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Profile: Osama bin Laden
a.k.a. Osama Muhammad Al-Wahad bin Laden, Usama bin Laden, OBL, UBL, The Sheikh, Abu Abdullah, Sheikh, Osama bin Ladin, Mujahid Shaykh, Shaykh Usama Bin Ladin, Emir, Director
Osama bin Laden was a participant or observer in the following events:
Beginning in 1998, if not before, Uzbekistan and the CIA secretly create a joint counterterrorist strike force, funded and trained by the CIA. This force conducts joint covert operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. [Times of India, 10/14/2001; Washington Post, 10/14/2001; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] In February 1999, radical Muslims fail in an attempt to assassinate Islam Karimov, the leader of Uzbekistan, leading to a crackdown on Uzbek militants. CIA counterterrorism head Cofer Black and bin Laden unit chief Richard Blee see this as an opportunity to increase co-operation with Uzbekistan, and fly to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent to seal an agreement with Karimov. One hope is that a strike force will be established to snatch Osama bin Laden or one of his lieutenants. Karimov also allows CIA transit and helicopter operations at Uzbek air bases, as well as the installation of CIA and NSA monitoring equipment to intercept Taliban and al-Qaeda communications. The CIA is pleased with the new allies, thinking them better than Pakistan’s ISI, but at the White House some National Security Council members are skeptical. One will comment, “Uzbek motivations were highly suspect to say the least.” There are also worries about Uzbek corruption, human rights abuses, and scandal. [Coll, 2004, pp. 456-460]
The CIA apparently ignores a warning from a recently retired CIA agent that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) is heading al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations. Robert Baer left the CIA in late 1997 and began private consulting in the Middle East. Baer soon meets Hamad bin Jassim bin Hamad al Thani, who was Qatar’s minister of the economy and chief of police until he was deposed and exiled the year before. Al Thani tells Baer that KSM is now bin Laden’s chief of terrorist operations, and gives Baer other details about KSM, including how some Qatari royals helped KSM escape Qatar the year before after the CIA tracked him there (see January-May 1996 and Early 1998). In early 1998, Baer passes all this information on to a friend still in the CIA, who then passes it on to the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. But the friend writes back a week later, saying the CIA showed no interest. [Baer, 2003, pp. 190-198] The 9/11 Commission, by contrast, will later claim that, in 1997 and 1998, KSM has some links with al-Qaeda, but mostly helps them collect newspaper articles and update computer equipment. Supposedly, not until after the August 1998 embassy bombings does he begin working directly with al-Qaeda on plotting attacks. This account appears entirely based on KSM’s testimony taken while in US custody. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 149-150] It will later be reported that up to 90 percent of KSM’s testimony could be inaccurate, mostly due to the use of torture (see Late August 1998). Further, the CIA gained evidence shortly after the embassy bombings that KSM was one of the masterminds of those bombings, which would strongly support Baer’s information over the 9/11 Commission version (see August 6, 2007).
Bin Laden holds a meeting with other top al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan this month to prepare for a new wave of attacks. CIA analysts are able to learn some about this meeting, apparently largely due to NSA communications intercepts. On US official will say later in 1998, “There were reams of intel documenting bin Laden before” the African embassy bombings later in the year (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Another official will say, “We’ve had the book on this guy for a long time.” But it is not known which attacks may have been discussed at this meeting or how much US intelligence knew about what was said there. [New York Times, 9/6/1998]
In January 1998, the FBI and a New York US Attorney begins preparing charges against him for murdering US citizens in Somalia in 1993 (see October 3-4, 1993), Saudi Arabia in 1995 (see November 13, 1995), and other attacks. A grand jury will approve a secret and sealed indictment charging him with involvement in these attacks in June 1998 (see June 8, 1998). [New York Times, 9/6/1998; Miniter, 2003, pp. 168-169] It is not known why an indictment was not prepared earlier. The indictment is based on information from al-Qaeda informant Jamal al-Fadl, who defected to the US in mid-1996 (see June 1996-April 1997).
A photocopy of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed’s Comoros passport in Sudan’s intelligence files. [Source: Richard Miniter]Gutbi al-Mahdi, head of Sudan’s intelligence agency, sends a letter to David Williams, an FBI station chief. It reads, “I would like to express my sincere desire to start contacts and cooperation between our service and the FBI. I would like to take this opportunity with pleasure to invite you to visit our country. Otherwise, we could meet somewhere else.” Apparently the FBI is very eager to accept the offer and gain access to Sudan’s files on bin Laden and his associates. The US had been offered the files before (see March 8, 1996-April 1996; April 5, 1997), but the US position was that Sudan’s offers were not serious since Sudanese leader Hassan al-Turabi was ideologically close to bin Laden. But al-Turabi has lost power to moderates by this time, and in fact he is placed under arrest in 1998. There is a political battle between US agencies over the Sudanese offer, and in the end the State Department forbids any contact with al-Mahdi. On June 24, 1998, Williams is obliged to reply, “I am not currently in a position to accept your kind invitation.” Al-Madhi later will complain, “If they had taken up my offer in February 1998, they could have prevented the [US embassy] bombings.” Tim Carney, US ambassador to Sudan until 1997, will say, “The US failed to reciprocate Sudan’s willingness to engage us on serious questions of terrorism. We can speculate that this failure had serious implications - at the least for what happened at the US Embassies in 1998. In any case, the US lost access to a mine of material on bin Laden and his organization.” One of the plotters in the bombings is Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (a.k.a. Haroun Fazul), who is living in Sudan but making trips to Kenya to participate in the bombing preparations. Sudan has files on him and continues to monitor him. Sudan also has files on Saif al-Adel, another embassy bomber who has yet to be captured. Sudan also has files on Wadih El-Hage and Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, both of whom have contact with members of the Hamburg al-Qaeda cell (see September 16, 1998; Late 1998; 1993). Salim even attends the same small Hamburg mosque as 9/11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi. Vanity Fair magazine will suggest that if al-Madhi’s offer had been properly followed up, both the embassy bombings and the 9/11 attacks could have been foiled. [Vanity Fair, 1/2002] It is later revealed that the US was wiretapping bin Laden in Sudan on their own (see Early 1990s).
Entity Tags: Wadih El-Hage, Saif al-Adel, Tim Carney, US Department of State, Gutbi Al-Mahdi, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, David Williams, Al-Qaeda, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sudan, Osama bin Laden, Hassan al-Turabi, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline
Osama bin Laden (right), Mohammed Atef (center), and an unidentified militant at the press conference publicizing the expanded fatwa in May 1998. Ayman al-Zawahiri is out of the picture, sitting on the other side of bin Laden. [Source: BBC]Osama bin Laden issues a fatwa (religious edict), declaring it the religious duty of all Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military… in any country in which it is possible.” [Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), 2/23/1998; PBS Frontline, 2001; Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 9/16/2001] This is an expansion of an earlier fatwa issued in August 1996, which called for attacks in the Arabian Peninsula only (see August 1996). Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of the Egyptian militant group Islamic Jihad, is one of many militant leaders who sign the fatwa. This reveals to the public an alliance between al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad that has long been in effect. According to journalist Lawrence Wright, the fatwa was actually mostly written by al-Zawahiri the month before, even though it is released in bin Laden’s name only. (Some members of Islamic Jihad are upset by it and quit the group.) [Wright, 2006, pp. 259-261] Also signing the fatwa are representatives from militant groups in Afghanistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Pakistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Philippines, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Azerbaijan, and Palestine. All these representatives call themselves allied to the “International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders” (the name al-Qaeda has not been widely popularized yet). New York magazine will note, “The [fatwa gives] the West its first glimpse of the worldwide conspiracy that [is] beginning to form.” [New Yorker, 9/9/2002] The fatwa is published by Khalid al-Fawwaz, who runs bin Laden’s European headquarters in London, and its publication is preceded by what authors Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory term a “barrage of calls” from bin Laden’s monitored satellite phone to al-Fawwaz. However, this does not motivate British authorities to take any action against al-Fawwaz. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 111] In March 1998, 40 Afghan clerics issue a fatwa calling for a jihad against the US. A group of Pakistani clerics issues a similar fatwa in April. These fatwas give much more religious authority to bin Laden’s fatwa. It is suspected that bin Laden “discreetly prompted these two bodies to issue the ordinances.” [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 62-63] Bin Laden then will hold a press conference in May 1998 to publicize the fatwa (see May 26, 1998).
Osama Basnan, a Saudi living in California, claims to write a letter to Saudi Arabian Prince Bandar bin Sultan and his wife, Princess Haifa bint Faisal, asking for financial help because his wife needs thyroid surgery. The Saudi embassy sends Basnan $15,000 and pays the surgical bill. However, according to University of California at San Diego hospital records, Basnan’s wife, Majeda Dweikat, is not treated until April 2000. [Los Angeles Times, 11/24/2002] Basnan will later come under investigation for possibly using some of this money to support two of the 9/11 hijackers who arrive in San Diego (see November 22, 2002), although the 9/11 Commission will conclude that evidence does not support these charges. [9/11 Commission, 6/16/2004]
Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi. [Source: European Community]The first Interpol (international police) arrest warrant for bin Laden is issued—by Libya. [Observer, 11/10/2002] According to the authors of the controversial book The Forbidden Truth, British and US intelligence agencies play down the arrest warrant, and have the public version of the warrant stripped of important information, such as the summary of charges and the fact that Libya requested the warrant. The arrest warrant is issued for the 1994 murder of two German intelligence agents in Libya by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Libya, al-Muqatila (see March 10, 1994). Allegedly, the warrant is downplayed and virtually ignored because of the hostility of Britain towards the Libyan government. British intelligence collaborated with al-Muqatila in an attempt to assassinate Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in 1996 (see 1996). [Brisard and Dasquie, 2002, pp. 97-98]
Bill Richardson. [Source: BBC]Bill Richardson, the US Ambassador to the UN, meets Taliban officials in Kabul. (All such meetings are illegal, because the US still officially recognizes the government the Taliban ousted as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.) US officials at the time call the oil and gas pipeline project a “fabulous opportunity” and are especially motivated by the “prospect of circumventing Iran, which offers another route for the pipeline.” [Boston Globe, 9/20/2001] Richardson tries to persuade the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US, promising to end the international isolation of the Taliban if they cooperate. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 195; US Department of State, 1/30/2004]
Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999, later will claim that in a one-year period starting in May 1998, the CIA gives the US government “about ten chances to capture bin Laden or kill him with military means. In all instances, the decision was made that the ‘intelligence was not good enough.’ This assertion cannot be debated publicly without compromising sources and methods. What can be said, however, is that in all these cases there was more concern expressed by senior bureaucrats and policymakers about how international opinion would react to a US action than there was concern about what might happen to Americans if they failed to act. Indeed, on one occasion these senior leaders decided it was more important to avoid hitting a structure near bin Laden’s location with shrapnel, than it was to protect Americans.” He will later list six of the attempts in a book:
May 1998: a plan to capture bin Laden at his compound south of Kandahar, canceled at the last minute (see 1997-May 29, 1998).
