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Homefront: Taliban spokeswoman keeps low profile in N.J.

Sunday, January 13, 2002

Until the smoke from the World Trade Center signaled the end of her diplomatic career, the American lobbyist for the Taliban was a middle-30s soccer mom and niece by marriage of the former head of the CIA.


The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette brings you "Homefront," a feature by staff writer Dennis B. Roddy that will appear Sundays and Wednesdays. "Homefront" will examine the continuing ways people have been affected by the Sept. 11 terror attacks.


Laili Z. Helms spent five years hounding congressmen, running up phone bills to Afghanistan and playing footsie with the State Department in her quest to have the regime of Mullah Omar given recognition by the United States. Once, she could not be avoided for comment. Now, when her telephone rings at her townhouse in Tenafly, N.J., the conversation goes like this:

"Oh. I'm sorry. I've got to run right now."

"Would tonight be a better time to call?"


"Is there a time to call?"

"Not really. I'm not doing interviews. I really do have to run."

And off she runs.

If Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are hard men to find, Laili Z. Helms is now just a few steps behind them in inaccessibility. She avoids neighbors along Norman Place, where she lives in a $236,000 townhouse. She grants no interviews. Recently, she stopped coaching her son's soccer team after other parents noticed that her clients in Afghanistan used their soccer stadiums to execute prisoners.

Adele McArdle, a retiree who lives two doors away from Helms, was astonished to find out that her neighbor supported the Taliban.

"I'm really upset about it," McArdle said. She remembered Helms from the Norman Place block party a few years ago.

"She makes these nice foreign dishes, I remember, with yogurt and all that stuff," McArdle said.

"Actually she's kind of a tragic, pathetic figure," said Al Santoli, an aide to U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Because Rohrabacher is on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Helms used to telephone Santoli regularly to assure him that the nasty things people were saying about the Taliban weren't so.

Helms, born in Afghanistan but raised mostly in the United States, would usher Taliban figures to Washington. She attended forums and public meetings to deny that the regime was oppressing women.

"I find it extremely obnoxious that all of a sudden, when the country has finally found peace, the international community found religion on the issue of women in Afghanistan," she told a 1999 forum in New York.

Otilie English, the American lobbyist for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, used to run into Helms at events.

"She would just sit across the room from me and look at me like Cruella DeVil. It was just weird," English said.

Her phone calls to Santoli ended abruptly after she called him in 1998 and went on about America's need to understand the Taliban. Santoli, aware of the regime's brutal punishment of women found in the company of nonfamily males, asked her if she had brought Taliban officials to the United States to plead their case.

Yes, she said.

"Were they your husband or brother?" he asked.

No, she said.

"Then why weren't you shot? Why weren't you beaten?" he demanded.

She hung up. The dissonance between her own quasifeminist lifestyle -- she belonged to the local board of the National Abortion Rights Action League -- and the Taliban's obsessive control of women simply never registered in her discussions.

In interviews, she could be expansive about the Taliban's generosity to women, its elevation to the Afghan people, its unheralded streak of moderation.

On a radio talk show, she assured listeners that members of the Taliban were not terrorists, that if Osama bin Laden were one they would surely disapprove, and that plans by the Taliban to blow up 1,000-year-old Buddhist carvings on Afghan cliffs could yet be averted "if the right approach is taken. ... if, instead of, you know, isolating these guys, we try to engage them and let them know that we still think they're human."

People in Tenafly suspended any belief Taliban members are human after four of the town's sons died in the World Trade Center six months after Helms made those remarks.

Glen Everhart, superintendent of the Tenafly schools Helms' children attend, puts it succinctly:

"Six children lost either a parent or a step-parent. One of my teachers lost her spouse."

And the Taliban lost a lobbyist.

Helms put up a large American flag outside her townhouse, and issued a statement that she had tried to steer the Taliban on a moderate course.

"Obviously, I failed," she said.

And now, as Laili Helms would have put it, she really has to run.

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