Ex-Saudi Intelligence Head Weighs In on Afghanistan

Prince Turki al-Faisal reflects on the return of the Taliban and his role in decades of warfare, in an exclusive interview with New Lines

Ex-Saudi Intelligence Head Weighs In on Afghanistan
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

The past has a rude way of intruding on the present. As the West retreated from Afghanistan and the Taliban consolidated their hold over the country, Prince Turki al-Faisal sat perched in the comfort of a penthouse apartment in one of London’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, he had seen similar crises before. He could draw on memories of some of the most important events in the recent history of the Middle East and beyond: the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the emergence of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and, of course, 9/11. Throughout it all, he had continued to believe that his work was done in the best interests of his country and his faith.

We met on a bright summer morning in South Kensington in September, while Turki was promoting the publication that month of his book, a memoir of sorts called “The Afghanistan File.” I was initially greeted by his personal assistant, an elegant woman who reminded me of Madame Adelaide Bonfamille from Disney’s “The Aristocats.” She led me into a sparsely furnished living room, where Turki was working. A slight, silver-haired man in his mid-70s, he was immaculately dressed in suit trousers and a crisp shirt with suspenders. He wore cufflinks shaped in the style of the Saudi national flag, as if to emphasize his loyalty.

Speaking in fluent English throughout the interview, Turki was friendly but businesslike — as befitting a man who must have met hundreds of journalists over the years. His words were carefully calibrated, and even when he told a joke, he made sure to point out that it was said off the record. This determination not to reveal too much about himself, to draw a distinct line between the personal and political, is also evident in his book. Across the 250 pages of “The Afghanistan File,” there is little about Turki’s background that is not already known. But as an insight into the work of one of the most quietly influential geopolitical figures of recent decades, it is still an essential read and hugely relevant to current events.

Twenty years after 9/11, the FBI has begun to declassify documents that shed new light on connections between Saudi citizens and the hijackers, amid continued legal claims from victims’ families that the kingdom had an official role in the terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, the Taliban are again in power in Kabul — just as they were during a decisive period in Turki’s career. When I asked him about the latest news from Afghanistan, he told me that Saudi Arabia should do whatever it can to “ameliorate the situation” for ordinary people there. He was adamant, however, that the Taliban government should not be recognized internationally unless it publicly cuts ties with al-Qaeda, “a self-declared terrorist organization.”

Turki is the son of King Faisal, who was the son of King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. As a young man, Turki attended high school in the U.S. and earned an undergraduate degree in business administration from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. On his return to Saudi Arabia in the early 1970s, he claims to have stumbled into his career by accident after his maternal uncle gave him a job in the Saudi intelligence service, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID). He went on to be given the GID’s Afghanistan brief and was appointed head of the entire service in 1977. His book, “The Afghanistan File,” lives up to its name by focusing almost exclusively on this aspect of his work. It chronicles Saudi Arabia’s clandestine role in Afghanistan in three phases, beginning with the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation — a time Turki looks back on with particular pride.

The GID’s funding of the Afghan mujahedeen during this period has been well documented elsewhere, most notably in Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars,” and Turki is unapologetic about the enormous financial support he helped provide in partnership with the CIA. The closest he comes to expressing regret is when he writes that he and his American counterparts might have been too focused on the immediate aim of winning the war rather than the potential long-term consequences of their actions.

By 1989, Turki estimates that the two intelligence agencies were giving the Afghan insurgents a combined annual total of $1 billion.

Even now, decades later, the scale and ambition of the operation is staggering. The war was still in its infancy when the GID agreed to match the CIA’s funding for the mujahedeen dollar for dollar. By 1989, Turki estimates that the two intelligence agencies were giving the Afghan insurgents a combined annual total of $1 billion. He admits that even this astonishing figure falls short of the real amount the mujahedeen were getting from the kingdom as it does not include donations from private Saudi organizations and citizens.

Without ever quite saying so, it is obvious that Turki thinks the mujahedeen could not have defeated the Soviets without the help of the GID, CIA and other intelligence agencies. One of the most interesting points he makes in this part of the book concerns the Chinese government’s assistance to the mujahedeen — a topic we still know relatively little about. In contrast to the bloated and often ineffective arms shipments of the U.S. and U.K., he writes that the Chinese “proved an extremely helpful and efficient supplier” of military equipment.

