Prince Turki al-Faisal, the incoming Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., makes all the right noises. Last Friday he proclaimed as “absolutely not true” the contention that “Saudi Arabia is ‘fuelling’ the terrorist aspirations of these demented people.” On the contrary, he said that the Saudis “have worked and are working hard to root out this cancer within our society.”
Very well. But there are other indications that Prince Turki, who has served since 2003 as the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland, and before that for twenty-four years as the head of Istakhbarat, the Saudi intelligence service, may not be all that he appears to be. Jane’s Intelligence Review has called him one of the “early mentors” of Osama bin Laden. Turki does not deny that he knew Osama: “At that time I would describe him as gentle and self-effacing, and hardly talking to anyone. Very shy.” He added that Osama’s “presence, dignified and reserved, must have made an impression on the Afghans back then.” But now Turki distances himself from what Osama has become: “There has been a remarkable transformation. Now he is in a self-deluding, maniacal stage where he believes that he is the anointed of God and everybody else is in league with the devil.”
But when does Turki think that Osama stopped being dignified and become self-deluded and maniacal? Unclear. According to the Times of London, the Prince participated in a 1998 meeting which “led to the deal between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban. Those present included Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, then chief of the Istakhbarat, Taliban leaders, senior officers from Pakistan’s ISI secret service and Bin Laden.” At that meeting, the Saudis “paid at least £200m to Osama Bin Laden’s terror group and the Taliban in exchange for an agreement that his forces would not attack targets in Saudi Arabia.” The Washington Times lent credence to this with another salient detail: “A bin Laden bodyguard, interviewed by the Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, said Prince Turki met the al Qaeda leader as many as five times in the 1980s and 1990s. He was part of a number of Saudi delegations in the 1990s which were aimed at persuading bin Laden to end his ‘jihad’ against the kingdom.” Against the kingdom, mind you, not against anyone else.
The Times of London added that “Turki knew Bin Laden well, not just through family connections but because in the early 1980s he had hand-picked the young Saudi to organise Arab volunteers fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.” But last December, Prince Turki won “substantial” damages and an apology from the publishers of Paris Match for their printing of allegations that, as Turki’s lawyer put it, the Prince “set up Al-Qaeda and thereafter used it as his military organization.”
These allegations suggest that Turki, like other Saudis, has not been overly concerned about Al-Qaeda as long as Osama and his gang was wreaking havoc outside the Kingdom. Also, certain statements Turki has made raise questions about his perspective. He ascribed the June 2004 Al-Qaeda attacks within the Kingdom to that all-purpose scapegoat, the “Zionists”: “When you’re under attack by people who come and kill your countrymen and visitors to your country, and you see at the same time an attack on the kingdom from the outside, from Zionist circles, it is natural to make a connection.”
Turki has maintained: “On behalf of my government, I spent a number of years trying to track down Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice at a time when other governments were less convinced of the threat he posed. Al-Qaeda and all terrorist groups go against everything I believe in and hold most sacred.”
Administration officials should have the courage and foresight to try to find out early in his tenure whether what he holds sacred includes only the soil of Saudi Arabia and the position and prerogatives of the House of Saud, or whether he holds a general abhorrence for terror that would allow him to take a more genuine anti-terror stance than the Saudis have up to now. The world is watching.