| © VANITY FAIR
Repinted from Vanity Fair (New York) January 2002, No. 497,pp.50-56
THE OSAMA FILES
BY DAVID ROSE
In the wake of those attacks, President Bush and the F.B.I.
issued a list of the world's 22 most wanted terrorists. Sudan
has kept files on many of them for years.
From the autumn of 1996 until just weeks before the 2001
attacks, the Sudanese government made numerous efforts to
share this information with the United States all of which
were rebuffed. On several occasions, senior agents at the
F.B.I. wished to accept these offers, but were apparently
overruled by President Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine
Albright, and her assistant secretary for Africa, Susan Rice,
both of whom would not comment for this story after repeated
requests for interviews. Vanity Fair has obtained letters
and secret memorandums that document these approaches. They
were made directly to the State Department and the F.B.I.,
and also via a series of well-connected U.S. citizens who
tried to warn America that the Sudanese offers were serious
By definition, September 11 was an intelligence failure.
As the C.I.A. man puts It, We didn't know it was going to
happen." Some of the reasons for that failure were structural,
systemic: the shortage of Arabic-speaking agents, the inability
of C.I.A. officers to go underground in Afghanistan.
This one was more specific. CE Had U.S. agencies examined
the AF Mukhabarat files when they first REI had the chance
in 1996, the prospects of preventing al-Qaeda's subsequent
attacks would have been much greater. Tim Carney, the last
U.S. ambassador to Sudan, whose posting ended in 1997, says:
"The fact is, they were opening the doors, and we weren't
taking them up on it. The U.S. failed to reciprocate Sudan's
willingness to engage us on serious questions of terrorism.
We can speculate that this failure had serious implications-at
the least for what happened at the U.S. Embassies in 1998.
In any case, the U.S. lost access to a mine of material on
bin Laden and his organization."
How could this have happened? The simple answer is that the
Clinton administration had accused Sudan of sponsoring terrorism,
and refused to believe that anything it did to prove its bona
fides could be genuine. At the same time, perceptions in Washington
were influenced by C.I.A. reports that were wildly inaccurate,
some the result of deliberate disinformation. The problem,
Carney says, was "inadequate vetting and analysis by
the C.I.A. of its own product." That, in turn, was being
conditioned by the Clinton administration's hostility to Sudan's
Islamic regime: "Despite dissent from the State Department's
own Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. intelligence
failed be- cause it became politicized."
Osama bin Laden, his four wives, his children, and numerous
"Afghan Arab" followers who had helped drive the
Soviets from Afghanistan went to Sudan from Saudi Arabia early
in 1991. They chose Sudan for two main reasons. First, the
restless, radicalised veterans of the Afghan war were unwelcome
in most Arab countries, but Sudan left its doors open. Second,
bin Laden liked Sudan's politics. The Islamic radicalism of
the government's then ideological leader, the philosopher
Hassan aI-Turabi, who had come to power in a coup d'etat in
1989, was at its bracing zenith. The Sudanese, in turn, welcomed
bin Laden as an investor. His family had built most of Saudi
Arabia's infrastructure, and they saw his wealth and experience
as an engineer as valuable resources in developing Sudan.
Al-Qaeda, with its secretive structure and oath of
allegiance to bin Laden, had been founded two years
earlier. In Sudan, however, much of bin Laden's energy
went into business: a contract, funded by the Saudis,
to build the airport at Port Sudan: agricultural projects;
and al-Hijra, a joint venture with the Sudan government
to build a 185-mile road northward from Khartoum Abu
Ibrahim, the Iraqi engineer who became al-Hijra's C.E.O.,
says bin Laden took a strong interest in the project's
technical details. In bin Laden's large house in an
affluent part of Khartoum, they spent hours together,
discussing which diggers, graders, and other items the
firm ought to buy.
On his visits to the site, Ibrahim says, bin Laden showed
"he knew how to drive every piece of machinery."
Ibrahim had known bin Laden during the Afghan war. "When
we were in Afghanistan, everything was jihad, jihad,
jihad," he says. "Here in Sudan we saw his
many other aspects-construction, family life.
|He was settling down." However, bin Laden also found
time to begin a fierce propaganda campaign against the Saudi
government, furious that it had allowed the U.S. military to
build bases on Saudi soil. By 1994 that campaign had led to
the removal of his Saudi citizenship. He was also fostering
contacts with other Muslim extremists some of whom were very
dangerous indeed. As we sat on gray-green leather sofas in his
office, Yahia Hussien Ba-viker, the Mukhabarat's deputy chief
since 1998, disclosed a nugget from 1992. In that year, the
Mukhabarat learned that bin Laden had played host for a lengthy
visit by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the founder of Egyptian Islamic
had-a fundamentalist group , behind many armed attacks on Egyptian
government ministers and officials, including the 1981 assassination
of President Anwar el-Sadat.
"If we'd had communication with the U.S., we could have
been on the same wavelength. We could have exchanged notes."
An foreigners in Sudan were subject to some degree of surveillance.
Disclosure of bin Laden's link with Egyptian Islamic Ji-had
led the Mukhabarat to watch him and his Afghan Arab followers
more closely. Lieutenant General Gutbi al-Mahdi, Mukhabarat
director general from 1997 until 2000, says the service started
keeping tabs on "the entire bin Laden clique. ...We had
a lot of information: who they are, who are their families,
what is their education. We knew what they were doing in the
country, what is their relationship with Osama bin Laden.
And photographs of all them." Not long into the 1990s,
Sudan's Islamic fervor was already being tempered by pragmatism.
Desperate for investment, especially to develop its vast reserves
of oil, the government submitted to the stringent economic
medicine prescribed by the World Bank, slashing inflation
and privatizing state-owned industries. (Osama bin Laden himself
became the Sudan agent for the British firm Hunting Surveys,
which plays a large role in oil prospecting and whose military
division makes about a fifth of the West's Trident nuclear
missiles.) In 1994 it tried to assert its anti-terrorist credentials
by assisting France in the capture of Illich Ramirez Sanchez,
better known as "Carlos the Jackal," the notorious
Venezuelan-born terrorist who claims to have killed 83 people,
now serving a life sentence in France.
The U.S., however, remained convinced that Sudan was sponsoring
terrorism. Toward the end of 1995, the then U.S. ambassador,
Don Petterson, was instructed to deliver an un-signed, secret
note to the spiritual leader, Hassan al-Turabi, and President
Omar al-Bashir. It said the U.S. was "aware of Sudan's
involvement in terrorist plots against us," and warned
that if such a plot came to fruition there would be a harsh
reaction. It could result in "the international isolation
of Sudan, in the destruction of your economy, and in military
measures that would make you pay a high price."