Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan's Taleban militia reached a secret deal to send Osama bin Laden to a Saudi prison last summer, nearly two months before deadly bombs devastated two American embassies and put the suspected terror mastermind on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted List."
But the deal crumbled as the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed a year ago Saturday and was dead by the time U.S. forces retaliated two weeks later with missile attacks on bin Laden's camps, according to the account of a top Saudi official who said he negotiated the secret pact.
In the year since the deal unraveled, Saudi Arabia's bitter estrangement from its one-time friend, the Taleban, has compounded the Afghan regime's isolation and complicated international efforts to apprehend the Saudi-born bin Laden. American embassies remain on terrorist alert, and bin Laden continues to make threats against the United States.
It is not clear whether the surrender of bin Laden to Saudi authorities in June 1998 would have prevented the Aug. 7 bombings that killed 224 people, but both U.S. and Saudi officials believe he was the architect of those plots and had personal contact with the bombers just before the attacks.
Details of the previously undisclosed surrender agreement, and of the diplomatic fallout from its collapse, were obtained by the Los Angeles Times in a rare interview with Prince Turki al Faisal, the chief of Saudi intelligence.
His account could not be independently verified. U.S. officials said they were not involved in the negotiations and did not learn about the secret talks until earlier this year.
The Taleban's representative in New York, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, while acknowledging that the issue has badly strained relations with Saudi Arabia, said there was never an agreement to turn over bin Laden. Instead, he said, the Taleban's understanding was that the Saudis wanted bin Laden confined in Afghanistan.
According to Al Faisal's account, he led a small Saudi delegation to Taleban headquarters in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in June 1998. He said they sought either bin Laden's ouster from Afghan territory or his custody for trial in Saudi Arabia for advocating the government's overthrow.
During their three-hour meeting, he said, Taleban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his ruling council agreed to end the sanctuary bin Laden has enjoyed in Afghanistan since 1996. But the surrender would have to be carefully orchestrated so that it "would not reflect badly on the Taleban" and would not appear to be "mistreating a friend," according to Al Faisal.
The key to that original deal, said Al Faisal, was a Saudi pledge that bin Laden would be tried only in an Islamic court _ a condition of surrender that would have precluded his extradition to face any U.S. prosecutions.
Final terms for the bin Laden hand-over were being hammered out between Taleban and Saudi envoys, according to Al Faisal, during the same period that authorities now believe the embassy attacks were being plotted. Those negotiations ended amid a flurry of recriminations in the aftermath of the bombings.
The embassy bombings were linked immediately to bin Laden by Western authorities, with the apparent side effect of rallying support for bin Laden inside the Taleban. Subsequent retaliatory U.S. missile attacks on bin Laden's Afghan training camps only hardened that support.
A federal grand jury in New York has since indicted bin Laden on murder and conspiracy charges for allegedly directing the embassy attacks. The indictment also links bin Laden to deadly attacks on American military personnel in Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
Earlier this year, Washington imposed trade and financial sanctions on the Taleban, accusing the ultraconservative Islamic group of protecting a terror network. It also has offered a $5-million reward for bin Laden's capture.
While the Saudi proposal to the Taleban still stands, there are few signs of a thaw between the former friends. Last month, a Taleban spokesman told the Arab-language daily Al Sharq al Awsat that bin Laden will never be forced out of Afghanistan against his will. He specifically ruled out any future surrender deals with the United States or Saudi Arabia.
But Mujahid said last week that the Taleban is willing to turn the matter over to a committee of Islamic scholars from the region to act as arbitrators.
"If they agree he should be confined, we would abide by that decision; if they say he should be tried in a Saudi court, we are absolutely ready to give him to Saudi Arabia," the Taleban representative said in a telephone interview Friday.
At the time of his mission to Kandahar, Al Faisal said a number of Taleban leaders considered bin Laden a burden. His presence was seen by some, for example, as an obstacle to foreign investment. Certainly, he was a liability to the Taleban relationship with Riyadh, one of the regime's few friends.
"We made it plain that if they want to have good relations with the kingdom (of Saudi Arabia), they have to get bin Laden out of Afghanistan," recalled Al Faisal.