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August 20, 1998: US Fails to Launch Aircraft to Locate Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri Ahead of Missile Strike

Before the US fires missiles in an attempt to kill al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, it fails to launch aircraft to track the usage of satellite phones by al-Qaeda leaders (see August 19, 1998 and August 20, 1998). Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri actually talks to a journalist on the phone around the time of the missile strike (see August 20, 1998) and, had the US had aircraft monitoring Afghanistan, his error in using the phone may have resulted in his death, although this is not certain. Author Lawrence Wright will later comment: “If surveillance aircraft had been positioned in the region, al-Zawahiri’s call to the reporter would have given agents his exact location. But the strike was delivered so quickly that there was little time to prepare. Still, American intelligence knew in general where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were hiding, so the fact that the surveillance aircraft were not available prior to the strike is inexplicable. Had they pinpointed al-Zawahiri prior to launch there is little question that he would have been killed in the strike. On the other hand, it takes several hours to prepare a missile for firing, and the flight time from the warships in the Arabian sea across Pakistan to eastern Afghanistan was more than two hours. By the time al-Zawahiri picked up the phone the missiles were probably already on their way and it was already too late.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 283]

Entity Tags: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, Lawrence Wright

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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