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September 30, 2001


Fearing Harm, bin Laden Kin Fled From U.S.

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 — In the first days after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, Saudi Arabia supervised the urgent evacuation of 24 members of Osama bin Laden's extended family from the United States, fearing that they might be subjected to violence.

In his first interview since the attacks, Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan, also said that private planes carrying the kingdom's deputy defense minister and the governor of Mecca, both members of the royal family, were grounded and intially caught up in the F.B.I. dragnet. Both planes, one jumbo jet carrying 100 family members, and the other 40, were eventually allowed to leave when airports reopened and passports were checked.

Mr. bin Laden is estranged from his family. One of his two brothers in the United States called the Saudi Embassy frantically looking for protection, the ambassador said. The brother was sent to a room in the Watergate Hotel and told not to open the door.

Most of Mr. bin Laden's relatives were attending high school and college. They are among the 4,000 Saudi students in the United States. King Fahd, the ailing Saudi ruler, sent an urgent message to his embassy here saying there were "bin Laden children all over America" and ordered, "Take measures to protect the innocents," the ambassador said.

The young members of the bin Laden clan were driven or flown under F.B.I. supervision to a secret assembly point in Texas and then to Washington from where they left the country on a private charter plane when airports reopened three days after the attacks. Many were terrified, fearing they could be "lynched," after hearing news reports of sporadic violence against Muslims and Arab-Americans.

"It's a tragedy," said Prince Bandar. "The elders" of the students "came to see me, and one of them was a bright boy from Harvard who like the others had absolutely nothing to do with this and yet we had to tell him to go home and wait until the emotions calmed down. And he told me that he never really appreciated why the Japanese wanted a memorial or an apology for their treatment in World War II."

The student added, according to the prince, "I understand now that when you are innocent, in the face of emotion nothing, not even common sense, can help argue your case."

As thousands of Americans were recoiling from the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Saudi Arabia's ambassador, a former fighter pilot who is dean of the diplomatic corps here, faced another kind of horror: America's staunchest ally in the Arab world was more prominently associated than ever before with Mr. bin Laden. In addition, a majority of the men who hijacked four airliners in the attacks carried Saudi passports.

"This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us," the prince told associates as the first images of the collapsing towers in New York registered the magnitude of the crime.

This dark prediction may or may not prove to be true. But Prince Bandar, who is enthusiastically pro- American, kicked into high diplomatic gear this week with a series of public appearances to bolster the image of Arab support for President Bush's coalition against terrorism.

It is not going to be easy, he concedes, as the Arab world is in a surly mood and the fight on terror has none of the clarity that rolling back the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein of Iraq had for many Arabs.

For this reason, Prince Bandar is also pressing the Arab world's message on Washington: that if the United States hopes to dry up the sources of terrorism in the region, it must get more deeply involved in the Arab- Israeli peace process. He said this would involve not only putting pressure on Israel, though increasingly he feels that is essential, but also on the Palestinians and their leader, Yasir Arafat.

"History will judge this coalition by how well you channel the anger into a positive result rather than just making it vengeance," he said.

Prince Bandar is also believed to be sending the clear message that key air bases in Saudi Arabia are likely to be available on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis, but he insists that the Bush administration has made no requests and has not laid out its plans. "The president said he is now in hot pursuit' of bin Laden, but they do not need Saudi bases to launch special forces on F-16's into Afghanistan," he said, adding "we have not been asked, therefore there is no point in answering hypothetical questions."

Surprisingly, Osama bin Laden was not a stranger even to a royal family member like Prince Bandar. In the early 1980's, bin Laden came to greet the prince and thank him for helping to build the coalition that fought against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. Prince Bandar said that Saudi intelligence has constructed a psychological profile of Mr. bin Laden that portrays him as a loner in a large family. His mother, a Syrian, was set apart from other wives and the whisper of scandal that surrounded her may have deeply affected Osama bin Laden.

Mr. bin Laden is one of 52 children of a Yemeni-born migrant who made a vast fortune building roads and palaces in Saudi Arabia. Many have been educated in the United States and the family has donated millions of dollars to American universities.

Saudi Arabia revoked his citizenship in 1994 after he was caught smuggling weapons from Yemen. When the time comes for the military campaign to root him out, Prince Bandar has told the administration that the kingdom will play the role of loyal ally, but the "diplomatic game," as the prince called it, is to focus the Bush White House on how much preparation is required if it hopes to hold the support on moderate Arab states.

In particular, the Saudi prince said, he would like to see some American "anger" channeled at those who have obstructed or filibustered the peace process on both sides.

He accused some Israelis of trying to exploit the attacks on America as a means to discredit the Arab position. "Don't tell me that blowing up innocent people's houses is a fight against terrorism," the Prince said, referring to Israeli policies to destroy the homes and property of Palestinians who carry out attacks.

The prince said that his government condemns Palestinian suicide bombers, but said that attacks on Israeli security forces are justified because these are "resisting occupation."

"When the peace process is moving, people are willing to accept a lot," he said. "But when the peace process is stalled and this is coupled with Israeli behavior that is humiliating to Palestinians and people see this day in and day out while America takes a standoffish attitude — all of this creates a harsh reality on the streets.

"The answer is to get moving," he said. "If the Arabs screw up, tell us. If Israel screws up, tell it."

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