Laden viewed that September 10 offensive as an essential part of al Qaeda’s 9/11 plot.
The 9/11 Commission found that the hijackings in the United States on September 11, 2001, were the culmination of al Qaeda’s three-step plan. First, on September 9, 2001, al Qaeda assassinated Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud in a suicide bombing. Massoud’s death was a major gift to the Taliban because he was their chief rival and still controlled parts of the country. The assassination was also intended to weaken opposition to the Taliban and al Qaeda within Afghanistan before the United States could plan its retaliation for the most devastating terrorist attack in history. The Northern Alliance did, in fact, play a role in America’s response.
The following day, September 10, al Qaeda and the Taliban took their second step. A “delayed Taliban offensive against the Northern Alliance was apparently coordinated to begin as soon as [Massoud] was killed,” the 9/11 Commission found. Fazl and one of bin Laden’s chief lieutenants, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, played key roles in this setup for 9/11. At the time, al Iraqi oversaw what al Qaeda called the Arab 55th Brigade, which was Osama bin Laden’s chief fighting force inside Afghanistan and fought side by side with Mullah Omar’s forces.
According to a leaked Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessment of Fazl, al Iraqi met with Fazl “on several occasions to include immediately following the assassination of [Massoud] in September 2001.” Al Iraqi “stated the Northern Alliance was demoralized after the assassination and [he] met with [Fazl] to immediately coordinate an attack with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance.”
Al Qaeda viewed both the assassination of Massoud and the offensive launched the following day as necessary components of the 9/11 plot. At first, Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders were said to be wary of any spectacular attack against the United States, as it would likely draw fierce retaliation from the world’s lone superpower. (The 9/11 Commission did find “some scant indications” that Omar “may have been reconciled to the 9/11 attacks by the time they occurred.”) The plan to attack the United States was controversial even within al Qaeda, with some senior leaders objecting to the idea.
But Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders believed, correctly, that the first two steps of their plan would ensure the Taliban’s continuing support. The 9/11 Commission found that as Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s military chief at the time, Mohammed Atef, “deliberated” the 9/11 hijackings “earlier in the year,” they “would likely have remembered that Mullah Omar was dependent on them for the Massoud assassination and for vital support in the Taliban military operations.” And, while the commission’s sources were “not privy to the full scope of al Qaeda and Taliban planning,” bin Laden and Atef “probably would have known, at least,” that the “general Taliban offensive against the Northern Alliance” on September 10 “would rely on al Qaeda military support.”
The 9/11 Commission’s final report goes on to say that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of 9/11, remembers Atef “telling him that al Qaeda had an agreement with the Taliban to eliminate Massoud, after which the Taliban would begin an offensive to take over [all of] Afghanistan.”
Mohammad Fazl’s cooperation with al Iraqi was, therefore, part of the plan KSM remembered.
As controversy over the deal for Sgt. Bergdahl has continued to swirl, current and former Obama administration officials have sought to draw a sharp distinction between the threat posed by the Taliban Five and al Qaeda.
“These five guys are not a threat to the United States,” former secretary of state Hillary Clinton said during an interview on NBC News last week. “They are a threat to the safety and security of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s up to those two countries to make the decision once and for all that these are threats to them. So I think we may be kind of missing the bigger picture here. We want to get an American home, whether they fell off the ship because they were drunk or they were pushed or they jumped, we try to rescue everybody.”