As their knowledge increased, analysts learned to differentiate among the varied bands of jihadists. As one counterterrorism veteran explained, there are, in effect, two al Qaedas: One is al Qaeda the ideology, which fuels a sprawling network of radical Islamists who draw inspiration from bin Laden but are not his direct disciples. Within that network are what analysts have called al Qaeda's franchises--allied radical groups from Uzbekistan to Indonesia who share bin Laden's dream of a pan-Islamist world. But there is also al Qaeda the organization--a finite, disciplined, Mafia-like grouping with its own rules, finances, and "made" members. Although tens of thousands went through its training camps, very few in fact joined the group. "Al Qaeda is an elite organization that takes very few members," explains Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al Qaeda. U.S. intelligence soon concluded that only some 180 followers had sworn bayat, or allegiance, to bin Laden.
The group was also more hierarchical than the CIA had believed. Bin Laden, once thought to be a figurehead, turned out to be a hands-on leader who approved al Qaeda's most ambitious attacks, including 9/11. Descriptions of the group's inner workings, with its religious dogma and blind obedience, appeared almost cultlike, with bin Laden cast as guru. As one top official put it, bin Laden seemed "more Koresh than Napoleon"--a reference to Branch Davidian cultist David Koresh, who perished with his followers in a fiery death in Waco, Texas.
Al Qaeda's finances came into sharper focus, too. Estimates of bin Laden's wealth after 9/11--cited as high as $300 million--turned out to be wildly exaggerated. The Saudi heir had squandered his fortune years before. Al Qaeda's finances were, instead, built on a foundation of charities, mosques, fund-raisers, and businesses that had financed the jihad movement since its formative war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. CIA officers were joined by Treasury and FBI agents in tracing how al Qaeda moved its money--through international banks, hawala underground bankers, and the purchase of commodities like gold and gemstones.
For years, U.S. officials suspected al Qaeda's key support moved through a network of Islamic charities, most of them based in Saudi Arabia and tied to influential Saudis. The evidence of this was now damning. The CIA's interrogations of al Qaeda's top man in Southeast Asia revealed how the group used funds from the Saudi-based al Haramain Islamic Foundation. The Afghan offices of another Saudi outfit, al Wafa Humanitarian Organization, allegedly functioned as an al Qaeda subsidiary--until it was bombed by U.S. warplanes.
Even after 9/11, the Saudis proved less than cooperative. Frustrated, the CIA took matters into its own hands, hacking into Middle Eastern bank accounts to chart the flow of funds to al Qaeda operatives, intelligence sources tell U.S. News. Other times, case officers offered bribes and came away with bank statements and account numbers. By early March last year, U.S. officials had frozen the assets of a half-dozen foundations and urged other nations to do the same. On March 19, Bosnian authorities raided eight locations tied to the Benevolence International Foundation, a multimillion-dollar Islamic fund with offices in nine countries. Inside, officials found weapons and explosives, pilfered government documents on terrorism, plus videos and literature calling for holy war and martyrdom. But the real surprise lay within a sole computer at the foundation's Sarajevo office.
It was a file directory like that on any other PC, except this one was marked Tareekh Osama, Arabic for "Osama's History." As they peered inside, investigators were stunned. The contents were no less than al Qaeda's founding documents: scanned letters, records of meetings, photographs, and more--some of it in bin Laden's own handwriting.
The files laid bare al Qaeda's history in its own words--how it grew from a network backing anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan in the late 1980s into a global crusade against infidels everywhere. There was correspondence about moving weapons, money, and people; an organizational chart; and documents on the group's involvement in the Bosnian and Sudan civil wars in the early 1990s, then in Chechnya, in 1995. In a court filing unsealed in April this year, U.S. prosecutors called the files "a treasure-trove." Of special note was a handwritten list of names, topped by a verse from the Koran--"And spend for God's cause"--followed by 20 wealthy donors to the al Qaeda network, dating apparently from the late '80s. Known as the Golden Chain, the roster included some of Saudi Arabia's wealthiest men: three billionaire bankers, top industrialists, and a former government minister. After each man appeared a second name, in parenthesis, suggesting who received money from the donor. "Osama" appeared after seven entries.
America had taken bin Laden seriously only in 1998, after he destroyed two U.S. Embassies in Africa. But "Osama's History" showed unmistakably how the Saudi multimillionaire had declared war on the United States back in 1991, how for a decade he had branded America the "head of the snake" and rationalized the killing of American civilians. But perhaps the most striking find were the handwritten minutes of an Aug. 11, 1988, meeting. It was there that bin Laden and others agreed on "the establishment of a new military group" consisting of three units, one to be called, in Arabic, Qaeda, or Base. A week later at bin Laden's home, they held a second meeting--for three days--that led to the official founding of the new entity. "Work of al Qaeda commenced on 9/10/1988 with a group of 15 brothers . . ." concluded the report. "And thanks be to God."
Half-Dead Bob. By early 2002, America and its allies had locked up nearly 1,000 al Qaeda members and supporters. Planeloads of captives from Afghanistan soon filled the holding pens of Camp X-Ray, the hastily built prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some inmates left a lasting impression on their keepers, among them an emaciated fellow they called Half-Dead Bob.
The Arab fighter had come to Gitmo, as the base is called, weighing a bare 66 pounds last year. He had shrapnel wounds, suffered from tuberculosis, and had lost a lung. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey vividly remembers his first encounter with "Bob." Dunlavey ran interrogations at the base until November of last year. By the time they met, Bob was making a rapid recovery. He had put on 50 pounds and, sitting across a table from Dunlavey, he thanked him for the food and medical treatment. "General, you are probably a good Christian," Dunlavey recalls him saying. "And you are probably a good man. But if I ever get free, I will kill you."