Ben Laden: La Verite Interdite

Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié, BEN LADEN: LA VÉRITÉ INTERDITE (Paris: Denoël, 2001)

Published two months after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this book aims to reveal “the forbidden truth” about Osama Bin Laden. Brisard, author of a report on al-Qa’ida for the French Directorate of Territorial Security, and Dasquié, an investigative journalist, draw on discussions with government officials, diplomatic records, published and unpublished newspaper articles, financial documents, and other sources from several countries. Perhaps the most important “hidden truth” that emerges from the authors’ research is the centrality of corporate oil interests in the development of U.S. policy toward Bin Laden, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.

The most widely publicized section of the book recounts U.S. State Department efforts to limit the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s pursuit of al-Qa’ida during the last five years. Although State Department officials have since denied making any such efforts, the authors’ primary source was John O’Neill, a former Deputy Director of the FBI. Brisard reports that he first met O’Neill in Paris in June, 2001, and that he had extensive private discussions with O’Neill in New York City on July 22-23, 2001. According to the authors, O’Neill expressed deep anger over U.S. diplomats’ blocking his attempts to probe the ties between al-Qa’ida and its supporters in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

O’Neill played an important role in investigating the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, a U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. As the authors disclose, O’Neill indicated that the Saudi government had thwarted his efforts to document the connections between Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida operatives in his home country, by executing the perpetrators of the 1996 attack before they could be interrogated by the FBI. The authors also state that O’Neill harshly criticized the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen and the State Department for preventing his team from obtaining on-site evidence of al-Qa’ida’s involvement in the attack on the USS Cole.

How did O’Neill explain the U.S. government’s obstruction of his investigation? As the authors recount, the former FBI Deputy Director blamed the U.S. oil companies and their allies in the State Department. O’Neill reportedly told Brisard that “All the answers, everything needed to dismantle Osama Bin Laden’s organization, can be found in Saudi Arabia.” O’Neill’s investigation had led him to the same conclusion that the authors had reached through their research-that the notion of Bin Laden as a Saudi renegade was a “myth” and that Bin Laden continued to enjoy the religious and financial support of a significant section of the Saudi royal family. As O’Neill explained to Brisard, Washington was determined to protect the Saudi government and U.S. economic interests in Saudi oil, even if this required restricting the FBI’s pursuit of al-Qa’ida.

One of the great ironies in this story, noted by the authors, is the fate of O’Neill himself. Embittered by his recent experiences, O’Neill retired from the FBI and became Security Director for the World Trade Center in August, 2001. Along with more than twenty-eight hundred other people, he died there on September 11. But Brisard and Dasquié explore in considerable detail another irony of this historically unprecedented attack on the U.S.-that the Bush Administration had been engaged in secret negotiations with the Taliban regime between February and August, 2001. As the authors make clear, while the U.S. government denied diplomatic recognition to the Afghan regime and publicly criticized its religious fundamentalism and repression, it was quietly seeking an agree- ment with the mullahs which would further longstanding U.S. economic and political objectives in that country.

Brisard and Dasquié explain that U.S. business leaders and government officials have long been interested in the extraction and marketing of Caspian Basin oil and natural gas but have generally opposed the construction of pipelines through Russia or Iran for economic and political reasons. Consequently, UNOCAL and other U.S. oil companies have wanted to build pipelines which could transport oil and natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistani ports on the Arabian Sea. But the civil war and political instability which followed the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan prevented any significant corporate investment there. As the authors point out, when the Taliban first seized power in 1996, U.S. business leaders and government officials believed the new regime could provide stability and become a reliable partner in pipeline projects. Brisard and Dasquié document the extensive corporate and diplomatic negotiations that took place between the U.S. and the Taliban from 1997 to 2000. The authors observe that these discussions eventually failed, partly because of the Afghan regime’s unwillingness to curb its oppression of women and partly because of its equivocation over the U.S. demand to expel Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida forces.

According to Brisard and Dasquié, the new Bush Administration restarted these negotiations in February, 2001. In the authors’ judgment, the fact that several top Bush Administration officials have close ties to U.S. oil companies explains their commitment to reaching an accommodation with the Taliban. It is well known that President Bush hails from a family long involved in the oil business and that Vice President Cheney was formerly Chief Executive Officer of Halliburton, the giant oil services company. But Brisard and Dasquié also point out that Condoleezza Rice served as a member of the Chevron Board of Directors and a Chevron representative in Central Asia pipeline negotiations in the 1990s. The authors note, too, that Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham are former executives with Tom Brown, Inc., another energy corporation.

Despite the absence of official U.S. diplomatic relations with the Taliban and the imposition of United Nations sanctions against the regime, Bush Administration officials participated in bilateral and U.N.-sponsored discussions with Taliban represen-tatives for several months. Sayed Rahmatullah Hashimi, an adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, met with Central Intelligence Agency and State Department officials in March, 2001. He was accompanied by Laila Helms, the niece of former CIA Director Richard Helms and a public relations expert employed by the Afghan government.