September 1998: a capture opportunity north of Kandahar, presumably by Afghan tribals working for the CIA (see September-October 1998).
December 1998: canceled US missile strike on the governor’s palace in Kandahar (see December 18-20, 1998).
February 1999: Military attack opportunity on governor’s residence in Herat (see February 1999).
February 1999: Multiple military attack opportunities at a hunting camp near Kandahar attended by United Arab Emirates royals (see February 11, 1999).
May 1999: Military attack opportunities on five consecutive nights in Kandahar (see May 1999).
Also in late August 1998, there is one failed attempt to kill bin Laden.(see August 20, 1998) [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004; Scheuer, 2008, pp. 284]
Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later will strongly disagree with Scheuer’s assessment, claiming that the intelligence needed for such an attack on bin Laden was never very good. But he will also point out that the National Security Council and White House never killed any of the operations Scheuer wanted. It was always CIA Director George Tenet and other top CIA leaders who rejected the proposals. Scheuer will agree that it was always Tenet who turned down the operations. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004]
Hamid Mir interviewing Osama bin Laden shortly after 9/11. [Source: Corbis]In early May 1998, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir interviews bin Laden in Kandahar, Afghanistan. During the interview, bin Laden tells Mir that he will be holding a press conference soon and invites Mir to attend. Mir will later recall that bin Laden showed him a list of journalists invited. More than 22 names are on the list, including CNN reporters Peter Bergen and Peter Arnett, and an unnamed reporter from the BBC. Mir says he will not attend, explaining that he is worried the press conference will be bombed. “I think that you are inviting a lot of Pakistani journalists. No doubt I have contacts with the intelligence guys, but I am not their informer. They will go back; they will help the intelligence agencies to bomb your compound.” [Bergen, 2006, pp. 200-202] The press conference will take place later in the month and while al-Qaeda’s three top leaders bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mohammed Atef attend, only three journalists show up (see May 26, 1998). Presumably the press conference presents a rare opportunity to take out al-Qaeda’s top leadership in one fell swoop, perhaps as they are coming or going to it, but there is no known debate by US officials or officials in other countries about ways to take advantage of this gathering. The 9/11 Commission’s final report will not mention the press conference at all.
Top: Bin Laden, surrounded by security, walking to the press conference. Bottom: the three journalists attending the press conference sit next to bin Laden. [Source: CNN]Bin Laden discusses “bringing the war home to America,” in a press conference from Khost, Afghanistan. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] Bin Laden holds his first and only press conference to help publicize the fatwa he published several months before. Referring to the group that signed the fatwa, he says, “By God’s grace, we have formed with many other Islamic groups and organizations in the Islamic world a front called the International Islamic Front to do jihad against the crusaders and Jews.” He adds later, “And by God’s grace, the men… are going to have a successful result in killing Americans and getting rid of them.” [CNN, 8/20/2002] He also indicates the results of his jihad will be “visible” within weeks. [US Congress, 7/24/2003] Two US embassies will be bombed in August (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Bin Laden sits next to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef during the press conference. Two Pakistani journalists and one Chinese journalist attends. But event never gets wide exposure because no independent videotaping is allowed (however, in 2002 CNN will obtain video footage of the press conference seized after the US conquered Afghanistan in late 2001). Pakistani journalist Ismail Khan attends and will later recall, “We were given a few instructions, you know, on how to photograph and only take a picture of Osama and the two leaders who were going to sit close by him. Nobody else.” Two sons of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman attend and distribute what they claim is the will or fatwa of their father (see May 1998), who has been sentenced to life in prison in the US. Journalist Peter Bergen will later comment that the significance of the sons’ presence at the press conference “can’t be underestimated” because it allows bin Laden to benefit from Abdul-Rahman’s high reputation amongst radical militants. Bergen also later says the press conference is a pivotal moment for al-Qaeda. “They’re going public. They’re saying, ‘We’re having this war against the United States.’” [CNN, 8/20/2002] The specific comment by bin Laden about “bringing the war home to America” will be mentioned in the August 2001 memo given to President Bush entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001).
During Osama bin Laden’s one and only press conference, which takes place in Khost, Afghanistan (see May 26, 1998), Mohamed al-Owhali is photographed. Presumably his picture is taken by one of the journalists in attendance there. Al-Owhali will go on to be directly involved in the African embassy bombings several months later (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), and will be convicted in the US for a role in those bombings (see October 21, 2001). It is not known who takes al-Owhali’s picture or if US intelligence has access to the picture before the embassy bombings. [Jacquard, 2002, pp. 283]
During his interview with John Miller, bin Laden is positioned in front of East Africa on a map, and US embassies will be bombed in East Africa several months later. Bin Laden has considered it his religious duty to give warning before attacks and thus has left clues like this. [Source: CNN]In an interview with ABC News reporter John Miller, Osama bin Laden indicates he may attack a US military passenger aircraft using antiaircraft missiles. Bin Laden says: “We are sure of our victory. Our battle with the Americans is larger than our battle with the Russians.… We predict a black day for America and the end of the United States as United States, and will be separate states, and will retreat from our land and collect the bodies of its sons back to America.” In the subsequent media coverage, Miller will repeatedly refer to bin Laden as “the world’s most dangerous terrorist,” and “the most dangerous man in the world.” [ABC News, 5/28/1998; ABC News, 6/12/1998; Esquire, 2/1999; US Congress, 7/24/2003] The book The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright will later note, “Looming behind his head was a large map of Africa, an unremarked clue.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 264] Bin Laden admits to knowing Wali Khan Amin Shah, one of the Bojinka plotters (see June 1996), but denies having met Bojinka plotter Ramzi Yousef or knowing about the plot itself. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002] A Virginia man named Tarik Hamdi (see March 20, 2002) helped set up Miller’s interview. He goes with Miller to Afghanistan and gives bin Laden a new battery for his satellite phone (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Vincent Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, will later claim that this battery was somehow bugged to help the US monitor bin Laden. [Newsweek, 8/10/2005] In 2005, Miller will become the FBI’s assistant director of the Office of Public Affairs. [All Headline News, 8/24/2005]
Bin Laden sends a fax from Afghanistan to Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, a London-based Muslim imam who dubs himself the “mouth, eyes, and ears of Osama bin Laden.” Bakri publicly releases what he calls bin Laden’s four specific objectives for a holy war against the US. The instruction reads, “Bring down their airliners. Prevent the safe passage of their ships. Occupy their embassies. Force the closure of their companies and banks.” Noting this, the Los Angeles Times will wryly comment that “Bin Laden hasn’t been shy about sharing his game plan.” [Los Angeles Times, 10/14/2001] In 2001, FBI agent Ken Williams will grow concerned about some Middle Eastern students training in Arizona flight schools. He will link several of them to Al-Muhajiroun, an extremist group founded by Bakri. Williams will quote several fatwas (calls to action) from Bakri in his later-famous July 2001 memo (see July 10, 2001). However, he apparently will not be aware of this particular call to action. These students linked to Bakri’s group apparently have no connection to any of the 9/11 hijackers. In another interview before 9/11, Bakri will boast of recruiting “kamikaze bombers ready to die for Palestine.”
(see Early September 2001) [Associated Press, 5/23/2002]
The State Department warns Saudi officials that bin Laden might target civilian aircraft. Three State Department officials meet Saudi officials in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and pass along a warning based on an interview bin Laden had just given to ABC News
[. In the interview, bin Laden threatened to strike in the next “few weeks” against “military passenger aircraft” and mentioned surface-to-air missiles. The State Department warns the Saudis that bin Laden does “not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians” and there is “no specific information that indicates bin Laden is targeting civilian aircraft.” However, they add, “We could not rule out that a terrorist might take the course of least resistance and turn to a civilian [aircraft] target.” NBC News will note that the 9/11 Commission “made no mention of the memo in any of its reports… It is unknown why the [Commission] did not address the warning.” [New York Times, 12/9/2005; MSNBC, 12/9/2005] ]
Relations between Taliban head Mullah Omar and bin Laden grow tense, and Omar discusses a secret deal with the Saudis, who have urged the Taliban to expel bin Laden from Afghanistan. Head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal travels to Kandahar, Afghanistan, and brokers the deal. According to Turki, he seeks to have the Taliban turn bin Laden over to Saudi custody. Omar agrees in principle, but requests that the parties establish a joint commission to work out how bin Laden would be dealt with in accordance with Islamic law. [Coll, 2004, pp. 400-02] Note that some reports of a meeting around this time—and the deal discussed—vary dramtically from Turki’s version (see May 1996 and July 1998). If this version is correct, before a deal can be reached, the US strikes Afghanistan in August in retaliation for the US African embassy bombings (see August 20, 1998), driving Omar and bin Laden back together. Turki later states that “the Taliban attitude changed 180 degrees,” and that Omar is “absolutely rude” to him when he visits again in September (see Mid-September 1998). [Guardian, 11/5/2001; London Times, 8/3/2002]
In an interview on the television program Nightline, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger says “Osama bin Laden may be the most dangerous non-state terrorist in the world.” This is one of only a very few public warnings by top Clinton administration officials about bin Laden before the African embassy bombings later in the year. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 215]
US intelligence obtains information from several sources that bin Laden is considering attacks in the US, including Washington and New York. This information is given to senior US officials in July 1998. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] Information mentions an attack in Washington, probably against public places. US intelligence assumes that bin Laden places a high priority on conducting attacks in the US. More information about a planned al-Qaeda attack on a Washington government facility will be uncovered in the spring of 1999. [US Congress, 7/24/2003 ; US Congress, 7/24/2003]
On May 26, 1998, Osama bin Laden said at a press conference that there would be “good news” in coming weeks (see May 26, 1998). On June 12, the State Department issues a public warning, stating, “We take those threats seriously and the United States is increasing security at many US government facilities in the Middle East and Asia.” Notably, the State Department does not mention increasing security in Africa. Two US embassies will be bombed there in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). There are no other public warnings given before the embassy bombings. [Bergen, 2001, pp. 110]
Aukai Collins, who has one leg, fighting with Muslim militants overseas. [Source: Publicity photo]In 1996, an American Caucasian Muslim named Aukai Collins, who has been fighting with the mujaheddin in Chechnya, successfully volunteered to become a CIA informant. [Collins, 2003, pp. 147-159] At this time, Collins goes to London and meets with Abdul Malik, a politically well connected Islamist. Malik offers to set up a meeting between Collins and bin Laden in Afghanistan. Collins reports the offer to his CIA and FBI handlers. He is willing and even eager to accept the invitation, but his offer to go undercover into bin Laden’s camp, even on his own responsibility and at his own expense, is flatly refused by his handlers. [Collins, 2003, pp. 175-176] Collins also claims that he reports to the FBI on hijacker Hani Hanjour for six months this year as part of an assignment monitoring the Islamic and Arab communities in Phoenix between 1996 and 1999 (see 1998) .
