SPIEGEL Interview "And then Mullah Omar screamed at me"
The former chief of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki Ibn al-Faisal, discusses the kingdom's role in the war on terror, the funding of militant Islamists, and his dramatic meeting with terrorist chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Your Highness, you served as the chief of intelligence in Riyadh for almost a quarter century, and you are still considered one of the most powerful members of the royal family. Now you represent your country as its ambassador in London. Is this an indication of how difficult it has become to explain Saudi Arabia's policies to the world?
Turki: You misinterpret that. It is a pleasure to represent my country and its policies, as well as to interact with the West on the basis of mutual respect and the recognition of interests.
SPIEGEL: Really? But the heat seems to be on Saudi Arabia. Major press organizations in the United States and Europe have portrayed Riyadh as the true center of the axis of evil. Robert Baer, who spent many years working for the CIA in the Middle East, accuses your country of having provided the terrorist organization Al Qaeda with half a billion dollars and the Taliban with a hundred million dollars in funding.
Turki: We see ourselves as the guardians of one of Islam's holiest cities, and therefore as serving Muslims worldwide. For this reason alone, we cannot afford to be a center of terrorist activities. Following a period of serious misunderstandings, our official relations with the United States and the EU have long since been repaired. What remains is a smear campaign that is being waged against the kingdom.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you being a little easy on yourself? It cannot possibly be a coincidence that 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were from Saudi Arabia.
Turki: It is correct that Osama bin Laden, who was born in our country, saw fit to modify his team of terrorists shortly before September 11, 2001, and insisted on including a larger number of Saudis. In fact, this is exactly what Sheikh Mohammed, one of the planners of the operation, stated in prison just a few weeks ago. Bin Laden's purpose, in doing so, was to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and the West. After all, he committed his first acts of terrorism in our country in 1995. Al Qaeda and the Saudi leadership never collaborated.
SPIEGEL: But it is said that you reached agreements with them. Financial support for bin Laden and his people, in return for his promise that terrorism would be limited to other countries, and that he would not directly target the ruling Al Saud family. You yourself, as chief of intelligence, apparently negotiated the agreement.
Turki: Nonsense. I have met Osama bin Laden five times in my life, and these kinds of things were never discussed.
SPIEGEL: How did you first meet him?
Turki: I was familiar with the bin Laden family. It's one of the most prominent in the kingdom. I only heard about Osama when, like so many from other countries, he planned to join the Mujaheddin, who were fighting against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan. For me, of course, as chief of intelligence, he was an interesting man. Saudi Arabia, together with the United States and Pakistan, supported the fight for independence. I met Osama in Peshawar, the Pakistani city near the Afghan border, and in Islamabad.
SPIEGEL: What kind of impression did he make?
Turki: At first he seemed shy, friendly, almost gentle. He was soft-spoken, a man of sparse sentences. Our first meeting must have taken place around 1984, and the last one in 1989 or 1990. The Saudi Arabian government did not give him or the Mujaheddin any money…
SPIEGEL: Is that true?
Turki: ... but we did provide moral assistance. Bin Laden probably became so popular because he invested a large share of his own fortune in the war. His presence, dignified and reserved, must have made an impression on the Afghans back then.
SPIEGEL: Following the victory over the Soviets, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. At home, he later said, he was outraged by the wasteful behavior and not particularly godly lifestyle of many a prince.
Turki: He left Saudi Arabia again in 1992 and first headed for Afghanistan, then Sudan, where he agitated against the Saudi royal family. Neither the government's emissaries nor bin Laden's own relatives not even his own mother were able to convince him to stop. He gathered terrorists around himself and became our lost son. In March 1994, the government saw itself forced to take a radical step and strip him of his citizenship.
Two years later, the president of Sudan offered to extradite bin Laden to us, under the condition that we would not take legal action against him. We rejected this offer, because we wanted to put him on trial. In 1997, the Americans proposed forming a joint intelligence committee to monitor bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
SPIEGEL: So you, with the help of agents, kept track of bin Laden's whereabouts?
Turki: He went to Jalalabad in Afghanistan and was taken in by one of the former Mujaheddin leaders, who had turned over control of the city to the advancing Taliban in 1996. They granted bin Laden asylum and were soon in control of almost the entire country.
SPIEGEL: The Pakistani intelligence service trained the Taliban movement, while Saudi Arabia provided much of its financing. In fact, Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries that officially recognized the Taliban.
Turki: That isn't quite true. We did not fund the Taliban. However, we did recognize their government, because they had brought order to the country. The men surrounding Mullah Omar assured us that they would not tolerate terrorist activity on Afghan soil that was directed against Saudi Arabia. After bin Laden had publicly announced that he and his Al Qaeda organization intended to target Americans and Jews worldwide and to "liberate" Islam's holiest sites from the Saudi royal family, my government sent me to Afghanistan in June of 1998 to speak with Mullah Omar.
SPIEGEL: Mullah Omar is one of the most secretive figures in world politics. Only a few photographs of him exist, and his origins are as disputed as his current whereabouts. You know Mullah Omar. What kind of a person is he?
