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Context of 'August 20-September 2, 1998: US Not Interested in Two Apparent Embassy Bombers Held in Sudan; Pakistani ISI Lets Them Escape'

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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

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 Iskandar Suliman. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files.Sayyid Iskandar Suliman. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files. [Source: Public domain via Richard Miniter]On August 4, 1998, Sudanese immigration suspects two men, Sayyid Nazir Abbass and Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, arriving in Sudan, apparently due to something in their Pakistani passports. They attempt to rent an apartment overlooking the US embassy. Three days later, US embassies are bombed in Kenya and Tanzania (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Within hours, Sudanese officials arrest Abbass and Suliman. The two of them had just come from Kenya, and one of them quickly admits to staying in the same hotel in Kenya as some of the embassy bombers. Sudanese intelligence believes they are al-Qaeda operatives involved in the bombings. [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002; Randal, 2005, pp. 132-135] The US embassy in Sudan has been shut down for several years. But around August 14, a Sudanese intelligence official contacts an intermediary and former White House employee named Janet McElligott and gives her a vague message that Sudan is holding important suspects and the FBI should send a team immediately to see if they want to take custody of them. [Randal, 2005, pp. 132-135] The FBI wants the two men, but on August 17, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright forbids their extradition. The US has decided to bomb a factory in Sudan in retaliation for the embassy bombings instead of cooperating with Sudan. But FBI agent John O’Neill is not yet aware of Albright’s decision, and word of the Sudanese offer reaches him on August 19. He wants immediate approval to arrest the two suspects and flies to Washington that evening to discuss the issue with counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke. But Clarke tells O’Neill to speak to Attorney General Janet Reno. Later that night, O’Neill talks to Reno and she tells him that the decision to retaliate against Sudan instead has already been made. Mere hours later, the US attack a factory in Sudan with cruise missiles (see August 20, 1998). Within days, it becomes apparent that the factory had no link to al-Qaeda (see September 23, 1998), and no link between the bombings and the Sudanese government will emerge (although Sudan harbored bin Laden until 1996). [Randal, 2005, pp. 132-138] The Sudanese will continue to hold the two men in hopes to make a deal with the US. But the US is not interested, so after two weeks they are send to Pakistan and set free there (see August 20-September 2, 1998).

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Sayyid Nazir Abbass, Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, Sudan, Osama bin Laden, Janet Reno, John O’Neill, Madeleine Albright, Richard A. Clarke, Federal Bureau of Investigation

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 destroyed Al Shifa factory.The destroyed Al Shifa factory. [Source: Yannick Lemieux]Senior Clinton administration officials admit they had no evidence directly linking bin Laden to the Al Shifa factory at the time of retaliatory strikes on August 20, 1998 (see August 20, 1998). However, intelligence officials assert that they found financial transactions between bin Laden and the Military Industrial Corporation—a company run by the Sudan’s government. [New York Times, 9/23/1998; PBS Frontline, 2001] A soil sample is said to show that the pharmaceutical factory was producing chemical weapons, but many doubts about the sample later arise. [New York Times, 9/21/1998; New Yorker, 10/12/1998] Two anonymous US officials will later tell NBC that the soil sample was not taken at the factory, but across the street. It also comes to light that the person the US thought owned the factory in fact had sold it five months earlier. The Sudanese government asks for a US or UN investigation of the attack, but the US is not interested. [Randal, 2005, pp. 139-140] The US later unfreezes the bank accounts of the factory owner, Salah Idriss, and takes other conciliatory actions, but admits no wrongdoing. It is later learned that of the six camps targeted in Afghanistan, only four were hit, and of those, only one had definitive connections to bin Laden. Clinton declares that the missiles were aimed at a “gathering of key terrorist leaders,” but it is later revealed that the referenced meeting took place a month earlier, in Pakistan. [Observer, 8/23/1998; New Yorker, 1/24/2000]

Entity Tags: Military Industrial Corporation, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Salah Idriss, Osama bin Laden, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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