The second section of “The Afghanistan File” begins with the Soviet departure from the country in February 1989 and covers an altogether more difficult time in Turki’s work. He wanted the international community to carry out a major development program in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan because, he told me, that “was the only way to turn weapons into ploughshares.” But when his proposal fell on deaf ears, he writes in the book, he grew increasingly anxious as the mujahedeen fought among themselves. The sense of frustration he felt comes across in his writing and in person. He explained to me that he sees “a distinct break” between “an honorable campaign to liberate Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan, and the subsequent very dishonorable way its leaders conducted themselves after the Soviets left.”

The assessment he gives of the feuding mujahedeen leaders in the book will surprise few Afghans. In one memorable section, he recalls a visit they made to Saudi Arabia. One moment they were hugging one another as verses of the Quran were recited inside the Kaaba, he writes; the next, they were throwing punches on a bus heading to Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried.

Ironically, the Afghan mujahedeen leaders Turki criticizes the most were two of the greatest beneficiaries of the GID’s financial support: Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of Ittehad-e Islami, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of Hezb-e Islami. While he describes Hekmatyar as “one of the toughest, most vigorous and effective of all the guerrilla leaders,” he writes that he was also “impossible to deal with politically.” In 1990, before the mujahedeen’s seizure of Kabul, Hekmatyar expressed support for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait — causing him to fall out temporarily with the Saudi government. This may well account for some of Turki’s antipathy. Indeed, Turki even uses the book to accuse Hekmatyar of orchestrating the killing of the Palestinian jihadist ideologue, Abdullah Azzam, who was assassinated in Peshawar in 1989. When I asked him to clarify whether this was based on his opinion or intelligence reports, Turki insisted it was based on the latter. Hekmatyar has always denied involvement.

As Afghanistan descended deeper into civil war in the mid-1990s, Turki writes that Saudi Arabia stopped funding the mujahedeen and concentrated on sending humanitarian aid instead. Like now, the country was in desperate need of help. More than 1 million Afghans are believed to have been killed in the conflict with the Soviets. Tens of thousands more died in the period that followed, as the mujahedeen fought one another for control of Kabul. When the Taliban took power in 1996, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were the only three governments to recognize them as Afghanistan’s legitimate rulers. In the book, Turki justifies this controversial move by claiming that Riyadh made it clear to the Taliban regime that it would receive funding only if it reached a political accord with Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the opposition Northern Alliance movement. But such an agreement never materialized.

The third, and arguably most important, section of the book deals with Saudi Arabia’s attempts to extradite bin Laden, who fought against the Soviets alongside the Afghan mujahedeen. By 1996 the al-Qaeda leader was living in exile in Sudan and regarded as a pariah in his home country for his outspoken criticism of the Saudi monarchy. Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan just before the Taliban took power, ultimately leaving the inexperienced new government with an inherited problem it lacked the diplomatic skills to resolve. Turki’s disdain for the way the Taliban handled bin Laden is obvious in the book. He expanded on his feelings in our conversation.

Talking in his usual measured tones, Turki explained that he likes political actors who are not temperamental and operate according to established diplomatic norms — something that could not be said about many officials in the old Taliban regime. Turki advocated a straightforward attitude to politics that is modeled on his father’s approach and appears to be at odds with his own background in the secretive world of intelligence. His father taught him to be “plain and open with my enemies [so] they don’t misunderstand where I am going and therefore they really know how to deal with me,” he said.

It seems that Turki felt able to work with the constantly feuding Afghan mujahedeen leaders because they at least believed in a politics rooted in the real world. In contrast, he writes that the Taliban were “uncivilised and impossible to deal with.” He illustrates this by recounting a 1995 incident in which the Russian government asked for diplomatic assistance from Pakistan regarding a Russian transport plane the Taliban had forced to land in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban controlled Kandahar at the time but had not yet seized Kabul, and the plane was carrying weapons meant for the mujahedeen government. The Pakistanis told them they could keep the plane and the weapons but must let the crew go. What happened next left Turki dumbfounded. “The Taliban,” he writes, “totally failed to understand that this was the convention in such cases.” Instead, he claims they replied: “First the Russians should give us a list of everyone killed and missing during the occupation — and then we shall release the crew — if the kinsmen of the dead Afghans agree.” After more than a year in captivity, the crew members escaped.

