observers have spilled a lot of ink lately on the delicate positioning of the Saudi regime as it tries to harmonize its support for the U.S. war with its tolerance for extremism on its own soil. Generally accepted, too, is the idea that the monarchy boosted al Qaeda through its funding of the Wahhabi movement, a militant Islamist sect.But a book written by two French intelligence experts, published by Denoel Press and not yet available in North America, takes the story further. Ben Laden: La Vérité Interdite (Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth) says the FBI was hamstrung prior to September 11 not only because U.S. officials were unwilling to make an issue of al Qaeda's connections to wealthy Saudis, but also because the U.S. didn't want to disrupt talks with the Taliban over building an oil pipeline to Central Asia.
Starting in the mid 90s, the book says, the U.S. made clumsy attempts to bribe the Taliban while at the same time threatening them with military action if they didn't make a deal. The U.S. repeatedly demanded bin Laden's extradition, not realizing until too late that the Taliban were joined at the hip to their Saudi millionaire guest.
The blundering and cynical U.S. diplomatic scheme may actually have set the stage for September 11, says co-author Jean-Claude Brisard in an interview from Paris. Talks finally collapsed in late August, and the Trade towers attack may have been bin Laden's pre-emptive response, he says. "The State Department diverged considerably from the FBI's investigators. The U.S. negotiated with the Taliban despite (their) brutality because the important thing for the U.S. was oil."
It's a thesis that certainly resonates with other intelligence experts. "You had an American pro-Taliban faction (inside the U.S. government). They were totally in bed with the Taliban," says the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center's Wayne Madsen, who used to work for the U.S. National Security Agency.
Abdul Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the University of Nebraska's centre for Afghanistan studies, believes the Saudi tie helped stymie FBI investigations of bin Laden. "The U.S.'s activities were slowed because of our relationship with the Saudis,' he says. It was clear to the U.S., he says, that the Wahhabis are a key pillar of support for the Saudi monarchy and that the unpopular regime would be undermined by a strong FBI probe.
Even after bin Laden turned his wrath on the U.S. in the 1990s, he maintained close contact with key Saudi figures including Prince Turki al-Faisal, the powerful intelligence chief and brother of King Fahd. "If you're going to go after terrorism, you have to go after the Saudis,' says Brisard, who wrote a report on bin Laden's finances for a French intelligence agency.
The book also reveals that a former top FBI counterterrorism official who was killed in the World Trade Center attack had complained bitterly about how U.S. oil politics had shut down FBI investigations. The former official, John O'Neill, resigned in protest as head of the FBI's national security division in August and was hired as chief of security at the twin towers. "All the answers, everything needed to dismantle Osama bin Laden's organization, can be found in Saudi Arabia," O'Neill is quoted as saying in the book. Agents trying to probe last year's bombing of the USS Cole constantly knocked heads with the U.S. State Department, which ended up barring O'Neill, the head of the investigation, from entering Yemen. Brisard says O'Neill told him about the problems last June and July. "He was profoundly frustrated with the situation."
The book's thesis was also advanced independently in a report on BBC-TV's investigative show Newsnight in early November. "(The U.S. Department of) State wanted to keep the pro-American Saudi royal family in control of the world's biggest oil spigot, even at the price of turning a blind eye to any terrorist connection,' it reported.
The show asked whether September 11 could have been prevented if the FBI had been allowed to do its job. As it happened, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, mostly from wealthy families.
"(FBI investigators) were pursuing these matters, but were told to back off," said David Armstrong, an intelligence expert at the Washington, D.C.-based Public Education Center, a nonprofit investigative organization that helped the BBC research its report.
Boston University international relations professor Adim Najamat, who has studied Saudi politics, says the notion of an FBI retreat from investigations does seem plausible given the regime's precariousness. "Bin Laden seems to have a big following in Saudi Arabia. It is quite clear that the Saudi government is playing a game for its life. The irony is, bin Laden might get what he wants due to U.S. actions in Afghanistan," he says.