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RESPONSE TO TERROR | SUNDAY REPORT

Long Before Sept. 11, Bin Laden Aircraft Flew Under the Radar

November 18, 2001|STEPHEN BRAUN and JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Among the reported visitors were high-ranking UAE and Saudi government ministers. According to U.S. and former Afghan civil air officials, the hunters included Prince Turki al Faisal, son of the late Saudi King Faisal. He headed that nation's intelligence service until late August, maintaining close ties with Bin Laden and the Taliban. Another visitor, officials said, was Sheik Mohammed ibn Rashid al Maktum, the Dubai crown prince and Emirates defense minister.

Persian Gulf state officials cast doubt on the reports. "People go hunting in Pakistan. They don't go to Afghanistan," said Adel al-Jubeir, foreign policy advisor to Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Similarly, the UAE's Alsadoosi said he did "not recall" any Afghan hunting trips made by Sheik Mohammed.

Plenty of Supplies Left After Visits

U.S. security sources and former Afghan officials said they did not know what transpired during the visits by the two ministers.

But on other occasions, Bin Laden and Omar mingled with the hunters. Former intelligence official Sirrs said a Taliban defector who claimed he was a hunting camp guard described "rich Saudis and top Taliban officials there." The man also said Bin Laden and Omar went off to fish together. An Afghan source said the two militant leaders often fished at a dam west of Kandahar.

Departing, the wealthy visitors often left behind late-model jeeps, trucks and supplies. "That's one way the Taliban got their equipment," said Mohammed Eshaq, who served as Afghanistan's deputy minister of civil aviation from 1992 to 1994. A security specialist with experience in Afghanistan said that late-model pickups left by the sheiks "revolutionized" the Taliban's troop transport.

"The Taliban could do these hit and runs," the specialist said. "These are the pickup trucks you see Taliban soldiers driving around in on the news."

The dignitaries' outbound jets, former U.S. and Afghan officials suspect, may also have smuggled out Al Qaeda and Taliban cargo.

"Who knows what came and went on those planes?" Sirrs said.

U.S. officials are more certain of the fate of Ariana Airways' fleet of four Boeing 727s.

As U.S. bombers took to the skies over Afghanistan in recent weeks, Taliban officials reportedly withdrew the jets to hangars at an airfield near the city of Herat. The move provided no shelter. U.S. bombers struck at the Herat field repeatedly in search of "legitimate targets," Navy Adm. John D. Stufflebeem said.

Former Afghan civil air officials said Ariana's fleet no longer exists.

"The [Herat] airport," exulted a former Afghan civil air official, "is now flattened."

*

Times staff writers Mark Fineman and John Hendren in Washington, Davan Maharaj in Nairobi, Caitlin Liu and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles and researchers John Beckham, Janet Lundblad and Robert Patrick contributed to this report.

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