Misjudgments led Saudis to help prop up Taliban despite bin Laden tie

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Misjudgments led Saudis to help prop up Taliban despite bin Laden tie

By Howard Schneider The Washington Post

A series of miscalculations by Saudi Arabia helped legitimize the Taliban even as it was offering sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and gave the exiled Islamic militant time and space to build his al-Qaida organization.

Bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan in 1996 a sworn enemy of the monarchy, stripped of his Saudi citizenship and connected to a terrorist network active from Jordan to Algeria and in Saudi Arabia itself.

Despite this, Saudi Arabia became one of three countries to offer the Taliban diplomatic recognition in 1997. Saudi aid flowed to the Taliban: logistical and humanitarian support during its rise to power and a continued commitment afterward. An estimated $2 million came each year from Saudi Arabia's major charity, funding two universities and six health clinics and supporting 4,000 orphans.

Diplomats, analysts and Saudi officials suggest that officials in Saudi Arabia underestimated the influence bin Laden would have on the Taliban when he arrived.

"The stability of Afghanistan seemed a bigger concern than the presence of bin Laden," said Prince Saud Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister. "When the Taliban received him, they indicated he would be absolutely prevented from taking any actions. We had unequivocal promises."

Analysts now say the United States and Saudi Arabia were more concerned with the effect of Iran's Shiite revolution on the region than with bin Laden and might even have viewed a Sunni Islamic state in Afghanistan as a welcome annoyance for the neighboring regime in Tehran.

Terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia at the time were attributed to the Iranian government, even though suspects arrested in the kingdom described their connections to bin Laden and the Afghan resistance.

Saudis trace their policy to the early days of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan after the 1979 invasion.

Money flowed from the coffers of the oil-rich kingdom, by some accounts as much as $1 billion to supply and arm fighters gathering under the tutelage of U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services. Volunteers such as bin Laden simply signed up for "relief work," one Saudi recalled, and flew off on deeply discounted air tickets, courtesy of Saudi Arabian Airlines. National Guard members could even take paid leave to join the fight.

The Saudi foreign minister and other officials insist that the government began pressuring for bin Laden's return from Afghanistan in 1998, as soon as it became convinced of his involvement in local terrorist attacks. It also began scaling back its relationship with the Taliban when leader Mullah Mohammed Omar refused to send him back.

However, interviews with Saudi intelligence and other officials and news accounts from the time show the country's relationship with the Taliban expanded well after concerns had arisen in the Middle East about bin Laden and even after he had been linked to a 1995 bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that killed five Americans.

Jordanian security officials say they warned about bin Laden's activities as early as 1992. Egypt also was plagued by violence partly stoked by the returning "Afghan Arabs" with which bin Laden was allied. That and threats against the royal family were enough to lead the Saudis to strip away bin Laden's citizenship in 1994, when his base of operations was centered in Sudan.

Throughout those years, Saudi officials say they were trying to broker an end to the fighting among Afghanistan's ethnic, tribal and religious factions.

"There were many meetings in Saudi Arabia in Mecca, in Taif to make them not fight each other," a Saudi intelligence official said.

When the Taliban emerged as a potentially stabilizing force, Saudi Arabia encouraged the movement not so much for ideological or religious reasons, Saudi officials insist, as for the fact that it was gaining control and seemed able to stop the fighting. However, it soon became clear, some say, that the Taliban pursued a path that was, even by Saudi standards, considered harsh to the point of being un-Islamic.

"We had trouble with their understanding of Islam," said Adnan Khalil Basha, secretary-general of the Jiddah-based International Islamic Relief Organization. Classrooms used by women could not separately be used by men, Basha said, a fact that made the organization cancel funding for a technical school because it was too inefficient.

In what amounted to the first diplomatic efforts to solve the growing problem of al-Qaida, Saudi officials traveled to Afghanistan in June 1998 to cash in on what was perceived as a Taliban promise to turn over bin Laden. The Taliban reneged.

In August 1998, bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blamed on bin Laden's group, expanded by that point to include Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

The Saudi delegation reportedly returned in September 1998, and its appeal to seize bin Laden was again rejected.

At that point, Saudi Arabia downgraded its short-lived ties with the militant regime, leaving its embassy in Kabul open but withdrawing the top diplomat.

Three years later, with war looming in Afghanistan, the Saudi government made a final breach.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 29, 2001

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