Sudan Plant's Tie With bin Laden Disputed
By Karl Vick
But when the Saudi government learned Salman had rented his house to bin Laden, it kicked him out of the country too. Salman returned to Khartoum and found work as general manager of a fledgling company with grand ambitions and a spanking new factory.
It was Shifa Pharmaceutical, the plant that U.S. cruise missiles leveled on Aug. 20. U.S. officials claimed Shifa was making ingredients for chemical weapons sought by bin Laden, whom the Americans blamed for the U.S. embassy bombings on Aug. 7 that killed more than 200 people in Kenya and Tanzania.
In the search for evidence to justify the strike, the Salman connection stands as the lone undisputed link between the Shifa plant and bin Laden. Clinton administration officials continue to maintain that a soil sample taken from the Shifa factory grounds showed residue from a precursor to VX nerve gas. They also insist that bin Laden had a financial interest in the factory, but the alleged connection has not been described.
But despite being embarrassed by information about the Shifa plant that emerged after the missile strike -- it was not heavily guarded by Sudanese military, and it did produce prescription medicine -- the administration refuses to elaborate on its evidence or submit it to public inspection. Inquiries in this sweltering capital produce a great many rumors and a handful of facts that, like Salman's connection, are open to interpretation.
Washington's interpretation of the link is fairly clear, if somewhat retrospective. Asked whether U.S. intelligence knew before the missile attack that bin Laden had lived in Salman's house, a senior intelligence official said: "We did not. The bombing was not based on that at all. It's just one of the things that surfaced post-bombing that makes you say, 'Hmmm.' It seems a fairly large coincidence."
For his part, Salman, 50, insisted in an interview that the connection is an unfortunate coincidence. He said the house rental was arranged by an uncle who was acting as his agent and that bin Laden rented not in his own name, but through a construction company he owned, Wadi al Aqiq. He said he insisted bin Laden leave when he learned who he was and that when he finally left, the reputed terrorist stiffed him for $5,000 in maintenance fees. As evidence that even the Saudis saw the connection as tenuous, Salman noted that he was given 14 months to leave the country.
"This happened by chance," Salman said. "I have never met bin Laden."
Salman's protest was echoed by Shifa's successive owners. Salman originally was hired by company founder Bashir Hassan Bashir, a garrulous Khartoum businessman with strong links to the fundamentalist Islamic regime that rules Sudan -- a government the United States long has labeled a state sponsor of terrorism. Asked about Salman's experience, Bashir said: "That's just coincidence."
Salman remained Shifa's general manager when the company was bought this year by Saleh Idris, a Sudanese-born magnate whose most conspicuous connections are to Kahlid bin Mahfouz, who controls the National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia. Under most circumstances, that relationship would insulate Idris from suggestions of links to exiled Saudi terrorists. The mammoth bank counts among its clients the Saudi royal family, staunch U.S. allies who expelled bin Laden in the first place.
But U.S. officials have repeated reports that Mahfouz is related by marriage to bin Laden -- which Idris calls "nonsense."
Bashir said the company was struggling under towering short-term debt. By his account, which is supported by registration papers on file at Sudan's Justice Ministry, Bashir registered the firm in 1990 as Vetpharma with an eye toward producing only veterinary medicine. His partners were his brother Alnour Hassan Bashir and Muwaia Mergani Ibrihim, who later transferred his shares to Bashir Hassan Bashir. In September 1994, the brother's interest was sold to Babood Trading Co., a Red Sea maritime concern.
At that point, the business plan was expanded to include human medicines, and the company changed its name to Shifa, meaning "good health." Two years later, the reputable Eastern and Southern Africa Trade and Development Bank, based in Nairobi, approved an $8.5 million loan. But it was a short-term loan, Bashir said, and with delays in starting production and with no capital reserves, the company was in trouble shortly after the grand opening.
U.S. officials have been quoted as saying that opening was attended by the father of Iraq's chemical weapons program, Emad Ani.
"I've never heard of him," Bashir said, denying reports of an Iraqi link to a facility that he calls "my baby." Salman, whose title was general manager, said he has never been to Iraq.
U.S. officials have said bin Laden's interest in the Shifa plant was funneled through the Sudanese government's Military Industries Co. Idris said the precarious financial state in which he found Shifa serves as strong evidence it was entirely private.
"If it was producing chemical weapons -- with the support of the government, for the sake of argument -- how was it left to go through hard times?" he asked. "How would it be sold to me, with my Saudi backing and connections? And my contacts with the opposition? It doesn't make sense."
Idris's contacts with Sudan's political opposition are well known. His legal team reads like a who's who of prominent politicians opposed to the ruling National Islamic Front, which came to power in a 1989 coup and now calls itself the National Congress. Less well known is his friendship with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Bashir.
"I'm definitely not a supporter of this government," Idris said. "I'm a close friend of the president."
He is also a huge investor in Sudan, the largest country in Africa and one of the poorest. Prominent businessmen here estimate Idris has invested $300 million to $400 million in the country since 1992, as its already feeble economy has dropped to its knees. He calls the estimate far too high, but acknowledged investment in an electronics and plastics plant, a steel mill, textiles, air cargo, telecommunications and other endeavors.
Idris, who divides his time among Jiddah, London and Cairo, acknowledged he is looking to invest even more in Sudan, saying the crippled economy creates an excellent buyer's market. He said the U.S. freeze on bin Laden's assets has affected unspecified assets of his own but called the action a mistake that eventually will be reversed.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail insisted the government has no chemical weapons anywhere. To prove it, he said, Sudan likely will sign the international chemical weapons convention -- to clear the way for international experts to test the U.S. claims about the Shifa site.
"We feel that if we are a member they will be obliged," Ismail said.
International skepticism about the missile strike has proven a public relations windfall to the minority regime in Khartoum. It has been isolated internationally by U.S. sanctions and crippled by a newly resurgent civil war that last month prompted closure of universities. But street demonstrations, which were occurring almost daily here before the missile strike, have not occurred since.
The government wants to make the Shifa site a museum.
"Maybe 90 percent of the people do not support this government," said Nour Hammad, a teacher-turned-taxi driver. "But the bombing changed everything." Idris agreed. "As I see it, you know who are the victims?" he said. "The American administration and myself."
Staff writer Vernon Loeb in Washington contributed to this report.
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