Over the next several months, U.S. and U.N. officials met with other Taliban representatives in Washington, Berlin, and Islamabad. As Brisard and Dasquié explain, U.S. negotiators sought to “decouple” Bin Laden from the Taliban and persuade the mullahs to invite other Afghan political forces to join their government. According to the authors, the Bush Administration promised the Taliban a sizeable share of the revenues from U.S. pipelines through Afghanistan if they would surrender Bin Laden and form a government of national unity. When the Taliban eventually rejected these demands in July, 2001, U.S. officials threatened to take military action against them. Former Pakistan Foreign Minister Niaz Naik, who was present at this meeting, quotes U.S. officials as telling the Taliban, “Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.”

Brisard and Dasquié report that the last U.S.-Taliban meeting took place in Islamabad on August 2, 2001, when Christina Rocca of the State Department reiterated U.S. demands to the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan. Less than six weeks later, terrorists linked to al-Qa’ida destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and inflicted significant damage on the Pentagon. The authors’ account of the U.S. military threat to the Taliban and disclosure that U.N. official Francesc Vendrell had met exiled King Zaher Shah in Rome to discuss conditions for his return to Afghanistan provide grounds for conjecture that Bin Laden may have authorized a pre-emptive strike against the U.S.

Brisard and Dasquié’s impressive first-hand reporting and careful research make an important contribution to the literature in this field. Indeed, this book is an indispensable guide to understanding Bin Laden and al-Qa’ida, U.S.-Saudi relations, and the historical context of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Several recent developments confirm the centrality of corporate oil interests in U.S. policy toward Central Asia. After the Taliban regime fell, the Bush Administration handpicked Hamid Karzai to head the new Afghan government and named Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, as U.S. special envoy to Kabul. Both Karzai and Khalilzad are former UNOCAL consultants who will probably “make things even smoother” for the resumption of the pipeline project in Afghanistan (Salim Muwakkil, Chicago Tribune, March 18, 2002).

As Daniel Fisher observed in Forbes Magazine (February 4, 2002), “It has been called the pipeline from hell, to hell, through hell,” but “now, with the collapse of the Taliban, oil executives are suddenly talking about it again.” On February 11, the Irish Times revealed that Karzai had made a one-day visit to Pakistan, where he announced that he and General Musharraf had discussed the proposed Central Asian pipeline “and agreed that it was in the interest of both countries.” Karzai hopes to sign an agreement for a two-billion dollar gas pipeline when he meets with Pakistan and Turkmenistan officials in late May (BBC, May 13). Mohammed Alim Razim, the Afghan Minister for Mines and Industries, told Reuters that work on the project is expected to begin shortly after the agreement is finalized.

Although former FBI Deputy Director O’Neill’s explosive disclosures on the State Department’s obstruction of his investigation cannot yet be independently corroborated, it may be only a matter of time before such evidence emerges. On May 9, 2002, in Washington, D.C., FBI Agent Richard G. Wright filed a federal lawsuit claiming that “FBI management intentionally and repeatedly thwarted and obstructed” his investigation of suspected Hamas affiliates in this country. Wright claims that the agency prevented him from pursuing criminal investigations which could have disrupted Hamas operations in the U.S.-and their funding by Saudi interests. He also accuses the FBI of violating his First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from publicizing his criticisms. Wright has reportedly written and is seeking to publish a 500-page manuscript entitled Fatal Betrayals of the Intelligence Mission (James Grimaldi and John Mintz, Washington Post, May 11).

Finally, the supposition that al-Qa’ida attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in anticipation of a U.S. military strike against Afghanistan appears increasingly plausible. Jonathan Steele and his colleagues, citing the above-mentioned U.S. ultimatum disclosed by former Pakistan Foreign Minister Naik, concluded that this “raises the possibility that Bin Laden, far from launching the attacks on the World Trade Center.and the Pentagon out of the blue ten days ago, was launching a pre-emptive strike in response to what he saw as U.S. threats” (Guardian, September 22, 2001).

On May 17, 2002, the Bush Administration publicly acknow- ledged that it was already planning to issue a “National Security Presidential Directive” against al-Qa’ida before September 11. As correspondent Jim Miklaszewski indicated on NBC Nightly News (May 16), this directive makes clear that the U.S. fully intended to use military force against Afghanistan unless the Taliban surrendered Bin Laden-and would have done so even if the September 11 attacks had not occurred. Miklaszewski observed that the Bush Administration’s subsequent rapid military response was possible because it merely had to take the plans “off the shelf.” Tragically, it seems that al-Qa’ida may have taken its own plans “off the shelf” in anticipation of the impending U.S. attack.

Reviewed by David Michael Smith
College of the Mainland
Texas City, Texas

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