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Revealed: The Taliban minister, the US envoy and the warning of September 11 that was ignored
By Kate Clark in Kabul
07 September 2002
Weeks before the terrorist attacks on 11 September, the United States and the United Nations ignored warnings from a secret Taliban emissary that Osama bin Laden was planning a huge attack on American soil.
The warnings were delivered by an aide of Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban Foreign Minister at the time, who was known to be deeply unhappy with the foreign militants in Afghanistan, including Arabs.
Mr Muttawakil, now in American custody, believed the Taliban's protection of Mr bin Laden and the other al-Qa'ida militants would lead to nothing less than the destruction of Afghanistan by the US military. He told his aide: "The guests are going to destroy the guesthouse."
The minister then ordered him to alert the US and the UN about what was going to happen. But in a massive failure of intelligence, the message was disregarded because of what sources describe as "warning fatigue". At the same time, the FBI and the CIA failed to take seriously warnings that Islamic fundamentalist students had enrolled in flight schools across the US.
Mr Muttawakil's aide, who has stayed on in Kabul and who has to remain anonymous for his security, described in detail to The Independent how he alerted first the Americans and then the United Nations of the coming calamity of 11 September.
The minister learnt in July last year that Mr bin Laden was planning a "huge attack" on targets inside America, the aide said. The attacks were imminent and would be so deadly the United States would react with destructive rage.
Mr bin Laden had been in Afghanistan since May 1996, bringing his three wives, 13 children and Arab fighters. Over time he became a close ally of the obscurantist Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Mr Muttawakil learnt of the coming attacks on America not from other members of the Taliban leadership, but from the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tahir Yildash. The organisation was one of the fundamentalist groups that had found refuge on Afghan soil, lending fighters for the Taliban's war on the Northern Alliance and benefiting from good relations with al-Qa'ida in its fight against the Uzbek government.
According to the emissary, Mr Muttawakil emerged from a one-to-one meeting with Mr Yildash looking shocked and troubled. Until then, the Foreign Minister, who had disapproved of the destruction of the Buddhist statues in Bamian earlier in the year, had no inkling from others in the Taliban leadership of what Mr bin Laden was planning.
"At first Muttawakil wouldn't say why he was so upset," said the aide. "Then it all came out. Yildash had revealed that Osama bin Laden was going to launch an attack on the United States. It would take place on American soil and it was imminent. Yildash said Osama hoped to kill thousands of Americans."
At the time, 19 members of al-Qa'ida were in situ in the US waiting to launch what would be the deadliest foreign attack on the American mainland.
The emissary went first to the Americans, travelling across the border to meet the consul general, David Katz, in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar, in the third week of July 2001. They met in a safehouse belonging to an old mujahedin leader who has confirmed to The Independent that the meeting took place.
Another US official was also present – possibly from the intelligence services. Mr Katz, who now works at the American embassy in Eritrea, declined to talk about the meeting. But other US sources said the warning was not passed on.
A diplomatic source said: "We were hearing a lot of that kind of stuff. When people keep saying the sky's going to fall in and it doesn't, a kind of warning fatigue sets in. I actually thought it was all an attempt to rattle us in an attempt to please their funders in the Gulf, to try to get more donations for the cause."
The Afghan aide did not reveal that the warning was from Mr Muttawakil, a factor that might have led the Americans to down-grade it. "As I recall, I thought he was speaking from his own personal perspective," one source said. "It was interesting that he was from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, but he gave no indication this was a message he was carrying."
Interviewed by The Independent in Kabul, the Afghan emissary said: "I told Mr Katz they should launch a new Desert Storm – like the campaign to drive Iraq out of Kuwait – but this time they should call it Mountain Storm and they should drive the foreigners out of Afghanistan. They also had to stop the Pakistanis supporting the Taliban."
The Taliban emissary said Mr Katz replied that neither action was possible. Nor did Mr Katz pass the warning on to the State Department, according to senior US diplomatic sources.
When Mr Muttawakil's emissary returned to Kabul, the Foreign Minister told him to see UN officials. He took the warning to the Kabul offices of UNSMA, the political wing of the UN. These officials heard him out, but again did not report the secret Taliban warning to UN headquarters. A UN official familiar with the warnings said: "He appeared to be speaking in total desperation, asking for a Mountain Storm, he wanted a sort of deus ex machina to solve his country's problems. But before 9/11, there was just not much hope that Washington would become that engaged in Afghanistan."
Officials in the State Department and in UN headquarters in New York said they knew nothing about a Taliban warning. But they said they would now be looking into the matter.
Mr Muttawakil is now unavailable for comment: he handed himself in to the Afghan authorities in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan last February. He is reported to be in American custody there, one of the few senior members of the Taliban regime the US has managed to arrest.
As America steadily broke the Taliban's military machine last autumn, there were no Taliban defections. Apart from Mr Mutawakil's one vain attempt to warn the world, the Taliban remained absolutely loyal to their leader's vision.
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