Taliban officials allegedly meet with Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence, to continue talks concerning the Taliban’s ouster of bin Laden from Afghanistan. Reports on the location of this meeting, and the deal under discussion differ. According to some reports, including documents exposed in a later lawsuit, this meeting takes place in Kandahar. Those present include Prince Turki al-Faisal, head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, Taliban leaders, senior officers from the ISI, and bin Laden. According to these reports, Saudi Arabia agrees to give the Taliban and Pakistan “several hundred millions” of dollars, and in return, bin Laden promises no attacks against Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also agree to ensure that requests for the extradition of al-Qaeda members will be blocked and promise to block demands by other countries to close down bin Laden’s Afghan training camps. Saudi Arabia had previously given money to the Taliban and bribe money to bin Laden, but this ups the ante. [Sunday Times (London), 8/25/2002] A few weeks after the meeting, Prince Turki sends 400 new pickup trucks to the Taliban. At least $200 million follow. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 9/23/2001; New York Post, 8/25/2002] Controversial author Gerald Posner gives a similar account said to come from high US government officials, and adds that al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida also attends the meeting. [Posner, 2003, pp. 189-90] Note that reports of this meeting seemingly contradict reports of a meeting the month before between Turki and the Taliban, in which the Taliban agreed to get rid of bin Laden (see June 1998).
Khalid al-Fawwaz. [Source: CNN]The NSA is monitoring phone calls between bin Laden in Afghanistan and Khalid al-Fawwaz in London, yet no action is taken after al-Fawwaz is given advanced notice of the African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Al-Fawwaz, together with Ibrahim Eidarous and Adel Abdel Bary, are operating as bin Laden’s de facto international media office in London, and the NSA has listened in for two years as bin Laden called them over 200 times (see November 1996-Late August 1998). On July 29, 1998, al-Fawwaz is called from Afghanistan and told that more satellite minutes are needed because many calls are expected in the next few days. Al-Fawwaz calls a contact in the US and rush orders 400 more minutes for bin Laden’s phone. A flurry of calls on bin Laden’s phone ensues, though what is said has not been publicly revealed. [Knight Ridder, 9/20/2001] On August 7 at around 4:45 a.m., about three hours before the bombings take place, a fax taking credit for the bombings is sent to a shop near al-Fawwaz’s office. The fingerprints of his associates Eidarous and Abdel Bary are later found on the fax. They fax a copy of this to the media from a post office shortly after the bombings and their fingerprints are found on that fax as well. [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7/13/1999; Daily Telegraph, 9/19/2001] Canadian intelligence is monitoring an operative named Mahmoud Jaballah who is serving as a communication relay between operatives in Baku and London. He is monitored talking to people both in Baku and London just before the fax is sent from Baku to London (see August 5-7, 1998). The NSA has also been monitoring the operatives in Baku (see November 1996-Late August 1998). It is not clear why the Canadians or the NSA fail to warn about the bombings based on these monitored phone calls. Before 9/11, bin Laden’s phone calls were regularly translated and analyzed in less an hour or so. It has not been explained why this surge of phone calls before the embassy bombings did not result in any new attack warnings. The three men will be arrested shortly after the embassy bombings (see Early 1994-September 23, 1998).
Sayyid Iskandar Suliman. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files. [Source: Public domain via Richard Miniter]On August 4, 1998, Sudanese immigration suspects two men, Sayyid Nazir Abbass and Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, arriving in Sudan, apparently due to something in their Pakistani passports. They attempt to rent an apartment overlooking the US embassy. Three days later, US embassies are bombed in Kenya and Tanzania (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Within hours, Sudanese officials arrest Abbass and Suliman. The two of them had just come from Kenya, and one of them quickly admits to staying in the same hotel in Kenya as some of the embassy bombers. Sudanese intelligence believes they are al-Qaeda operatives involved in the bombings. [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002; Randal, 2005, pp. 132-135] The US embassy in Sudan has been shut down for several years. But around August 14, a Sudanese intelligence official contacts an intermediary and former White House employee named Janet McElligott and gives her a vague message that Sudan is holding important suspects and the FBI should send a team immediately to see if they want to take custody of them. [Randal, 2005, pp. 132-135] The FBI wants the two men, but on August 17, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright forbids their extradition. The US has decided to bomb a factory in Sudan in retaliation for the embassy bombings instead of cooperating with Sudan. But FBI agent John O’Neill is not yet aware of Albright’s decision, and word of the Sudanese offer reaches him on August 19. He wants immediate approval to arrest the two suspects and flies to Washington that evening to discuss the issue with counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke. But Clarke tells O’Neill to speak to Attorney General Janet Reno. Later that night, O’Neill talks to Reno and she tells him that the decision to retaliate against Sudan instead has already been made. Mere hours later, the US attack a factory in Sudan with cruise missiles (see August 20, 1998). Within days, it becomes apparent that the factory had no link to al-Qaeda (see September 23, 1998), and no link between the bombings and the Sudanese government will emerge (although Sudan harbored bin Laden until 1996). [Randal, 2005, pp. 132-138] The Sudanese will continue to hold the two men in hopes to make a deal with the US. But the US is not interested, so after two weeks they are send to Pakistan and set free there (see August 20-September 2, 1998).
Mohamed al-Owhali. [Source: CNN]Before and after the August 7, 1998 attack on the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), a bomber involved in that attack named Mohamed al-Owhali makes a series of calls to al-Qaeda associate Ahmed al-Hada, who runs an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. Al-Owhali briefly stayed at the hub about three months before the bombings and made some calls from there. He then traveled to other locations, including Pakistan, and flew to Kenya on August 2. Beginning August 4, he makes a series of calls to al-Hada at the Yemen hub. The details of these calls have not been revealed, but they continue until about two hours before the embassy bombings take place. Al-Owhali is supposed to be martyred in the attack, but he runs away at the last minute and survives. Beginning on August 8, he repeatedly calls al-Hada, asking for help getting out of Kenya. He eventually receives $1,000 from him. Al-Hada is actually about to fly to Kenya to help al-Owhali get out when al-Owhali is arrested on August 12. Al-Hada also receives three calls from bin Laden’s satellite phone, which is being monitored by the NSA (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Following a raid by London police, the FBI allegedly trace a fax claiming responsibility for the attack through Baku, Azerbaijan, to bin Laden’s satellite phone, which leads them to the communications hub in Sana’a (however, it is likely that the NSA at least is already monitoring the hub phone number). Phone records for the hub direct them to al-Owhali in Nairobi. Al-Owhali has already been arrested based on a tip-off and, after the FBI interrogators realize he is lying to them, he confesses to calling the number. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001; United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 23, 3/27/2001; Observer, 8/5/2001] The translator during al-Owhali’s interviews is Mike Feghali, who will later be accused of serious improprieties after 9/11 by whistleblower Sibel Edmonds (see July-August 2001). [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/9/1998, pp. 1 ] Author Lawrence Wright will say, “This Yemeni telephone number would prove to be one of the most important pieces of information the FBI would ever discover, allowing investigators to map the links of the al-Qaeda network all across the globe.” [Wright, 2006, pp. 275-8] The NSA may well already have been aware of the number since bin Laden’s monitored phone called it many times, but the US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to exploit it (see Late August 1998 and Late 1998-Early 2002). Other apparently inaccurate stories about how al-Owhali was captured have been reported in the press. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 48]
Dan Hill, a former Army Ranger, formulates a plan to kill Osama bin Laden, but this plan will eventually have to be called off due to a lack of government support. [Stewart, 2002, pp. 203-204, 244-245; New York Times, 9/8/2002] After the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), Hill learns that the United States and Saudi Arabia are jointly offering a reward of $15 million for the capture of bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the attacks. He sees this as an opportunity for him to organize a mission to go to Afghanistan and kill bin Laden. [Stewart, 2002, pp. 203] Hill is a Muslim and speaks fluent Arabic. Furthermore, after retiring from the Army in 1975, during the 1980s he fought with the mujahedeen against the occupying Russians in Afghanistan. [Deseret News, 9/6/2009; San Francisco Opera, 1/2011]
Hill Discusses Plan with Friend from Afghanistan - Hill contacts his friend Said Nader Zori to discuss the assassination plan. [Stewart, 2002, pp. 203] Nader Zori is a former mujahedeen fighter who fought alongside Hill in Afghanistan and subsequently emigrated to the US. [Stewart, 2002, pp. 168, 201] Hill asks him, “Is your brother-in-law still going in and out of Afghanistan?” Nader Zori’s brother-in-law now lives in Islamabad, Pakistan, but he worked for a short time in Afghanistan’s defense ministry after the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, and still has many contacts in that country. Nader Zori replies, “All the time.” Hill then asks if Nader Zori’s brother-in-law has any contacts in the Taliban, and Nader Zori says yes. Hill lays out to his friend a plan to put together a group, with Nader Zori’s brother-in-law as its commander, organize an ambush, and attack and kill bin Laden. Hill and Nader Zori would participate in the operation, and the reward money would be split between the group’s members.
Proposed Commander Wants Government Assistance with Mission - Nader Zori writes a letter to his brother-in-law, outlining Hill’s plan, which he gives to a courier to take to Islamabad and deliver. He receives a response several weeks later. According to journalist and author James B. Stewart, the brother-in-law writes that he is “interested. He had Taliban contacts; he knew the locations of three compounds bin Laden used in Kandahar, and he knew that bin Laden made regular trips between Kandahar and Kabul. He traveled in a small convoy of just three vehicles.” But Nader Zori’s brother-in-law wants the assurance of US government support for the mission.
Friend Concerned that Hill Might Not Survive Mission - Hill contacts the FBI office in Jacksonville, Florida, and discusses his plan with Leo Morris, an agent there. Morris seems enthusiastic and says he will contact his superiors in Washington, DC, and get back to Hill. Hill then contacts his friend Rick Rescorla to talk about the plan. [Stewart, 2002, pp. 203-204] Rescorla, who, like Hill, served in the Army, now works as vice president for security at the Wall Street investment firm Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in its offices at the World Trade Center. [Washington Post, 10/28/2001; National Review, 9/20/2002] The two men discuss Hill’s plan in detail. Hill offers to split his share of the reward money with Rescorla, but Rescorla is apprehensive. He says that while he thinks Hill might succeed in killing bin Laden, he may not make it out alive afterward. Hill replies: “I’m 60. I’m not risking that much.” He adds that the mission would mean he would “go out in a blaze of glory.” [Stewart, 2002, pp. 204] Hill will meet with the FBI to ask for military assistance for his plan (see (Between May and June 2000)), but his request will be rejected (see (Between Spring and Summer 2001)) and so the plan is not carried out. [Stewart, 2002, pp. 230-231, 245]
President Clinton signs a Memorandum of Notification, which authorizes the CIA to plan the capture of bin Laden using force. The CIA draws up detailed profiles of bin Laden’s daily routines, where he sleeps, and his travel arrangements. The assassination never happens, supposedly because of inadequate intelligence. However, as one officer later says, “you can keep setting the bar higher and higher, so that nothing ever gets done.” An officer who helped draw up the plans says, “We were ready to move” but “we were not allowed to do it because of this stubborn policy of risk avoidance… It is a disgrace.”