Turki: He is from Kandahar. When he was a very young man, he fought against the Russians and, when that war ended, he refused to take part in the Mujaheddin's civil war in Afghanistan. Because he is well-versed in the Koran, he was made a village teacher and mullah. He gained the respect of his people by successfully dealing with kidnapping and rapists. He had his friends catch them and string them up on the nearest tree. Then he gathered the same men around himself to remove illegal road blocks that had been erected to extort money from the people. That was how he launched the Taliban movement, and that was how Mullah Omar became their leader.
Incidentally, we had a rather friendly conversation in June 1998. I told Mullah Omar that it would be better to give us bin Laden, that is, if he had any interest in continuing his friendly relations with Saudi Arabia. He agreed, at least in principle. We agreed to set up a joint committee to arrange the details of bin Laden's extradition.
SPIEGEL: The Taliban's former chief of intelligence, Mullah Kakshar, has a different version of this meeting. He claims that when you met with the Taliban and a number of Al Qaeda leaders, you agreed not to demand bin Laden's extradition and the closing of terrorist training camps – in return for assurances that the Saudi royal family would not be targeted in terrorist attacks. He also claims that you promised Mullah Omar financial assistance if he cooperated. Apparently, just a few weeks later 400 new pickup trucks arrived in Kandahar and millions began flowing into Afghanistan.
Turki: That is slanderous. I never met Kakshar.
SPIEGEL: According to American attorneys, the man even said this under oath. These lawyers represent the victims of 9/11 and, in the spring of 2003, filed a lawsuit demanding billions in damages. You too are one of the defendants. You are accused of having funded Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and therefore of being partly responsible for the deaths of the World Trade Center victims.
Turki: That was one of the most horrible acts in history, and I sharply condemn it. The question is whether these lawyers truly have anything to support their claims. In any event, nothing has been presented to the court in Washington. I will not dignify this by commenting any further. The fact is that my last meeting with Mullah Omar took place in September 1998, when I traveled to Kandahar again.
SPIEGEL: The situation had taken a dramatic turn. In August, Al Qaeda terrorists blew up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the US government launched bombing attacks on bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Did this change Mullah Omar's position?
Turki: I had come to pressure him to go ahead with the extradition, and I encountered a completely transformed Omar. He was extremely nervous, perspired, and even screamed at me. He denied that he had promised us he would extradite bin Laden, and wanted nothing to do with a joint committee. He wanted to know what had possessed us to want to arrest such an illustrious holy warrior as Osama bin Laden! And why we didn't prefer to free the world of the infidels! He was furious. I could not help but think that we might have been taking drugs. When he continued to insult Saudi Arabia and the royal family, I ended the meeting. I recommended that my government freeze its relations with the Taliban, and that's exactly what happened.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still alive?
Turki: Oh yes, I'm quite sure of that. Bin Laden always moves with a small group of supporters to avoid being traced by American satellites. However, I do believe that he is still capable, through messengers, of giving direct instructions for attacks all over the world, and of organizing Al Qaeda.
SPIEGEL: Do you share the optimism of some American military experts, who claim bin Laden has now been surrounded somewhere in Waziristan, along the Afghan-Pakistani border, and that his arrest is simply a matter of months, weeks or even days?
Turki: They could've captured bin Laden and Mullah Omar much earlier if so many resources hadn't been pulled out of Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: Pulled out by the Americans, in the direction of Iraq?
Turki: I am not prepared to assign any blame. However, I do believe that it is possible to find bin Laden, in spite of the many difficulties posed by inaccessible mountainous terrain. And I am in favor of putting him on trial once he has been captured.
SPIEGEL: Will he surrender without a fight, like Saddam Hussein, humiliated in a hole in the ground? Or will be fight to the last shot?
Turki: It's hard to say. But let me tell you a story that bin Laden himself once told an interviewer. He said that when he was fighting with the Mujaheddin, he was once involved in a skirmish near Khost, which is close to the Afghan-Pakistani border. The Russians were attacking with helicopters from the air and tanks on the ground. The fighting continued into the night. Bin Laden, in his own words, curled up in a trench, in the heat of battle, and peacefully fell asleep. When he woke up the battle had ended, and he said that it must have been Allah's angels who turned the tide against the Russians. Does his past behavior indicate that he is particularly brave on the battlefield, cold-blooded, godly? He got a good night's sleep. Does that suggest that he would let himself be humiliated by the Americans, be taken away in handcuffs? I don't know.
SPIEGEL: As a martyr riddled with bullets, wouldn't he be even more dangerous than he is today?
Turki: I don't think so. Al Qaeda is a cult that thrives on the loyalty of its cult members to their idol. Its following has already declined considerably in recent years, even among the dissatisfied in countries with a Muslim orientation. After all, the victims in some of his most recent attacks, such as those in Istanbul and Morocco, were mainly Muslims. If Osama bin Laden is captured and placed on trial, his myth is likely to disappear quickly, and his cult will die off.
SPIEGEL: But the roots of the problems in Saudi Arabia are much deeper than discussions about a single "lost son" can convey. Isn't it true that "charitable organizations" in Riyadh with fundamentalist leanings are still collecting money that ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations? And don't many radical Islamic preachers in the kingdom continue to call for jihad against the West?
