by Jean Damu
Years before 9/11, the Sudanese government offered to turn Osama bin Laden over to the Saudis for transfer to the U.S. Instead, the U.S. refused the offer, and later attacked a Sudanese pharmaceuticals factory. “Why did Rice and Clarke really turn their backs on the Sudanese?”
Did Susan Rice Give Osama bin Laden a Get Out of Jail Free Pass?
by Jean Damu
This article previously appeared in ChickenBones.
“It is necessary to review the conditions that led Sudan made its spectacular offer to Washington.”
Now that UN ambassador Susan Rice has removed her name from consideration for elevation to Secretary of State, lingering questions concerning her foreign policy qualifications can be raised without being accused of holding Rush Limbaugh’s hand or fueling the Republican Party’s racist campaign against her.
The main question considered here, though there are others, is when given the opportunity to have Osama bin Laden arrested why did she and parallel government officials allow him to go free?
In 1996 Rice was a member of the National Security Council as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs. She worked closely with Richard Clarke, an NSC terrorism expert. In February of that year high ranking Sudanese officials met with CIA officials in Rosslyn, Virginia, across the Potomac from the White House and offered to have Bin Laden taken into custody, extradited to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and then transferred to the US.
Rice and Clarke successfully campaigned to reject Sudan’s offer, even though Bin Laden was known to have been behind the 1993 attempted bombing of the World Trade Center and was actively planning more terrorist actions and had declared war against the US. To put Rice and Clarke’s dismaying decision to take a hands-off approach to Bin Laden into context it is necessary to review the conditions that led Sudan made its spectacular offer to Washington.
Following the First Gulf War (1990-91) Hasan al-Turabi, a Sunni Muslim and a leading member of Sudan’s ruling National Islamic Front, emerged from the local political shadows to cobble together what became known as the Popular Arab and Islamist Congress (PAIC).
“Osama bin Laden embraced Sudan’s hospitality.”
The ignominious defeat of Iraq at the hands of the US and its allies during Desert Storm One aroused intense hostility throughout Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and elsewhere. Turabi’s PAIC was intended to focus this hostility into action and at once project the unification of Sunni and Sufi Muslims.
More realistically the PAIC hoped to become the forum for worldwide Islamist revolution and to coordinate anti-imperialist movements in some 50 Muslim states.
In conjunction with the founding of Turabi’s PAIC, Sudan president Omar Bashir opened Sudan’s borders to all “Arab brothers,” with or without visas. This opened the door to all Afghan-Arab mujahidin seeking shelter after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and established Sudanese relations with other terrorist organizations.
During this early period Osama bin Laden embraced Sudan’s hospitality, moved his family and political operations to Khartoum and took up residence in a comfortable split level home in the Riyadh section of the capital.
As a good guest does he soon ingratiated himself to his hosts. Through the agency of his family’s Bin Laden Group, one of Saudi Arabia’s largest construction firms, he built a much needed paved road from Khartoum to Port Sudan, site of Sudan’s Iraqi constructed oil refinery.
As events were soon to prove however, all would not remain well between PAIC leaders and the Bashir government.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, probably the regions key anti-Islamic fundamentalist agitator, began consistent criticisms of al Turabi and pressured Sudan to shut his and Bin Laden’s operations down.
The issue came to a head in 1995 while Mubarak was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia attending a meeting of the OAU.
Armed gunmen opened fire on Mubarak’s limousine but Egyptian security foiled the plot by previously diverting Mubarak to another vehicle.
Mubarak (and who could blame him?) was furious. A high level investigation soon determined that Sudan had provided weapons and travel documents to the failed assassins, and that an NIF official had paid their rent at an Addis Ababa apartment.
The international pressure on Sudan became intense as Khartoum dragged its heels in its cooperation with the investigation. Everyone demanded Sudan turn over the gunmen but Khartoum demurred for a time. The UN Security Council leveled sanctions against Sudan and most of its neighbors, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Libya, Egypt and others condemned Sudan as being a haven for terrorism.
“Everyone demanded Sudan turn over the gunmen but Khartoum demurred for a time.”
As Sudan’s neighbors’ anxious clamor became more shrill and UN sanctions increased, Sudan’s growing international isolation finally took a toll and President Bashir and the military security leaders who made up the inner councils of the National Islamic Front government decided that al-Turabi’s terroristic shenanigans were more trouble than they were worth and decided to come in from the cold.