[Philadelphia Inquirer, 9/16/2001] Additional memoranda quickly follow that authorize the assassination of up to ten other al-Qaeda leaders, and authorize the shooting down of private aircraft containing bin Laden. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001] However, “These directives [lead] to nothing.”
[New Yorker, 7/28/2003]
Within days of the US African embassy bombings, the US permanently stations two submarines, reportedly in the Indian Ocean, ready to hit al-Qaeda with cruise missiles on short notice. Missiles are fired from these subs later in the month in a failed attempt to assassinate bin Laden. Six to ten hours’ advance warning is now needed to review the decision, program the cruise missiles, and have them reach their target. However, in every rare opportunity when the possibility of attacking bin Laden occurs, CIA Director Tenet says the information is not reliable enough and the attack cannot go forward. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001; New York Times, 12/30/2001] At some point in 2000, the submarines are withdrawn, apparently because the Navy wants to use them for other purposes. Therefore, when the unmanned Predator spy plane flies over Afghanistan in late 2000 and identifies bin Laden, there is no way to capitalize on that opportunity. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 220-21] The Bush administration fails to resume the submarine patrol. Lacking any means to attack bin Laden, military plans to strike at him are no longer updated after March 2001. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
President Clinton is aware of the links between the Pakistani ISI, Taliban, and al-Qaeda. In his 2005 autobiography, he will explain why he did not warn the Pakistani government more than several minutes in advance that it was firing missiles over Pakistan in an attempt to hit Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (see August 20, 1998). He will write: “Although we were trying to work with Pakistan to defuse tensions on the Indian subcontinent, and our two nations had been allies during the Cold War, Pakistan supported the Taliban and, by extension, al-Qaeda. The Pakistani intelligence service used some of the same camps that bin Laden and al-Qaeda did to train the Taliban and insurgents who fought in Kashmir. If Pakistan had found out about our planned attacks in advance, it was likely that Pakistani intelligence would warn the Taliban or even al-Qaeda.” [Clinton, 2005, pp. 799] Despite this precaution, it appears the ISI successfully warns bin Laden in advance anyway (see August 20, 1998). Clinton takes no firm against against Pakistan for its links to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, such as including Pakistan on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In 1998, President Clinton faces a growing scandal about his sexual relationship with aide Monica Lewinsky, and even faces the possibility of impeachment over the matter. He is publicly interrogated about the scandal on August 17, 1998. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will later claim that he worries Clinton might let the timing of the scandal get in the way of acting on new intelligence to hit Osama bin Laden with a missile strike in retaliation for the recent African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). But Clarke is reassured when Clinton tells his advisers, “Do you all recommend that we strike on the 20th? Fine. Do not give me political advice or personal advice about the timing. That’s my problem. Let me worry about that.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 185-186] Defense Secretary William Cohen also warns Clinton that he will be criticized for changing the subject from the Lewinsky scandal. [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358]
Criticism from Politicians - Clinton gives the go-ahead for the missile strike on August 20th anyway (see August 20, 1998) and is immediately widely criticized for it. In late 1997, there was a popular movie called “Wag the Dog,” based on a fictional president who creates an artificial crisis in order to distract the public from a domestic scandal. Republicans are particularly critical and seize upon a comparison to the movie. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) initially supports the missile strike, but later criticizes it as mere “pinpricks.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 117] Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) says, “The president was considering doing something presidential to try to focus attention away from his personal problems.” [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358-359] Sen. Daniel Coats (R-IN) says, “I just hope and pray the decision that was made was made on the basis of sound judgment, and made for the right reasons, and not made because it was necessary to save the president’s job.” [New York Times, 8/4/2004]
Media Criticism - The media is also very critical, despite a lack of any evidence that Clinton deliberately timed the missile strike as a distraction. Television networks repeatedly show clips of the “Wag the Dog” movie after the missile strike. New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh reports, “Some reporters questioned whether the president had used military force to distract the nation’s attention from the Lewinsky scandal.” [Benjamin and Simon, 2005, pp. 358-359]
9/11 Commission Commentary - The 9/11 Commission will later conclude, “The failure of the strikes, the ‘wag the dog’ slur, the intense partisanship of the period, and the [fact that one of the missile targets probably had no connection to bin Laden (see September 23, 1998)] likely had a cumulative effect on future decisions about the use of force against bin Laden.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 118]
Through its own monitoring of Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone, the CIA determines that he intends to travel to a training camp in Khost, in eastern Afghanistan. The CIA has to use its own equipment to do this because of a dispute with the NSA, which refused to provide it with full details of its intercepts of bin Laden’s calls (see December 1996). Although the CIA can only get half of what the NSA gets, shortly after the attacks on US embassies in East Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), it determines that bin Laden will travel to Khost the next day. On that day, the US launches several missile strikes, one of which is against Khost (see August 20, 1998), but bin Laden does not travel there, evading the missiles. Some will later claim that bin Laden changes his mind on the way there for no particular reason, but there will also be allegations that the Pakistani ISI warned him of the upcoming attack (see July 1999). [Wright, 2006, pp. 283]
Around the time of a US missile strike against al-Qaeda leaders (see August 20, 1998), Ayman al-Zawahiri uses Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone to speak to Rahimullah Yusufzai, a leading Pakistani reporter for the BBC and the Karachi-based News. During the call, Al-Zawahiri denies al-Qaeda is responsible for attacks on two US embassies in East Africa, which killed over 200 people (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998): “Mr. bin Laden has a message. He says, ‘I have not bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. I have declared jihad, but I was not involved.’” Although bin Laden’s trial for the embassy bombings in Afghanistan, arranged by the Taliban, collapses when the US fails to provide sufficient evidence of his involvement (see (October 25-November 20, 1998)), bin Laden is generally thought to have known of and authorized the two attacks. [Wright, 2006, pp. 279, 283]
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]
A US surface ship firing a missile. The date and time is unknown. [Source: PBS]Hours before the US missile strike meant to assassinate bin Laden, he is warned that his satellite phone is being used to track his location and he turns it off. A former CIA official later alleges the warning came from supporters working for Pakistani intelligence, the ISI. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 201-202] It has been claimed that a tracking beacon was placed in bin Laden’s phone when a replacement battery was brought to him in May 1998 (see May 28, 1998). The US military only gave Pakistan about ten minutes’ advance notice that cruise missiles were entering their air space on their way to Afghanistan. This was done to make sure the missiles wouldn’t be misidentified and shot down. [New Yorker, 1/24/2000] But Pakistan was apparently aware several hours earlier, as soon as the missiles were launched. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later claims he was promised by the Navy that it would fire their missiles from below the ocean surface. However, in fact, many destroyers fired their missiles from the surface. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 188-89] He adds, “not only did they use surface ships—they brought additional ones in, because every captain wants to be able to say he fired the cruise missile.” [New Yorker, 7/28/2003] As a result, the ISI had many hours to alert bin Laden. Furthermore, Clarke later says, “I have reason to believe that a retired head of the ISI was able to pass information along to al-Qaeda that an attack was coming.” This is a likely reference to Hamid Gul, director of the ISI in the early 1990’s. [New Yorker, 7/28/2003] In 1999 the US will intercept communications suggesting that Gul played a role in forewarning the Taliban about the missile strike which may even had predated the firing of the cruise missiles (see July 1999). Clarke says he believes that “if the [ISI] wanted to capture bin Laden or tell us where he was, they could have done so with little effort. They did not cooperate with us because ISI saw al-Qaeda as helpful in pressuring India, particularly in Kashmir.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 188-89] Furthermore, bin Laden cancels a meeting with other al-Qaeda leaders after finding out that 180 US diplomats were being immediately withdrawn from Pakistan on a chartered plane. Thanks to these warnings, he is hundreds of miles away from his training camps when the missiles hit some hours later (see August 20, 1998). [Reeve, 1999, pp. 202]
Sayyid Nazir Abbass. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files. [Source: Public domain via Richard Miniter]On August 7, 1998, hours after the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the Sudanese government arrested two suspicious Pakistani men. The men, Sayyid Nazir Abbass and Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, appear to have been involved in the embassy bombings. The Sudanese offered to hand the men over to the FBI (see August 4-19, 1998), but the US chose to bomb a factory in Sudan on August 20 instead, in retaliation for Sudan’s previous support for bin Laden (see August 20, 1998). It quickly emerges that the factory had no link to al-Qaeda and the Sudanese government had no link to the embassy bombings (see September 23, 1998). But despite the factory bombing, the Sudanese continue to hold the two men in hopes to make a deal with the US over them. [Randal, 2005, pp. 138-143] The Sudanese also remind the FBI of the extensive files on al-Qaeda they say they are still willing to share (see March 8, 1996-April 1996, April 5, 1997, and February 5, 1998). The FBI wants to set up a meeting to pursue the offers, but the State Department vetoes the idea. [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002] Journalist Jonathan Randal will later note: “Quite apart from its antipathy to the [Sudanese] regime, [the US] was bogged down trying to sell the botched [factory] attack to querulous Americans. To have taken up the Sudanese offer after the attack risked prompting more embarrassing explaining about why it had not been accepted before.” Meanwhile, the Sudanese are interrogating the two men and learn more about their al-Qaeda connections. For instance, they had listed the manager of a business owned by bin Laden as a reference on their visa applications. Finally, on September 2, 1998, Sudan sends the two men back to Pakistan. They are turned over to the Pakistani ISI, but what happens next is unclear. An NBC Dateline reporter will later attempt to track them down in Pakistan, only to receive a threatening anonymous call to leave or face dire consequences. The reporter gives up the search. One rumor is the ISI immediately allows them to disappear into Afghanistan. Another rumor is that the Pakistani government later trades them to bin Laden to buy off radicals who could threaten the government. [Randal, 2005, pp. 138-143]
In the wake of the US missile strike on Afghanistan (see August 20, 1998), the Taliban is under intense pressure to turn over bin Laden or face further attacks. Several days later, top Taliban leader Mullah Omar announces that he does not know where bin Laden is, except that he is no longer in Afghanistan. Journalist Kathy Gannon will later claim that the Pakistan army secretly gave bin Laden sanctuary in Pakistan at this time to ease US pressure on the Taliban. Taliban fighters traveling with bin Laden will later tell Gannon about a convoy of around 20 vehicles that brought bin Laden to Chirat, a commando training base in northwest Pakistan. He stayed there with his bodyguards and some senior Taliban leaders for several weeks. Gannon will later comment, “Mullah Omar needed some breathing space and Pakistan provided it.” [Gannon, 2005, pp. 163-164]
After being asked by Taliban leader Mullah Omar (see August 22, 1998), the US sends the Taliban a cable about bin Laden’s activities. The cable states, “We have detailed and solid evidence that Osama bin Laden has been engaged and is still engaged in planning, organizing, and funding acts of international terror.” However, the sections on the various plots in which bin Laden is supposed to have been involved are brief and do not include supporting evidence. For example, the Yemen bombing in 1992 (see December 29, 1992) is described in a single sentence: “Bin Laden and his network conspired to kill US servicemen in Yemen who were on their way to participate in the humanitarian mission ‘Operation Restore Hope’ in Somalia in 1992.” [US Department of State, 8/23/1998 ] Afghanistan’s supreme court will later acquit bin Laden of his involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings (see (October 25-November 20, 1998)) because of the US’s refusal to provide the court with the requested evidence.
