Saudi Minister Asserts That bin Laden Is a 'Tool' of Al Qaeda, Not Its Mastermind

New York Times
December 10, 2001

DURRAT AL-AROOS, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 8 - Saudi Arabia's top security official said this weekend that he believed that militants other than Osama bin Laden stood at the helm of Al Qaeda, and he warned that the arrest or killing of Mr. bin Laden would not cripple the terrorist organization.

The official, Prince Nayef, the interior minister, did not identify those he believed held Al Qaeda's reins. But he held out the prospect that there were "names we do not know" at the pinnacle of the terrorist organization, and he described Mr. bin Laden, a Saudi dissident, more "as a tool" of others than as a mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks and other recent operations.

"He's at the top of the pyramid from the media point of view, but from my personal views and conviction, I don't think he's at the top of the pyramid," Prince Nayef said in an interview on Saturday. Asked what would happen if American or Afghan forces captured or killed Mr. bin Laden, the Saudi official said, "I don't think that would be the end of Al Qaeda."

The comments may have been part of a Saudi effort to distance the kingdom from any connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. bin Laden was stripped of his Saudi citizenship in 1994, but his background remains a subject of intense discomfort for Saudi officials, who in private conversations tend to portray Egyptians like Ayman al-Zawahiri as Al Qaeda's most radical force.

There have been unconfirmed reports from Afghanistan that Mr. Zawahiri may have been killed or wounded in recent American attacks on Al Qaeda forces.

Another Egyptian militant, Muhammad Atef, sometimes described as Al Qaeda's military chief, was killed in an American attack in Afghanistan last month.

In the interview, Prince Nayef also said he remained unconvinced that Saudi men constituted a majority of hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks, even though that assertion is now described by American investigators as being beyond dispute. "The truth is missing so far," he said.

At the same time, though, the assessment from the government that may know Mr. bin Laden best serves as an important cautionary note for the American-led antiterrorism campaign that has seemed increasingly focused on Mr. bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader. Even if Mr. bin Laden had been apprehended years ago, Prince Nayef said, the Sept. 11 attacks might very well have gone forward.

"I think it would have happened without him," Prince Nayef said. "We're not saying that bin Laden is innocent, but still it would have happened," he added. "An arrest would not have prevented it."

Prince Nayef, a full brother of King Fahd and a half-brother of Crown Prince Abdullah, the kingdom's day-to-day ruler, is widely regarded as one of Saudi Arabia's three or four most influential officials. He met with a reporter at his weekend home here, in a seafront compound thick with palm trees, about 30 miles north of Jidda, the Red Sea port.

The interview began at 1 a.m., part of the working day for some Saudi officials, who often maintain nocturnal hours, particularly during the monthlong Ramadan, observed by daytime fasting.

Prince Nayef spoke as a delegation of American officials was arriving in Saudi Arabia to discuss financial aspects of the antiterrorism campaign and as the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, was meeting with President Bush in the White House.

In Washington, Mr. Bush was said by White House officials to have thanked Prince Saud for Saudi Arabia's help in antiterrorism efforts.

"They've been very cooperative," the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., told reporters. "The president expressed his appreciation. It was a very good meeting."

In Saudi Arabia, Prince Nayef also said he looked forward to further cooperation. But his insistence, nearly three months after the Sept. 11 attacks, that the identity of the hijackers remains in doubt may prove a further irritant between the two countries, since American officials have said for more than six weeks that there was no doubt that a majority of hijackers were Saudis.

"Until now, we have no evidence that assures us that they are related to Sept. 11," Prince Nayef said of the 15 Saudis who American officials have said were among the 19 hijackers. "We have not received anything in this regard from the United States."

Prince Nayef's comments were surprising because some other senior Saudis, including Prince Saud and Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former intelligence chief, have not challenged the American claims of the involvement of Saudis. American officials have said that the two countries have worked closely to share information about the suspected Saudi hijackers, and they have suggested that Saudi dismissals of the idea of a group of Saudi conspirators are intended mostly for public consumption in Saudi Arabia.

If Saudis were involved, Prince Nayef said, they could only have been acting as the instruments of non-Saudis who would have played a leading role in the operation.

"All the names that have been mentioned in this incident, they do not have the capability to act in such a professional way," Prince Nayef said of the suspected Saudi hijackers. "If there is a connection for them in this instance, they must have been pushed by some other people to do such a thing. There would have had to be someone behind them."