NewsMax.com April 12, 2006
Did the U.S. Save Osama bin Laden?
By Kenneth R. Timmerman
Although the Dubai ports controversy may be disappearing, questions linger about the role high-ranking United Arab Emirates officials played in supporting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in the years leading up to Sept. 11.
In fact, some U.S. government reports suggest that the United States lost a clear opportunity to kill bin Laden because he was too close to U.A.E. officials traveling in his entourage – officials Clinton security adviser Richard Clarke may have thought were too important to harm.
On Feb. 8, 1999, the Pentagon and the CIA were preparing a military strike on a luxury hunting camp in the desert south of Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had been sighted.
There were problems, however.
Satellite imagery revealed the presence of a military aircraft belonging to the U.A.E., and "policymakers were concerned about the danger that a strike would kill an Emirati prince or other senior officials who might be with bin Laden or close by," according to the 9/11 Commission report.
Who were these U.S. "policymakers" mentioned in the 9/11 report who thwarted the opportunity to kill one of the world's most wanted men?
The report does not say.
Coincidentally, the Clinton administration National Security Council advisor, Richard Clarke, had just returned to the United States from consultations with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, chief of staff of the U.A.E. armed forces, regarding a proposed sale of F-16s to the Gulf state as well as counter-terrorism issues, according to the report.
Clarke revealed to the 9/11 Commission that during a one-on-one meeting with Sheikh Mohammad, the sheikh had "vehemently denied rumors that high-level U.A.E. officials were in Afghanistan" hunting with bin Laden.
Clarke said the failure to strike bin Laden was a CIA decision.
The proposed air strike was called off four days later "after consultations with [CIA] Director [George] Tenet because the intelligence was dubious," Clarke told the Commission. But the CIA contested Clarke's assertions, as did former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton.
And according to Alan Parrot, an Arabist and falconry expert who became close to Sheikh Mohammad's father, U.A.E. leader Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, there was never any question that bin Laden was present at the luxury hunting camp in southern Afghanistan along with top U.A.E. officials.
"Osama bin Laden's hunting partner was none other than Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, and a full brother of the sheikh who signed the F-16 deal," Parrot told NewsMax.
Sheikh Hamdan stayed in Afghanistan for three full weeks during the 1999 hunt, Parrot said, while supplies were ferried back and forth to the luxury camp by a U.A.E. Ministry of Defense C-130 cargo aircraft.
Falconry camps are a favorite pastime of the Arab world's elites – a place where leaders meet, and business deals are conducted. For bin Laden and his al-Qaida, falconry provided a similar networking opportunity.
"The falcon camps were al-Qaida's board room," Parrot said. "This is where bin Laden went to meet with political leaders and money men" from Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.
Parrot works for the Union for the Conservation of Raptors (www.savethefalcons.org), and has provided legally acquired wild falcons to many top Arab leaders.
Parrot's conservationist group has been working for 20 years to save endangered falcons, preserve their habitat, and expose illegal trafficking. "We stumbled upon bin Laden's activities during our field work in Central Asia, when we saw the world's worst criminals coming into these camps and photographed them."
According to Parrot, bin Laden often stayed for four weeks at a time in the camps, while the Gulf royals hunted in Toyota Land Cruisers and feasted in million-dollar air-conditioned tents the size of palaces. "The falcon camps were more important to al-Qaida than the military training camps," Parrot said.
After the U.S. air strike was called off, bin Laden and the U.A.E. royals continued hunting, apparently oblivious to the potential danger. Then on March 7, 1999, Richard Clarke called Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed again, to "express his concerns about possible associations between Emirati officials and bin Laden," the 9/11 Commission report states.
It is not clear if Clarke ever mentioned that U.S. intelligence had evidence that U.A.E. officials were in fact with bin Laden in Afghanistan – but after the call the group that included bin Laden and his U.A.E. friends quickly dispersed and the camps were dismantled.
Gary Schroen, the first CIA operations officer to enter Afghanistan after 9/11 to plan the U.S.-led war against al-Qaida, complained bitterly to the Commission that Clarke's actions had scuttled a good opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11.
Clarke claims the CIA had signed off on the "tip-off" call to U.A.E. armed forces chief Sheikh Mohammad.
