Two years after Osama bin Laden gave the final order to attack the World Trade Center, current and former U.S. officials tell NBC News that members of the Saudi royal family met frequently with bin Laden — both before and after 9/11.
Among other connections: Officials say for years some Saudi princes paid homage to bin Laden in his Afghan hideaway, sometimes flying falcons — a favorite Arab sport — with the terror king.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wayne Downing was President Bush’s national director for combating terrorism and is now an NBC News analyst. “They would go out and see Osama, spend some time with him, talk with him, you know, live out in the tents, eat the simple food, engage in falconing, some other pursuits, ride horses. And then be able to go back home and kind of have the insider secret knowledge, that yes, we saw Osama, and we talked to him,” Downing says.
Not only that, says Downing, but the Saudis paid al-Qaida protection money through charities to prevent attacks on the kingdom. Downing said it was an unwritten covenant: “As long as you behave yourself, we’re not going to crack down on you.”
At the center of the charge that the Saudis paid off al-Qaida is Prince Turki al Faisal, for decades the powerful Saudi intelligence chief. Now he’s the kingdom’s ambassador to Great Britain.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News, Prince Turki fiercely denies any deal with bin Laden. “These allegations are totally spurious and allegations without any factual basis at all,” he says.
But now there are new questions about Prince Turki — charges that he met twice with bin Laden’s top recruiter and planning chief, Abu Zubaydah.
Gerald Posner, the author of a controversial new book, “Why America Slept,” says the Saudis made a deal with al-Qaida. “They had the blessing of the Saudis as long as they stayed away from Saudi Arabia in terms of fomenting trouble,” Posner says. “According to Zubaydah, the Saudis essentially made a deal with al-Qaida where they said to al-Qaida, ‘Look, you conduct jihad, fine, but you don’t conduct it inside the kingdom. You conduct it in other areas. We’ll leave you alone. We won’t ask for the extradition of bin Laden, and we’ll make sure that money continues to flow to you.’”
Once again, Turki denies it: “Al-Qaida did not only just declare jihad against America, they declared jihad against the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and as the director of intelligence of the kingdom, one of my responsibilities was to track Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”
Posner also says Zubaydah told U.S. interrogators his protectors included three other Saudi princes — most surprising Prince Ahmed bin Salman, owner of Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem — and also Pakistan’s top air marshal.
Zubaydah’s interrogation is controversial. Was he given sodium pentothal — truth serum? The CIA denies it. And intelligence officials say he has repeatedly changed his story and also planted false leads with his interrogators about attacks on U.S. banks and bridges.
Did Zubaydah actually implicate the Saudi princes and the Pakistani air marshal? The men themselves cannot say. The princes died within days of one another, the Pakistani seven months later in a plane crash.
Prince Turki al Faisal says, “They had absolutely nothing to do with bin Laden or al-Qaida or Afghanistan, and this is what makes it so really, I could say, disgusting, to make such allegations against them especially when they are dead and cannot defend themselves.”
U.S. officials say the Saudis finally got the message: In May, al-Qaida bombed three compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killing 35, including nine Americans.
Gen. Downing added, “I think it’s a very significant turnaround, as far as the Saudis cooperating with us and cracking down on the dissidents inside the country, because they realize now with these attacks that these people have the power to do them serious harm if not threaten the regime directly.”