Saudi Arabia yesterday named a former intelligence chief who forged links with Osama bin Laden and his Afghan hosts in the 1980s and 90s as its new ambassador to Washington, replacing longtime Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, who is retiring after 22 years in Washington.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a leading member of the Saudi royal family and current Saudi ambassador to Britain, has long been involved in his country’s efforts to combat al Qaeda, suggesting that he will work closely with U.S. authorities in the war against terror.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli made it clear that the United States will accept Prince Turki once Saudi Arabia makes its nomination official.
“We expect that he will be the representative of the government of Saudi Arabia, and we look forward to working with him as the representative of the government of Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Outgoing Ambassador Prince Bandar is a close confidant of President Bush.
The Saudi government said he cited “personal reasons” for his resignation.
Prince Turki is the son of former Saudi King Faisal and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal’s brother.
“The fact that this government has approved him clearly means he is in good standing with the U.S. administration,” said Thomas Lippman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. “He has good relations with the media and has an acceptable record of cooperating with American authorities.”
Mr. Lippman acknowledged, however, that Prince Turki has a murky background.
The prince is a former director general of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the kingdom’s main foreign intelligence service. He was removed from the position a month before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, reportedly because of his inability to help American authorities capture bin Laden.
He is widely thought to have had connections with both bin Laden and deposed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar during his days in the intelligence service. Reports say he met with the Taliban leader as late as 1998, when Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to maintain relations with the Afghan government. The other two were Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.
A bin Laden bodyguard, interviewed by the Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi, said Prince Turki met the al Qaeda leader as many as five times in the 1980s and 1990s. He was part of a number of Saudi delegations in the 1990s which were aimed at persuading bin Laden to end his “jihad” against the kingdom.
Confirming his meetings with bin Laden in an interview with the London Telegraph in 2003, Prince Turki said that in the 1980s, the terror leader was “gentle and self-effacing, hardly talking to anyone — very shy.”
Later, he said, bin Laden underwent “a remarkable transformation. Now he is in a self-deluding, maniacal stage where he believes that he is the anointed of God and everybody else is in league with the devil.”
In 2002, Prince Turki was sued along with other members of the Saudi royal family by the families of 900 people killed on September 11. A judge dismissed the suit, which accused the Saudis of financing supporters of bin Laden to get them to end their attacks on the kingdom.
While in Britain, he was accused by the families of six British men who said they were severely tortured in Saudi Arabia while Prince Turki headed the intelligence agency. Prince Turki denied the charges.
“Although the monarchy could have gone with one of the younger people who could come here with clean hands, Turki is a relatively safe choice compared with other members of the government,” Mr. Lippman said.
The Saudi monarchy has come under intense pressure from the United States since the September 11 attacks to clamp down on Islamic extremists and their financiers. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens and had close ties with Saudi-born bin Laden.
Prince Turki has been very vocal in his denial of any official Saudi hand in the September 11 attacks and the defense of Islam after the London bombings.
“There is no place for radicalism in Islam,” he told a gathering of Muslim preachers in London in April. “One of the most important aspects of Dawah, as it is practiced in Saudi Arabia, is to reject radicalism. There is no place for radicalism in Islam.”