The messenger
Former ambassador Don Petterson delivered this unsigned letter, (left) to Sudanese leaders in 1995. It accused Sudan of "involvement in terrorist plots"at the time when the US was not focused on bin Laden


Yet whatever these supposed plots the CIA thought it had uncovered were, they had nothing to do with bin Laden. Ambassador Petterson says, "My recollection is that when I made representations about terrorist organisation Assume bin Laden did not figure. We in Khartoum were not really concerned about him."

A focus on the wrong enemy was not the only mistaken feature of U.S. intelligence on Sudan. In 1993 the U.S. Embassy sent home all nonessential staff, spouses, and children, because the CIA claimed it had evidence that Americans were at risk of terrorist attack.

One report even claimed that there was a plot to bomb a party for the children of Khartoum's American embassy workers. None of these threats were real. Petterson says, "There's no question there were mistaken reports." President Clinton's national-security adviser, Tony Lake, was uprooted with his family and kept under Secret Service guard at Blair House, the presidential guest quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The reason was another bogus C.I.A. claim that Sudanese agents were planning to murder him in Washington. Finally, at the beginning of 1996, just after Petterson had come to the end of his tour, the embassy was emptied of Americans altogether, again because of unspecified "security threats".

His successor, Tim Carney, would somehow have to do his job based a thousand miles away, in Nairobi, Kenya. This was unjustified, Petterson says.

The veteran C.I.A. Africa specialist says that this inaccurate intelligence was the product of disinformation, fed by an organised ring whose motives were a mixture of malice and greed. All these reports cost the C.I.A. money. One of its members, a Tunisian, Ali bin Mustafa Homed, was convicted of espionage in Sudan last summer and given a 14-year jail sentence. Yahia Baviker, the Mukhabarat deputy chief, confirmed that feeding disinformation to foreign intelligence agencies formed one of the charges against Homed.

Sudan was aghast at these developments. However, the radical wing of the government, led by the philosopher Dr. al-Turabi, was losing ground to the pragmatist moderates, who wanted good relations with the West. (In
1998, al-Turabi was placed under arrest, where he remains.) So when, in February 1996, Carney began to convey America's demand that Sudan expel bin Laden, mainly because of his campaign against the Saudis, his
audience was surprisingly receptive. Gutbi al-Mahdi, the former Mukhabat boss, who was then serving as the Sudanese president's senior adviser, says Sudan did not object on principle. The arguments he and his
colleagues used were more practical. "We said, 'Here he is under control, and we know everything about him. Here in Sudan he is under our supervision.'". Once bin Laden was expelled, al-Mahdi adds, "he had absolutely no choice other than to become a full-time radical". About 300 Afghan Arabs went with him. According to an Egyptian intelligence source, "Most of them are now terrorists".

Bin Laden was expelled in May 1996. Despite this evidence of Sudan's willingness to cooperate, the U.S. appeared to have no interest in seeing what it could learn from Sudan. Mahdi Ibrahim Mohamed, now the information minister, went to Washington as Sudan's ambassador in February 1996. A long-standing Americophile, he had been educated in Michigan and California: "I like the country, I like the people. I went as ambassador for three years, with a positive view that America was open, free, open for dialogue.

What I found was a major surprise and disappointment." Mohammed spent three years trying to get a meeting with the State Department's assistant secretary for Africa, Susan Rice, only to find himself fobbed off on junior officials. He was no more successful in his efforts to see the National Security Council's Tony Lake, or his successor, Sandy Berger. The N.S.C. staff continued to accuse Sudan of harboring terrorists. Mohamed begged the officials to make a specific allegation, but they refused. "I said, 'Give me any information about any terrorists, any camps, as you believe it to be, and we will take it very seriously.' The response was 'Your government knows. You must know. We don't like to expose our sources."'

Ambassador Mohamed conveyed an open offer: the C.I.A. and F.B.I. could send a joint investigative team, which could travel freely throughout the country. "I used to say, 'Go anywhere, take a plane from Khartoum and say where you want to go once we're in the air."' It was not taken up. In February 1997, the offer was repeated in a letter from Presidental-Bashir to Clinton. Al-Bashir suggested "a mission tasked to investigate allegations that the government of Sudan trains or shelters terrorists," with "freedom of movement and contact and unrestricted choice of suspected terrorist sites." Clinton never replied.

