BY DAVID ROSE
Somalilandsun – In a squat, red-brick building next to Khartoum’s presidential palace, the agents who serve the Mukhabarat, Sudan’s intelligence division, keep their secrets in pale manila files. “Those guys know what they’re doing,” says a retired long-time C.I.A. Africa specialist. “They tend to be thorough. Their stuff is pretty reliable.” And sometimes very important.
Sudan’s Mukhabarat spent the early to mid-1990s amassing copious intelligence on Osama bin Laden and his leading cohorts at the heart of the al-Qaeda terrorist network-when they were still little known, and their activities were relatively limited. Some of the files at Mukhabarat headquarters identify individuals who played central roles in the suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998; others chart the backgrounds and movements of al-Qaeda operatives who are said to be linked directly to the atrocities of September 11.
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 and significant.
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.
The Mukhabarat had monitored Egyptian Islamic Jihad for years. “If anyone in the world understands the Egyptian side of this network, it’s Sudan,” the C.I.A. source says. Events have served to demonstrate the significance of that meeting in 1992: Egyptian Islamic Jihad has effectively merged with al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri, now No.2 on the F.B.I.’s “most wanted” list, serves as bin Laden’s doctor and adviser in Afghanistan. Other Egyptians occupy core positions within the al-Qaeda network, many of them known to the Mukhabarat since the 1980s. “These files on the Egyptians could have been of great value to U.S. intelligence,” Baviker says.
“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.”
A focus on the wrong enemy was not the only mistaken feature of U.S. intelligence on Sudan. In 1993 the U.S. Embassy sent home all nonessential staff, spouses, and children, because the CIA claimed it had evidence that Americans were at risk of terrorist attack.
One report even claimed that there was a plot to bomb a party for the children of Khartoum’s American embassy workers. None of these threats were real. Petterson says, “There’s no question there were mistaken reports.” President Clinton’s national-security adviser, Tony Lake, was uprooted with his family and kept under Secret Service guard at Blair House, the presidential guest quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The reason was another bogus C.I.A. claim that Sudanese agents were planning to murder him in Washington. Finally, at the beginning of 1996, just after Petterson had come to the end of his tour, the embassy was emptied of Americans altogether, again because of unspecified “security threats”.
His successor, Tim Carney, would somehow have to do his job based a thousand miles away, in Nairobi, Kenya. This was unjustified, Petterson says.
The veteran C.I.A. Africa specialist says that this inaccurate intelligence was the product of disinformation, fed by an organised ring whose motives were a mixture of malice and greed. All these reports cost the C.I.A. money. One of its members, a Tunisian, Ali bin Mustafa Homed, was convicted of espionage in Sudan last summer and given a 14-year jail sentence. Yahia Baviker, the Mukhabarat deputy chief, confirmed that feeding disinformation to foreign intelligence agencies formed one of the charges against Homed.
Sudan was aghast at these developments. However, the radical wing of the government, led by the philosopher Dr. al-Turabi, was losing ground to the pragmatist moderates, who wanted good relations with the West. (In
1998, al-Turabi was placed under arrest, where he remains.) So when, in February 1996, Carney began to convey America’s demand that Sudan expel bin Laden, mainly because of his campaign against the Saudis, his
audience was surprisingly receptive. Gutbi al-Mahdi, the former Mukhabat boss, who was then serving as the Sudanese president’s senior adviser, says Sudan did not object on principle. The arguments he and his
colleagues used were more practical. “We said, ‘Here he is under control, and we know everything about him. Here in Sudan he is under our supervision.'”. Once bin Laden was expelled, al-Mahdi adds, “he had absolutely no choice other than to become a full-time radical”. About 300 Afghan Arabs went with him. According to an Egyptian intelligence source, “Most of them are now terrorists”.
Bin Laden was expelled in May 1996. Despite this evidence of Sudan’s willingness to cooperate, the U.S. appeared to have no interest in seeing what it could learn from Sudan. Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, now the information minister, went to Washington as Sudan’s ambassador in February 1996. A long-standing Americophile, he had been educated in Michigan and California: “I like the country, I like the people. I went as ambassador for three years, with a positive view that America was open, free, open for dialogue.
