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Context of 'March 8, 1996-April 1996: US Asks Sudan for Its Files on Al-Qaeda, Then Declines to Accept Them'

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US demands for Sudan to hand over its extensive files about bin Laden (see March 8, 1996-April 1996) escalate into demands to hand over bin Laden himself. Bin Laden has been living in Sudan since 1991, at a time when the Sudanese government’s ideology was similar to his. But after the US put Sudan on its list of terrorism sponsors and began economic sanctions in 1993, Sudan began to change. In 1994, it handed the notorious terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” to France. In March 1996, Sudan’s defense minister goes to Washington and engages in secret negotiations over bin Laden. Sudan offers to extradite bin Laden to anywhere he might stand trial. Some accounts claim that Sudan offers to hand bin Laden directly to the US, but the US decides not to take him because they do not have enough evidence at the time to charge him with a crime. [Washington Post, 10/3/2001; Village Voice, 10/31/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002] Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later will call this story a “fable” invented by the Sudanese and Americans friendly to Sudan. He will point out that bin Laden “was an ideological blood brother, family friend, and benefactor” to Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi, so any offers to hand him over may have been disingenuous. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 142-43] CIA Director George Tenet later will deny that Sudan made any offers to hand over bin Laden directly to the US. [US Congress, 10/17/2002] The US reportedly asks Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan to accept bin Laden into custody, but is refused by all three governments. [Coll, 2004, pp. 323] The 9/11 Commission later will claim it finds no evidence that Sudan offers bin Laden directly to the US, but it does find evidence that Saudi Arabia was discussed as an option. [9/11 Commission, 3/23/2004] US officials insist that bin Laden leave Sudan for anywhere but Somalia. One US intelligence source in the region later will state: “We kidnap minor drug czars and bring them back in burlap bags. Somebody didn’t want this to happen.” [Washington Post, 10/3/2001; Village Voice, 10/31/2001] On May 18, 1996, bin Laden flies to Afghanistan, and the US does not try to stop him (see May 18, 1996).

Entity Tags: Egypt, Sudan, United States, Jordan, George J. Tenet, Osama bin Laden, Richard A. Clarke, Saudi Arabia, Central Intelligence Agency, Hassan al-Turabi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Omar al-Bashir.Omar al-Bashir. [Source: PBS]In 1993, the US put Sudan on its list of nations sponsoring terrorism, which automatically leads to economic sanctions. Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi espoused radical militant views, and allowed bin Laden to live in Sudan. But, as the 9/11 Commission later will note, “The Sudanese regime began to change. Though al-Turabi had been its inspirational leader, General Omar al-Bashir, president since 1989, had never been entirely under his thumb. Thus as outside pressures mounted, al-Bashir’s supporters began to displace those of al-Turabi.” In 1995, the US begins putting serious pressure on Sudan to deal with bin Laden, who is still living there. [Observer, 9/30/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 61] On March 8, 1996, the US sends Sudan a memorandum listing the measures Sudan can take to get the sanctions revoked. The second of six points listed is, “Provide us with names, dates of arrival, departure and destination and passport data on mujaheddin that Osama Bin Laden has brought into Sudan.” [New York Times, 9/21/1998; Washington Post, 10/3/2001] Sudanese intelligence had been monitoring bin Laden since he’d moved there in 1991, collecting a “vast intelligence database on Osama bin Laden and more than 200 leading members of his al-Qaeda terrorist network.” The files include information on their backgrounds, families, and contacts, plus photographs. There also is extensive information on bin Laden’s world-wide financial network. “One US source who has seen the files on bin Laden’s men in Khartoum said some were ‘an inch and a half thick.’” [Observer, 9/30/2001] An Egyptian intelligence officer with extensive Sudanese intelligence contacts says, “They knew all about them: who they were, where they came from. They had copies of their passports, their tickets; they knew where they went. Of course that information could have helped enormously. It is the history of those people.” To the surprise of US officials making the demands, the Sudanese seem receptive to sharing the file. This leads to a battle within the US government between top FBI officials, who want to engage the Sudanese and get their files, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Susan Rice, her assistant secretary for Africa, who want to isolate them politically and economically. The National Security Council is also opposed. The US decides to increase its demands, and tells Sudan to turn over not just files on bin Laden, but bin Laden himself (see March-May 1996). Ultimately, the US will get Sudan to evict bin Laden in May 1996 (see May 18, 1996), but they will not press for the files and will not get them. [Washington Post, 10/3/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002] An American involved in the secret negotiations later will says, “I’ve never seen a brick wall like that before. Somebody let this slip up.… We could have dismantled his operations and put a cage on top. It was not a matter of arresting bin Laden but of access to information. That’s the story, and that’s what could have prevented September 11. I knew it would come back to haunt us.” [Village Voice, 10/31/2001] Vanity Fair magazine later will opine, “How could this have happened? The simple answer is that the Clinton administration had accused Sudan of sponsoring terrorism, and refused to believe that anything it did to prove its bona fides could be genuine.” [Vanity Fair, 1/2002] The US will continue to refuse Sudan’s offers to take the files (see April 5, 1997; February 5, 1998; May 2000).

