From his offices at the Sudan Mission, the turbaned, white-robed United Nations ambassador sips strong cinnamon coffee and tells a tale of intrigue that might have prevented the worst mass murder in American history.
Osama bin Laden could have been in U.S. custody five years ago if Washington had accepted an offer from the Sudanese government. So says UN ambassador and major general Elfatih Erwa, who, as Sudan’s then minister of state for defense, flew from Khartoum to Washington for secret negotiations with the CIA in 1996.
When Washington finally declined the offer—because the FBI did not believe it had sufficient evidence to try Bin Laden in a U.S. court—and Saudi Arabia refused Washington’s request to arrest and even execute the terrorist, the U.S. demanded that Bin Laden leave Sudan for any other country except Somalia. “Bin Laden worked with groups who wanted to create a perfect Islamic state,” Erwa says. “But Somalia is a tribal, clan-based culture, not Islamic. He found that with the Taliban.”
Khartoum then watched as Bin Laden packed up his arms, money, and followers, chartered a plane, and fled for Afghanistan. “We told him Sudan is no longer safe for him and creates problems for us and asked him to leave,” Erwa recalls. “We liquidated everything, and he left with his money. We didn’t confiscate anything because there was no legal basis. Nobody had indicted him. He rented a charter plane and left in broad daylight. He was free to plot and build his network. The Americans then came back and wanted us to help track him, but by then it was too late. He didn’t trust us anymore.”
Khartoum warned Washington it was making a mistake: “The Americans thought he needed a base in Sudan,” Erwa notes. “We warned them. In Sudan, Bin Laden and his money were under our control. But we knew that if he went to Afghanistan no one could control him. The U.S. didn’t care; they just didn’t want him in Somalia. It’s crazy. They don’t get it. It’s a culture of arrogance that will make them always blind. They forgot about human intelligence after the Cold War. The feeling of supremacy led them astray. Many think that. Now they’re harvesting the thorns.”
Anthony Lake, then U.S. national security adviser, says Washington was skeptical of Sudan’s offer. He adds that Sudan—which is still on America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism—may be bringing up the story now because it fears U.S. bombing attacks during the war on terrorism.
At the time, there was a split between U.S officials who wanted to work with Sudan to counter terrorism and those who wanted to isolate that nation. Washington ended up pulling out its diplomats for 18 months, and at one point there was even alarm that Lake was an assassination target. Lake says the U.S. did the best it could at the time “to give [Bin Laden] no sanctuary anywhere and to keep him on the run.
“I think the fundamental problem is that Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are not like Hamas and Hizbullah,” Lake adds. “They have no clear political agenda. They are reacting to changes in their society that they find threatening. Any administration will make mistakes. There is no magic solution.”
Nevertheless, one U.S. intelligence source in the region called the lost opportunity a disgrace. “We kidnap minor drug czars and bring them back in burlap bags. Somebody didn’t want this to happen.” He added that the State Department may have blocked Bin Laden’s arrest to placate a part of the Saudi Arabian government that supported Bin Laden. (Much of Bin Laden’s funding and some of his followers, including suicide bombers, come from Saudi Arabia, which was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban. That changed after September 11. By then, the Saudis had fired their longtime intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, reportedly for his support of Bin Laden.)
Forgoing the opportunity to arrest Bin Laden was “not the most brilliant maneuver we’ve ever made,” notes another former intelligence chief familiar with the story. “But everything looks good in hindsight.”
Another American involved in the secret negotiations says the U.S. could have used Khartoum’s offer to keep an eye on Bin Laden, but that the efforts were blocked by another arm of the federal government. “I’ve never seen a brick wall like that before. Somebody let this slip up,” the intelligence chief says. “We could have dismantled his operations and put a cage on top. It was not a matter of arresting Bin Laden but of access to information. That’s the story, and that’s what could have prevented September 11. I knew it would come back to haunt us.”
Former National Security Council officials disagree. They say that, as a base for terrorist operations, Somalia was at greater risk than Afghanistan at the time because the Taliban was not yet in power. Washington hoped that forcing Bin Laden to move would disrupt and slow down his terror activities.
Perhaps a tragedy like September 11 would have happened sooner if the U.S. hadn’t forced Bin Laden out of Sudan, says Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is a gulf between intelligence knowledge that someone’s up to no good and being able to prove it,” Benjamin says. “If Bin Laden had stayed in Sudan, he might have destroyed the World Trade Center four years ago and we might have seen far worse by now. Bin Laden had a small empire in Sudan that posed a great danger. One couldn’t know he’d recoup so fast.”
Other ex-officials doubt the sincerity of Sudan’s offer because of its track record of supporting terrorism. “It’s like an alcoholic saying he won’t have another drink,” says Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs who was then senior director for Africa on the NSC. “At the time we had no basis to prosecute Bin Laden in a U.S. court. It would have been a huge mistake to try him and let him go free, and the Saudis didn’t want him. Our desire was not to let him remain in Sudan, which was an active state sponsor of terrorism. There was no government operating in Somalia. We wanted him to go somewhere where he wouldn’t disappear into the ether. We had no discussion of him going to Afghanistan.”
Rice also says Sudan made the offer knowing the U.S. couldn’t accept it. “They calculated that we didn’t have the means to successfully prosecute Bin Laden. That’s why I question the sincerity of the offer.”