Al-Qaeda’s communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen. [Source: PBS NOVA]The investigation of the East Africa embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998) led to the discovery of the phone number of an al-Qaeda communications hub in Sana’a, Yemen (see August 4-25, 1998). The hub is run by an al-Qaeda veteran named Ahmed al-Hada, who is helped by his son Samir and is related to many other al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and elsewhere. He is also the father in law of 9/11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, whose wife, Hoda al-Hada, lives at the hub with their children. [Newsweek, 6/2/2002; Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; MSNBC, 7/21/2004; Suskind, 2006, pp. 94; Wright, 2006, pp. 277, 309, 343, 378] Several of Ahmed al-Hada’s relatives die fighting for al-Qaeda before 9/11, a fact known to US intelligence. [Los Angeles Times, 12/21/2005; Guardian, 2/15/2006] The NSA may already be aware of the phone number, as they have been intercepting Osama bin Laden’s communications for some time (see November 1996-Late August 1998) and, according to Newsweek, “some” of bin Laden’s 221 calls to Yemen are to this phone number. [Newsweek, 2/18/2002; Sunday Times (London), 3/24/2002; Media Channel, 9/5/2006] The US intelligence community now begins a joint effort to monitor the number. The NSA and CIA jointly plant bugs inside the house, tap the phones, and monitor visitors with spy satellites. [Mirror, 6/9/2002; Wright, 2006, pp. 343; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ] US intelligence also learns that the communications hub is an al-Qaeda “logistics center,” used by agents around the world to communicate with each other and plan attacks. [Newsweek, 6/2/2002] The joint effort enables the FBI to map al-Qaeda’s global organization (see Late 1998-Early 2002) and at least three of the hijackers use the number, enabling the NSA to intercept their communications and find out about an important al-Qaeda meeting in Malaysia (see December 29, 1999 and January 5-8, 2000 and Early 2000-Summer 2001). It appears al-Qaeda continues to use this phone line until Samir al-Hada dies resisting arrest in early 2002 (see February 13, 2002).
Following the cruise missile attack on al-Qaeda targets on August 20 (see August 20, 1998), immediate plans are made for follow up attacks to make sure bin Laden is killed. However, on this day, Defense Secretary William Cohen is advised that available targets are not promising. Some question the use of expensive missiles to hit very primitive training camps, and there is the concern that if bin Laden is not killed, his stature will only grow further. As discussions continue, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke prepares a plan he calls “Delenda,” which means “to destroy” in Latin. His idea is to have regular, small strikes in Afghanistan whenever the intelligence warrants it. The plan is rejected. Counterterrorism officials in the Defense Secretary’s office independently create a similar plan, but it too is rejected. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004] The Delenda Plan also calls for diplomacy against the Taliban, covert action focused in Afghanistan, and financial measures to freeze bin Laden-related funds. These aspects are not formally adopted, but they guide future efforts. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
Essam Marzouk. [Source: Public domain]In mid-August 1998, the Mossad intercepts a phone call indicating that an Egyptian militant named Ihab Saqr is planning to meet an Iranian intelligence agent in a hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, in one week’s time. Saqr is believed to be Ayman al-Zawahiri’s chief of staff. The Mossad is very interested in the Iranian connection but they have no presence in Azerbaijan, so they contact the CIA. The CIA leads a capture operation, with one Mossad agent, Michael Ross, also in attendance. The CIA captures Saqr and two men he is meeting with, but neither of them turn out to be Iranian. The other men are Essam Marzouk and Ahmad Salama Mabruk. Marzouk is an al-Qaeda explosives expert who has just trained the men who bombed two US embassies in Africa earlier in the month. He had been living in Canada and Canadian intelligence has long been suspicious about his militant ties. Mabruk is a known member of Islamic Jihad’s ruling council. The US quickly renditions Saqr, Marzouk, and Mabruk to Egypt. Marzouk is sentenced to 15 years in prison, Mabruk is sentenced to life in prison, and Saqr’s fate in Egypt is unknown. [National Post, 10/15/2005; Ross and Kay, 2007, pp. 214-224] The US discovers a treasure trove of information about al-Qaeda and Islamic Jihad in Mabruk’s laptop (see Late August 1998). But it is unclear why the US was seemingly in the dark and only arresting these figures by chance, because US intelligence had long been monitoring calls between Osama bin Laden and Mabruk in Baku (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Furthermore, Canadian intelligence had also monitored many calls between Mabruk and an Islamic Jihad operative in Canada. (Note that some accounts place the timing of this capture in July 1998, but Canadian intelligence is monitoring Mabruk’s communications up through and after the embassy bombings in August (see August 5-7, 1998 and August 8, 1998 and Shortly After).)
KSM’s name is not included in this US wanted poster of embassy bombing suspects. The names included are: Mustafa Mohammed Fadhil, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Fahid Mohammed Ally Msalam, and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. [Source: US State Department]According the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, shortly after the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), a foreign government sends the CIA a list of individuals who flew into Nairobi before the attack. The CIA recognizes that one of the names is an alias for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM). The report that identified this alias also describes KSM as being close to bin Laden. [US Congress, 7/24/2003] Yet the 9/11 Commission will fail to mention KSM’s role in the embassy bombings and instead will suggest that KSM is not yet a member of al-Qaeda at this time and only joined al-Qaeda after being impressed by the results of the embassy bombings. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 149-150]
Bin Laden’s satellite phone is being monitored by US intelligence at the time of the US embassy bombings in early August 1998 (see November 1996-Late August 1998 and 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998).
Washington Times Article Falsely Blamed - On August 21, 1998, an article in the Washington Times says of bin Laden, “He keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones…” The Washington Post will later note, “The information in the article does not appear to be based on any government leak and made no reference to government surveillance of bin Laden’s phone.” Other articles published on the same day make similar claims. However, it will become widely believed that this article causes bin Laden to stop using his satellite phone, which is being secretly monitored by the US (see November 1996-Late August 1998). [Washington Post, 12/20/2005] For instance, the 9/11 Commission will later blame this article and President Bush will repeat the story in late 2005. However, bin Laden’s use of a satellite phone was already widely publicized. For instance, in December 1996, Time magazine noted that bin Laden “uses satellite phones to contact fellow Islamic militants in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.” In 1997, bin Laden actually talked in a CNN interview about his use of satellite phones.
First Mention that US Was Monitoring His Calls in September - It is only on September 7, 1998, after bin Laden apparently stopped using his phone, that the Los Angeles Times is the first newspaper to mention that the US is monitoring his calls. The article says that US authorities “used their communications intercept capacity to pick up calls placed by bin Laden on his Inmarsat satellite phone, despite his apparent use of electronic ‘scramblers.’” [Washington Post, 12/22/2005]
Bin Laden Tipped Off by Missile Strike? - One possible explanation is that bin Laden stops using his phone after the August 1998 missile strike aimed at him (see August 20, 1998) for fear that the phone was used as a homing device for the missiles. The phone was in fact used as a homing device, and Defense Secretary William Cohen publicly acknowledged this by early 2001. The missile strike took place just one day before the Washington Times article. [United Press International, 2/21/2001] In 1998, a US man named Tarik Hamdi delivered a new battery for bin Laden’s phone. A former head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center has stated that the battery was somehow bugged to improve US monitoring of bin Laden (see May 28, 1998).
Bin Laden Tipped Off before the Strike? - Another possibility is that bin Laden stopped using his phone just before the missile strike. Sunday Times reporter Simon Reeve claims the Pakistani ISI warned him about the strike hours before it happened, and told him that his phone use was being monitored by the US (see August 20, 1998). [Reeve, 1999, pp. 201-202]
By this time, US intelligence has documented many links between the Pakistani ISI, Taliban, and al-Qaeda. It is discovered that the ISI maintains about eight stations inside Afghanistan which are staffed by active or retired ISI officers. The CIA has learned that ISI officers at about the colonel level regularly meet with bin Laden or his associates to coordinate access to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The CIA suspects that the ISI is giving money and/or equipment to bin Laden, but they find no evidence of direct ISI involvement in al-Qaeda’s overseas attacks. The ISI generally uses the training camps to train operatives to fight a guerrilla war in the disputed Indian province of Kashmir. But while these ISI officers are following Pakistani policy in a broad sense, the CIA believes the ISI has little direct control over them. One senior Clinton administration official will later state that it was “assumed that those ISI individuals were perhaps profiteering, engaged in the drug running, the arms running.” One US official aware of CIA reporting at this time later comments that Clinton’s senior policy team saw “an incredibly unholy alliance that was not only supporting all the terrorism that would be directed against us” but also threatening “to provoke a nuclear war in Kashmir.” [Coll, 2004, pp. 439-440]
US intelligence uncovers information that bin Laden’s next operation could possibly involve crashing an aircraft loaded with explosives into a US airport. This information is provided to senior US officials. [US Congress, 9/18/2002; Washington Post, 9/19/2002]
In the wake of the US embassy bombings in Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), the US arrests Wadih El-Hage, who will later be convicted for his role in those bombings. Looking through his diaries, investigators discover a reference to a “joint venture” between al-Qaeda and the Holy Land Foundation, a charity based in Texas known for its support of Hamas. The name and phone number of a Texas man connected to Holy Land is also found in El-Hage’s address book (see September 16, 1998-September 5, 2001). The US had considered taking action against Holy Land in 1995 (see January 1995-April 1996) and again in 1997 (1997). Yet, as the Wall Street Journal will later note, “Even when [this] evidence surfaced in 1998 suggesting a tie between the foundation and Osama bin Laden, federal investigators didn’t act.” [Wall Street Journal, 2/27/2002]
According to Saudi intelligence minister Prince Turki al-Faisal, he participates in a second meeting with Taliban leader Mullah Omar at this time. Supposedly, earlier in the year Omar made a secret deal with Turki to hand bin Laden over to Saudi Arabia (see June 1998) and Turki is now ready to finalize the deal. ISI Director Gen. Naseem Rana is at the meeting as well. But in the wake of the US missile bombing of Afghanistan (August 20, 1998), Omar yells at Turki and denies ever having made a deal. Turki leaves empty handed. [Wright, 2006, pp. 244] However, other reports stand in complete contrast to this, suggesting that earlier in the year Turki colluded with the ISI to support bin Laden, not capture him (see May 1996 and July 1998).