Originally the Sudanese offered to turn Bin Laden over to Saudi Arabia who refused to cooperate because they felt such an action would cause internal unrest. They did agree, however, to act as an intermediary to send Bin Laden en route to a third country.
It was then that Al-Farthi ‘Urwah, a Bashir confidant, was dispatched to the US to meet with the CIA but who then ran into the Rice-Clarke stonewall.
The failed meeting with the CIA took place in February of 1996.
In May Turabi, in a desperate effort to avoid a political scandal that would have ensued had Bin Laden been turned over to the West, contacted Atiya Badawi, Sudan’s ambassador to Pakistan to facilitate Bin Laden’s return to Pakistan. Yunis Khalis, a former mujahidiin commander operating out of Jalabad, Afghanistan agreed to provide a safe haven for Bin Laden and al –Qa’ida.
On 18 May, 1996 having previously terminated all his business dealings with Sudan, Bin Laden, his family, and 20 al-Qa’ida body guards bordered a chartered plane and quietly disappeared from Khartoum. Bin Laden complaining all the while he had lost in excess of $160 million and that the Sudan government was little more than a mixture of religion and organized crime.
For their part Rice and Clarke argued that Sudan’s NIF government could not be trusted—that there was no way to ensure Sudan would carry out their part of the bargain.
In retrospect these arguments ring hollow.
“Bin Laden, his family, and 20 al-Qa’ida body guards bordered a chartered plane and quietly disappeared from Khartoum.”
In fact, Sudan’s first move, after disclosing the names of the Mubarak gunmen, was to surreptitiously contact French security officials and offer to them another international terrorist residing in Khartoum, Illich Ramirez Sanchez (Carlos the Jackal). The French immediately took the Sudanese up on their offer and took the Venezuelan born Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine member into custody.
The arrest of Carlos the Jackal was publicly known and widely reported in the world press. So why did Rice and Clarke really turn their backs on the Sudanese, who had already proven their trustworthiness with the French, and allow Bin Laden to continue his career of building al-Qa’ida and promoting terrorism?
We don’t know.
What is known is that Rice, as a government official, has an extremely checkered career, especially as regards Africa.
Early on her career during and following the Rwanda holocaust she offered implausible denial to what we now know was US complicity with the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s role in the mass killings. Years later, against Pentagon advice, she attaboy’d President Clinton into bombing, with 13 cruise missiles, the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum because she and others, mistakenly it turns out, thought chemicals weapons were being assembled there.
(Later the US quietly paid the plant owner, a Sudanese resident of Chicago, substantial reparations. Independent observers estimated thousands of Sudanese died for lack of drugs previously provided by the plant.)
“To this day she espouses polices in the eastern Congo that obscures US support for those that endorse, supply, and encourage the M23 genocidal actions there.”
Later still she instigated a letter printed in the New York Times this time urging the Bush Administration to bomb Khartoum again, this time because of the Darfur crisis, a crisis that now seems to have evaporated into thin air. The list of her questionable actions goes on and on.
This not to say Rice is a force unto herself within America’s foreign policy establishment. She is simply an aggressive personality that forcefully pursues the broad policy objectives rapacious globalization shared by the Republican and Democratic parties; foreign policy objectives within which there are almost no differences. That is why to this day she espouses polices in the eastern Congo that obscures US support for those that endorse, supply, and encourage the M23 genocidal actions there—the same forces that promoted the Rwandan genocide.
During the federal investigations into the 9-1-1 World Trade Center bombings Richard Clarke apologized to the families of the victims saying he had failed them in his unsuccessful efforts to get the government to pay attention to the known threats posed by al-Qa’da. Of course he made no mention his role in allowing Osama bin Laden to run amok in the first place.
On the other hand Susan Rice has never apologized for anything. And why should she when all she is subjected to is false accusations about meaningless statements made on Sunday news broadcasts.
If anyone ever gets around to asking Rice some serious questions recent history would have to be rewritten and likely many would ask, “Do we really want her anywhere near decision-making controls regarding US foreign policy?”
Likely many Africans would hope not.
Jean Damu can be reached at [email protected]