Amid allegations, horsemen, Saudi royals rise to defend late racing magnate Prince Ahmed

Prince of a guy or al-Qaida spy?

Preakness Stakes

May 11, 2004|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

TWO YEARS AGO, the Preakness Stakes spotlight shone brightly on Prince Ahmed bin Salman, an affable, highly Westernized member of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia.

A familiar face in thoroughbred racing circles, he was in Baltimore as the owner of War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby. He stayed at the Harbor Court Hotel, attended the post position draw at the ESPN Zone and went to Pimlico Race Course to watch his horse gallop.

"He was as genuinely excited and enthusiastic as any Preakness owner I've ever seen," Pimlico president and chief executive officer Joe De Francis said.

Some six weeks earlier, a high-ranking al-Qaida operative captured in Pakistan reportedly had named him as a go-between linking the terrorist organization and the Saudi royal family.

"I would have been shocked then, and I'm totally shocked now to hear such an allegation," De Francis said recently.

After War Emblem won the Preakness, the prince smiled and joked through the trophy presentation and left town within hours on a private plane.

Three weeks later, War Emblem disappointed in a bid to win the Triple Crown, finishing eighth in the Belmont Stakes. The prince was strangely absent, on business in Saudi Arabia, his racing associates said.

A month after that, the prince was dead at age 43. News accounts said he succumbed to a heart attack in Saudi Arabia.

His alleged link with al-Qaida, outlined in two books published in the past two years, has stunned the racing industry.

"It's very surprising to hear, but it's just innuendo, nothing proven," said Geoffrey Russell, director of sales at Keeneland, the racetrack and sales organization in Lexington, Ky., where the prince spent many millions.

Investigative journalist Gerald Posner revealed the story of the alleged link in Why America Slept, a 2003 book. Another journalist, Craig Unger, depicted the link in House of Bush, House of Saud, a best seller published last month.

The prince's family and associates vehemently deny the allegation. Prince Faisal bin Salman, brother of the late prince, labeled it "totally ridiculous" in a telephone interview Friday with The Sun.

"To us, saying my brother was al-Qaida is like someone in your country saying Ronald Reagan was secretly a Communist," Faisal bin Salman said. "It's that ridiculous. That's what people here [in Saudi Arabia] think."

The prince's brother released a statement last week saying "not a single, solitary government official or media source has ever come forward with any evidence linking Prince Ahmed to any criminal activity. But that fact has not stopped [the authors] and media from accepting the outrageous claims at face value."

Richard Mulhall, who was a trainer and manager for the Thoroughbred Corp., the prince's California-based equine operation - now out of business - said the allegation "is beyond stupid. Someone is just trying to make a buck with a book, and I guess it's working."

Terrorist claims

According to Posner's book, it was Abu Zubaydah, al-Qaida's chief of field operations and a confidant of Osama bin Laden, who revealed a link between the prince and al-Qaida. Captured by American soldiers in Pakistan in March 2002, 6 1/2 months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Zubaydah was given sodium pentothal to make him talkative and questioned by Arab-Americans posing as Saudi interrogators.

From memory, Zubaydah provided the home phone and cell phone number of a Saudi royal family member and suggested his interrogators make the call.

"He will tell you what to do," Zubaydah said, according to Posner's account.

The phone numbers reportedly belonged to Prince Ahmed bin Salman.

Zubaydah went on to identify two other members of the royal family as intermediaries, again furnishing phone numbers from memory. Zubaydah also reportedly said the intermediaries knew before Sept. 11 that a terrorist attack on America was scheduled for that day, although they did not know where, when or how the attacks would occur.

Later, Posner reported, when Zubaydah discovered his interrogators had been Americans and not Saudis, he tried to strangle himself and recanted his entire story.

Unger, in his book, relied on Posner's account of the interrogation, terming it "accurate" after making his own inquiries.

As for whether Zubaydah was telling the truth, which some in the intelligence community have doubted, Unger told The Sun: "I don't think anyone has ever corroborated or refuted whether Zubaydah was lying."

In his book, Unger reports on a possible link between Saudis and the funding of al-Qaida, but there is no evidence Prince Ahmed bin Salman funded terrorism, Unger said.

"The talk is that he had an intermediary role" between the royal family and al-Qaida, Unger told The Sun. The goal of the link, Unger wrote in his book, was to keep terrorism out of Saudi Arabia.

Dad knew bin Laden

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