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Safe Passage for the Bin Ladens

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Craig Unger

It was the second Wednesday of September 2001. Terrorist attacks had grounded all commercial and private aviation throughout the entire United States for the first time in history. Former vice-president Al Gore was stranded in Austria because his flight to the United States was cancelled. Former president Bill Clinton was stuck in Australia. Major League Baseball games were postponed. American skies were nearly as empty as they had been when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk. America was paralysed by terror, and for 48 hours, virtually no one could fly.

While 280 million USA citizens were being subject to emergency restrictions, George Bush was quietly doing his friends a ?special? favour.

While 280 million USA citizens were being subject to emergency restrictions, George Bush was quietly doing his friends a ?special? favour.

No one, that is, except for the Saudis. In Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, was orchestrating the exodus of more than 140 Saudis scattered throughout the country. They included members of two families: One was the royal House of Saud, the family that ruled the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and which, thanks to the country’s vast oil reserves, was without question the richest family in the world. The other family was the Sauds’ close friends and allies, the Bin Ladens, who in addition to owning a multibillion-dollar construction conglomerate had spawned the notorious terrorist Osama bin Laden.

At 52, Prince Bandar had long been the most recognisable figure from his country in America. Widely known as the Arab Gatsby, with his trimmed goatee and tailored double-breasted suits, Bandar was the very embodiment of the contradictions inherent in being a modern, jet-setting, Western-leaning member of the royal House of Saud.

Profane, flamboyant, and cocksure, Bandar entertained lavishly at his spectacular estates all over the world. When it came to embracing the culture of the infidel West, Bandar outdid even the most ardent admirers of Western civilisation - that was him patrolling the sidelines of Dallas Cowboys football games with his friend Jerry Jones, the team’s owner. To militant Islamic fundamentalists who loathed pro-West multibillionaire Saudi royals, no one fit the bill better than Bandar.

And yet, his guise as Playboy of the Western World notwithstanding, deep in his bones, Prince Bandar was a key figure in Saudi Arabia. His father, defence minister Prince Sultan, was second in line to the Saudi crown, Bandar was the nephew of King Fahd, the ageing Saudi monarch, and the grandson of the late king Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who initiated his country’s historic oil-for-security relationship with the US when he met Franklin D Roosevelt on the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on 14 February, 1945. The enormous royal family in which Bandar played such an important role oversaw two of the most sacred places of Islamic worship, the holy mosques in Medina and Mecca.

Now, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the ugly seams of the relationship [between the US and the House of Saud] had been laid bare. Because thousands of innocent people had been killed and most of the killers were said to be Saudi, it was up to Bandar, ever the master illusionist, to assure Americans that everything was just fine between the US and Saudi Arabia. Bandar had always been a smooth operator, but now he and his unflappable demeanour would be tested as never before.

Bandar desperately hoped that early reports of the Saudi role had been exaggerated - after all, al-Qa’ida terrorist operatives were known to use false passports. But at 10pm on the evening of 12 September, about 36 hours after the attack, a high-ranking CIA official - according to Newsweek magazine, it was probably CIA director George Tenet - phoned Bandar at his home and gave him the bad news: 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Afterward, Bandar said: “I felt as if the Twin Towers had just fallen on my head.” Public relations had never been more crucial for the Saudis. Bandar swiftly retained PR giant Burson-Marsteller to place newspaper ads all over the country condemning the attacks and dissociating Saudi Arabia from them.

But Osama bin Laden was Saudi, of course, and he was not just any Saudi. The Bin Ladens were one of a handful of extremely wealthy families that were so close to the House of Saud that they effectively acted as extensions of the royal family.

Like Bandar, the Bin Laden family epitomised the marriage between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Their huge construction company, the Saudi Binladin Group (SBG), banked with Citigroup and invested with Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. [The family company and various family members use the spelling Binladin rather than Bin Laden, the spelling most frequently used for Osama.] Over time, the Bin Ladens did business with such icons of Western culture as Disney, the Hard Rock Caf?, Snapple and Porsche. In the mid-Nineties, they joined various members of the House of Saud in becoming business associates with former secretary of state James Baker and former president George Bush by investing in the Carlyle Group, a gigantic Washington, DC-based private equity firm. As Charles Freeman, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told The Wall Street Journal: “If there were ever any company closely connected to the US and its presence in Saudi Arabia, it’s the Saudi Binladin Group.”