What I found was a major surprise and disappointment.” Mohammed spent three years trying to get a meeting with the State Department’s assistant secretary for Africa, Susan Rice, only to find himself fobbed off on junior officials. He was no more successful in his efforts to see the National Security Council’s Tony Lake, or his successor, Sandy Berger. The N.S.C. staff continued to accuse Sudan of harboring terrorists. Mohamed begged the officials to make a specific allegation, but they refused. “I said, ‘Give me any information about any terrorists, any camps, as you believe it to be, and we will take it very seriously.’ The response was ‘Your government knows. You must know. We don’t like to expose our sources.”‘
Ambassador Mohamed conveyed an open offer: the C.I.A. and F.B.I. could send a joint investigative team, which could travel freely throughout the country. “I used to say, ‘Go anywhere, take a plane from Khartoum and say where you want to go once we’re in the air.”‘ It was not taken up. In February 1997, the offer was repeated in a letter from Presidental-Bashir to Clinton. Al-Bashir suggested “a mission tasked to investigate allegations that the government of Sudan trains or shelters terrorists,” with “freedom of movement and contact and unrestricted choice of suspected terrorist sites.” Clinton never replied.
It began to dawn on the Sudanese that one way of convincing America that they were serious about fighting terrorists was to offer U.S. investigators access to the Mukhabarat files on bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Frustrated in their efforts to invite America in through the front door, they resolved to try a back channel-the multimillionaire Pakistani-American businessman and fund manager Mansoor Ijaz. Then a big donor to the Democratic Party, Ijaz was on personal terms with Clinton, Berger, and A1 Gore. He was also fearful of the likely result of U.S. refusal to engage with Islamic regimes, such as Sudan: “As an American Muslim, I had a terrifying vision of what could go wrong. I wanted to do whatever I could to stop that happening.”
As an investor, Ijaz was interested in Sudan’s oil, but he also shared “a fundamental sense of injustice” at the way the country was being treated. From July 1996 until August 1997, he made six trips to Khartoum, meeting Dr. al-Turabi, President al-Bashir, the Mukhabarat chief, Gutbi al-Mahdi, and other officials. He suceeded in convincing them that it was worth making a further effort to persuade the U.S. of Sudan’s sincerity-partly by drawing America’s attention to the intelligence on al-Qaeda. His initiative produced its most dramatic result in a letter dated April 5, 1997, from President al-Bashir to Lee H. Hamilton, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
It stated, “We extend an offer to the F.B.I’s Counter-terrorism units and any other official delegations which your government may deem appropriate, to come to the Sudan and work with our External Intelligence Department in order to assess the data in our possession and help us counter the forces your government, and ours. seek to contain.” (My italics.) According to Ijaz, Hamilton took the letter to both Madeleine Albright and Sandy Beger, neither of whom replied. Ijaz also wrote memorandums on his mission for Sandy Berger, and in a series of conversations he spelled out exactly what the Sudanese offer meant. He told Berger, “That phrase [in the letter to Hamilton], ‘to assess the data in our possession,’ was an explicit reference to the data on bin Laden. The reference to ‘the forces we seek to contain’ was an explicit reference to the attempt to stop al-Qaeda spreading.” Ijaz and his family had shared their Christmas dinner in the White House with the ain- tons. However good his access, he could not budge U.S. policy on Sudan.
The Sudanese did not give up. Beginning in the autumn of 1997, they made use of another private go-between, Janet McElligott, a lobbyist who had worked at the White House under George H. W Bush.
Like Ijaz before her, she assumed that rational statecraft would, in the end, prevail. In this she was mistaken. On February 5, 1998, her efforts helped produce perhaps the smokiest of all the smoking guns in this story: a letter direct from Gutbi al-Mahdi of the Mukhabarat to David Williams, chief of the F.B.I.’s Middle East and Africa desk. It read, “I would like to express my sincere desire to start contacts and cooperation between our service and the F.B.I. I would like to take this opportunity with pleasure to invite you to visit our country. Otherwise, we could meet somewhere else. Till then I remain, yours truly.”
Eighteen days later, on February 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden issued his blood- curdling fatwa from his hideout in Afghanistan, calling on all Muslims to kill Americans and Jews, adding that civilians were now to be regarded as targets. McElligott followed up the letter with a personal appeal: “I told them, ‘You do realize bin Laden lived there and they have files on his main people?’ There is simply no doubt the F.B.I. knew what was available. The guy I dealt with said, ‘I’d give any- thing to go in there, but they’-meaning the State Department-‘won’t let us.”‘ David Williams did not reply to al-Mahdi’s letter for another four months. “Unfortunately,” he wrote on June 24, “I am not currently in a position to accept your kind invitation.” He hoped “future circumstances” might allow it, but for now the offer had to be rejected. Six. weeks after that, bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network succeeded in exploding two pick- up trucks at the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. They were reduced to piles of bloody rubble in which 224 people lay dead or dying.