Turki: The Americans claimed that terrorists were being funded through certain charitable organizations. We looked into each case individually. Whenever we found any suggestion that this may have been the case, we outlawed the organizations in question. But this only happened in rare instances. Radical mullahs who call for violence are arrested.
SPIEGEL: Some experts say you should completely prohibit the exportation of Wahhabism. They say that the form of Islam that predominates in Saudi Arabia is backward and hostile to reform.
Turki: We are reforming our country, but we are doing so with great care and while preserving social harmony. It doesn't make any sense to dictate reforms from above, reforms we may be forced to take back because people don't understand them. The Shah of Iran once did that, and he was swept away by a revolution. As far as religion is concerned, you must understand that it plays an important role in the life of all Saudi Arabians. It would be completely incorrect to claim that people would stand in the way of reforms we introduced solely as a result of their intense faith.
SPIEGEL: But you certainly cannot deny that there are forces in Saudi Arabian society that deeply detest reforms and are fighting against them.
Turki: There are persistent elements in our society, as in any other.
SPIEGEL: One could also say that a power struggle is taking place between the more worldly, moderate pro-Western forces surrounding Crown Prince Abdullah and the hardliners who support the Interior Minister, Prince Naïf.
Turki: It isn't that way at all. Abdullah is in charge of the government, while Naïf holds a subservient position. Of course, brothers have disputes, but they ultimately come to an agreement. Look, we are a young country. Saudi Arabia has only been in existence for 72 years, and some of us can still remember the early days of independence. We do not want to risk being torn apart again.
SPIEGEL: Saudi Arabia is miles away from being democratic. Your state has no political parties, no trade unions, no parliament. The Majlis al-Shure, the consulting council, is appointed by the king. Which reforms are most urgently needed?
Turki: We are not trying to create a democracy based on the Western model. That doesn't happen in our world. We can only borrow some elements of your forms of government, while others must be adjusted to suit our conditions. Next October, we will hold elections for the first time, for half of all our mayoral positions. We are reforming our education system by offering girls the same rights and better career opportunities. We are creating more jobs for university graduates. We are combining government agencies and making them more transparent. We are organizing intensive programs for religious scholars who have abandoned the path of moderate religious teaching.
SPIEGEL: All of this requires a tremendous amount of energy, the bundling of shared resources, but it also costs money. Saudi Arabia still has the world's largest oil reserves, but its high birth rate and other problems have caused a two-thirds decline in per capita income in the last 20 years, and unemployment has apparently reached 25 percent.
Turki: I don't agree with the last figure. Our official estimate is at eight percent. But you have put your finger on the problem: even our wealth is not unlimited, and we must begin to save more effectively.
SPIEGEL: Does that also apply to the elite of the 5,000 princes? And can you seriously picture a Saudi working in the kind of service position that has been handled exclusively by guest workers up to now?
Turki: Some Saudi Arabians are now working as taxi drivers and waiters. Of course, the ruling family, like other parts of the society, must make painful sacrifices.
SPIEGEL: Some of your citizens have begun engaging in spontaneous street demonstrations. And terrorist attacks are occurring again and again.
Turki: It is true that we are confronted with terror. It is a threat that we must oppose with tough measures, but also by taking steps to win over the people. A society needs rules. Here in Great Britain, or in Germany, demonstrations are usually publicized in advance and are peaceful. Perhaps that will be the case in our country one day. Demonstrating and voting are things one must learn.
While we're on the topic of elections, when I came to London last year there was a debate as to whether the House of Lords should be elected in future or should continue to be appointed. It was decided that the system of appointing members should be retained.
SPIEGEL: But that's mostly because the elected House of Commons wields the political power in Great Britain. Are you concerned that, following the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, a democratic model could emerge in your neighboring country and that Western freedoms could sweep across the border to Riyadh?
Turki: What we truly fear is a breaking apart of Iraq, the country breaking into three pieces, which could destabilize the entire region. There is a risk that a civil war will break out when the various groups begin to fight over natural resources. And there is another reason why we are very concerned about what happens in Baghdad: We share an 800-kilometer border with Iraq, and that means we need security. People are flowing over to our side, and the situation has deteriorated considerably. After all, the occupying powers only control the cities.
SPIEGEL: What do you see as the solution for Iraq?
Turki: The United Nations must play the decisive role, and it now seems that Washington is slowly beginning to understand this. But that does not make me optimistic by any stretch of the imagination. As chief of intelligence, I always had to act on the basis of worst-case scenarios, and I have kept that habit.
SPIEGEL: Why is Saudi Arabia trying to acquire nuclear weapons? Why did your defense minister visit the laboratories of the Pakistani nuclear specialist and black market dealer Abdul Qadir Khan in 1999?
Turki: I am against the Israeli nuclear bomb, against the Islamic nuclear bomb, and against the American nuclear bomb. I am against all nuclear weapons.
SPIEGEL: Your Highness, we thank you for this interview.
The interview was held by SPIEGEL employee Asiem El Difraoui and editors Erich Follath and Stefan Aust at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London.
Translated by Christopher Sultan