Amid the crush of 9/11 anniversary seminars and conferences that are dominating think-tank and academic circles in Washington, one featured speaker stood out Wednesday: a former Arab spy chief who knew Osama bin Laden personally.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, the longtime head of Saudi Arabia’s foreign intelligence service until he resigned shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings, lent his regal presence to a panel discussion jointly sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. In an auditorium at the Ronald Reagan Building, Turki lit up the stage in his dapper tan suit and red pocket handkerchief even before he served up a particularly frank assessment of the state of al-Qaeda.
Contrary to those who have argued that bin Laden was primarily a figurehead or a symbolic figure, Turki said the al-Qaeda leader’s death marked a watershed moment — so important that its significance has actually gone underappreciated in the United States.
“The killing of bin Laden has not gotten the accolades that it deserves, not just throughout the world but even in this country,” said Turki, who has also served as the Saudi ambassador to the United States and is a Georgetown alumnus.
He recalled how former President George W. Bush had vowed to capture bin Laden, “dead or alive,” and praised President Obama for persisting in that mission. “I think he should have been given more credit for it by the American people and the rest of us.”
At the same time, Turki said the Obama administration was missing an even greater opportunity: to exploit bin Laden’s demise as a pretext for declaring victory in the war in Afghanistan and withdrawing U.S. troops. Not by the end of 2014, which is the current timetable, but immediately.
“I don’t mean withdrawing your embassy, your economic aid or your other support, but having troops on the ground in Afghanistan has never succeeded,” he said, citing ill-fated attempts by Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviet Union to keep the Afghans under their thumbs.
“Killing bin Laden would have been the perfect moment for your president to say, ‘We’ve done it, we are victorious,’ this is the timetable that we’ve set for withdrawal of troops and goodbye and good luck,” Turki continued. “This would be the perfect moment to leave with a victory and not to go on and sort of continue in this endless mission of strike and counterstrike.”
He implied that the window for declaring victory may have passed, noting that the Afghan insurgency has broadened to include a variety of ethnic groups, not just Pashtuns but Uzbeks and Tajiks and others as well. “The Afghan people will not accept foreign troops,” he said. “They are going to fight them.”
Turki knows Afghanistan and al-Qaeda better than most. He played an instrumental role in working with the CIA to arm the mujaheddin resistance fighters who chased the Red Army out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
He also met bin Laden several times in Afghanistan and Pakistan, before the Saudi native had his citizenship stripped by the kingdom for his terrorist activities. In 1998, Turki traveled to Kandahar to persuade Taliban leader Mullah Omar to hand over bin Laden after al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He was unsuccessful.
Turki resigned as Saudi Arabia’s spy chief a couple of weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, a day that he said also lives in infamy in the kingdom, not only because of bin Laden’s involvement, but because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
“That event weighs heavily on my shoulders as a Saudi,” he said. Of some solace, he said, was that Saudi Arabia and the United States have since forged a stronger relationship on counterterrorism matters.