BOOK REVIEW: Washington’s Secret Dealings with Islamist Oil Interests


Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquié, “Forbidden Truth: U.S.-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy and the Failed Hunt for Bin Laden.”

Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002. 249 pp. $12.95.

“Forbidden Truth” is a translation of a book that was published in Paris two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Its revelations concerning American foreign policy hypocrisy and the ambiguous role of the Saudi royal family with regard to Islamist terrorism made it become an international best seller. It has now been published in the United States.

One of its authors, Jean-Charles Brisard, was Vice President of Business Intelligence for the multi-national corporation Vivendi Universal and worked for the French secret service. He wrote for the secret service a 1997 report, “The Economic Network of the bin Laden Family,” which French President Chirac presented to Bush shortly after Sept. 11. His co-author, Guillaume Dasquié, is an investigative journalist who has worked for a number of television stations.

Their book bears the marks of its hasty composition. It is poorly organized, repetitive, padded, and at times cryptic. However, it contains a good deal of interesting information, amply documented, the product of the authors’ research prior to the World Trade Center attack, which prompted its expedited publication.

The story it tells is one in which the U.S. government, desiring access to the oil and gas reserves of Central Asia, helped to establish the Taliban government in the belief that it would be serving American interests and then subsequently both threatened it and promised it favors in order to make it yield to American wishes.

After the Soviet Union had been driven out of Afghanistan by the CIA-financed and trained international Islamist forces that became the basis of al Qaeda, the United States for a time abandoned Afghanistan to the internal strife it had precipitated. However, it soon became involved once more.

An oil pipeline to the West

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the oil and gas of former Soviet republics Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan became available to American and other foreign oil companies. The construction of a pipeline through Afghanistan would enable the companies to market this oil and gas and make it unnecessary to deal with either Russia or Iran for routing rights.

The huge investment required for the construction of the pipeline could only be made if, as stated by a vice-president of Unocal, the great oil corporation interested in the project, instead of Afghanistan being torn by conflict between rival warlords, there were “a single entity governing Afghanistan that has international recognition.”

The U.S. State Department was assured by Unocal consultant Zalmay Khalilzad of the Rand Corporation, a foreign-policy think-tank, that the Taliban, then close to obtaining power, could be the basis for a stable government.

“I am confident,” he asserted, “that they would welcome an American reengagement. The Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran-it is closer to the Saudi model.” The Afghan government under the Taliban, it was hoped, would be like Saudi Arabia, which had maintained a mutually beneficial working arrangement with the United States concerning oil production and pricing for 60 years.

However, the village clerics and rural followers of the Taliban were not as easily corruptible as the 4000 Saudi princes, with their taste for high living. Nevertheless, the State Department continued to negotiate with the Taliban even after it had harbored Osama bin Laden and had established its fanatically repressive regime.

In July 2001, two months before Sept. 11, the Americans sought to get the Taliban to form a coalition government and to permit the extradition of bin Laden. “The objective was to convince the Taliban that once a broad-based government of national unity was installed and the pipeline project was in the works, there would be billions of dollars in commissions-of which the Taliban … would get a cut.”

According to the Pakistani representative present at the July meeting, an American official threatened, “Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.” American representatives deny that anything so blunt was said, except perhaps by “an American participant, acting mischievously, after some glasses,” although “there was some discussion of the fact that the United States was so disgusted with the Taliban that they might be considering some military action.”

In any event-whether because of Taliban fanaticism, or because of the power al Qaeda held in Afghanistan, or because of Sept. 11 forestalling a positive Taliban response (the authors speculate that the World Trade Center attack was speeded up because of al Qaeda knowledge of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations)-the U.S.-Taliban talks came to naught.

The Saudi connection

Saudi Arabia was another factor in the equation. It prized its relationship with the United States, but it also feared the rise of anti-imperialist Arab nationalism and of Iranian Shiite fundamentalism.

“With its oil interests in mind,” say Brisard and Dasquié, “plus the threat of Arab nationalism, and then the Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia began to lend its support to the Sunni Islamist movements in the 1970s. … It needed to dominate the religious front in order to keep the peace and maintain its monopoly on the political front.”

They trace the Saudi networks financing various Islamist movements that include Osama bin Laden’s movement: “Officially disowned by the Saudi kingdom, bin Laden nonetheless kept in close contact … with the ultra-powerful Sudeiri clan [a branch of the royal family].” It was a form of protection for the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s accommodating itself to the Islamist movements brought tensions between it and the United States, but ties between the two states nevertheless remained strong. The United States is Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil customer; Saudi Arabia is a big buyer of U.S. arms; Saudi Arabia is a big investor in the United States.

The Saudis have had close relations with the White House through Democratic and Republican administrations. One link with the presidency was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which was created in 1972 by Saudi investors, the rulers of the Emirates, and the Bank of America. BCCI collapsed in 1992, charged with embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering. The scandal touched Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s budget director, and Clark Clifford, adviser to Carter and previous Democratic presidents, both of whom were managers of BCCI subsidiaries.

A U.S. Senate report on the BCCI stated that a key figure in the bank was Khalid bin Mahfouz, whom it characterized as “the most powerful banker in the Middle East.” In 1999 American authorities accused Khalid bin Mahfouz of having made massive transfers from the Saudi royal family’s bank, of which he was the CEO, to charity organizations with ties to Osama bin Laden. Some of these organizations were controlled by members of Khalid bin Mahfouz’s family, and his own sister was a wife of Osama bin Laden.

The Saudi authorities placed Khalid bin Mahfouz under house arrest but imposed no further punishment on him. Members of his family continued to be important shareholders in the bank and to serve on its board of directors.

Another link with the presidency has been the Carlyle Group, an American construction firm that does business in the Middle East. Sami Mubarak Baarma, an executive of a bin Mahfouz financial subsidiary, is on the advisory committee of the Carlyle Group, and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, the nephew of King Fahd, has a stake in it.

The Carlyle Group’s board of directors at the time of Sept. 11 included the first President Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker III; his chief of staff, John Sununu; and President Reagan’s secretary of defense, Frank Carlucci.

In 1987, when Harken Energy, a Texas oil company of which George W. Bush was a director, was in financial difficulties, Abdullah Taha Bakhsh, a Saudi financier, enabled it to right itself by bringing needed capital to it. Taha Bakhsh was a partner of Khalid bin Mahfouz.

Earlier, two companies founded by George W. Bush with the aid of a wealthy Texan, James R. Bath, were merged with Harken Energy. Bath was the U.S. business representative of Salem bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s brother, and the legal representative of Khalid bin Mahfouz.

Lately, there has been sharp criticism of Saudi Arabia within the American establishment as a result of its resisting the use of U.S. bases on its soil in an attack on Iraq and also of popular knowledge that 15 out of 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi Arabs. An analyst of the Rand Corporation told a Pentagon advisory group that Saudi Arabia is a sponsor of terrorism and should be regarded as an enemy.

The New York Times stated editorially (Sept. 1, 2002), “Mr. Bush has ordered the government to dry up the funding of Islamic terrorism, but Saudi Arabia is the principal financier of groups that promote such terrorism.” It suggested that the Saudi policy was to “buy peace at home by financing violence abroad.”

The Times did not call for a discontinuance of “Washington’s longstanding ties to the Saudi royal family,” which, it pointed out, “have ensured a steady flow of oil to the West for most of the last 60 years,” but it urged a cessation of the coddling of the Saudis. So far, however, Bush, despite his ultimatum to nations alleged to abet terrorists, has persisted in giving the Saudis the royal treatment, entertaining the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar, at his Texas ranch.

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