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Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Alleged 1994 Assassination Attempt on Osama bin Laden

Declassified State Department Cable Adds Color To Little Known Sudan Incident

By J.M. Berger

Legend has it that a team of assassins tried to kill Osama bin Laden in the Sudan in 1994.

But a newly released State Department cable recasts that story as a cry for help gone wrong -- the outcome of a shouting match over Islamic ethics between a murderous Libyan militant and the world's most-wanted terrorist leader.

The assassination story appears to have originated with Ali Mohamed, bin Laden's chief of security through much of the 1990s.

"After an attempt to assassinate Bin Laden, I went to the Sudan in 1994 to train Bin Laden's bodyguards, security detail," Mohammed said when entering his guilty plea for conspiracy in the 1998 East African embassy bombings. The claim was later picked up on by various other media outlets and authors, some of whom claimed the Saudi government has sponsored the attack. Others alleged the attack was carried out by members of Takfir Wal Hijra, a secretive terrorist sect even more radical than al Qaeda.

But a declassified State Department cable, obtained by INTELWIRE under the Freedom of Information Act, offers an alternative view.

The cable includes a deposition allegedly given by one of four men who killed 16 in a shooting massacre at the Thawra mosque near Khartoum, then traveled to Osama bin Laden's home nearby, where the incident took place.

State Department officials could not absolutely vouch for the deposition. The cable said a reliable contact had authenticated it for embassy officials. However, "we cannot tell whether the document is authentic," said the cable's author, U.S. Foreign Service Officer Donald Petterson.

Two of the alleged assassins were killed. Two more were captured, including the alleged ringleader, Mohamed Abdel Rahman al-Khulifi, whose deposition is reproduced in the cable.

Al-Khulifi, a Libyan, said his team had been "assigned" to assassinate the leader of an Islamic sect based at the Thawra mosque. He met with his team in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, a notorious training site used by Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Al-Khulifi said his team was trained by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard in the late 1980s, following which they traveled to fight in Afghanistan. They subsequently met bin Laden in Peshawar.

On returning to the Sudan, the mujahideen joined the Islamic movement of Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi, who invited bin Laden to move al Qaeda to the Sudan shortly afterward. The fighters also worked for bin Laden after the move.

The fighters "loved Sheikh Osama, for he has forsaken wealth and easy life and joined jihad and the endeavor to spread Islam," al-Khulifi said. Bin Laden was among the "dearest persons to me," he said.

Al-Khulifi said bin Laden and Turabi told him that members of the Sudanese Ansar al-Sunnar movement were not true Muslims, that they were "spies for the Wahabi ruling family of Saudi Arabian" and "agents for the crusader embassies."

In 1993, bin Laden sent al-Khulifi to Saudi Arabia on unspecified business. When he returned, al-Khulifi said, bin Laden tasked him to assassinate several Sudanese opposition figures who often visited the Thawra mosque.

According to al-Khulifi, the plan proceeded with the support of Sudanese intelligence, which had a close relationship with bin Laden.

The massacre "is an outcome of these services," he said. He said the mosque attack was ordered by Sudanese officials and endorsed by bin Laden.

"After we executed our operation, we ... thought it wise to go to bin Laden," whose house was nearby, al-Khulifi said. "We found bin Laden in a chair in the garden of his house. When he saw me, he said angrily, 'Why did you commit such a crime? That is not what we wanted.'

al-Khulifi defended his actions, saying they had "carried out God's wishes and that we were aware of all consequences."

After this exchange, "bin Laden left the garden and upon entering his house, shouted 'Stop him,'" said al-Khulifi.

"I knew that was an order to get rid of me, so we started shooting and bin Laden's guards did the same. There were three Iranians and an Egyptian called Jabr," al-Khulifi said.

"We killed three of them," he said. "Osama bin Laden went down the basement, where there are hideouts. I know because I used to go to the house," he said. "I was hit by Ahmed the Algerian, a guard of bin Laden I used to know in Peshawar."

Ahmed shot and killed another of the fighters and a wounded a third.

Interestingly, al-Khulifi said the Algerian "was trained by American intelligence until early 1983."

The deposition concludes with a strangely plaintive cry of abandonment, coming as it does from an admitted and unrepentant mass murderer.

"My sheikh accused me of being a killer, and God knows the truth," said al-Khulifi. "I am saying this to relieve my conscience and at the same time to explain what happened so I can die in peace. ... I am convinced now that there are Islamic leaders in Sudan, but that there are no Muslims."

Read the State Department Cable

Analysis: Although the author of the cable stops short of vouching for the deposition, which was circulating informally around Khartoum at the time, I am inclined to believe it's authentic.

If the document was forged for political purposes, it's quite ineffective as a propaganda tool. Although it implicates bin Laden and Turabi, it stops short of personally indicting Turabi as the author of the attack and casts bin Laden ambiguously, with his statement of moral dismay concerning the massacre.

So it doesn't serve the political purposes of those who would oppose bin Laden and Turabi (such as the victimized sect). But neither does it clear them, laying the attack pretty explicitly at the feet of the Sudanese intelligence.

Given the ambiguities about responsibility and considering the plethora of extraneous detail, the document has a strong ring of truth. Nevertheless, it should be treated with caution. INTELWIRE is continuing to investigate this incident.

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Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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