The Bin Ladens and members of the House of Saud who spent time in the United States were mostly young professionals and students attending high school or college. Many lived in the Boston area, thanks to its high concentration of colleges. One of at least four members of the family to have the name Abdullah bin Laden, a young brother of Osama, was a 1994 graduate of Harvard Law School and had offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Several Bin Ladens had attended Tufts University, near Boston. Two Bin Ladens - Mohammed and Nawaf - owned units in the Flagship Wharf condominium complex in Charlestown Navy Yard on Boston Harbor. Some of the young, chic, sophisticated members of the family appeared even more Westernised than Bandar. Wafah Binladin, a 26-year-old graduate of Columbia Law School, lived in a $6,000-a-month rented loft in New York’s fashionable SoHo and was considering pursuing a singing career. As for the Saudi royal family, many of them were scattered all over the United States.

Shortly after the attack, one of the Bin Ladens, an unnamed brother of Osama’s, frantically called the Saudi embassy in Washington seeking protection. He was given a room at the Watergate Hotel and told not to open the door. King Fahd, the ageing and infirm Saudi monarch, sent a message to his emissaries in Washington. “Take measures to protect the innocents,” he said. Meanwhile, a Saudi prince sent a directive to the Tampa Police Department in Florida that young Saudis who were close to the royal family and went to school in the area were in potential danger.

Bandar went to work immediately. If any foreign official had the clout to pull strings at the White House in the midst of a grave national security crisis, it was he. A senior member of the Washington diplomatic corps, Bandar had played racquetball with Secretary of State Colin Powell in the late Seventies. He had run covert operations for the late CIA director Bill Casey that were so hush-hush they were kept secret even from President Ronald Reagan. He was the man who had stashed away 30 locked attach? cases that held some of the deepest secrets in the intelligence world. And for two decades, Bandar had built an intimate personal relationship with the Bush family that went far beyond a mere political friendship.

All over the country, members of the extended Bin Laden family, the House of Saud, and their associates were assembling in various locations. At least eight planes were available for their transportation. Officially, the FBI says that it had nothing to do with the repatriation of the Saudis.

“I can say unequivocally that the FBI had no role in facilitating these flights one way or another,” says Special Agent John Iannarelli.

Bandar, however, characterised the role of the FBI very differently. “With coordination with the FBI,” he said on CNN, “we got them all out.” Meanwhile, the Saudis had at least two of the planes on call to repatriate the Bin Ladens. One of them began picking up family members all across the country. Starting in Los Angeles on an undetermined date, it flew first to Orlando, Florida, where Khalil Binladin, a sibling of Osama bin Laden’s, boarded. From Orlando, the plane continued to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, before going on to Logan Airport in Boston on 19 September, picking up members of the Bin Laden family along the way.

As the planes prepared for take-off at each location across the country, the FBI repeatedly got into disputes with Rihab Massoud, Bandar’s charg? d’affaires at the Saudi embassy in Washington. “I recall getting into a big flap with Bandar’s office about whether they would leave without us knowing who was on the plane,” said one former agent who participated in the repatriation of the Saudis. “Bandar wanted the plane to take off and we were stressing that that plane was not leaving until we knew exactly who was on it.” In the end, the FBI was able to check papers and identify everyone on the flights. Spokesmen for the FBI assert that the Saudis had every right to leave the country.

The top brass at Logan Airport [in Boston] did not know what was going on. The FBI’s counterterrorism unit should have been a leading force in the domestic battle against terror, but here it was not even going to interview the Saudis. [One private jet landed at Logan to pick up more members of the Bin Laden family who wanted to leave.] On September 19, under the cover of darkness, they did.

The Bin Laden family had expressed “the strongest denunciation and condemnation” [of the attacks]. A persuasive case could be made that it was against the interests of the royal family and the Bin Ladens to have aided the terrorists. On the other hand, this was the biggest crime in American history. How is it possible that Saudis were allowed to fly, even when all of America, FBI agents included, was grounded? Had the White House approved the operation - and, if so, why?

