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Abandoned by Bin Laden

Racehorse Left Behind When al Qaeda Chief Was Expelled From Sudan

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page A16

KHARTOUM, Sudan

The horse Osama bin Laden used to ride now lives in the run-down stables of a colonial-era racetrack on the edge of Khartoum.

Her name is Swift Like the Wind, but a more appropriate one might be Victim of Circumstance. At 12, she's too old to race. Last year she almost starved to death. Now she spends her days in a small caged area, next to a grimy pool of water turtles.


A keeper looks after Swift Like the Wind, a horse owned by Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s, at a racetrack on the edge of Khartoum. (Photos Evelyn Hockstein -- The Washington Post)

_____Crisis in Sudan_____
Q&A: Darfur A brief explanation of the issues and current humanitarian situation in Western Sudan.
Photos: Continuing Crisis
Photos: Sudan's Rebels
A Peace Force With No Power (The Washington Post, Dec 11, 2004)
Sudan Calls for Normalized U.S. Ties (The Washington Post, Dec 6, 2004)
Danforth Says He Left Position At U.N. for Personal Reasons (The Washington Post, Dec 4, 2004)
Ambassador to Leave U.N. Job Next Month (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2004)
Darfurians Could Lose Land They Fled (The Washington Post, Dec 3, 2004)

There was a time when the spirited white mare, dusted with gray spots, was one of a dozen prized horses that galloped in glory along the dusty stretch of track. In bin Laden's heyday here, as a wealthy exile in the mid-1990s, Swift ran in Sudan's most prestigious races. Her tail was combed, her hoofs oiled.

But in May 1996, bin Laden, a Saudi, was driven out of Sudan by pressure from the Clinton administration, and the horse was left behind, abandoned property of the fugitive now wanted for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Along with Swift and three other racehorses, the government confiscated bin Laden's other properties: a high-walled house in Khartoum's Riyad neighborhood, a construction company that built most of a highway from Khartoum to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, a tannery where cowhides became leather products, and acres of farmland in an area south of Khartoum called Soba.

Two of the horses died in government custody. Swift and the fourth horse might be dead, too, if Issam Turabi had not taken an interest in them. He is the son of an old friend of bin Laden's, a jailed Sudanese opposition leader named Hassan Turabi who favors the creation of an Islamic state. "Osama liked to jump on his horses and take them riding," said Issam Turabi, a wiry man with a trim dark beard. By his account, bin Laden would have wanted the horses to be cared for, so it was the least he could do to step in.

He arranged the sale of Swift and the other surviving horse. That horse did well, but Swift did not. "This one ended up with a bunch of young owners who didn't care at all," said Turabi, as he petted Swift's mane inside her stable. "They didn't even feed her and she grew very scrawny with her ribs showing." Turabi later regained custody of the mare, and now is her benefactor.

Turabi, a flamboyant character, is known as Sudan's first cowboy. He enjoys driving overland to hunting areas in Nigeria, where he chases lions.

Four years ago, by his own admission, he tried to run over a Sudanese journalist with his pickup truck. The journalist, Mohamed Taha, had been found guilty of using foul language to insult Hassan Turabi in print, and Issam Turabi wanted him to pay.

Taha reported the pickup incident to police and called it attempted murder. But later, he said publicly that he thought better of challenging the powerful family, and dropped the murder charges. "He said bad things about my father," Turabi said with a shrug. "I had to defend his honor."

An affable man, Turabi often launches into long monologues about the horse, the meaning of life and the nature of mankind. The fate of bin Laden and the horses, he mused, seemed tied.

Bin Laden came to Sudan in the early 1990s at a time when it was a beacon to fundamentalist Muslims. It gave visa-free entrance to Arabs, and bin Laden, under pressure from his native Saudi Arabia, availed himself of that privilege.

If the United States had not pressed Sudan to expel bin Laden, where he spent five largely quiet years, he never would have gone to Afghanistan, where he became increasingly radical, Issam Turabi said.


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