“I will leave, but you won’t solve your problems with the Americans.” These were the parting words of al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, as he boarded a military plane that flew him out of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, to the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 1996. Bin Laden, who was killed exactly nine years ago, never expected to be expelled by a fundamentalist regime that had adopted a hardline Islamic ideology opposed to the West and Americans. His prediction did come true, however. A year after he left Sudan, Washington imposed economic sanctions against the country.
Seven years before his expulsion, Sudan had fallen into the hands of the National Islamic Front, also known as the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s, after a military coup on June 30, 1989. The coup was plotted by the group’s leader, Hassan al-Turabi. Afterwards, Sudan was transformed into a safe haven for Islamic jihadist groups in other countries, especially Arab ones.
The US listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 after accusing its government of harboring the al-Qaeda leader and opening its territories to extremist groups from throughout the world. Bin Laden arrived in Sudan in 1991 under the guise of a businessman and investor. He was close to the Islamic group that was ruling the country and that had adopted jihadist slogans against the West. Bin Laden consequently held several open and secret meetings with the leaders of the Islamic Front, such as Omar al-Bashir and Turabi.
Sources close to the decision-making powers at the Front at the time, said Bashir, the now-ousted president, and his deputy, Ali Osman Taha, had visited Bin Laden at his house in the Riyadh neighborhood in Khartoum to inform him about plans to deport him to Afghanistan.
The same sources said Bin Laden had asked about the fate of his assets and properties in Sudan. He was informed that they will be liquidated and that his rights will be preserved. In fact, this never happened, revealed circles close to those in power. As Bin Laden was flown out of Khartoum, Bashir and his deputy, headed to Turabi’s home to inform him that the al-Qaeda leader had left the country at his own volition after acknowledging the difficult situation it was going through. This was the official version of events.
The sources, however, stated that Taha had first proposed his expulsion after the failed attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in 1995. Taha was rumored to have been involved in the plot. Bashir was convinced that he must go. Taha wanted to “get rid of” Bin Laden immediately after it soon started to emerge that he and his regime may have been in on the assassination attempt by providing the conspirators with logistic help.
Former security and intelligence chief Qutbi al-Mahdi told Asharq Al-Awsat that Taha’s role in the plot was limited to logistic support and financing the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Jamaa al-Islamiyya groups that carried out the attack. Turabi had directly accused Taha and his deputy of being involved in the plot. He revealed that Taha had personally detailed to him the incident, asking him to eliminate two Islamists who were involved. They had just recently returned to Khartoum and were later expelled to Afghanistan.
Taha’s actions demonstrate that he was “always prepared to do anything to keep his position in power, even sacrificing his fellow members in his organization,” the sources said. This statement was confirmed by conspirators who had later plotted to remove Turabi from power. They succeeded in 1999 and the Islamist Front split between Bashir, who remained president, and Turabi, who became part of the opposition.
The sources dismissed the official story about Bin Laden’s “voluntary” departure from Sudan, instead saying the Sudan Brotherhood members had “sacrificed” him because they feared the consequences of the failed attempt on Mubarak’s life. The failed attack led to the ouster of then intelligence chief Nafeh Ali Nafeh and several Islamist members of his agency. The sources said Turabi had asked Bashir to keep Nafeh in his position because his dismissal would implicate Sudan. Bashir did not heed the warning and acted on his own.
Other reports suggest that Bashir had repeatedly sought to get rid of Bin Laden after his regime grew tired of al-Qaeda. His attempts all failed. He even tried to hand him over to the United States, which responded that it did not have enough evidence to put him on trial and secure a conviction. At the time, Vanity Fair magazine released a statement from the intelligence chief, Qutbi, that Sudan was ready to turn over Bin Laden, who was not yet wanted by the CIA. Washington was not interested at the time.
When Bin Laden received word that the regime was seeking to hand him over to foreign forces, he requested to leave. Sources close to the decision-making powers at the time told Asharq Al-Awsat that the expulsion was decided by the Sudanese regime, specifically Bashir and Taha.
Prior to his expulsion, the intelligence agency had detained all foreign Islamists in Sudan. They turned over the Libyans to then ruler Moammar al-Gaddafi, the Eritreans to Eritrea and the Tunisians to Tunisia. Bin Laden was about to be handed over to the US.
In the mid-1990s, German authorities at Frankfurt airport arrested a Syrian called Imad and known as Abou Hajar, a member of al-Qaeda. He was handed over to US intelligence. He was given save haven by the Islamist regime in Sudan and was resident in Khartoum for years. He led prayers at a mosque in the Riyadh neighborhood, the same neighborhood where Bin Laden lived and the same mosque where the al-Qaeda leader prayed.
A resident of the neighborhood told Asharq Al-Awsat that Abou Hajar had given religious lessons at the mosque, which was frequented by different foreign residents of the upscale neighborhood. Many were close to Bin Laden. Bin Laden himself said little and kept to himself except when greeting others in a low barely audible tone. His house was guarded by members of the security and intelligence services.
