2 Allies Aided Bin Laden, Say Panel Members

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Times Staff Writer

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia helped set the stage for the Sept. 11 attacks by cutting deals with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden that allowed his Al Qaeda terrorist network to flourish, according to several senior members of the Sept. 11 commission and U.S. counter-terrorism officials.

The financial aid to the Taliban and other assistance by two of the most important allies of the United States in its war on terrorism date at least to 1996, and appear to have shielded them from Al Qaeda attacks within their own borders until long after the 2001 strikes, those commission members and officials said in interviews.

“That does appear to have been the arrangement,” said one senior member of the commission staff involved in investigating those relationships.


The officials said that by not cracking down on Bin Laden, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia significantly undermined efforts to combat terrorism worldwide, giving the Saudi exile the haven he needed to train tens of thousands of soldiers. They believe that the governments’ funding of his Taliban protectors enabled Bin Laden to withstand international pressure and expand his operation into a global network that could carry out the Sept. 11 attacks.

Saudi Arabia provided funds and equipment to the Taliban and probably directly to Bin Laden, and didn’t interfere with Al Qaeda’s efforts to raise money, recruit and train operatives, and establish cells throughout the kingdom, commission and U.S. officials said. Pakistan provided even more direct assistance, its military and intelligence agencies often coordinating efforts with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they said.

Such efforts allowed Al Qaeda’s network of cells to burrow deeply into the social and religious fabric of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, enabling the organization to survive the U.S.-led demolition of its headquarters in Afghanistan in 2001, to regroup and to launch new waves of attacks -- including the kidnapping and beheading of an American engineer in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last week.

Only after Pakistan and Saudi Arabia launched comprehensive efforts to take out their domestic Al Qaeda cells -- as late as last year, in the case of Saudi Arabia -- did the two nations become victims of terrorist attacks. And officials in both countries acknowledge that Al Qaeda’s fundraising, recruiting and training structure is now so firmly rooted that it will be extremely difficult to eliminate.


Rumors of Collusion

For years, there have been unsubstantiated allegations that the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia intentionally ignored Bin Laden’s efforts in their countries or even cut deals with him, either out of sympathy with his efforts or to protect themselves from attack. That claim is made in a lawsuit by the families of Sept. 11 victims against Saudi Arabia.

Both governments have strenuously denied this, and did so again Saturday.

“President [Pervez] Musharraf has been taking serious steps against extremism from the day he took power in October of 1999,” including trying to purge the government of Al Qaeda sympathizers, said Talat Waseem, a spokeswoman for the Pakistani government.


A senior Saudi official acknowledged that Sept. 11 commission investigators and members asked about such matters during two visits to Saudi Arabia and in interviews with Prince Turki al Faisal, the longtime intelligence minister who is now ambassador to Britain.

“This whole notion of us buying off Bin Laden is nonsense,” said the Saudi official, who declined to be identified. “It’s nuts. Do you trust a thug and a murderer like Bin Laden? You can’t.”

But commission investigators have come to believe that these allegations are credible, based on their exhaustive review of all of the classified intelligence data known to the U.S. government. The commission’s 80 staffers also conducted thousands of interviews in the United States and abroad, and had access to the interrogations of Al Qaeda’s most senior operatives in U.S. custody, including accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

“There’s no question the Taliban was getting money from the Saudis

Kerrey said the commission officials believed that the Saudi government had a mutually beneficial relationship with the Taliban that bought Riyadh safety from attack.

“Whether there was quid pro quo with the Saudis, we don’t know. But certainly the Pakistanis believed that there was. They benefited enormously from their relationship with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.”

Kerrey said the findings were based almost entirely on information known to officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, most of it as early as 1997 -- just months after Bin Laden moved his operations from Sudan to Afghanistan.


Now, the bipartisan commission is wrestling with how to characterize such politically sensitive information in its final report, and even whether to include it. Some commission members also believe that U.S. officials didn’t do enough to force Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to sever their ties with Bin Laden and the Taliban.

“All we’re doing is looking at classified documents from our own government, not from some magical source,” Kerrey said. “So we knew what was going on, but we did nothing.”

From 1998 through 2000, Clinton administration officials pressured Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to help force the Taliban to surrender Bin Laden, and to crack down on the growing presence of Al Qaeda in the two countries.

Both governments refused to sever diplomatic relations with the Taliban or to help investigate Al Qaeda’s growing empire, officials said.