When Bandar arrived at the White House on Thursday September 13, 2001, he and President Bush retreated to the Truman Balcony, a casual outdoor spot behind the pillars of the South Portico that also provided a bit of privacy.

The two men lit up Cohiba cigars and began to discuss how they would work together in the war on terror. Bush said that the United States would hand over any captured al-Qa’ida operatives to the Saudis if they would not cooperate. The implication was clear: the Saudis could use any means necessary - including torture - to get the suspects to talk.

But the larger points went unspoken. The two men were scions of the most powerful dynasties in the world. The Bush family and its close associates - the House of Bush, if you will - included two presidents of the United States; former secretary of state James Baker, who had been a powerful figure in four presidential administrations; key figures in the oil and defence industries, the Carlyle Group, and the Republican Party; and much, much more. As for Bandar, his family effectively was the government of Saudi Arabia, the most powerful country in the Arab world. They had hundreds of billions of dollars and the biggest oil reserves in the world. The relationship was unprecedented. Never before had a president of the United States - much less, two presidents from the same family - had such close personal and financial ties to the ruling family of another foreign power.

Yet few Americans realised that these two dynasties, the Bush family and the House of Saud, had a history dating back more than 20 years. Not just business partners and personal friends, the Bushes and the Saudis had pulled off elaborate covert operations and gone to war together. They had shared secrets that involved unimaginable personal wealth, spectacular military might, the richest energy resources in the world.

They had been involved in the Iran-contra scandal, and in secret US aid in the Afghanistan war that gave birth to Osama bin Laden. Along with then vice-president Bush, the Saudis joined the United States in supporting the brutal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for seven full years after knowing that he had used weapons of mass destruction.

In the private sector, the Saudis had supported George W Bush’s struggling oil company, Harken Energy, and in the Nineties they made common cause with his father by investing in the Carlyle Group. In the 1991 Gulf War, the Saudis and the elder Bush had fought side by side. And now there was the repatriation of the Bin Ladens, which could not have taken place without approval at the highest levels of the executive branch of President George W Bush’s administration.

Only Bush and Bandar know what transpired that day on the Truman Balcony. But the ties between the two families were so strong that allowing the Saudis to leave America would not have been difficult for Bush. It would also have been in character with a relationship in which decisions were often made through elaborate and contrived deniability mechanisms that allowed the principals to turn a blind eye to unseemly realities and to be intentionally “out of the loop”. The ties between the two families were an open secret that in some ways was as obvious as the proverbial elephant in the living room. Yet at the same time it was somehow hard to discern even for the most seasoned journalists.

Perhaps that was because the relationship had been forged all over the globe and arced across different eras - from the Reagan-Bush years to the Clinton administration to the presidency of George W Bush.

To understand its scope and its meaning, one would have to search through tens of thousands of forgotten newspaper stories, read scores of books by journalists and historians, and study myriad “secret” classified documents and the records of barely remembered congressional probes of corporate intrigue and Byzantine government scandals. One would have to journey back in the time to the birth of al-Qa’ida at the terrorist training camps during the Afghanistan war. One would have to study the Iran-Iraq War of the Eighties, the 1991 Gulf War, and the Iraq War of 2003. One would have to try to deduce what had happened within the corporate suites of oil barons in Dallas and Houston, in the executive offices of the Carlyle Group, in the Situation Room of the White House, and in the grand royal palaces of Saudi billionaires. One would have to interview scores of politicians, oil executives, counterterrorism analysts, CIA operatives and businessmen from Washington and Saudi Arabia and Texas. One would have to decipher brilliantly hidden agendas and purposefully murky corporate relationships.

Finally, one would have to put all this information together to shape a continuum, a narrative in which the House of Bush and the House of Saud dominated the world stage together in one era after another. Having done so, one would come to a singular inescapable conclusion: namely, that, horrifying as it sounds, the secret relationship between these two great families helped to trigger the Age of Terror and give rise to the tragedy of 9/11.

Published Monday, July 19th, 2004 - 01:16pm GMT

Craig Unger is author of the book, ‘House of Bush, House of Saud’, which is due to be published in the UK by Gibson Square Books on 29th July 2004. Visit the website that accompanies the book.

Article courtesy of The Independent

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