Washington, DC (2002)
In what was then a rare public appearance for him, Prince Turki Al-Faisal bin Abd Al-Aziz Al-Saud, Director of General Intelligence in Saudi Arabia from 1977 to 2001, spoke to a large audience at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies on Sunday, February 3, 2002. Prince Turki, who was an undergraduate at Georgetown in the mid-1960s, is a son of the late King Faisal (assassinated in 1975). Prince Turki made his remarks at a time when Saudi-American relations appear under stress, and amidst persistent criticism that it was Saudi support for the Taliban and failure to take action against Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s which led to the tragedy of September 11.
Osama bin Laden, Prince Turki noted, inherited money from his construction magnate father. Like a number of other young Saudis during the 1980s, bin Laden went to Afghanistan to help the mujahideen fight against the Soviet forces occupying that country. Also like most of those young Saudis, Prince Turki insisted, bin Laden was not a fighter, but played more of a supporting role instead.
Prince Turki said that he did have contact with bin Laden during these years—mainly at receptions. At the time, bin Laden seemed like a pleasant but shy individual who did not talk much. Bin Laden remained in Afghanistan following the completion of the Soviet withdrawal in early 1989, but returned to Saudi Arabia the following year after becoming disillusioned with the mujahideen for fighting with one another.
Back home, bin Laden appeared to be searching for a new cause. One that he sought support for, Prince Turki noted, was the liberation of Marxist South Yemen, which bordered the Kingdom. Prince Turki turned him down, as did other senior princes. (Marxist South Yemen would disappear in May 1990 when it merged with the more powerful and populous non-Marxist North Yemen.)
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait later that year provided bin Laden with another cause. He argued against allowing American forces into the Kingdom, claiming that he and other Arabs who had served in Afghanistan could defeat the Iraqis. As is well known, the Saudi government turned down his offer (which was hardly credible) and invited American as well as other foreign armed forces onto Saudi territory.
It was at this point, Prince Turki said, that bin Laden turned against the Saudi government. He left the Kingdom, going first to Afghanistan, but leaving there relatively soon thereafter for Sudan. During the early 1990s, the revolutionary regime in Sudan actively pursued anti-Western and anti-Saudi aims, and so welcomed bin Laden. By 1996, though, Sudan sought to improve its relations with the Kingdom and offered to return bin Laden to it.
It has been reportedly recently in the Western press that the Saudi government turned down this offer from Sudan, thus allowing bin Laden to go to Afghanistan and plot a series of attacks against the U.S. According to Prince Turki, however, the Sudanese offer was made only on the condition that the Saudis promise not to put bin Laden on trial. Riyadh refused to do this, and so the Sudanese let him go to Afghanistan in 1996, where he linked up with the Taliban shortly before their capture of Kabul.
Saudi Arabia not only recognized the Taliban as the government soon thereafter, but provided it with aid as well. The Kingdom did so, Prince Turki stated, for three reasons: 1) the Taliban did indeed rule most of the country; 2) it established a degree of peace where there had previously been fighting and chaos; and 3) the Saudis hoped to influence the new government.
The presence of bin Laden in Afghanistan, Prince Turki reported, was one of the subjects that he and other Saudi officials talked about with the new government. The Taliban promised that they would not allow bin Laden to work against Saudi or American interests from Afghanistan. In 1997, however, bin Laden gave an interview to a Western reporter in which he threatened to attack both countries. Saudi officials immediately complained to the Taliban about this, reminding them of their promise. The Taliban assured Riyadh that they would not allow bin Laden to make any further threatening statements or actions. In 1998, however, bin Laden granted another interview to a Western journalist in which he again threatened both Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In June 1998, Prince Turki went to Kandahar to discuss the extradition of bin Laden with Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. According to Prince Turki, Omar was willing to negotiate on this. Riyadh received word from the Taliban the following month that his extradition was in the works, but it did not occur. (What occurred instead was the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August—apparently the work of bin Laden.)
Prince Turki returned to Kandahar in September. This time, however, Mullah Omar described bin Laden as a pious Muslim, accused the Saudi government of acting on behalf of the United States in seeking his extradition, and insulted the Saudi royal family. Prince Turki then broke off the meeting, telling Mullah Omar that he would regret this. Riyadh cut off its financial assistance to the Taliban and expelled the Taliban’s ambassador from Riyadh. However, Riyadh did not break off diplomatic relations completely, he said, because it hoped to revive some sort of dialogue with the Taliban. But this never occurred.
At the end of his talk, Prince Turki described how he had visited Ground Zero in New York on Thursday, January 31, 2002. Becoming emotional, he said that he felt the grief of all those who had lost relatives in the World Trade Center, and that he knew how intense the grief they felt was because he had experienced it himself after the assassination of his father, the King. He stated that Saudi Arabia had suffered too, and that the Saudi people felt America’s pain. Whatever their differences, both countries must work together to combat terrorism.
Revised version published by Eurasianet.org, February 13, 2002, under the title, “Former Saudi Intelligence Official Defends Country’s Dealings with the Taliban.” This Eurasianet article, though, appears to have been subsequently pulled from the Eurasianet.org website.