Global Policy Forum

Taliban Ready to Strike a Deal on Bin Laden


By Rory McCarthy and Julian Borger

February 22, 2001

In the face of widespread famine, limited foreign aid and tough new sanctions, Afghanistan's Taliban regime is finally moving towards a compromise over demands for the extradition of the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan's interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, who met the militia's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, this month, said the Taliban would consider allowing Islamic scholars to meet abroad to hear evidence against Bin Laden and decide his fate.

It is the first time the idea of a trial outside Afghanistan has been raised. However US state department officials yesterday questioned the seriousness of the offer, pointing out that it did not contain an undertaking that Bin Laden would be made to attend the hearing.

Bin Laden, a Saudi exile now believed to be living in a base in central Afghanistan, has been charged by a New York court with masterminding the bombing of two US embassies in east Africa in 1998 which killed 224 people. The Taliban have refused to hand him over to any foreign government, although they have offered to put him on trial in Afghanistan if the US provides evidence against him. Last month the UN security council imposed a new round of sanctions on the Taliban, including an arms embargo, to press for his extradition.

In an interview, Gen Haider said: "Mullah Omar said that he was ready for religious scholars from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and a third Muslim country to collect in some place and having seen the evidence then this group would decide what is to be done to him. If we speak to the Taliban it is possible that they [the scholars] could meet in another country."

No country has been identified as a venue for any trial. The Taliban would probably insist on another Islamic state. Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have diplomatic relations with the regime but they may not be willing to risk involvement in such a sensitive case. Holding a trial in countries such as Iraq or Libya would be unlikely to satisfy western governments. Assessing Gen Haider's remarks, an expert on Bin Laden at the US state department said they did not represent a step forward. "This isn't a real trial we're talking about," he said, arguing that there was no indication that Bin Laden would be made to attend, nor was it clear what weight would be given to the scholars' findings.

However, some US Bin Laden-watchers saw signs of movement in the Taliban's position. Patrick Clawson, director of research at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: "It looks as if [the Taliban] are serious about negotiations over Osama's future. It's significant that they specify which countries the scholars would come from, and say it can be outside Afghanistan. Clearly if it was in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, the US would be delighted."

The new UN sanctions come at a time of worsening drought and civil war in Afghanistan. More than a million people are facing famine this year and 500,000 have fled their homes in search of food. Donations of international aid have slowed since the Taliban took power.

The regime has tried to win international approval by outlawing opium production. But the issue of the Saudi terrorist remains the biggest hurdle to the Taliban's hopes of international support.

Now Pakistan is ready to support the idea of a trial abroad. Gen Haider said: "I think the new administration in America should look at the problem with a fresh approach. To break the ice they should create some flexibility in their demands also."

Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf said in an interview this month: "Between the American and the Afghan extreme stances it is possible that the United States and Afghanistan can choose another country where Bin Laden can have a fair trial."

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