His rented home belonged to a Sudanese man, who was rumored to be the head of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory that was struck by the US with a Cruse missile in 1995 for its alleged ties with al-Qaeda and for manufacturing chemical weapons. The attack was in response to the bombing of the US embassies in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi. Washington also carried out air raids against “mujahideen” training camps in Afghanistan. One such attack sought to kill Bin Laden.
Sources said that when Bin Laden first requested to reside in Sudan, he was welcomed by Turabi, who dreamed of having his country become a safe haven for Islamist businessmen from across the Muslim world. He allowed them to enter without visas and granted the Sudanese citizenship to whoever requested it.
Soon after his arrival, Bin Laden began investing millions of dollars in several different projects. He set up various companies, implemented road projects and bought a farm belonging to Khartoum University. He used the farm to set up a training camp for the various multinational members of al-Qaeda. The harboring of these fighters, who had already received high levels of training even before arriving in Sudan, would later drag the country into terrorism.
Turabi even had relations with the “Afghan Jihad” group. The sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that these ties probably date back to 1979 after the Soviets occupied Afghanistan when Turbai served as justice minister in Prime Minister Jaafar Nimeiry’s government. Turabi had even convinced the premier to open the first office for the Afghan Jihad in the Arab world in Khartoum. The office was secretly opened in 1980.
Bin Laden played a central role in the Afghan Jihad due to his wealth and ties with Abdullah Azzam, the Brotherhood member, whom sources say had the idea to form al-Qaeda.
Relations between the Islamic movement in Sudan with the US date back to the Cold War and the Afghanistan War when Soviet intelligence accused the Muslim Brotherhood of operating under Washington’s influence. It is often said in Sudan that generations of Islamic movement members earned their university and higher education degrees in the US. They include Ahmed Osman Makki, Amin Hassan Omar, Sayyed al-Khatib and dozens of others.
Turabi and Bin Laden first met at the former’s house in Khartoum in 1988 in wake of floods that had ravaged Sudan. Bin Laden had landed in the country as part of a relief team that included his younger brother. Sources close to Turabi told Asharq Al-Awsat that he did not hold many meetings with Bin Laden and they were often held in secret. Turabi often spoke to Bin Laden of shifting the Islamic movement towards openness, while the al-Qaeda leader stuck to his extremist views. They also discussed investment in roads, agriculture and airports.
The sources confirmed that Bashir enjoyed good relations with Bin Laden. He used to visit him at his home and they were seen together at the inauguration of several projects in Sudan. World leaders avoid discussing any ties they may have had with Bin Laden while he was living Sudan, which raises questions by over his activity, which was not limited to investment and that the Sudanese government was aware of his actions.
Mahdi told Asharq Al-Awsat that Turabi and Bashir had both agreed on the need for Bin Laden to leave Sudan as soon as possible after coming pressure from regional countries and possibly even Taha.
After the Soviet Union quit Afghanistan in the early 1990s and after fierce fighting between the Arab Afghan Mujahideen with American support, they feared that the US would turn them over to their countries, he continued. Many consequently sought refuge in Sudan, which welcomed them with open arms. Some worked in investment with Bin Laden.
Mahdi said that the Sudanese government offered to hand over Bin Laden to the Americans, who responded that they had no charges against him. Khartoum, therefore, had no choice but to deport him to fend off any terrorism accusations against it. Mahdi stressed: “America is responsible for forming terrorism because it supported the terrorists while they were fighting the Russians. After the end of the Cold War, it exerted pressure on Sudan to expel Afghan Jihad members from the country. We had no choice but to force them to return to their countries. The security and intelligence agencies were not involved in handing them over to US intelligence.”
Mahdi denied that the Brotherhood, which is accused of plotting to assassinate Mubarak, had any relations with Bin Laden and his companion, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He said members of the Egyptian Jihad and Jamaa al-Islamiyya were attempting to implicate al-Qaeda, but they failed.
Taha, he revealed, played a role in the failed attempt on Mubarak’s life. His role was limited to providing logistic and financial support. Taha believed that Mubarak was the greatest obstacle in the development of Sudanese-Egyptian relations and relations with the Gulf and several other countries.
The sources said the idea of the assassination was first proposed by the Egyptian Jihad and they approached Taha for support. Contact between the two sides took place through Sudanese intelligence.
The plot ultimately failed. Three people were killed at the scene and Ethiopian security arrested three suspects, while three others fled to Sudan. They were reportedly killed to eliminate any traces back to their leaders.
“Bin Laden and his all jihadist groups had their own unit in the Sudanese intelligence and security agency,” a security source told Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity. “When counter-terrorism cooperation began, then agency chief Salah Abdallah Gosh handed American intelligence 300 valuable intelligence files on Bin Laden.”
The move was a stab in the back by Sudan against the Islamists, he said.
American intelligence would later say that the failure of Bill Clinton’s administration to cooperate with Sudan was a direct factor that led to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Had the administration been aware of the important information Sudanese intelligence had handed over to the US, New York would have avoided the attack that changed the world. Afghanistan ultimately became Bin Laden’s final safe haven. Its Taliban rulers refused to turn him over to Washington.