While Cindy Sheehan was being dragged from the House gallery moments before President Bush delivered his State of the Union address for wearing a t-shirt honoring her son and the other 2,244 US soldiers killed in Iraq, Turki al-Faisal was settling into his seat inside the gallery. Faisal, a Saudi, is a man who has met Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants on at least five occasions, describing the al Qaeda leader as "quite a pleasant man." He met multiple times with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Yet, unlike Sheehan, al-Faisal was a welcomed guest of President Bush on Tuesday night. He is also a man that the families of more than 600 victims of the 9/11 attacks believe was connected to their loved ones' deaths.
Al-Faisal is actually Prince Turki al-Faisal, a leading member of the Saudi royal family and the kingdom's current ambassador to the US. But the bulk of his career was spent at the helm of the feared Saudi intelligence services from 1977 to 2001. Last year, The New York Times pointed out that "he personally managed Riyadh's relations with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar of the Taliban. Anyone else who had dealings with even a fraction of the notorious characters the prince has worked with over the years would never make it past a U.S. immigration counter, let alone to the most exclusive offices in Washington." Al-Faisal was also named in the $1 trillion lawsuit filed by hundreds of 9/11 victims' families, who accused him of funding bin Laden's network. Curiously, his tenure as head of Saudi intelligence came to an abrupt and unexpected end 10 days before the 9/11 attacks.
"Nobody explained the circumstances under which he left," says As'ad AbuKhalil, author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power. "We know for sure that he was tasked by the United States government back in the late 1970s and on to assemble the kind of Arab Muslim fanatical volunteers to help the United States and the C.I.A. in the fight against the Soviet communist regime [in Afghanistan]. In the course of doing that, this man is single-handedly most responsible for the kind of menace that these fanatical groups now pose to world peace and security." Yet, there al-Faisal sat on Tuesday as President Bush spoke of his war on terror and Cindy Sheehan was being booked. At one point, the cameras even panned directly on al-Faisal listening intently to Bush.
The 9/11 families' lawsuit charged that al-Faisal secretly traveled to the southern Afghan city of Kandahar twice in 1998 where he met with bin Laden's representatives and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Based on sworn testimony from Taliban intelligence chief, Mullah Kakshar, the lawsuit claimed that al-Faisal allegedly received assurances that al Qaeda would not use "the infrastructure in Afghanistan to subvert the royal families' control of Saudi government." In return, according to the lawsuit, the Saudis promised not to seek bin Laden's extradition or the closing of his training bases. Al-Faisal also allegedly promised Mullah Omar financial assistance. Shortly after the meetings, the Saudis reportedly shipped the Taliban 400 new pickup trucks. According to the London Observer, Kakshar also said that al-Faisal "arranged for donations to be made directly to al-Qaeda and bin Laden by a group of wealthy Saudi businessmen. 'Mullah Kakshar's sworn statement implicates Prince Turki as the facilitator of these money transfers in support of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and international terrorism,'" according to the lawsuit.
Al-Faisal does not deny he traveled to Afghanistan in 1998 for meetings with Mullah Omar, but he insists it was to "convey an official Saudi request to extradite Osama bin Laden." al-Faisal has a long history in Afghanistan. He worked closely in the 1980s with the both the CIA and the mujahadeen that would later form both al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Ultimately, a judge dismissed the 9/11 families' lawsuit against al-Faisal and his cohorts, saying US courts lacked jurisdiction over the matter. But many of those families believe firmly that al-Faisal was connected to the attacks that killed their loved ones. The obvious question is: how does the president justify the ejection of a Gold Star Mother from the State of the Union, while openly welcoming a man believed by hundreds of victims' families to be connected to the attack Bush uses to justify every shred of his violent policies?
During his speech, Bush said, "It is said that prior to the attacks of September the 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy." Perhaps he should have just looked over his wife's shoulder up there in the gallery during the State of the Union.
Jeremy Scahill, a correspondent for the national radio/TV program Democracy Now!, is a Puffin Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute. He can be reached at jeremy(at)democracynow.org.