Mamdouh Mahmud Salim. [Source: FBI]Mamdouh Mahmud Salim (a.k.a. Abu Hajer), an al-Qaeda operative from the United Arab Emirates connected to the 1998 East African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), is arrested at a used car dealership near Munich, Germany. He is arrested by a special commando unit of German police, with CIA agents directing them nearby. The German government has no idea who Salim is, and the US only notified Germany about the planned arrest five hours in advance. [PBS, 9/30/1998; Der Spiegel (Hamburg), 12/12/2005] The 9/11 Congressional Inquiry will later say that Salim was Osama bin Laden’s “right hand man,” and “head of bin Laden’s computer operations and weapons procurement.” He is also “the most senior-level bin Laden operative arrested” up until this time. [New York Times, 9/29/2001; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 51 ] Author Lawrence Wright will later note that bin Laden and Salim worked together in Afghanistan in the 1980s, “forging such powerful bonds that no one could get between them.” Salim was also one of the founding members of al-Qaeda (see August 11-20, 1988) and bin Laden’s personal imam (i.e., preacher). [Wright, 2006, pp. 131, 170] Starting in 1995, Salim had been making frequent visits to Germany. Mamoun Darkazanli, who lives in Hamburg and associates with Mohamed Atta’s al-Qaeda cell, had signing powers over Salim’s bank account. Both men attended Al-Quds mosque, the same Hamburg mosque as future 9/11 hijackers Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi attend. [Vanity Fair, 1/2002] The FBI learns much from Salim about al-Qaeda, and this information could be useful to the US embassy bombings investigation. However, the FBI is unwilling to brief its German counterparts on what it knows about Salim and al-Qaeda. [New York Times, 9/29/2001]
The destroyed Al Shifa factory. [Source: Yannick Lemieux]Senior Clinton administration officials admit they had no evidence directly linking bin Laden to the Al Shifa factory at the time of retaliatory strikes on August 20, 1998 (see August 20, 1998). However, intelligence officials assert that they found financial transactions between bin Laden and the Military Industrial Corporation—a company run by the Sudan’s government. [New York Times, 9/23/1998; PBS Frontline, 2001] A soil sample is said to show that the pharmaceutical factory was producing chemical weapons, but many doubts about the sample later arise. [New York Times, 9/21/1998; New Yorker, 10/12/1998] Two anonymous US officials will later tell NBC that the soil sample was not taken at the factory, but across the street. It also comes to light that the person the US thought owned the factory in fact had sold it five months earlier. The Sudanese government asks for a US or UN investigation of the attack, but the US is not interested. [Randal, 2005, pp. 139-140] The US later unfreezes the bank accounts of the factory owner, Salah Idriss, and takes other conciliatory actions, but admits no wrongdoing. It is later learned that of the six camps targeted in Afghanistan, only four were hit, and of those, only one had definitive connections to bin Laden. Clinton declares that the missiles were aimed at a “gathering of key terrorist leaders,” but it is later revealed that the referenced meeting took place a month earlier, in Pakistan. [Observer, 8/23/1998; New Yorker, 1/24/2000]
Julie Sirrs. [Source: Julie Sirrs]Julie Sirrs, a military analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), travels to Afghanistan. Fluent in local languages and knowledgeable about the culture, she made a previous undercover trip there in October 1997. She is surprised that the CIA was not interested in sending in agents after the failed missile attack on Osama bin Laden in August 1998, so she returns at this time. Traveling undercover, she meets with Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. She sees a terrorist training center in Taliban-controlled territory. Sirrs will later claim: “The Taliban’s brutal regime was being kept in power significantly by bin Laden’s money, plus the narcotics trade, while [Massoud’s] resistance was surviving on a shoestring. With even a little aid to the Afghan resistance, we could have pushed the Taliban out of power. But there was great reluctance by the State Department and the CIA to undertake that.” She partly blames the interest of the US government and the oil company Unocal to see the Taliban achieve political stability to enable a trans-Afghanistan pipeline (see May 1996 and September 27, 1996). She claims, “Massoud told me he had proof that Unocal had provided money that helped the Taliban take Kabul.” She also states, “The State Department didn’t want to have anything to do with Afghan resistance, or even, politically, to reveal that there was any viable option to the Taliban.” After two weeks, Sirrs returns with a treasure trove of maps, photographs, and interviews. [ABC News, 2/18/2002; ABC News, 2/18/2002; New York Observer, 3/11/2004] By interviewing captured al-Qaeda operatives, she learns that the official Afghanistan airline, Ariana Airlines, is being used to ferry weapons and drugs, and learns that bin Laden goes hunting with “rich Saudis and top Taliban officials” (see Mid-1996-October 2001 and 1995-2001). [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] When Sirrs returns from Afghanistan, her material is confiscated and she is accused of being a spy. Says one senior colleague, “She had gotten the proper clearances to go, and she came back with valuable information,” but high level officials “were so intent on getting rid of her, the last thing they wanted to pay attention to was any information she had.” Sirrs is cleared of wrongdoing, but her security clearance is pulled. She eventually quits the DIA in frustration in 1999. [ABC News, 2/18/2002; New York Observer, 3/11/2004] Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) will claim that the main DIA official behind the punishment of Sirrs is Lieutenant General Patrick Hughes, who later becomes “one of the top officials running the Department of Homeland Security.” [Dana Rohrabacher, 6/21/2004]
Entity Tags: Taliban, Unocal, Osama bin Laden, US Department of State, Northern Alliance, Patrick Hughes, Defense Intelligence Agency, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Al-Qaeda, Julie Sirrs, Central Intelligence Agency, Dana Rohrabacher, Ariana Airlines
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline
The FAA issues the first of three warnings this year to US airports and airlines urging a “high degree of vigilance” against threats to US civil aviation from al-Qaeda. It specifically warns against a possible terrorist hijacking “at a metropolitan airport in the Eastern United States.” The information is based on statements made by Osama bin Laden and other Islamic leaders, and intelligence obtained after the US cruise missile attacks in August. All three warnings come in late 1998, well before 9/11. [Boston Globe, 5/26/2002]
A training exercise, code-named Poised Response, is held at the FBI’s headquarter in Washington, DC, based around a possible terrorist attack in the nation’s capital. US Attorney General Janet Reno invites 200 policemen from the Washington metropolitan area to participate. They have to consider four scenarios: a car bombing, an explosive device in a federal building, an assassination attempt on Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and a chemical weapon attack on a Washington Redskins football game. As Time magazine later describes, while the exercise participants are “never told which terrorist might carry out such an audacious attack, Reno and other top Administration aides had one man in mind: Osama bin Laden, whose Afghan camp had been blasted by US cruise missiles two months earlier. His operatives might be coming to town soon.” Time will report there being evidence that bin Laden could be planning to strike Washington or New York (see December 21, 1998). Reportedly, Poised Response is unsuccessful, quickly degenerating into interagency squabbling, and Reno leaves it feeling uneasy. [Agence France-Presse, 12/15/1998; Time, 12/21/1998; Washington Times, 5/17/2002]
The Defense Intelligence Agency acquires a report on the connections between Osama bin Laden and Chechen rebel leader Ibn Khattab. The report states that Ibn Khattab fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan and established training camps in Chechnya at bin Laden’s request. It also says that bin Laden has met with Chechen leaders and agreed to help them with “financial supplies”, and that the Chechen camps will be used to train European militants to conduct kidnappings and terrorist acts against French, Israeli, US, and British citizens. A direct route from Afghanistan to Chechnya has been established through Turkey and Azerbaijan, and is being used for “volunteers”, as well as drug smuggling. [Defense Intelligence Agency, 10/16/1998 ] What US intelligence knows about the relationship between Ibn Khattab and bin Laden will play an important role in the handling of the Zacarias Moussaoui case just before 9/11 (see August 22, 2001 and August 24, 2001).
It is reported that some of the many thousands of Saudi royal family members are aiding bin Laden. Dick Gannon, who retired several months before as deputy director for operations of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, says, “We’ve got information about who’s backing bin Laden, and in a lot of cases it goes back to the royal family… There are certain factions of the Saudi royal family who just don’t like us.” Paradoxically, this support comes despite bin Laden’s repeated calls to overthrow the Saudi royal family. [US News and World Report, 10/19/1998]
After the Taliban is warned that bin Laden has been accused of involvement in the recent 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), it initiates judicial proceedings against him. But when the US fails to provide Afghanistan’s supreme court with sufficient evidence, bin Laden is acquitted. [Associated Press, 11/20/1998] The Taliban has already received some claims regarding bin Laden’s involvement in terrorism from the US (see August 23, 1998), but these are insufficient and more evidence is requested. Originally, there is no cut-off date for supplying evidence, but when the US does nothing, the Taliban leaders become frustrated and announce a time limit on the inquiry: “If anyone has any evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in cases of terrorism, subversion, sabotage, or any other acts, they should get it to the court before November 20. If by then there is nothing, we will close the case and in our eyes he will be acquitted.” In a November 10 cable the US embassy in Pakistan, which also handles Afghan affairs, comments: “The Taliban appear to many observers not to be totally unreasonable in their demand that the US provide them evidence on bin Laden.” [US Embassy (Islamabad), 11/10/1998 ] The US then sends the Taliban a video of an interview bin Laden gave CNN in 1997, a transcript of his ABC 1998 interview, and a copy of his US indictment for the embassy bombings. [US Department of State, 11/11/1998 ] The inquiry is headed by the country’s chief justice, Noor Mohamed Saqib. After the evidence is found not to be enough and bin Laden is set free, Saqib comments: “It is their shame that they have been silent. America is wrong about bin Laden… Anything that happens now anywhere in the world they blame Osama, but the reality is in the proof and they have not given us any. It’s over and America has not presented any evidence. Without any evidence, bin Laden is a man without sin… he is a free man.” [Associated Press, 11/20/1998] However, the State Department says that it did not “endorse, support, or request” the sharia court trial, but simply wanted bin Laden extradited. A White House spokesperson says, “Without commenting on the rigor of the Taliban judicial system, it is clear that Mr. bin Laden is a proven threat to US national interests.” [US Department of State, 11/11/1998 ; Associated Press, 11/20/1998] The Taliban’s leadership is not satisfied with the outcome of the trial and will subsequently ask the US for help in getting rid of bin Laden (see November 28, 1998).
