"When you start fortifying your embassies it becomes very attractive--the Americans have made themselves very attractive targets. Probably [bin Laden] would try to mobilize friends--ex-Afghan fighters from Arab countries--and try to hit back against the Americans. Anywhere."
--Hassan al-Turabi responding to the Clinton administration's decision to destroy a Sudanese factory, as quoted in "For This Islamic Tactician, Battle With U.S. Has Begun," the New York Times, August 24, 1998
TO THE WORLD'S HORROR, Hassan al-Turabi's Manichean vision was unfolding. The Gulf War schism, which fractured the Islamic community, had presented a sizable opportunity and Turabi took advantage. Traditional divisions were washed away in the tide of hatred for the common enemy: the United States and its allies.
Turabi's early efforts to forge a terrorist alliance against the common enemy in the wake of the war would bear fruit. His regime successfully exported terrorism around the globe while, at the same time, providing fertile soil for various new alliances to take shape.
Terrorists of various stripes would continue to use Sudan as both transit hub and safehaven. Sudanese-backed terrorists plotted against the "illegitimate" regimes in Uganda, Ethiopia, Egypt, and several other nations throughout Africa and the Middle East. By the late 1990s the Clinton administration was dispensing direct aid to those governments that opposed Sudan's revolution. In addition, the Sudanese government's fingerprints on plots around the world became unmistakable. Countless schemes, including an attempted assassination on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995, would be traced back to Sudanese soil.
Disturbingly, new evidence of Sudanese involvement in planned attacks on American soil continued to accumulate. In April 1996, for example, according to the State Department's Patterns of Global Terrorism, a diplomat at the "Sudanese U.N. Mission" was expelled for having ties to a bomb plot against the U.N. building and other targets in New York in 1993. Two Sudanese diplomats even planned on using the U.N. building to coordinate attacks on the city.
But, what about Saddam's Iraq? Was Turabi successful in forging alliances between his new "close" ally and the terrorists he hosted, including al Qaeda?
Indeed, he was.
INTELLIGENCE INCLUDED IN A SECRET MEMO from then-undersecretary for Defense Policy, Douglas Feith, to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003 includes a summary of a debriefing of a "senior Iraqi intelligence officer." This intelligence officer told his interrogators that Turabi brokered several meetings between Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda beginning in 1992. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number two, and Faruq Hijazi, one of Saddam's most trusted operatives, were both at the first of these meetings.
Turabi's role in facilitating the meetings between Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda was recognized by the 9-11 Commission. The Commission's report noted that Turabi's government had arranged for "contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda." The staff report continued: "A senior Iraqi intelligence officer reportedly made three visits to Sudan, finally meeting bin Laden in 1994. Bin Laden is said to have requested space to establish training camps, as well as assistance in procuring weapons, but Iraq apparently never responded." Bin Laden's request, of course, demonstrates he was not ideologically opposed to working with Saddam as many have claimed.
According to reporting from several sources, the main "senior Iraqi intelligence" officer who met with bin Laden in 1994 was, again, Faruq Hijazi. Turabi's hospitality towards Hijazi would pave the way for him to meet with bin Laden and his inner circle in Sudan and Afghanistan throughout the 1990s, including at key moments in the hostilities between the U.S. and Saddam.
Another high-level meeting was facilitated by Turabi's government in early 1995. According to an internal Iraqi intelligence services (IIS) document obtained by the New York Times, Turabi's government arranged for a meeting between the Iraqi regime and bin Laden in February 1995. At this meeting, bin Laden requested that Iraq's state-run television network broadcast anti-Saudi propaganda and that the two ally in "joint operations against foreign forces" in Saudi Arabia. Saddam agreed to the first request, but the document does not indicate his response to the second. The IIS document indicates that Iraq would seek other means to maintain ties with bin Laden after his departure from Sudan.
Even after bin Laden departed Sudan in 1996, however, both al Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence remained active in the country. According to IIS documents first discovered by Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star and Inigo Gilmore of the Sunday Telegraph after the beginning of the Iraq war, the Iraqi intelligence station in Khartoum was still actively facilitating the relationship with al Qaeda in 1998. A "trusted confidant" of bin Laden's traveled, with the help of Iraqi intelligence, from Sudan to Baghdad in March 1998. He stayed in Baghdad for more that two weeks.
This meeting in Baghdad was one of many throughout the 1990s and, in particular, in 1998. Many seek to downplay the meaning of all these meetings, but it was also in 1998 that the relationship underlying these contacts would become transparent.
In August 1998 it became clear that Turabi's vision for an Iraqi alliance with al Qaeda had come to fruition. On August 7, 1998 al Qaeda launched nearly simultaneous attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. Nearly two weeks later, on August 20, the Clinton administration struck back by simultaneously destroying al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan.
The strike on Afghanistan was seen as relatively ineffectual, but generated little controversy. The second target in Sudan, which was part of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, was the source of almost instantaneous controversy. The Clinton administration argued that the plant was a front for joint Iraqi-Sudanese-al Qaeda chemical weapons development efforts. This claim was hotly contested in the press.
