ASPEN — Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chief of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency and still an Aspen property owner, is apparently alive and well despite rumors in early August that he had been assassinated in an explosion.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department on Wednesday said recent stories reporting that Bandar, 63, had been killed were not true.
David Ottaway, who retired from the Washington Post in 2006 after 30 years of covering Saudi Arabia, also says the stories were false.
“If Bandar had died, the government would have announced it,” Ottaway said. “It would not be possible to hide such a death, even in Saudi Arabia. I do not believe he has died, but I have not seen him in public since he took his new job.”
Ottaway is the author of the 2008 book “The King's Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America's Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
“The Iranians are constantly putting out stories through their agents of some mishap about Bandar that have been all false so far,” Ottaway wrote Thursday in response to an email query.
Additionally, David Ignatius, a veteran foreign-affairs columnist with the Washington Post, reported on August 5 that the rumors of Bandar's death were false.
This week, Ignatius confirmed that his source on Bandar was solid.
“Yes, before I wrote my piece on Aug. 5, I talked with a source who confirmed, based on personal knowledge, Prince Bandar had been in regular phone contact with foreign officials that week to discuss intelligence matters,” Ignatius wrote in response to an email query.
Further evidence of Bandar's continued existence also came on August 14, when the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that noted that Bandar was in attendance at the Islamic Solidarity Summit being held in Mecca.
And on August 15, the Qatar News Agency said that Bandar had escorted the emir of Qatar to the airport in Jeddah after the first day of the summit.
Bandar, who served as Saudi ambassador to the U.S. from 1983 to 2005, built a lavish estate in Aspen in 1991.
In June, he sold his main home and another nearby residence in the Starwood neighborhood to hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson for $49 million. In 2007, Bandar sold another Starwood home for $36 million.
But Bandar owned four homes in Starwood, and he still owns a relatively modest 5,200-square-foot home valued at $5.2 million by the Pitkin County assessor.
The home is listed as being owned by Bricol NV, an entity controlled by Bandar and managed by attorney William Jordan III, who did not respond to a request for comment.
After several years of keeping a low profile, Bandar suddenly made international headlines in the past five weeks and became the subject of wide speculation, perhaps as the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign.
The tale starts on July 18, when a suicide bomber was able to detonate an explosion at Syria's National Security Headquarters in Damascus, killing the Syrian defense minister and the deputy defense minister, who was also President Bashar Assad's brother-in-law. The Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility.
The next day, July 19, Bandar, already secretary general of the Saudi National Security Council, also was named chief of intelligence by King Abdullah.
That eventually prompted speculation by some media outlets that Bandar's additional intelligence role was a reward for the Syrian bombing. The Saudis have urged military intervention in the Syrian conflict against the Assad regime.
On July 22, Iran's English-language Press TV ran a story headlined “Blast hits Saudi intelligence building, killing deputy spy chief.”
The Press TV story said Bandar's deputy had been killed. The Iranian story said that Yemen's al-Fajr Press had quoted eyewitnesses to the bombing, which has not been reported in the Western media.
On July 29, the website of the Voltaire Network, a pro-Syrian nonprofit organization, upped the ante and ran a story headlined “Syria reportedly eliminated Bandar bin Sultan in retaliation for Damascus bombing.”
“Though not yet announced by the Saudi authorities, the death of Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has been confirmed to Voltaire Network by unofficial sources,” the story claimed.
The next day, the Voltaire Network appeared to walk the story back a notch.
“Strangely, Saudi authorities have not responded to inquiries by the media, refusing to confirm or deny the death of their newly appointed chief of the intelligence services. Clearly, regardless of whether the prince is dead or alive, such muteness denotes a serious disarray within the Saudi royal family,” an article stated.
But by then, the rumor of Bandar's death was off to the races.
On July 31, The International Business Times News ran a story with the headline “Prince Bandar bin Sultan: Is the Saudi spy chief dead or alive?”
The same day, Iran's Press TV ran a report titled “Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar assassinated, report says” and cited the Voltaire Network as the source.
An almost exact story also appeared in the Tehran Times, which cited both the Voltarire Network and Press TV as sources.
The managing editor of The Aspen Times noticed the stories and ran a short column on August 1 labeled “commentary” about the rumors of Bandar's death.
The next day, the Times published a second commentary on the “Bandar mystery,” admitting the paper was “utterly clueless on this one.”
Iran's Press TV saw the Times commentaries, and an Iranian television host noted during an interview on August 4 that, “We've also got the local paper in Aspen, Colo., wondering what is the fate of one of their famous residents, Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, who owns a condo in Aspen, who hasn't been seen for the last week or two. There are reports that he succumbed to an attack on his headquarters.”
But the same day, some push-back on the rumor came from Saudi Arabia.
A piece by Ali Bluwi in Arab News — said to be aligned with the Saudi royal family — denounced the rumors of Bandar's death August 4 as “Iranian and Syrian propaganda.”
The article said the source of the rumors was the man behind the Voltaire Network, Thierry Meyssan.
“Usually there is a lot of fabricated news about personalities of Bandar's caliber, and that has been the case now,” the article stated.
The next day, the Voltaire Network acknowledged the August 4 story in Arab News.
“Taking note of the information relayed by Arab News on the activities of Prince Bandar, Voltaire Network wishes him a speedy recovery and expressed the hope that no formal commitments will crop up to interfere with his convalescence,” a story on Voltairenet.org said.
Also on August 5, Post columnist Ignatius wrote that the rumor of Bandar's death “was rebutted Friday by a source who said that Bandar had been in telephone contact with non-Saudis.”
Then came the official statements from the Saudi and Qatar governments placing Bandar in Mecca and Jeddah in mid-August.
Since then, the speculation about Bandar's death has quieted, but there have been no stories confirming that he is, in fact, alive.
Wednesday's statement from a State Department spokesperson appears to be the first acknowledgment from a U.S. official that the reports earlier this month of Bandar's death were in fact false.
Editor's note: This story was published in collaboration with The Aspen Times, which also ran it on August 24, 2012.