According to the 1999 book The New Jackals by journalist Simon Reeve, bin Laden is nearly poisoned to death this month. The operation “involved American technology and know-how in concert with Saudi finance and manpower, thus avoiding any difficult questions in the US Congress about state-sponsored assassinations. The attack involved an assassin called Siddiq Ahmed who was paid $267,000 to poison bin Laden. It was only partially successful, causing acute kidney failure.” [Reeve, 1999, pp. 204] Apparently, different Saudi factions have vastly different attitudes towards bin Laden, because the same book claims that around this same time, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi intelligence minister, may have met with senior Taliban leaders to extract guarantees of support for bin Laden, to ensure the Taliban would not hand bin Laden over to the US. [Reeve, 1999, pp. 191] No post-9/11 investigations will mention this alleged poisoning incident.
The Kemal Ataturk mausoleum in Ankara, Turkey. [Source: Noha El-Hennawy / Los Angeles Times]US intelligence learns that a Turkish extremist group named Kaplancilar, led by Metin Kaplan and based in Cologne, Germany, had planned a suicide attack. The conspirators, who have been arrested, planned to crash an airplane packed with explosives into the Kemal Ataturk mausoleum in Ankara during a government ceremony. The Turkish press says the group has cooperated with Osama bin Laden, and the FBI includes this incident in a bin Laden database. [New York Times, 2/5/2002; US Congress, 9/18/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003 ]
US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announcing the indictment of Osama bin Laden. [Source: Henny Ray Abrams/ Agence France-Presse/ Getty Images]The US publicly indicts bin Laden, Mohammed Atef, and others for the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden had been secretly indicted on different charges earlier in the year in June (see June 8, 1998). Record $5 million rewards are announced for information leading to his arrest and the arrest of Mohammed Atef. [PBS Frontline, 2001] Shortly thereafter, bin Laden allocates $9 million in reward money for the assassinations of four US government officials in response to the reward on him. A year later, it is learned that the secretary of state, defense secretary, FBI director, and CIA director are the targets. [US Congress, 9/18/2002; MSNBC, 9/18/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003 ]
Senior Taliban spokesman Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil meets diplomats from the US embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, to examine new ways of resolving the problem of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan after judicial proceedings against him collapse there (see (October 25-November 20, 1998)). Ahmed expresses his opinion that Taliban leaders are caught between “a rock and a hard place” since, if they expel bin Laden without cause they will have internal problems and, if they do not, they will have external ones due to the US. Ahmed suggests that the Saudis have a key to the solution. Afghan and Saudi religious scholars could convene a joint meeting and issue a ruling that bin Laden had acted illegally, for example by holding a news conference when he was under a communication ban. He could then be expelled without this causing internal unrest in Afghanistan and the problem would be resolved “in minutes, not hours.” The US would be happy if bin Laden were expelled to Saudi Arabia or Egypt, but the Saudis apparently do not favor a joint meeting and the proposal is not acted upon. [US Department of State, 11/28/1998 ]
William Wechsler. [Source: CAP]Shortly after the US embassy bombings in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), the US launches a new interagency effort to track bin Laden’s finances. There had been a previous interagency effort in 1995 but it had fizzled (see October 21, 1995). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke sets up a task force. He orders it to find out how much money bin Laden has, where it comes from, how it is distributed, and to stop it. Clarke appoints William Wechsler, a National Security Council staff member, to head the task force. The task force begins an investigation of bin Laden’s finances (see Late 1998). Clarke later writes that he and Wechsler “quickly [come] to the conclusion that the [US government] departments [are] generally doing a lousy job of tracking and disrupting international criminals’ financial networks and had done little or nothing against terrorist financing.” [New York Times, 9/20/2001; Clarke, 2004, pp. 190-191] Clarke will later claim there was only limited effort from within the US government to fight bin Laden’s financial network. He will assert that within weeks of setting up the interagency effort, it was determined that only one person in the US government, a lowly Treasury Department official, appeared to have any expertise about the hawala system, an informal and paperless money transfer system used by al-Qaeda that is popular with Muslim populations worldwide (see 1993-September 11, 2001). Clarke will later write that the “CIA knew little about the [hawala] system, but set about learning. FBI knew even less, and set about doing nothing.” The FBI claims there are no hawalas in the US, but Wechsler finds several in New York City using a simple Internet search. Clarke will say, “Despite our repeated requests over the following years, nobody from the FBI ever could answer even our most basic questions about the number, location, and activities of major hawalas in the US—much less taken action.” The efforts of other departments are not much better. The one Treasury official with some expertise about hawalas is eventually let go before 9/11. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 192-193] Efforts to pressure governments overseas also meet with little success (see August 20, 1998-1999).
In late 1998, a new US interagency task force is created to track bin Laden’s finances (see Late 1998). The task force asks for help from the CIA’s Illicit Transactions Group (ITG), a little known entity keeping track of criminals, militants, and money launderers. The task force and ITG scour US intelligence data on al-Qaeda’s finances and soon discover that the assumption that al-Qaeda gets most of its funds from bin Laden’s huge personal fortune and numerous businesses is wrong. While he does have a fortune, according to William Wechsler, the task force director, al-Qaeda is “a constant fundraising machine.” The evidence is indisputable that most of the money is coming from Saudi Arabia. [US News and World Report, 12/15/2003] However, what little pressure the US will put on Saudi Arabia before 9/11 to stop the funding of al-Qaeda will have no effect (see August 20, 1998-1999 and June 1999).
Shortly after an August 1998 US missile strike on Afghanistan (see August 20, 1998), bin Laden stops using his satellite phone, correctly deciding that it was being monitored by US intelligence (see Late August 1998). According to counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, al-Qaeda quickly “developed a system to deceive those monitoring his calls. [But] Western security and intelligence agencies were soon able to monitor the new system, which was based on transferring international calls within safe houses in Pakistan to make them seem like domestic calls.” Other al-Qaeda leaders such as Abu Zubaida will be frequently monitored as they make calls using this new system (see October 1998 and After). Gunaratna later claims to have learned this from a confidential source in a “communications monitoring agency” in Western Europe. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 15-16, 3291] It is not known how long it took until al-Qaeda realized this new system was compromised, but there are accounts of bin Laden and Zubaida’s calls being monitored days before 9/11 (see Early September 2001, September 9, 2001, and Early September 2001).
According to a US intelligence assessment, “[bin Laden] is actively planning against US targets and already may have positioned operatives for at least one operation.… Multiple reports indicate [he] is keenly interested in striking the US on its own soil… Al-Qaeda is recruiting operatives for attacks in the US but has not yet identified potential targets.” Later in the month, a classified document prepared by the CIA and signed by President Clinton states: “The intelligence community has strong indications that bin Laden intends to conduct or sponsor attacks inside the US.” [US Congress, 9/18/2002; Washington Post, 9/19/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003 ; US Congress, 7/24/2003] This warning will be mentioned in the August 2001 memo given to President Bush entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” (see August 6, 2001).
Mohammed Shawqui Islambouli. [Source: Public domain]On December 4, 1998, an item in President Clinton’s Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) is titled, “Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks.” The PDB says “Bin Laden and is allies are preparing for attacks in the US, including an aircraft hijacking to obtain the release of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, Ramzi Yousef, and Muhammad Sadiq ‘Awda. One source quoted a senior member of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (IG) saying that, as of late October, the IG had completed planning for an operation in the US on behalf of bin Laden, but that the operation was on hold. A senior bin Laden operative from Saudi Arabia was to visit IG counterparts in the US soon thereafter to discuss options-perhaps including an aircraft hijacking.” The same source says bin Laden may implement plans to hijack US aircraft before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on December 20 and that two members of the operational team had evaded security checks in a recent trial run at a New York airport. A possible different source says that in late September, Mohammed Shawqui Islambouli, brother of the assassin of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and described in the PDB as an IG leader, was planning to hijack a US airliner during the “next couple of weeks” to free Abdul-Rahman and other prisoners. The PDB also says that “some members of the bin Laden network have received hijack training, according to various sources, but no group directly tied to bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization has ever carried out an aircraft hijacking. Bin Laden could be weighing other types of operations against US aircraft.” The PDB mentions other bin Laden related threats, including recent reports that the IG has obtained surface-to-air missiles and intends to move them from Yemen to Saudi Arabia to shoot down aircraft. [Washington Post, 7/18/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 128-130] The private intelligence group Stratfor will later say that, in addition to his ties with IG, Islambouli worked with bin Laden in the Maktab al-Khidamat charity front in Pakistan and is believed to have lived in Afghanistan in the 1990s as “part of the group of key Egyptian advisers surrounding bin Laden.” Islambouli will formally join with al-Qaeda in 2006. [Stratfor, 8/10/2006] In early 1998, the CIA ignored information from a recently retired CIA agent that claimed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was in a terrorist cell with Islambouli, both were experts on plane hijackings, and were planning to hijack planes (see Early 1998). Perhaps not coincidentally, on this same day, CIA Director George Tenet issues a “declaration of war” against al-Qaeda in a memo to the US intelligence community (see December 4, 1998). Also on this day, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke holds a meeting of his interagency Counterterrorism and Security Group (CSG) to discuss the threat. The group agrees that New York City airports should go on a maximum security alert that weekend and security should be boosted at other East Coast airports. The FBI, FAA, and New York City Police Department get versions of the PDB report. Later in December and again in January 1999 the source says the hijacking has been postponed because two operatives have been arrested in Washington or New York. But the FBI is unable to find any information to support the threat nor is it able to verify any arrests similar to what the source described, and the source remains mysterious. The high alert in New York airports is canceled by the end of January. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 128-130] This PDB will be mentioned in President Bush’s famous August 6, 2001 PDB, but mentions that US officials “have not been able to corroborate” the plot (see August 6, 2001).
Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Federal Aviation Administration, Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, Richard A. Clarke, Counterterrorism and Security Group, Ramzi Yousef, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Mohammed Shawqui Islambouli, Muhammad Sadiq ‘Awda, Osama bin Laden, New York City Police Department, Maktab al-Khidamat
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
CIA Director George Tenet issues a “declaration of war” on al-Qaeda, in a memorandum circulated in the intelligence community. This is ten months after bin Laden’s fatwa on the US (see February 22, 1998), which is called a “de facto declaration of war” by a senior US official in 1999. Tenet says, “We must now enter a new phase in our effort against bin Laden.… each day we all acknowledge that retaliation is inevitable and that its scope may be far larger than we have previously experienced.… We are at war.… I want no resources or people spared in this efforts [sic], either inside CIA or the [larger intelligence] community.” Yet a Congressional joint committee later finds that few FBI agents ever hear of the declaration. Tenet’s fervor does not “reach the level in the field that is critical so [FBI agents] know what their priorities are.” In addition, even as the counterterrorism budget continues to grow generally, there is no massive shift in budget or personnel until after 9/11. For example, the number of CIA personnel assigned to the Counterterrorist Center (CTC) stays roughly constant until 9/11, then nearly doubles from approximately 400 to approximately 800 in the wake of 9/11. The number of CTC analysts focusing on al-Qaeda rises from three in 1999 to five by 9/11. [New York Times, 9/18/2002; US Congress, 9/18/2002] Perhaps not coincidentally, on the same day Tenet issues his declaration, President Clinton is given a briefing entitled “Bin Laden Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks” and US intelligence scrambles to respond to this threat (see December 4, 1998).