The Clinton administration also learned that Taliban efforts to extort cash from Saudi Arabia “may have paid off,” a commission report states.

More recently, several commission members noted, leaders of both countries, Pakistan’s Musharraf in particular, have taken steps to counter Al Qaeda at great political and physical risk.


The Saudi royal family also has declared war on Al Qaeda, although commission members noted that it did so only after it came under attack May 12, 2003, in a trio of suicide bombings in Riyadh that killed at least 34 people, including the militants.

But a second commission member argued that the Saudi and Pakistani governments played important roles in the growth of Al Qaeda. “The origins of that are very important to us,” he said.

As such, the findings could renew the debate over whether Saudi Arabia has been as close an ally of the United States as the kingdom claims, or whether it has clandestinely tried for years to appease both Washington and Bin Laden. They could raise additional questions about the United States’ alliances with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in its war on terrorism, particularly because many U.S. officials believe that both governments have been slow to purge their ranks of pro-Al Qaeda, pro-Taliban elements.

The commission staff alluded to its findings, but only briefly, in a report issued last week during a hearing on the origins of Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 plot.

That report said that it had no convincing evidence the Saudi government had directly supported the Sept. 11 attacks but that Riyadh had engaged in “very limited oversight” of the religious and charitable entities that have long been accused of being key financial backers of Al Qaeda.

Pakistan, the report said, “significantly facilitated” the Taliban’s ability to provide Bin Laden a haven despite international sanctions against Al Qaeda, including the freezing of its assets and prohibitions on travel.



Report Is Tip of Iceberg

In interviews with The Times, the senior commission members said their investigation had uncovered more extensive evidence than the report suggested.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, commission investigators believe that Riyadh made overtures to Bin Laden soon after his arrival in Afghanistan in May 1996.

At the time, Saudi officials feared that Bin Laden was responsible for two recent terrorist attacks in the kingdom, including the killing of 19 U.S. servicemen at the Khobar Towers residential complex in Dhahran. The Saudi leaders were desperate to avoid further attacks and to silence Bin Laden, a vocal critic of the monarchy since it revoked his citizenship in 1994.

A formal delegation of Saudi officials met with top Taliban leaders, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, and asked that a message be conveyed to “their guest,” Bin Laden.

“They said, ‘Don’t attack us. Make sure he’s not a problem for us and recognition will follow.’ And that’s just what they did,” according to the senior commission staff member.

Shortly afterward, Saudi Arabia became one of only three countries to formally recognize the Taliban as the rightful government in Afghanistan. The others were Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.


More Saudi delegations followed, including several in 1998 led by Prince Turki at the request of the United States. U.S. officials wanted him to negotiate the surrender of Bin Laden. But Richard Clarke, the former Bush and Clinton counter-terrorism czar, and a second senior Clinton administration official said U.S. officials suspected that Turki merely ensured that Saudi Arabia would remain out of Al Qaeda’s crosshairs.

Pakistanis, meanwhile, were in with the Taliban and Al Qaeda “up to their eyeballs,” said the senior commission staff member.

He said Bin Laden, for instance, negotiated his 1996 move to Afghanistan with Pakistan’s powerful military-intelligence leadership, which held considerable influence over the various warlords struggling for control of Afghanistan at the time.

“He wouldn’t go back there without Pakistan’s approval and support, and had to comply with their rules and regulations,” the official said. He said Pakistan opened its airspace to Bin Laden and his flying flotilla of operatives.

Pakistani intelligence officers also allegedly brought Bin Laden to meet Mullah Omar soon after his arrival in Afghanistan, and then helped forge an alliance between the men that enabled the Taliban to trample competing factions and take over much of Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, also was instrumental in helping Al Qaeda set up an infrastructure in its own country and in Afghanistan, and the two outfits jointly operated training camps along the border where militants were taught guerrilla warfare, the official said.


“It started day one,” the official said of Pakistan’s involvement. “They controlled the Taliban; they controlled the border.”

Officials from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia acknowledge that there were significant interactions between their military and intelligence agencies and the Taliban while the Afghan regime provided Al Qaeda with sanctuary from 1996 through the post-Sept. 11 military campaign. But they said they consisted of routine diplomatic matters.

Bin Laden has had personal relationships with top intelligence officials from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia dating to the early 1980s, when they became involved in the decade-long war that expelled the Soviet occupying army from Afghanistan.

The U.S. and Saudi governments spent billions of dollars each on that effort, funneling the money and supplies through Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies to the Afghan mujahedin, including Bin Laden.