In '96, Sudan Offered to Arrest bin Laden

Barton Gellman Washington Post Service

Dated Thursday, October 4, 2001

Original Link 
http://www.iht.com/articles/34543.html


Saudis Balked at Accepting U.S. Plan

WASHINGTON The government of Sudan, using a back channel direct from its president to the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States, offered in the early spring of 1996 to arrest Osama bin Laden and place him in custody in Saudi Arabia, according to officials and former officials in all three countries.
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The Clinton administration struggled to find a way to accept the offer in secret contacts that stretched from a meeting at hotel in Arlington, Virginia, on March 3, 1996, to a fax that closed the door on the effort 10 weeks later.
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Unable to persuade the Saudis to accept Mr. bin Laden, and lacking a case to indict him in U.S. courts, the Clinton administration finally gave up on the capture.
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Sudan expelled Mr. bin Laden on May 18, 1996, to Afghanistan. From there, he is thought to have planned and financed the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the near-destruction of the American destroyer Cole in Yemen last year and the devastation in New York and Washington on Sept. 11.
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"Had we been able to roll up bin Laden then, it would have made a significant difference," said a U.S. government official with responsibilities, then and now, in counterterrorism.
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"We probably never would have seen a Sept. 11. We would still have had networks of Sunni Islamic extremists of the sort we're dealing with here, and there would still have been terrorist attacks fomented by those folks. But there would not have been as many resources devoted to their activities, and there would not have been a single voice that so effectively articulated grievances and won support for violence."
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Clinton administration officials maintain emphatically that they had no such option against Mr. bin Laden in 1996. In the legal, political and intelligence environment then, they said, there was no choice but to allow him to leave Sudan unmolested.
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"In the United States, we have this thing called the Constitution, so to bring him here is to bring him into the justice system," said Samuel Berger, who was deputy national security adviser then. "I don't think that was our first choice. Our first choice was to send him some place where justice is more" - he paused a moment, then continued - "streamlined."
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Three officials in the Clinton administration said they hoped - one described it as "a fantasy" - that the Saudi monarch, King Fahd, would order Mr. bin Laden's swift beheading, as he had done for four conspirators after a June 1995 bombing in Riyadh.
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But Mr. Berger and Steven Simon, then director for counterterrorism for the National Security Council, said the White House considered it valuable in itself to force Mr. bin Laden out of Sudan, thus tearing him away from his extensive network of businesses, investments and training camps.
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Conflicting policy agendas on several other fronts contributed to the missed opportunity to capture Mr. bin Laden, according to a dozen participants.
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The Clinton administration was riven by differences on whether to engage Sudan's government or isolate it, a situation that influenced judgments about the sincerity of the offer. In the Saudi-American relationship, policymakers diverged on how much priority to give to counterterrorism over other interests, such as support for the ailing Israeli-Palestinian talks and enforcement of the no-flight zone in Iraq.
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And there were the beginnings of debate, intensified lately, on whether the United States wanted to indict and try Mr. bin Laden or to treat him as a combatant in an underground war.
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The Sudanese offer had its roots in a dinner at the Khartoum home of Sudan's foreign minister, Ali Othman Taha. It was Feb. 6, 1996, the last night in the country for the U.S. ambassador, Timothy Carney, before evacuating the U.S. Embassy on orders from Washington. Paul Quaglia, then the CIA station chief in Khartoum, had led a campaign to pull out all Americans after he and his staff came under aggressive surveillance and twice had to fend off attacks, one with a knife and one with claw hammers.
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Mr. Carney and David Shinn, then chief of the State Department's East Africa desk, considered the security threat "bogus," as Mr. Shinn described it. Washington's dominant decision-makers on Sudan had lost interest in engagement, preparing plans to isolate and undermine the regime.
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One factor in Washington's hostility was an intelligence tip that Sudan planned to assassinate President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, the most visible administration critic of Khartoum. Most U.S. analysts came to believe later that it had been a false alarm.
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On Feb. 6, 1996, Mr. Taha, the foreign minister, asked Mr. Carney and Mr. Shinn what his country could do to dissuade Washington from the view, expressed not long before by Madeleine Albright, then the chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations, that Sudan was responsible for "continued sponsorship of international terror."
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Mr. Carney and Mr. Shinn had a long list. Mr. bin Laden, as they both recalled, was near the top. Mr. Taha mostly listened. He raised no objection to the request for Mr. bin Laden's expulsion, though he did not agree to it that night. On March 3, 1996, Sudan's defense minister, Major General Elfatih Erwa, arrived at the Hyatt Arlington. Mr. Carney and Mr. Shinn were waiting for him, but the meeting was run by covert operatives from the CIA's Africa division. In a document dated March 8, 1996, the Americans spelled out their demands. Titled "Measures Sudan Can Take to Improve Relations with the United States," it asked for six things. Second on the list - just after an angry enumeration of attacks on the CIA station in Khartoum - was Osama bin Laden.
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"Provide us with names, dates of arrival, departure and destination and passport data on mujahidin that Usama Bin Laden has brought into Sudan," the document demanded.
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During the next several weeks, General Erwa raised the stakes. The Sudanese security services, he said, would happily keep close watch on Mr. bin Laden for the United States. But if that would not suffice, the government was prepared to place him in custody and hand him over, though to whom was ambiguous.
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Susan Rice, then senior director for Africa on the National Security Council, remembers being intrigued with but deeply skeptical of the Sudanese offer. And unlike Mr. Berger and Mr. Simon, Ms. Rice argued that mere expulsion from Sudan was not enough.
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"We wanted them to hand him over to a responsible external authority," she said. "We didn't want them to just let him disappear into the ether."
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Mr. Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher were briefed, colleagues said, on efforts to persuade the Saudi government to take Mr. bin Laden.
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The Saudi idea had some logic, since Mr. bin Laden had issued a fatwa, or religious edict, denouncing the House of Saud as corrupt. Riyadh had expelled Mr. bin Laden in 1991 and stripped him of his citizenship in 1994, but it wanted no part of jailing or executing him, apparently fearing a backlash from militant opponents of the government.
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Some American diplomats said the White House did not press the Saudis very hard.
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Resigned to Mr. bin Laden's departure from Sudan, some officials raised the possibility of shooting down his chartered aircraft, but the idea was never seriously pursued because Mr. bin Laden had not been linked to a dead American, and it was inconceivable that Mr. Clinton would sign the "lethal finding" necessary under the circumstances.
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"In the end they said, 'Just ask him to leave the country. Just don't let him go to Somalia,'" General Erwa said in an interview. "We said he will go to Afghanistan, and they said, 'Let him.'" On May 15, 1996, Mr. Taha, the foreign minister, sent a fax to Mr. Carney in Nairobi, giving up on the transfer of custody. Sudan's government had asked Mr. bin Laden to leave the country, Mr. Taha wrote, and he would be free to go.
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Mr. Carney faxed back a question: Would Mr. bin Laden retain his access and control to the millions of dollars of assets he had built up in Sudan?
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Mr. Taha gave no reply before Mr. bin Laden chartered a plane three days later for his trip to Afghanistan.
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Subsequent analysis by U.S. intelligence suggests that Mr. bin Laden managed to access the Sudanese assets from his new redoubt in Afghanistan. 

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