Why, then, did Saudi Arabia strengthen its ties to the Taliban regime in the years that followed? Turki suggests the kingdom had no other viable options if it wanted bin Laden extradited. As far as the GID was concerned, staying engaged with the Taliban was the only way to keep the al-Qaeda leader within reach. Although Turki knew the bin Laden family, he writes that he was not close to bin Laden and only ever met him once in Saudi Arabia — after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. During the meeting, bin Laden offered to overthrow the Moscow-backed government of South Yemen. It was, writes Turki, “an idiotic scheme — hopelessly ill-informed, dangerous and against the Kingdom’s interests — and I added that, if he were to attack the south, he might actually unite the factions in the very government he was hoping to destroy. To my surprise he totally failed to accept these arguments.” With the benefit of hindsight or not, Turki is scathing of bin Laden’s conduct throughout this period. He suffered “from the sense of grievance and the delusions of the semi-educated man who has limited experience of the world but strong political and religious convictions,” he writes.

Turki is more sympathetic toward other Saudis who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s. He admits that the kingdom was too focused on its strategic objectives to grasp the impact the war had on young Saudis joining the mujahedeen’s cause. It was the first time affluent Saudis had experienced the excitement and challenges of combat. While some eventually readjusted to civilian life, others “decided that the society of their own country was too soft and easy, and not sufficiently religious,” he writes. This is also how he views today’s international jihadists. Turki writes that they are “mainly young people of little intelligence, minimal education and absolutely no understanding of the complexities of the world who have come to believe they have a mission to change the world through violence. They are the types of characters who will believe in conspiracy theories rather than make any attempt to learn and understand the workings of economics, international politics and modern societies.”

Turki left his position as head of the GID days before 9/11. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and the kingdom itself has since been attacked by al-Qaeda — an arguably damning indictment of his legacy. But, publicly at least, Turki is reluctant to take direct or indirect blame for fueling this extremism through his work.

Although “The Afghanistan File” is an excellent book, it contains several ambiguities and contradictions. It is notable that it makes scant mention of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, by a hit squad with close ties to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. This omission, however, makes it appear as if Turki is deliberately avoiding a politically sensitive subject. Moreover, it means that long-standing questions surrounding the relationship between Khashoggi and the GID are left unanswered. As a young reporter, Khashoggi covered the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and some Islamists accuse him of being on the payroll of the GID. Turki told me they are wrong. He said he first met Khashoggi after retiring from the GID, when Khashoggi interviewed him on a television show. Turki later offered him a job as his press secretary. From this, it seems, Khashoggi is excluded from the book not so much for political reasons but due to his irrelevance to the book’s subject matter.

At times in “The Afghanistan File” there is a glaring lack of detail or analysis on critical issues. There is no meaningful discussion of the fact that the ideologies of some of the most prominent international jihadist movements are rooted in Salafism, a marginal doctrine of Islam officially promoted by the Saudi state. In his South Kensington apartment, Turki’s explanation of the rise of the Islamic State group was at best an uncomfortable fudge. “The difference between ISIS and Wahhabism is the use of violence as a means of imposing oneself,” he said. Groups such as the Islamic State misinterpret Wahhabi ideas for their own ends and are wrong to challenge the legitimacy of Arab governments, he insisted. This may be a valid point, but it glosses over Saudi Arabia’s own history of rebellion against the Ottoman Empire.

Perhaps Turki’s caution on this, and some other sensitive subjects, is understandable. Politics is about living with contradictions and the book’s merits make up for its shortcomings. “The Afghanistan File” is elegantly written and an important glimpse into a crucial period in modern history. With the passing of time, Turki’s words might not only be seen as a defense of Saudi statecraft but also as a justified lament for how the statecraft of other countries used to be done. As I left the prince’s South Kensington apartment, I kept thinking what would happen if he really let us into his mind. I am convinced that a more open and honest book would be as long as Henry Kissinger’s “Diplomacy,” a tome of more than 900 pages.

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