Reprinted from NewsMax.com
Did theU.S. Save Osama bin Laden?
Kenneth R. Timmerman,NewsMax.com
Wednesday, April12, 2006
Although the Dubai ports controversy may be disappearing,questions linger about the role high-ranking United Arab Emiratesofficials played in supporting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in theyears leading up to Sept. 11.
In fact, some U.S. government reports suggest that the UnitedStates lost a clear opportunity to kill bin Laden because he was tooclose to U.A.E. officials traveling in his entourage –officials Clinton security adviser Richard Clarke may have thoughtwere too important to harm.
On Feb. 8, 1999, the Pentagon and the CIA were preparing amilitary strike on a luxury hunting camp in the desert south ofKandahar, Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had been sighted.
There were problems, however.
Satellite imagery revealed the presence of a military aircraftbelonging to the U.A.E., and "policymakers were concerned about thedanger that a strike would kill an Emirati prince or other seniorofficials who might be with bin Laden or close by," according to the9/11 Commission report.
Who were these U.S. "policymakers" mentioned in the 9/11 reportwho thwarted the opportunity to kill one of the world's most wantedmen?
The report does not say.
Coincidentally, the Clinton administration National SecurityCouncil advisor, Richard Clarke, had just returned to the UnitedStates from consultations with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, chief ofstaff of the U.A.E. armed forces, regarding a proposed sale of F-16sto the Gulf state as well as counter-terrorism issues, according tothe report.
Clarke revealed to the 9/11 Commission that during a one-on-onemeeting with Sheikh Mohammad, the sheikh had "vehemently deniedrumors that high-level U.A.E. officials were in Afghanistan" huntingwith bin Laden.
Clarke said the failure to strike bin Laden was a CIAdecision.
The proposed air strike was called off four days later "afterconsultations with [CIA] Director [George] Tenetbecause the intelligence was dubious," Clarke told the Commission.But the CIA contested Clarke's assertions, as did former Chairman ofthe Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton.
And according to Alan Parrot, an Arabist and falconry expertwho became close to Sheikh Mohammad's father, U.A.E. leader SheikhZayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan, there was never any question that binLaden was present at the luxury hunting camp in southern Afghanistanalong with top U.A.E. officials.
"Osama bin Laden's hunting partner was none other than SheikhHamdan bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates,and a full brother of the sheikh who signed the F-16 deal," Parrottold NewsMax.
Sheikh Hamdan stayed in Afghanistan for three full weeks duringthe 1999 hunt, Parrot said, while supplies were ferried back andforth to the luxury camp by a U.A.E. Ministry of Defense C-130 cargoaircraft.
Falconry camps are a favorite pastime of the Arab world'selites – a place where leaders meet, and business deals areconducted. For bin Laden and his al-Qaida, falconry provided asimilar networking opportunity.
"The falcon camps were al-Qaida's board room," Parrot said."This is where bin Laden went to meet with political leaders andmoney 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 wildfalcons to many top Arab leaders.
Parrot's conservationist group has been working for 20 years to saveendangered falcons, preserve their habitat, and expose illegaltrafficking. "We stumbled upon bin Laden's activities during ourfield work in Central Asia, when we saw the world's worst criminalscoming into these camps and photographed them."
According to Parrot, bin Laden often stayed for four weeks at atime in the camps, while the Gulf royals hunted in Toyota LandCruisers and feasted in million-dollar air-conditioned tents the sizeof palaces. "The falcon camps were more important to al-Qaida thanthe military training camps," Parrot said.
After the U.S. air strike was called off, bin Laden and theU.A.E. royals continued hunting, apparently oblivious to thepotential danger. Then on March 7, 1999, Richard Clarke called SheikhMohammad bin Zayed again, to "express his concerns about possibleassociations between Emirati officials and bin Laden," the 9/11Commission report states.
It is not clear if Clarke ever mentioned that U.S. intelligencehad evidence that U.A.E. officials were in fact with bin Laden inAfghanistan – but after the call the group that included binLaden and his U.A.E. friends quickly dispersed and the camps weredismantled.
