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When did Osama bin Laden work for the CIA in Afghanistan?

The notorious mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks received funding from the CIA at the twilight of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

New York police stand near a wanted poster printed on a full page of a New York newspaper for Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, in the financial district of New York.
Russel BoyceReuters

There are plenty of myths that surround Osama bin Laden that will never be proved or disproved. Did he originally support America? What was he doing during the Yugoslav wars? Did he ever have a Dr. No-style underground lair? These claims can never be proven, but one that has some serious historic backing is the link between bin Laden, and rather the Mujahideen, with the USA. The Cold War produced strange bed fellows, and the relationship between the two organizations is an interesting one to investigate.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

Back in the 1970s, the world was balanced between two superpowers; the USA and the Soviet Union. Ideologically separated between capitalist west and communist east, both nations engaged in proxy wars around the world to draw nations to their side. The saying, "the enemy of my enemy, is my friend" could not be more apt during this time. Rather than have any Communist, which was interpreted as any left-leaning government, potentially ally with the Soviets, the US armed coups all over the planet to install right-wing dictatorships that brutally suppressed revolts. The Soviets did the same, especially in their satellite states in Eastern Europe.

Which brings us to Afghanistan. A coup by pro-soviet forces in 1978 coupled with fierce land reform fermented rebellion, and, at the request of the socialist Afghan government, the Soviet Union stepped in. Much like the American invasion of 2001, the Soviets struggled to deal with the tricky territory and devious Afghan tribal fighters. Seeing an opportunity to bloody the Soviet's nose, the CIA and allies stepped in to support the fledgling Afghan rebels.

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Pakistan, the CIA and the Mujahideen

In Operation Cyclone, the CIA funded the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet invaders. While funding was initially low in 1979 at $695,000 dollars, just over $2.5 million in today's money, by 1987 it was costing the US taxpayer $630 million, nearly $1.5 billion in today's money. The USA used Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan, to funnel the money to the insurgents. The most iconic weapon of the war was the US made and supplied Stinger missile, which gave an Afghan fighter the power to shoot down Soviet helicopters.

The CIA Director, William Casey, frequently visited Pakistan during this time and personally met Mujahideen fighters. A famous picture of the war shows President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office with senior Afghan figures. Another piece of diplomatic propaganda was the film Rambo III, where the character of John Rambo fought with the Mujahideen to repel the Russian invaders. The film contains one of the most poorly aged acknowledgments in cinema history.

The US support denied the Soviets a victory, and they were forced to pull out of Afghanistan in 1989 in ignominious fashion, another echo of the past month.

So did the CIA sponsor bin Laden?

It hasn't, and probably will never be, proven that bin Laden was directly funded or trained by the CIA. That the CIA would ever admit if they did is another matter, but classified documents are not going to be released anytime soon. Back in 2004, the BBC said some analysts believed he had received direct training from the CIA. Historians are divided whether it to be true. The CIA maintains they only supplied Afghan fighters, not the Arab groups that bin Laden was associated with. The Afghan link to the Pakistani mission was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who had a good relationship with bin Laden.

What is for sure is the CIA funded the Mujahideen and one of the Mujahid factions would go on to become the Taliban. US, Saudi and Pakistani support for the group helped put them in a place to destroy Afghanistan further in the Afghan civil war, before their former allies, the USA, invaded the country in 2001 to hunt for bin Laden.

Another figure, Jalaluddian Haqqani, was a known associate of bin Laden's and he received tens of millions of dollars from the CIA. Whether the CIA directly funded bin laden in neither here nor there, but the strong links between bin Laden and the other insurgent groups means that it was quite likely that CIA funding and weapons was ending up in the hands of bin Laden. Haqqani's son is now defense minister in the new Taliban government that was announced on Tuesday.