However, former CIA official John Mayer III told the Commission it was "almost impossible" for the CIA to have approved Clarke's move.
"When the former bin Laden unit chief found out about Clarke's call, he questioned CIA officials, who denied having given such a clearance," the report states. "Imagery confirmed that less than a week after Clarke's phone call the camp was hurriedly dismantled, and the site was deserted."
Asked by NewsMax to comment on his reported "tip-off" to the U.A.E. sheikh, Clarke said, "I'm not going to get into that. What I said to the 9/11 Commission is what I said to the 9/11 Commission.
If the U.A.E. had been tipped off to a pending U.S. military strike, one motive had been the Clinton administration's desire to save the deal to sell F-16s to the U.A.E.
Had Sheikh Hamdan or other U.A.E. officials been killed during a U.S. air strike on bin Laden, it could have seriously damaged the $6.4 billion F-16 deal, the details of which were still being negotiated with the U.A.E.
The deal to sell 80 jets to the U.A.E., signed in 1998 but stalled for another two years, was described by Lockheed sources as the company's "largest single F-16 sale outside of Israel."
Lockheed describes the jets on its Web site as "the latest and most advanced version" of the F-16. The U.A.E. was "the lead customer" for the upgraded F-16, Lockheed says. But getting the U.A.E. to buy the U.S. jets proved an arduous task that took more than a decade to finalize.
Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, chief arms purchaser for the Arab sheikhdom, openly courted the French and threatened repeatedly to purchase Dassault Aviation Mirage 2000 jets if the U.S. wouldn't give the U.A.E. access to the very latest radar and avionics package.
"The U.A.E. wanted on-board equipment that was more advanced than what we had sold the Israeli Air Force," a former U.S. official with first-hand knowledge of the negotiations told NewsMax.
"In the end, the Israelis agreed to allow the deal to go through, if the U.A.E. footed the bill for development costs" of key modifications, which are now being shared with Israel.
A Lockheed spokesman in Washington, D.C., Hal Rhoven, told NewsMax he could not comment by phone on "any story relating to the U.A.E."
The commercial contract between Lockheed and the U.A.E. was finalized in March 2000, one year after Richard Clarke's "tip-off" call may have allowed the U.A.E. to dismantle the luxury hunting camp in Afghanistan and hastily fly its officials out of harm's way.
Congress cleared the deal just three months later.
The first Block 60 "Desert Falcon" aircraft were delivered in May 2005, and include an APG-80 agile beam radar, an internalized forward-looking infrared targeting system, a new cockpit, internal electronic counter measures, enhanced-performance F110-GE-132 engine, and conformal fuel tanks, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
New evidence continues to emerge that a golden opportunity to kill bin Laden had been missed.
In late February 2006, the Pentagon released several thousand pages of documents relating to the interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Among them was a time line of the interrogation of Detainee number 063, identified as Mohammad al-Qatani.
"Al-Qatani was Osama bin Laden's falconer," Parrot said. "In the transcript, he states clearly that he received orders and material assistance from persons in the U.A.E. to go to Afghanistan to smuggle falcons."
The FBI has identified al-Qatani as the 20th hijacker, who was turned away by immigration officials in Orlando, Fla., while 9/11 terrorist Mohamed al-Atta was waiting to pick him up in the airport parking lot.
After his failure to link up with the other 9/11 hijackers, al-Qatani returned to Afghanistan and was eventually picked up by U.S. forces while attempting to flee from Tora Bora in November 2001.
Parrot believes al-Qatani was present at the hunting camp near Kandahar at the same time top U.A.E. sheikhs were hunting, and that he helped bring in cars and other supplies from the U.A.E. to bin Laden and the sheikhs at the camp, in exchange for falcons.
The recently released interrogation log, stamped "Secret ORCON," states that al-Qatani "visited a place near Kandahar where people from the Gulf states would meet to hunt falcons ... When asked how he knew about this meeting location of Gulf state personnel, he stated 'Z' from U.A.E. had told him about this meeting place."
The log does not identify "Z," but Parrot believes it could be a reference to the U.A.E. president, Sheikh Zayed, an avid falconer.
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