Far from the American media machine, two French authors have released a report outlining U.S. attempts to finesse the issue of Osama bin Laden long before Al Qaeda struck on September 11. Based on extensive firsthand reporting, Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié write in their book, Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth, that the Bush administration went so far as to consider waging war against Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban last summer. Brisard and Dasquié argue the U.S. cared more about getting access to the region’s oil than about getting the head of Osama bin Laden.
Now thousands of U.S. citizens are dead and Al Qaeda is on the run. Dasquié tells the Voice he doubts the group will last “more than a few weeks.” The journalist describes bin Laden’s military leaders as mostly former members of the Egyptian special forces who joined with the Saudi exile in 1992 and 1993 during fighting in Sudan. Al Qaeda commanders and troops are “the military product of a religious deviance,” he says, warning that ending the network “won’t solve anything because the Saudi charities and other organizations tied to the clerics will go on pumping out the money. The problem is their fundamentalism.”
Brisard, who has run Vivendi International’s economic intelligence service, prepared the West’s first report on Al Qaeda back in 1997, at the request of the French government. Along with Dasquié, he now argues the FBI’s efforts to get to the bottom of bin Laden’s terror outfit—which bombed two American embassies in Africa in 1998—were blocked by the Saudi royal family and the big oil companies, which were hungry for the region’s crude reserves.
The FBI press office had no comment on the book, and the State Department has steadily denied having any negotiations with the Taliban, which had no diplomatic standing in the U.S. But the two authors think highly of the FBI agents who were working on counterterrorism, saying they often had excellent informants.
That’s not to say progress was great. When an FBI agent would turn up to do an interview, the Saudis would step in with their own bizarre behavior. “We uncovered incredible things,” Dasquié tells the Voice. “Investigators would arrive to find that key witnesses they were about to interrogate had been beheaded the day before.” In the end, he says, the West “always considered Saudi Arabia as a partner that we absolutely and systematically had to protect.”
The book also reveals a portrait of U.S. policy toward the Taliban that differs sharply from the one usually held up for the American public but coincides with that of the Taliban’s unofficial emissary in the U.S., Laili Helms, the niece of the former CIA head (see “The Accidental Operative,” Voice, June 19, 2001). Helms described one incident after another in which, she claimed, the Taliban agreed to give up bin Laden to the U.S., only to be rebuffed by the State Department. On one occasion, she said, the Taliban agreed to give the U.S. coordinates for his campsite, leaving enough time so the Yanks could whack Al Qaeda’s leader with a missile before he moved. The proposal, she claims, was nixed. The State Department denied receiving any such offer.
Helms also related an incident when Prince Turki, then the head of Saudi intelligence, flew to Kabul to negotiate bin Laden’s arrest. Turki, according to Helms’s account of the story, wanted bin Laden murdered on Afghan soil. If he were killed there, then the Saudi royal family needn’t face the embarrassment of airing their dirty linen in an open trial. The Taliban refused, and Turki returned home empty-handed.
Brisard and Dasquié characterize the U.S. as playing a clumsy footsie with the Taliban, with diplomacy unfolding in a series of bizarre fits and starts. By the late 1990s, the writers claim, diplomacy was run on different levels. One channel went from the UN Security Council to Kabul. Meanwhile, the State Department conducted its own bilateral negotiations. From the start, the U.S. favored a sort of covert support for the Taliban, in hopes that sooner or later the one-eyed Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar could be prevailed upon to break ties with bin Laden so the West could get on with its pipeline and other business interests.
However, this approach came to a screaming halt in September 1997, when European Union commissioner Emma Bonino paid an official visit to Kabul, where the Taliban arrested her for filming the conditions in a women’s hospital. Their outrageous actions made it difficult for the West to appear at all friendly with the Taliban. In reality, since they had all the power in this Stalinized regime, nobody ever stopped dealing with them. It’s just that the trail became more submerged. Bin Laden then began his potent offensives, attacking the diplomatic posts and the USS Cole.
In general, according to the authors, the U.S. line on the Taliban had gone something like this: “OK, they are officially a bit wild, but let’s not go overboard. Eventually we can make them acceptable.” Under Clinton, few thought they could ever deal with the Taliban, and some wanted to pile on sanctions. But under Bush, talks started up once more. The purpose was legitimate at the start, Brisard notes. “It was for the U.S. to negotiate that bin Laden be given to them,” he says. “Then it shifted to the point where advisers thought that the economic arguments would make the difference with the Taliban and accelerate the negotiations. They started to put the oil subsidies that would be given to the Taliban on the table. At the end of July, the negotiations broke down, because the U.S. threatened to go to war with the Taliban if they didn’t accept the deal.”
Dasquié, too, notes the role of the oil industry in this conflict. “Most of the big names of the Bush administration have a political culture developed in Big Oil—Cheney with Halliburton, Rice at Chevron,” he says. “Donald Evans also came from a big oil company.” This shift from the Clinton era took effect quickly. In March 2001, a personal representative of Supreme Leader Omar came to Washington. In his mission to the nation’s capital, he was accompanied by Helms.
It should be noted here that the Taliban, through a policy of coercion, had stopped farmers from growing opium poppies—a major goal of both the Clinton and Bush drug wars. In certain quarters this was taken as a sign of their coming around to deal with the U.S. What nobody seemed to know, or at least appreciate at the time, was that bin Laden had put so much money into Afghanistan that he virtually owned the regime. “We must understand that Mullah Omar was a peasant and illiterate,” says Brisard, “so the person giving substance to the religious message of the Taliban regime is Osama bin Laden. He is the person who brings life to and finances the Taliban economy.”
The way the French writers see it, the most significant factor in Central Asia is not a revived cold war between Russia and the U.S. over influence in the former Soviet republics, but the rise of Iran. Here the irony is that the U.S. embraced Saudi Arabia as a counterbalance against the Shiites in Iran. Now the tables are turned. FBI investigations showed the connection between the Saudi clergy and the September terrorist attacks. Gradually the U.S. has begun to distance itself from the Saudis. And at the same time, it has begun to warm to Iran, whose help the U.S. suddenly needs.
“During the dark years of Taliban power, their principal opponent in western Afghanistan was Iran,” Dasquié says. “It played a very important part in supporting the Afghan resistance.” Indeed, it was Shiite Iran that financed dissidents against the Taliban. When the crisis started, the Swiss Embassy in Tehran organized meetings between American State Department officials and Iranian president Mohammed Khatami’s government.
In the end, the authors say Al Qaeda was a special case in that it was set up to be a nexus for other fundamentalist networks. Through bin Laden, it provides the financing to attract such groups as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Ramata I Islamya. “There are a lot of fundamentalist movements around the world, but no one like Al Qaeda, because it was meant to be a kind of central point, a crossroads, the focus of fundamentalist movements,” says Dasquié. “But if tomorrow Al Qaeda disappears, many little movements can replace it. All that is necessary is to get the support and benediction of the Saudi clergy.”
Additional reporting: Michael Ridley