But, the supporting evidence offered by the Clinton administration and reported in the press pointed to an Iraqi presence much greater than just one facility. Al-Shifa, it turned out, was only one of several suspected facilities where Iraqi agents supported Sudan's and al Qaeda's efforts. Turabi's support for Iraq during the Gulf War was reciprocated by Saddam's support for the Sudanese chemical weapons infrastructure.
For example, according to an account in the Associated Press, State Department deputy spokesman James Foley explained that "hundreds of Iraqi experts have worked in Sudan since the war, including in the manufacture of munitions." He further explained that Iraq and Sudan worked together on joint chemical weapons projects. Numerous press reports, statements by various Clinton administration officials, and other pieces of evidence (including the CIA's own analysis) all pointed to broad Iraqi support for Sudan's and, thus, al Qaeda's chemical weapons development efforts.
Perhaps more telling than the Clinton administration's choice of retaliatory targets, however, was the reaction by the Sudanese and Iraqi governments. While the Clinton administration was defending the strike on al-Shifa to the press, the Sudanese leadership turned to Iraq for support and began issuing not-so-thinly veiled threats of terrorist retaliation by bin Laden.
The Sudanese foreign minister was in Baghdad and met with Saddam just days after the strike on al-Shifa. Saddam did not disappoint his guest; Baghdad firmly endorsed Sudan and pledged its support. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz "stressed the need for Arab solidarity in standing up to America." Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf (aka "Baghdad Bob"), the Iraqi foreign minister, reportedly made Iraq's "resources available to support Sudan against American 'aggression.'"
On August 27, Babel, Uday Hussein's newspaper, published a startling editorial proclaiming bin Laden "an Arab and Islamic hero." Just a few days later Saddam dispatched his vice president, Taha Yasin Ramadan, to Sudan to survey the site of the strike. Sudanese television covered his visit on August 31 and Ramadan used the occasion to openly chastise the Clinton administration's "Zionist aims."
What was not shown on Sudanese television were Turabi's efforts to negotiate safehaven for bin Laden in Iraq. According to a press account in Milan's Corriere Della Sera in September and several others that followed, the Sudanese government approached Ramadan and his delegation about sheltering bin Laden in Iraq. According to some of these accounts the Iraqis agreed.
Turabi's request for an Iraqi safehaven for bin Laden came at a time when he had openly threatened terrorist retaliation against the United States. The strike on al-Shifa incensed Turabi. According to an account in the Christian Science Monitor shortly after the missile strike, he described the missile strike as an attack on Islam itself and sought to rally the Islamic world to his cause. He threatened, "This is a terrorist act against Sudan, a terrorist act . . . Islam now is entrenched, and no one can remove it by force anymore. If you use force, we can defend ourselves. If you come in peace, we welcome you; if you come to fight us, we can fight back. We are powerful."
Turabi also stressed the importance of bin Laden as a rallying point for the broader Islamic world calling him the "symbol of all anti-West forces in the world" and declaring that "[a]ll the Arab and Muslim young people, believe me, look to him as an example." He was not reserved in his estimate of how revenge would be exacted. According to an account in the New York Times he warned, "When you start fortifying your embassies it becomes very attractive--the Americans have made themselves very attractive targets . . . Probably he [Bin Laden] would try to mobilize friends--ex-Afghan fighters from Arab countries--and try to hit back against the Americans. Anywhere." He further warned that the missile strike would not defeat bin Laden but would instead "create 10,000 bin Ladens."
In an account from UPI in 2001, "a knowledgeable U.S. official" told the press outlet that Turabi sent emissaries to both Saddam and bin Laden in October 1998. "They carried Turabi's hand-written letter analyzing the Middle East situation and U.S. vulnerabilities." Turabi said that the "United States was so preoccupied by internal crisis, that it would be susceptible to a spectacular series of surprise terrorist attacks." The emissaries also discussed the use of chemical and biological weapons to be used in the attacks. This same account is given by Yossef Bodansky in his 1999 book, Bin Laden, The Man Who Declared War on America.
Two months later Saddam dispatched Faruq Hijazi, to meet bin Laden again, just days after the conclusion of Operation Desert Fox on December 21, 1998. This meeting triggered a series of reports about Turabi's role in bringing the two together. An account in Al Watan Al Arabi was typical in this regard:
Information available to these sources confirmed that bin-Ladin began to establish close ties with Iraq at least five years ago, specifically when the leader of Muslim extremists chose to reside in Sudan with the blessing and protection of Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, leader of the National Islamic Movement. These sources asserted that they received in the past few years confirmed and detailed information that cooperation between bin Ladin and Iraq entered 'an important and grave stage' through their cooperation in the field of producing chemical and biological weapons . . .
Additional open source reporting revealed that Turabi's Sudan continued to serve as a meeting place for Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda throughout 1999. After a flurry of open source reporting from late 1998 into early 1999 the media's interest went cold, however. By that time Turabi had begun to fall out of favor with his past allies in the Sudanese government; in early 2001 he was thrown in jail.
EVEN FROM JAIL, however, his role in bringing Saddam and bin Laden together was reported by the U.S. intelligence community. As the war with Iraq approached, the National Security Agency issued a report in February 2003 which said that "former National Islamic Front leader Hasan al-Turabi served as an intermediary between Saddam and bin Laden."
That former National Islamic Front leader is now freed from jail.
Chances are he is willing, once again, to bring America's enemies together against her.
Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.