Entity Tags: Susan Rice, National Security Council, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hassan al-Turabi, Omar Al-Bashir, Madeleine Albright

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

After pressure from the US (see March-May 1996), the Sudanese government asks bin Laden to leave the country. He decides to go to Afghanistan. He departs along with many other al-Qaeda members, plus much money and resources. Bin Laden flies to Afghanistan in a C-130 transport plane with an entourage of about 150 men, women, and children, stopping in Doha, Qatar, to refuel, where governmental officials greet him warmly. [Los Angeles Times, 9/1/2002; Coll, 2004, pp. 325] The US knows in advance that bin Laden is going to Afghanistan, but does nothing to stop him. Sudan’s defense minister Elfatih Erwa later says in an interview, “We warned [the US]. In Sudan, bin Laden and his money were under our control. But we knew that if he went to Afghanistan no one could control him. The US didn’t care; they just didn’t want him in Somalia. It’s crazy.” [Washington Post, 10/3/2001; Village Voice, 10/31/2001] US-al-Qaeda double agent Ali Mohamed handles security during the move. [Raleigh News and Observer, 10/21/2001]

Entity Tags: Somalia, Osama bin Laden, Sudan, Elfatih Erwa, Al-Qaeda, Ali Mohamed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Beginning in early 1996, the Sudanese government started offering the US its extensive files on bin Laden and al-Qaeda (see March 8, 1996-April 1996). The US will repeatedly reject the files as part of its policy of isolating the Sudanese government (see April 5, 1997; February 5, 1998; May 2000). Around this time, MI6, the British intelligence agency, is also offered access to the files. Sudan reportedly makes a standing offer: “If someone from MI6 comes to us and declares himself, the next day he can be in [the capital city] Khartoum.” A Sudanese government source later adds, “We have been saying this for years.” However, the offer is not taken. Even weeks after 9/11, it will be reported that while the US has finally accepted the offer of the files, Britain has not. [Observer, 9/30/2001]

Entity Tags: Sudan, UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Mansoor Ijaz.
Mansoor Ijaz. [Source: Crescent Hydropolis Resorts publicity photo]The Sudanese government, frustrated in previous efforts to be removed from a US list of terrorism sponsors, tries a back channel approach using Mansoor Ijaz, a multimillionaire Pakistani-American businessman. Ijaz is personally acquainted with President Clinton, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, and other high-level US officials. With help from Ijaz (who is also hoping to invest in Sudan), on April 5, 1997, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir writes a letter to Lee Hamilton (D-NH), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It states, “We extend an offer to the FBI’s Counterterrorism units and any other official delegations which your government may deem appropriate, to come to the Sudan and work with [us] in order to assess the data in our possession and help us counter the forces your government, and ours, seek to contain.” This is a reference to Sudan’s extensive files on al-Qaeda gathered during the years bin Laden lived there, which the Sudanese had offered the US before (see March 8, 1996-April 1996). Sudan allows Ijaz to see some of these files. Ijaz discusses the letter with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Berger, and other prominent US officials, but to no success. No US official sends any reply back to Sudan. Tim Carney, US ambassador to Sudan, will complain, “It was an offer US officials did not take seriously.” ABC News will report in 2002 that the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry plans to investigate Sudan’s offer. Senator Bob Graham (D-FL), co-chairman of the inquiry, will ask, “Why wouldn’t we be accepting intelligence from the Sudanese?” But the inquiry’s 2003 final report will make no mention of this offer or other offers to hand over the files (see February 5, 1998; May 2000). (It should be noted the report is heavily censored so this might be discussed in redacted sections.) Hamilton, the recipient of the letter, will become the Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission. The Commission’s 2004 final report will not mention Sudan’s offers, and will fail to mention the direct involvement of the Commission’s Vice Chairman in these matters. [Vanity Fair, 1/2002; ABC News, 2/20/2002]

Entity Tags: Sandy Berger, Tim Carney, Osama bin Laden, Omar Al-Bashir, Mansoor Ijaz, Al-Qaeda, Daniel Robert (“Bob”) Graham, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Lee Hamilton, Madeleine Albright

