Top-ranking US and Saudi officials put their heads together on Afghanistan Sunday, Sept. 19, for their first real thrashing-out on Afghanistan since the Americans invaded the country in the wake of al Qaeda's Sept. 11 attack.
Nine years later, Washington has come full circle: Al Qaeda still shelters in Afghanistan. But now the Obama administration is getting together with the Saudis to break it by persuading – or forcing – Osama bin Laden to stop fighting the US and the Saudi throne, withdraw from Afghanistan and Pakistan and settle down in comfortable detention quarters in Saudi Arabia.
Taking part in this unique discussion in the Red Sea coastal town of Jeddah were Saudi King Abdullah, Interior Minister Prince Nayef who is in charge of security and the war on al Qaeda and General Intelligence chief Prince Moqrin.
President Barack Obama was represented by John Brennan, his assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism. With him was Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – possibly because the proposed solution calls for some high-profile al Qaeda members to be resettled in that country and also the Saudi ambassador in Washington Adel Jubeir, who is a close adviser to the Saudi king on foreign affairs.
Bill Clinton missed Bin Laden in Sudan by two years
It is not the first time that the United States and Saudis are talking about transferring bin Laden out of his Afghan and Pakistani havens to a Middle Eastern country, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counterterrorism sources report. It also happened eighteen years ago with unfortunate consequences.
The history books and Al Qaeda specialists have dwelt at length on his Sudanese period between 1992 and 1996. The al Qaeda leader was invited to set up a base in Sudan by Islamist theoretician Hassan al Turabi after Col. Omar al-Bashir staged an Islamist coup d'etat in Khartoum pledging to reinstate Islamic political values.
His move to Sudan was quietly encouraged by the American CIA and Saudi intelligence. They worked together, with logistical assistance from Egyptian intelligence, to speed bin Laden on his way from Peshawar, Pakistan to Khartoum in order to distance him from his Afghan sanctuary and prime target of the Saudi throne. Three years later, they all woke up to discover the al Qaeda leader had spent the time building a prosperous financial empire of businesses and industries with the help of annual stipends of tens of millions of dollars from his wealthy Saudi kinsmen. The income supported a complex of secret training camps turning out a new generation of terrorists.
He had been back in Peshawar for two years by the time the Clinton administration got around to sending cruise missiles against the al Qaeda base in Sudan in 1998.
Bin Laden's Sudanese episode was disastrous for US intelligence, especially the CIA, in more ways than one. The Americans had relegated surveillance of Bin Laden's activities there to Egyptian intelligence officers. They proved to be double agents who constantly shuttled between the CIA and al Qaeda, while also serving several clandestine foreign masters hostile to the United States.
The Jeddah conference of September 2010 seemed to have drawn the right lessons from the sorry Sudanese episode.
The Taliban chief would be free to negotiate the war's end
DEBKA-Net-Weekly cites Persian Gulf intelligence sources familiar with its content as disclosing that the US-Saudi plan under discussion is built around an airlift for transferring most of Al Qaeda's high echelons to rehabilitation camps standing in Saudi Arabia since 2006. The group would first make its way under Pakistani and Saudi safe passage guarantees to pre-arranged pick-up points.
This would not be the first time the Saudis have airlifted al Qaeda to safety with American consent. In late October and early November 2001, when the American invasion of Afghanistan was in full spate, the Bush administration quietly acceded to a Saudi royal request for a blind eye to the Saudi transports landing in the northern Afghanistan town of Konduz to evacuate hundreds of Saudi jihadis fighting with Al Qaeda.
George W. Bush decided that relations with Riyadh would be better served if Saudi nationals were in custody in their own country and not prisoners of US forces.
As to the present plan, upon which President Barack Obama and Saudi King Abdullah have agreed in principle, our sources say its guiding motive is the high importance attached to the removal of Al Qaeda leaders, rank and file from the war scenes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
If the plan works, Taliban leader Mullah Omar can freely go forward and negotiate an end to the Afghan War and a peace that would restore his movement to power in Kabul – without fear of being accused of jettisoning his closest ally as unwanted baggage.
But what are the chances of Al Qaeda playing ball with the plan? DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources obtained half a dozen answers, some of them conflicting, to this key question:
1. Word of the Saudi proposal under discussion has reached Al Qaeda, but no response has come from Osama bin Laden or any of his senior aides, nor any sign that they are willing to countenance it.
Osama Bin Laden remains a conundrum
2. Certain al Qaeda high-ups in Pakistan have been secretly discussing the plan with Saudi and Pakistani intelligence officials. None of them can say for sure whether Bin Laden knows about the scheme and is aware of the discussions it has attracted, but some claim his health is so poor that he will accept it when it gains all-round agreement.
3. According to a different view put forward by other Gulf intelligence officials, Bin Laden is not only perfectly aware of the secret bargaining over the plan but it is taking place on his authority and the process is much further advanced than outside observers perceive. Indeed the Jeddah parley may be the penultimate stage of the talks, according these officials.
To prove their point, they hold up some of the problems still outstanding: How will Washington and Riyadh explain to the world public Osama bin Laden's sudden appearance in Saudi Arabia? How will the administration in Washington explain why it is no longer seeking his extradition? Will Bin Laden announce that he surrendered and turned himself into the Saudis? If he refuses to admit to surrendering – as he no doubt will – how will his legal and personal status and that of his key operatives be defined? And what kind of freedoms will Bin Laden and his people enjoy in Saudi rehabilitation camps?
4. Yet other sources agree that the discussions have advanced sufficiently for the disposition of al Qaeda's war chest and Bin Laden's personal fortune to be on the table. Will the monies be made available to the terrorists in rehab? And if so, how much freedom will they have to spend them?
Is the plan designed to back Al Qaeda into a corner?
5. Another Western intelligence source involved in the war on Al Qaeda told our sources: "These discussions do not surprise me at all." In his view, Al Qaeda is in rapid decline as a terrorist organization. Most of its fighting elements have left Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent months and given jihad a fresh spurt from the Caucasus, the Sahara, Yemen and Somalia, where terrorist activity has gained fresh momentum.
So in effect, says the source, he doesn't have much choice but to accept the American-Saudi deal.
6. The above five propositions are all firmly challenged by a Western source, who told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: "All of these theories about contacts with Al Qaeda leaders and commanders may sound good but they are wishful thinking. What we have here is an American-Saudi-Pakistani scheme for locking al Qaeda in and backing its leaders into a corner with no way out but one – acceptance.
For now, there is no sign that Taliban wants any part of it."