Gary Schroen, the first CIA operations officer to enterAfghanistan after 9/11 to plan the U.S.-led war against al-Qaida,complained bitterly to the Commission that Clarke's actions hadscuttled a good opportunity to kill bin Laden before 9/11.
Clarke claims the CIA had signed off on the "tip-off" call toU.A.E. armed forces chief Sheikh Mohammad.
However, former CIA official John Mayer III told the Commission itwas "almost impossible" for the CIA to have approved Clarke'smove.
"When the former bin Laden unit chief found out about Clarke'scall, he questioned CIA officials, who denied having given such aclearance," the report states. "Imagery confirmed that less than aweek after Clarke's phone call the camp was hurriedly dismantled, andthe site was deserted."
Asked by NewsMax to comment on his reported "tip-off" to theU.A.E. sheikh, Clarke said, "I'm not going to get into that. What Isaid to the 9/11 Commission is what I said to the 9/11Commission."
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 thedeal to sell F-16s to the U.A.E.
Had Sheikh Hamdan or other U.A.E. officials been killed duringa 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 beingnegotiated with the U.A.E.
The deal to sell 80 jets to the U.A.E., signed in 1998 butstalled for another two years, was described by Lockheed sources asthe company's "largest single F-16 sale outside of Israel."
Lockheed describes the jets on its Web site as "the latest and mostadvanced version" of the F-16. The U.A.E. was "the lead customer" forthe upgraded F-16, Lockheed says. But getting the U.A.E. to buy theU.S. jets proved an arduous task that took more than a decade tofinalize.
Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed, chief arms purchaser for the Arabsheikhdom, openly courted the French and threatened repeatedly topurchase Dassault Aviation Mirage 2000 jets if the U.S. wouldn't givethe U.A.E. access to the very latest radar and avionics package.
"The U.A.E. wanted on-board equipment that was more advancedthan what we had sold the Israeli Air Force," a former U.S. officialwith first-hand knowledge of the negotiations told NewsMax.
"In the end, the Israelis agreed to allow the deal to go through, ifthe U.A.E. footed the bill for development costs" of keymodifications, which are now being shared with Israel.
A Lockheed spokesman in Washington, D.C., Hal Rhoven, toldNewsMax he could not comment by phone on "any story relating to theU.A.E."
The commercial contract between Lockheed and the U.A.E. wasfinalized in March 2000, one year after Richard Clarke's "tip-off"call may have allowed the U.A.E. to dismantle the luxury hunting campin 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 May2005, and include an APG-80 agile beam radar, an internalizedforward-looking infrared targeting system, a new cockpit, internalelectronic 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 tokill bin Laden had been missed.
In late February 2006, the Pentagon released several thousandpages of documents relating to the interrogation of prisoners atGuantanamo Bay.
Among them was a time line of the interrogation of Detainee number063, identified as Mohammad al-Qatani.
"Al-Qatani was Osama bin Laden's falconer," Parrot said. "Inthe transcript, he states clearly that he received orders andmaterial assistance from persons in the U.A.E. to go to Afghanistanto smuggle falcons."
The FBI has identified al-Qatani as the 20th hijacker, who wasturned away by immigration officials in Orlando, Fla., while 9/11terrorist Mohamed al-Atta was waiting to pick him up in the airportparking lot.
After his failure to link up with the other 9/11 hijackers,al-Qatani returned to Afghanistan and was eventually picked up byU.S. forces while attempting to flee from Tora Bora in November2001.
Parrot believes al-Qatani was present at the hunting camp nearKandahar at the same time top U.A.E. sheikhs were hunting, and thathe helped bring in cars and other supplies from the U.A.E. to binLaden and the sheikhs at the camp, in exchange for falcons.
The recently released interrogation log, stamped "SecretORCON," states that al-Qatani "visited a place near Kandahar wherepeople from the Gulf states would meet to hunt falcons ... When askedhow he knew about this meeting location of Gulf state personnel, hestated 'Z' from U.A.E. had told him about this meeting place."
The log does not identify "Z," but Parrot believes it could bea reference to the U.A.E. president, Sheikh Zayed, an avidfalconer.