Scrambling to avert international sanctions, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban movement has offered to convene a panel of Islamic judges to try fugitive Islamic militant Osama bin Laden in a possible prelude to his expulsion, Clinton administration officials said yesterday.
The officials cautioned that they have not reached any conclusions about the seriousness of the offer, which was made by the Taliban's representative in New York, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, in a meeting in Washington on Monday with Karl F. Inderfurth, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs.
Mujahid also told Inderfurth that the Taliban would be willing to place bin Laden under house arrest, a proposal U.S. officials described as laughable.
On the other hand, they said, the Taliban does appear to be responding to international pressure to expel bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi native who has been indicted in New York in connection with the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa last year. Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council voted to impose sanctions on the Taliban if Afghanistan did not expel bin Laden by Nov. 14 to a country where he could be brought to trial.
Bin Laden also is apparently feeling the heat. In a letter to the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, bin Laden asked for a guarantee of safe passage to an unspecified country, according to a report yesterday by the independent Afghan Islamic Press. The report, which U.S. officials deem credible, quoted a spokesman for Omar as saying that bin Laden requested the Taliban's assistance in reaching a secret location that would be known only to "the Taliban chief and one other person."
The Taliban has since made it known through official channels that the likely destination is Iraq. U.S. officials say they presume that the Taliban is publicizing bin Laden's letter as a means of putting pressure on Washington to act on the group's offer to convene a panel of Islamic scholars, or ulema, to judge bin Laden's fate. The panel would include representatives from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and a third Muslim country, according to two officials with knowledge of the offer.
"Our view on that is that whatever way is found to see that he is expelled or extradited and brought to justice is fine," said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "If an ulema is a process that the Taliban wishes to pursue, that's up to them."
The Taliban, like bin Laden, espouses an austere, fundamentalist brand of Islam. Administration officials say there are two ways to interpret the group's offer. One is that Taliban officials desperately want to find a face-saving way to expel bin Laden to a country where he can be tried; a decision to that effect by Islamic judges could give them the political cover to do so. Another interpretation is that the Taliban has no intention of giving up bin Laden and is merely playing for time.
In any event, an administration official said, "We'll not be bound to any decision of the ulema. We're bound by the decision of the Security Council, but for them the clock is ticking."
Bin Laden has been described by federal prosecutors as the leader of a global terrorist organization, al Qaida, and the mastermind of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, on Aug. 7, 1998. He is on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, and the State Department has offered $5 million for his capture.
Bin Laden's ties to the Taliban date to his efforts on behalf of the mujaheddin, or holy warriors, who drove Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s. Many Taliban figures thus regard him with sympathy and would be reluctant to see him expelled.
At the same time, some Taliban officials have sought to soften their medieval image in a quest for desperately needed economic assistance. The U.N. sanctions would freeze Taliban assets abroad and deny international landing rights to the country's national airline, Ariana, one of Afghanistan's few remaining links to the outside world. Earlier this month, Taliban information minister Amir Khan Muttaqi was quoted as saying, "We are ready to solve all the issues with America, including that of Osama bin Laden."
U.S. officials also are eager to see the situation resolved. Yesterday they reiterated an offer to the Taliban to receive a high-level delegation from Afghanistan to discuss the issue, officials said.