Saudi Ties to Taliban Draw Retrospective U.S. Criticism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even after Osama bin Laden was linked to a 1995 bomb blast that killed five Americans in this capital, top Saudi officials said they trusted the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan to watch over its guest and stop his terrorist activities.

And in 1998, when the Taliban regime rejected demands to turn over Bin Laden to Saudi custody, the officials continued to believe that the Afghans eventually would do the right thing.

"We never underestimated Bin Laden's influence," insisted Prince Turki al Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence. "The Taliban claimed they had control over him. We kept telling the authorities there that he was contradicting their assertions."

Saudi Arabia's relations with the Taliban may seem like ancient history now that the Islamic militants have been forced from power and scattered, along with their allies in Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. But the Saudis' actions--or at least perceptions of those actions--have brought calls from some past and present American officials to rethink U.S. ties to the strategic desert kingdom, though the Bush administration remains committed to the relationship.

"The Saudis have exported an extreme form of Islamist philosophy," former CIA Director R. James Woolsey recently told Associated Press. "Much of the money for Al Qaeda has come from Saudi Arabia."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said last week that the U.S. should consider pulling its 5,000 soldiers out of the country, where American forces have been stationed since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

"We need a base in that region, but it seems to me we should find a place that is more hospitable," Levin said. "I don't think they want us to stay there."

The Saudis bristle at such criticism because they don't feel that they made mistakes in their long relationship with the Taliban--and, by extension, Al Qaeda--and because such talk cuts to the core of their nation's central role in the Muslim world. As the birthplace of Islam and the site of the faith's two holiest places, Saudi Arabia believes that it has a religious responsibility to support Muslim organizations and regimes around the world.

Since Sept. 11, there have been allegations that some religious groups use Saudi money to finance militant activities and that the Saudis have no system to monitor how such funds are used. But the Saudis say they have no intention of changing their practices.

"What happened with Afghanistan is not a normal state of affairs," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said in an interview. "It was the exception, not the rule, and as such it is not going to affect our policies or international relations with other Islamic communities and the Muslim nation just because Afghanistan turned sour."

Much of the Saudi public posture has been aimed at defusing whatever perceived responsibility the government might have had for fostering terrorists or, even inadvertently, supporting Al Qaeda. If mistakes were made, officials here said, they were made in Washington or Kabul, the Afghan capital.

One official, for example, said a videotape found in Afghanistan that shows Bin Laden suggesting he had advance knowledge of the attacks lessens Saudi culpability because it indicated that many of the men believed responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks did not know "they were going on a suicide mission."

Yet by the Saudis' accounts, the kingdom either underestimated Bin Laden's influence in Afghanistan, overestimated the Taliban's allegiance to Saudi Arabia, or both.

U.S. officials say that from the moment Bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996, he had tremendous influence over the Taliban, giving millions of dollars to the regime's depleted treasury. However, Turki maintains that Bin Laden had little power and was taken in by the Afghans only because the Al Qaeda leader had helped their nation fight Soviet troops in the 1980s. Turki, who headed Saudi intelligence for many years, left the post shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks. Some observers believe that he was replaced because of his inability to rein in Bin Laden.

When the Taliban took over in 1996, Turki said, it inherited Bin Laden "as a refugee. His importance developed the longer he stayed in Afghanistan. In 1998 he got close with [Taliban leader] Mullah Mohammed Omar. For us, it was a matter of maintaining a watch for him."

The Saudi regime had already been watching, aware that Bin Laden was linked to such terrorist acts as the 1995 bombing here. Nevertheless, officials said they continued to trust that the Taliban would control the terrorist leader, who had been stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994. The kingdom remained one of only three countries--along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates--that recognized the Taliban regime.

By 1998, when it became clear that his hosts could not or would not limit Bin Laden's activities, a delegation of Saudis went to Kabul to bring him home. To the Saudis' shock, they were rebuffed by Omar. A few months later, officials said that Turki visited Kabul to bring Bin Laden back but eventually was turned down.

The only official response from the kingdom was to downgrade its diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. It kept its embassy open and staffed--again, officials said, because of their responsibility to allow in Muslim pilgrims who visit the Saudi holy city of Mecca.

"Given the relations between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, we assumed that no responsible government in Afghanistan would react in a negative way to such a situation in which somebody there is accused of a crime in Saudi Arabia," said Saud, the foreign minister.

Some Western officials do not believe that Saudi Arabia intentionally fostered an atmosphere in Afghanistan that was ripe for Bin Laden and his followers but that the kingdom erred in maintaining ties with the Taliban.

Though a Saudi, Bin Laden has called for the downfall of his homeland's leaders, maintaining that they are corrupt and no longer faithful to Islamic principles.

"Saudi Arabia has more to lose from support of Islamic extremism," said a diplomat here who requested anonymity. "The Sept. 11 attack was really aimed at Saudi Arabia. . . . The target was the U.S., but the goal was to bring down the Saudi regime."

In addition, the Western diplomat said the kingdom has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to the U.S. troop presence. The forces based here since the 1991 Persian Gulf War have failed to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but are creating political problems for the Saudi regime. Many people are either angry about having "infidels" on sacred ground or simply embarrassed that Saudi Arabia can't defend itself.

Nevertheless, the Saudi government says it wants to maintain strong ties to Washington. Saudis also say that American critics need to take a closer look at their own country if the war on terrorism is going to succeed.

"There is more money reaching these terrorist organizations from Western countries, including the U.S., than comes from sources in the Middle East or Islamic countries," Saud said. "The infrastructure of personnel who work for recruiting and propagating the ideas, for promoting the interests, they exist more in the capitals of Europe than they exist in the capitals of the Middle East."

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