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A photocopy of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed’s Comoros passport in Sudan’s intelligence files.A photocopy of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed’s Comoros passport in Sudan’s intelligence files. [Source: Richard Miniter]Gutbi al-Mahdi, head of Sudan’s intelligence agency, sends a letter to David Williams, an FBI station chief. It reads, “I would like to express my sincere desire to start contacts and cooperation between our service and the FBI. I would like to take this opportunity with pleasure to invite you to visit our country. Otherwise, we could meet somewhere else.” Apparently the FBI is very eager to accept the offer and gain access to Sudan’s files on bin Laden and his associates. The US had been offered the files before (see March 8, 1996-April 1996; April 5, 1997), but the US position was that Sudan’s offers were not serious since Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi was ideologically close to bin Laden. But al-Turabi has lost power to moderates by this time, and in fact he is placed under arrest in 1998. There is a political battle between US agencies over the Sudanese offer, and in the end the State Department forbids any contact with al-Mahdi. On June 24, 1998, Williams is obliged to reply, “I am not currently in a position to accept your kind invitation.” Al-Madhi later will complain, “If they had taken up my offer in February 1998, they could have prevented the [US embassy] bombings.” Tim Carney, US ambassador to Sudan until 1997, will say, “The US failed to reciprocate Sudan’s willingness to engage us on serious questions of terrorism. We can speculate that this failure had serious implications - at the least for what happened at the US Embassies in 1998. In any case, the US lost access to a mine of material on bin Laden and his organization.” One of the plotters in the bombings is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul), who is living in Sudan but making trips to Kenya to participate in the bombing preparations. Sudan has files on him and continues to monitor him. Sudan also has files on Saif al-Adel, another embassy bomber who has yet to be captured. Sudan also has files on Wadih El-Hage and Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, both of whom have contact with members of the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell (see September 16, 1998; Late 1998; 1993). Salim even attends the same small Hamburg mosque as 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi. Vanity Fair magazine will suggest that if al-Madhi’s offer had been properly followed up, both the embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks could have been foiled. [Vanity Fair, 1/2002] It is later revealed that the US was wiretapping bin Laden in Sudan on their own (see Early 1990s).

Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, Saif al-Adel, Tim Carney, US Department of State, Gutbi Al-Mahdi, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, David Williams, Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sudan, Osama bin Laden, Hassan al-Turabi, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Sayyid Nazir Abbass. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files.Sayyid Nazir Abbass. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files. [Source: Public domain via Richard Miniter]On August 7, 1998, hours after the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the Sudanese government arrested two suspicious Pakistani men. The men, Sayyid Nazir Abbass and Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, appear to have been involved in the embassy bombings. The Sudanese offered to hand the men over to the FBI (see August 4-19, 1998), but the US chose to bomb a factory in Sudan on August 20 instead, in retaliation for Sudan’s previous support for bin Laden (see August 20, 1998). It quickly emerges that the factory had no link to al-Qaeda and the Sudanese government had no link to the embassy bombings (see September 23, 1998). But despite the factory bombing, the Sudanese continue to hold the two men in hopes to make a deal with the US over them. [Randal, 2005, pp. 138-143] The Sudanese also remind the FBI of the extensive files on al-Qaeda they say they are still willing to share (see March 8, 1996-April 1996, April 5, 1997, and February 5, 1998). The FBI wants to set up a meeting to pursue the offers, but the State Department vetoes the idea. [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002] Journalist Jonathan Randal will later note: “Quite apart from its antipathy to the [Sudanese] regime, [the US] was bogged down trying to sell the botched [factory] attack to querulous Americans. To have taken up the Sudanese offer after the attack risked prompting more embarrassing explaining about why it had not been accepted before.” Meanwhile, the Sudanese are interrogating the two men and learn more about their al-Qaeda connections. For instance, they had listed the manager of a business owned by bin Laden as a reference on their visa applications. Finally, on September 2, 1998, Sudan sends the two men back to Pakistan. They are turned over to the Pakistani ISI, but what happens next is unclear. An NBC Dateline reporter will later attempt to track them down in Pakistan, only to receive a threatening anonymous call to leave or face dire consequences. The reporter gives up the search. One rumor is the ISI immediately allows them to disappear into Afghanistan. Another rumor is that the Pakistani government later trades them to bin Laden to buy off radicals who could threaten the government. [Randal, 2005, pp. 138-143]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Sayyid Nazir Abbass, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Sudan, Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, US Department of State

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA and FBI send a joint investigative team to Sudan to investigate whether that country is a sponsor of terrorism. Sudan again offers to hand over its voluminous files on al-Qaeda (see March 8, 1996-April 1996, April 5, 1997, and February 5, 1998), and the offer is again rejected. [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002] The US will finally agree to see the files shortly before 9/11 (see July-August 2001).

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Al-Qaeda, Sudan, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In the summer of 2001, the team officially concludes that the Sudan government no longer has any terrorist ties. However, the US does not take Sudan off its official list of terrorist states (and as of 2007 Sudan has yet to be taken off the list). A few weeks before 9/11, the US team finally agrees to examine Sudan’s files on al-Qaeda. The US has repeatedly been offered the files and turned them down (see March 8, 1996-April 1996, April 5, 1997, and May 2000), but by now the bulk of the files are six years old and date back to when bin Laden lived in Sudan. It is not entirely certain if the files are handed over before 9/11, but one account specifies that the files are handed over in July 2001. Vanity Fair will later note that in any case, “Events suggest that by then it was too late.” [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002; Miniter, 2003, pp. 148]

Entity Tags: Sudan, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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