SUNDAY JANUARY 06 2002
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton turned down at
least three offers involving foreign governments to help to seize Osama Bin
Laden after he was identified as a terrorist who was threatening America,
according to sources in Washington and the Middle East.
Clinton himself, according to one
Washington source, has described the refusal to accept the first of the offers
as "the biggest mistake" of his presidency.
The main reasons were legal: there was no
evidence that could be brought against Bin Laden in an American court. But
former senior intelligence sources accuse the administration of a lack of
commitment to the fight against terrorism.
When Sudanese officials claimed late last
year that Washington had spurned Bin Laden's secret extradition from Khartoum in
1996, former White House officials said they had no recollection of the offer.
Senior sources in the former administration now confirm that it was true.
An Insight investigation has revealed
that far from being an isolated incident this was the first in a series of
missed opportunities right up to Clinton's last year in office. One of these
involved a Gulf state; another would have relied on the assistance of Saudi
In early 1996 America was putting strong
pressure on Sudan's Islamic government to expel Bin Laden, who had been living
there since 1991. Sources now reveal that Khartoum sent a former intelligence
officer with Central Intelligence Agency connections to Washington with an offer
to hand over Bin Laden — just as it had put another terrorist, Carlos the
Jackal, into French hands in 1994.
At the time the State Department was
describing Bin Laden as "the greatest single financier of terrorist projects in
the world" and was accusing Sudan of harbouring terrorists. The extradition
offer was turned down, however. A former senior White House source said: "There
simply was not the evidence to prosecute Osama Bin Laden. He could not be
indicted, so it would serve no purpose for him to have been brought into US
A former figure in American
counterterrorist intelligence claims, however, that there was "clear and
convincing" proof of Bin Laden's conspiracy against America.
In May, 1996, American diplomats were
informed in a Sudanese government fax that Bin Laden was about to be expelled —
giving Washington another chance to seize him. The decision not to do so went to
the very top of the White House, according to former administration sources.
They say that the clear focus of American
policy was to discourage the state sponsorship of terrorism. So persuading
Khartoum to expel Bin Laden was in itself counted as a clear victory. The
administration was "delighted".
Bin Laden took off from Khartoum on May
18 in a chartered C-130 plane with 150 of his followers, including his wives. He
was bound for Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. On the way the plane refuelled
in the Gulf state of Qatar, which has friendly relations with Washington, but he
was allowed to proceed unhindered.
Barely a month later, on June 25, a
5,000lb truck bomb ripped apart the front of Khobar Towers, a US military
housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The explosion killed 19 American
servicemen. Bin Laden was immediately suspected.
Clinton is reported to have admitted how
things went wrong in Sudan at a private dinner at a Manhattan restaurant shortly
after September 11 last year. According to a witness, Clinton told a dinner
companion that the decision to let Bin Laden go was probably "the biggest
mistake of my presidency".
Clinton could not be reached for comment
yesterday, but a former senior White House official acknowledged that the Sudan
episode had been a "screw-up".
A second offer to get Bin Laden came
unofficially from Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani-American millionaire who was a donor
to Clinton's election campaign in 1996. On July 6, 2000, he visited John
Podesta, then the president's chief of staff, to say that intelligence officers
from a Gulf state were offering to help to extract Bin Laden.
Details of the meeting are confirmed in
an exchange of e-mails between the White House and Ijaz, which have been seen by
The Sunday Times. According to Ijaz, the offer involved setting up an Islamic
relief fund to aid Afghanistan in return for the Taliban handing over Bin Laden
to the Gulf state. America could then extract Bin Laden from there.
The Sunday Times has established that
after a fierce internal row about the sincerity of the offer, the White House
responded by sending Richard Clarke, Clinton's most senior counterterrorism
adviser, to meet the rulers of the United Arab Emirates. They denied there was
any such offer. Ijaz, however, maintained that the White House had thereby
destroyed the deal, which was to have been arranged only through unofficial
channels. Ijaz said that weeks later on a return trip to the Gulf he was taken
on a late-night ride into the desert by his contact who told him that Clarke's
front-door approach had upset a delicate internal balance and blown the deal.
"Your government has missed a major opportunity," he recalls being told.
Senior former government sources said
that Ijaz's offer had been treated in good faith but, with the denial of the UAE
government, there was nothing to suggest it had credibility.
A third more mysterious offer to help
came from the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, then led by Prince Turki
al-Faisal, according to Washington sources. Details of the offer are still
unclear although, by one account, Turki offered to help to place a tracking
device in the luggage of Bin Laden's mother, who was seeking to make a trip to
Afghanistan to see her son. The CIA did not take up the offer.
Richard Shelby, the leading Republican on
the Senate intelligence committee, said he was aware of a Saudi offer to help
although, under rules protecting classified information, he was unable to
discuss the details of any offer. Commenting generally, he said: "I don't
believe that the fight against terrorism was the number one goal of the Clinton
administration. I believe there were some lost opportunities."
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