Ex-Saudi spy chief says bin Laden still a threat

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Bolstered by a network of followers around the world, Osama bin Laden remains a terrorist threat and the danger will grow if he finds a new sanctuary to replace his uprooted bases in Afghanistan, the former Saudi intelligence chief said Tuesday.

Prince Turki also said he doesn't believe bin Laden was just a passive "tool" used by those behind the attacks in the United States -- a position some Saudi officials and many Saudi citizens have adopted. The fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, he said, shows how active bin Laden's involvement was.

Turki, who knew bin Laden as a young man, served as the kingdom's intelligence chief for almost 25 years until his resignation just days before the Sept. 11 attacks. Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia but stripped of his citizenship in 1994.

Turki was in charge of Saudi Arabia's government-backed campaign to help Afghans drive the Soviets from Afghanistan during the 1980s. The kingdom spent $1.5 billion over 10 years on the Afghan war, in which many Saudis took part.

Turki said he saw bin Laden at several Saudi Embassy functions in Pakistan but met with him only once one-on-one, the last time he saw him, in 1990. At that time, bin Laden was on the side of the U.S.-backed Islamic fighters.

The prince said there was nothing in bin Laden's demeanor then to warrant a closer look at his activities.

"He was a model. We wanted more of him," he said.

Turki said there was no doubt in his mind that bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 attacks.

"To me, it was not a matter of having to convince myself," he said.

But he said he was surprised at how much the man he had known as a "very upright, very friendly and amenable fellow" in the 1980s had changed.

Asked if bin Laden still posed a terrorist threat after more than four months of U.S. bombing of his al-Qaida hide-outs, Turki said:

"He may be on the run now, and as such his threat is much less than before. But should he ever find a place where he can sit down and do things, his threat continues because he has supporters in other places."

Asked to estimate how many followers bin Laden has, Turki said he believed 300 to 400 of the hardcore members of al-Qaida were from Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef last week became the first Saudi official to publicly acknowledge that 15 of the 19 hijackers in the attacks were Saudi.

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