MansoorIjaz a friend of bill Clinton's couldn't persuade U.S. officials to look at Sudans's reports. (Right below) a letter from Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to Representative Lee Hamilton offering information to the F.B.I.

It began to dawn on the Sudanese that one way of convincing America that they were serious about fighting terrorists was to offer U.S. investigators access to the Mukhabarat files on bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Frustrated in their efforts to invite America in through the front door, they resolved to try a back channel-the multimillionaire Pakistani-American businessman and fund manager Mansoor Ijaz. Then a big donor to the Democratic Party, Ijaz was on personal terms with Clinton, Berger, and A1 Gore. He was also fearful of the likely result of U.S. refusal to engage with Islamic regimes, such as Sudan: "As an American Muslim, I had a terrifying vision of what could go wrong. I wanted to do whatever I could to stop that happening."

As an investor, Ijaz was interested in Sudan's oil, but he also shared "a fundamental sense of injustice" at the way the country was being treated. From July 1996 until August 1997, he made six trips to Khartoum, meeting Dr. al-Turabi, President al-Bashir, the Mukhabarat chief, Gutbi al-Mahdi, and other officials. He suceeded in convincing them that it was worth making a further effort to persuade the U.S. of Sudan's sincerity-partly by drawing America's attention to the intelligence on al-Qaeda. His initiative produced its most dramatic result in a letter dated April 5, 1997, from President al-Bashir to Lee H. Hamilton, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

It stated, "We extend an offer to the F.B.I's Counter-terrorism units and any other official delegations which your government may deem appropriate, to come to the Sudan and work with our External Intelligence Department in order to assess the data in our possession and help us counter the forces your government, and ours. seek to contain." (My italics.) According to Ijaz, Hamilton took the letter to both Madeleine Albright and Sandy Beger, neither of whom replied. Ijaz also wrote memorandums on his mission for Sandy Berger, and in a series of conversations he spelled out exactly what the Sudanese offer meant. He told Berger, "That phrase [in the letter to Hamilton], 'to assess the data in our possession,' was an explicit reference to the data on bin Laden. The reference to 'the forces we seek to contain' was an explicit reference to the attempt to stop al-Qaeda spreading." Ijaz and his family had shared their Christmas dinner in the White House with the ain- tons. However good his access, he could not budge U.S. policy on Sudan.

The Sudanese did not give up. Beginning in the autumn of 1997, they made use of another private go-between, Janet McElligott, a lobbyist who had worked at the White House under George H. W Bush.

Like Ijaz before her, she assumed that rational statecraft would, in the end, prevail. In this she was mistaken. On February 5, 1998, her efforts helped produce perhaps the smokiest of all the smoking guns in this story: a letter direct from Gutbi al-Mahdi of the Mukhabarat to David Williams, chief of the F.B.I.'s Middle East and Africa desk. It read, "I would like to express my sincere desire to start contacts and cooperation between our service and the F.B.I. I would like to take this opportunity with pleasure to invite you to visit our country. Otherwise, we could meet somewhere else. Till then I remain, yours truly."

Eighteen days later, on February 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden issued his blood- curdling fatwa from his hideout in Afghanistan, calling on all Muslims to kill Americans and Jews, adding that civilians were now to be regarded as targets. McElligott followed up the letter with a personal appeal: "I told them, 'You do realize bin Laden lived there and they have files on his main people?' There is simply no doubt the F.B.I. knew what was available. The guy I dealt with said, 'I'd give any- thing to go in there, but they'-meaning the State Department-'won't let us."' David Williams did not reply to al-Mahdi's letter for another four months. "Unfortunately," he wrote on June 24, "I am not currently in a position to accept your kind invitation." He hoped "future circumstances" might allow it, but for now the offer had to be rejected. Six. weeks after that, bin Laden's al-Qaeda network succeeded in exploding two pick- up trucks at the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. They were reduced to piles of bloody rubble in which 224 people lay dead or dying.

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Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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