The governor’s mansion in Kandahar, Afghanistan. [Source: CBC]On December 18, 2000, CIA receives a tip that bin Laden will be staying overnight on December 20 at the governor’s mansion in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Missile strikes are readied against him. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 130-131] Gary Schroen, head of the CIA’s Pakistan office, e-mails CIA headquarters with the message, “Hit him tonight—we may not get another chance.” However, principal advisers to President Clinton agree not to recommend a strike because of doubts about the intelligence and worries about collateral damage. The military estimates the attacks will kill about 200 people, presumably most of them innocent bystanders. Schroen will later recall, “It struck me as rather insane, frankly. They decided not to attack bin Laden because he was in a building in fairly close proximity to a mosque. And they were afraid that some of the shrapnel was going to hit the mosque and somehow offend the Muslim world, and so they decided not to shoot on that occasion. That’s the kind of reason for not shooting that the policy maker, anyway, came up with endlessly.” [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; CBC, 9/12/2006] Later intelligence appears to show that bin Laden left before the strike could be readied, but some aware of the intelligence felt it was a chance that should have been taken anyway. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 130-131] In the wake of this incident, officials attempt to find alternatives to cruise missiles, such a precision strike aircraft. However, US Central Command Chief General Anthony Zinni is apparently opposed to deployment of these aircraft near Afghanistan, and they are not deployed. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
In a Time magazine cover story entitled “The Hunt for Osama,” it is reported that intelligence sources “have evidence that bin Laden may be planning his boldest move yet—a strike on Washington or possibly New York City in an eye-for-an-eye retaliation. ‘We’ve hit his headquarters, now he hits ours,’ says a State Department aide.”
In an interview with ABC News, bin Laden says, “As for Pakistan, there are some governmental departments, which, by the Grace of God, respond to the Islamic sentiments of the masses in Pakistan. This is reflected in sympathy and cooperation. However, some other governmental departments fell into the trap of the infidels…”
[ABC News, 1/2/1999] A Slate article will call this “bin Laden obliquely express[ing] gratitude to his ISI friends.”
In an interview for Time magazine held on this date, Osama bin Laden is asked whether he was responsible for the August 1998 African embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). He replies, “If the instigation for jihad against the Jews and the Americans in order to liberate [Islamic shrines in Mecca and Medina] is considered a crime, then let history be a witness that I am a criminal. Our job is to instigate and, by the grace of God, we did that—and certain people responded to this instigation.… I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America.” He admits knowing certain people accused of being behind the bombing, such as Wadih El-Hage and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, but denies they had any connection to the bombings. [Time, 1/11/1999; Globe and Mail, 10/5/2001]
President Bill Clinton signs a memorandum of notification authorizing the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden. The memo is sent to Clinton by National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, apparently at the request of CIA Director George Tenet, who has discussed the memo with Berger and seems to have given it his blessing. The highly classified memo concerns operations by a group of CIA tribal assets in Afghanistan who are monitoring bin Laden. Their task had previously been to capture bin Laden and they had been banned from assassinating him, but these rules are now changed and a kill operation is authorized. The memo makes it very clear that “the president [is] telling the tribal leaders they could kill bin Laden.” 9/11 Commission Executive Director Philip Zelikow will later recall the memo tells the tribal leaders: “you may conduct an operation to kill him,” adding, “There were no euphemisms in the language.” Although the CIA is still legally prevented from assassinating people, Clinton administration lawyers now say that bin Laden is an imminent danger to the US, so he can be killed as a part of pre-emptive self-defense. Despite his role in drafting the memo, Tenet and his deputies will later claim to the 9/11 Commission that Clinton never issued such clear authorization (see Before January 14, 2004). However, the order to assassinate bin Laden is garbled within the CIA and the CIA’s bin Laden unit appears not to receive it (see December 26, 1998 and After). [Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 357-8]
Top: a protest sign in a late 1998 Pakistan protest reads: “Down Down Clinton! Long Live Laden!” Bottom: a children’s toy featuring bin Laden from the late 1990s. [Source: National Geographic]According to reports, the failed US missile attack against bin Laden on August 20, 1998 greatly elevates bin Laden’s stature in the Muslim world. A US defense analyst later states, “I think that raid really helped elevate bin Laden’s reputation in a big way, building him up in the Muslim world.… My sense is that because the attack was so limited and incompetent, we turned this guy into a folk hero.” [Washington Post, 10/3/2001] An Asia Times article published just prior to 9/11 suggests that because of the failed attack, “a very strong Muslim lobby emerge[s] to protect [bin Laden’s] interests. This includes Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, as well as senior Pakistani generals. Crown Prince Abdullah has good relations with bin Laden as both are disciples of slain Sheikh Abdullah Azzam (see 1985-1989).” [Asia Times, 8/22/2001] In early 1999, Pakistani President Musharraf complains that by demonizing bin Laden, the US has turned him into a cult hero. The US decides to play down the importance of bin Laden. [United Press International, 4/9/2004]
Henry Shelton. [Source: US Military]National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright repeatedly seek consideration of a “boots on the ground” option to kill bin Laden, using the elite Delta Force. Clinton also supports the idea, telling Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Henry Shelton, “You know, it would scare the sh_t out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.” However, Shelton says he wants “nothing to do” with such an idea. He calls it naive, and ridicules it as “going Hollywood.” He says he would need a large force, not just a small team. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001] Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke similiarly recalls Clinton saying to Shelton “in my earshot, ‘I think we ought to have US commandos go into Afghanistan, US military units, black ninjas jumping out of helicopters, and go after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.’ And Shelton said: ‘Whoa! I don’t think we can do that. I’ll talk to Central Command.’ And of course Central Command came back and said, ‘Oh no, that’s too difficult.’” [PBS Frontline, 6/20/2006] US Central Command chief General Anthony Zinni is considered the chief opponent to the “boots on the ground” idea. [Washington Post, 10/2/2002] Clinton orders “formal planning for a mission to capture the al-Qaeda leadership.” Reports are contradictory, but some claim Clinton was told such plans were drawn up when in fact they were not. [Time, 8/12/2002; Washington Post, 10/2/2002] In any event, no such plans are implemented.
According to US intelligence sources, Farouk Hijazi, the Iraqi ambassador to Turkey, visits Afghanistan in late 1998 after US cruise missiles are fired on al-Qaeda training camps following the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Hijazi, who is also a longtime intelligence officer, meets Osama bin Laden in Kandahar and extends an offer from Baghdad to provide refuge for him and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Bin Laden reportedly rejects the offer because he doesn’t want his organization dominated by Saddam Hussein. After the 9/11 attacks, proponents of invading Iraq will claim the visit makes Hijazi a key link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Hijazi will be captured by US troops in late April 2003 after the US/British invasion of Iraq begins. [Guardian, 2/16/1999; Associated Press, 9/27/2001; Knight Ridder, 10/7/2002; Associated Press, 4/25/2003; Associated Press, 7/13/2003] However, in 2006, a bipartisan Senate report will conclude that Hijazi did meet with bin Laden, but in 1995, not 1998 (see Early 1995).
The FBI creates its own unit to focus specifically on bin Laden, three years after the CIA created such a special unit. By 9/11, 17 to 19 people are working in this unit out of over 11,000 FBI staff. [US Congress, 9/18/2002]
CIA already has a network of local agents in Afghanistan by this time (see 1997). However, in this year there is a serious effort to increase the network throughout Afghanistan and other countries for the purpose of capturing bin Laden and his deputies. [United Press International, 10/17/2002] Many are put on the CIA’s payroll, including some Taliban military leaders. Many veterans of the Soviet war in the 1980s who worked with the CIA then are recruited again. All of these recuitments are kept secret from Pakistani intelligence because of their support of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. [Coll, 2004, pp. 491-492] CIA Director George Tenet will later state that by 9/11, “a map would show that these collection programs and human networks were in place in such numbers to nearly cover Afghanistan. This array means that, when the military campaign to topple the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda [begins in October 2001], we [are] able to support it with an enormous body of information and a large stable of assets.” [US Congress, 10/17/2002] However, apparently none of these sources are close enough to bin Laden to know about his movements in advance. [Coll, 2004, pp. 491-492]
Ahmed al-Hada, an operative who runs a communications hub for al-Qaeda in Yemen, travels to Afghanistan and attends a banquet, where, US intelligence learns, he sits next to Osama bin Laden. The communications hub run by al-Hada, who fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, helped coordinate the East African embassy bombings and has been under heavy surveillance by the NSA and other US agencies since at least late 1998 (see Late August 1998). [Newsweek, 2/18/2002]
Rita Katz, a researcher at The Investigative Project on Terrorism, discovers a book called The Arab Volunteers in Afghanistan. Published in Arabic in 1991, the book is very obscure. The 9/11 Commission will later say the book contains “a particularly useful insight into the evolution of al-Qaeda—written by an early bin Laden associate, Adel Batterjee, under a pseudonym.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 467] Katz discovers that Batterjee was close acquaintances with Osama bin Laden and that the book describes bin Laden’s career and that of many others during the 1980s war in Afghanistan in great detail. She will later call the book “practically the ‘Who’s Who of al-Qaeda’” because so many people described in it went on to become important al-Qaeda figures. The book discusses:
Adel Batterjee, the author of the book and a Saudi millionaire. He helped found the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF). The US will declare him a terrorism financier in 2004.
Wael Hamza Julaidan, a Saudi multimillionaire. The US will designate him a terrorism financier in 2002 (see September 6, 2002).
Enaam Arnaout. He runs the US headquarters of BIF from 1993 until late 2001, when the US will shut BIF down.
Mohammed Loay Bayazid, a US citizen. He is a founding member of al-Qaeda and worked in the US for BIF until 1998.
Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden’s brother-in-law. He is tied to the Bojinka plot and numerous militant charity fronts.
Mohammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi (the book mentions him by his alias, Abu Talha). Considered al-Qaeda’s main financier of cells in Europe, he will be arrested a few months after 9/11 (see April 23, 2002).
Wali Khan Amin Shah, one of the Bojinka plotters. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 468]
Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, an al-Qaeda leader involved in the 1998 African embassy bombings who will be arrested in Germany in 1998 (see September 16, 1998). [National Review, 10/28/2002]
Katz says that “many, many others” are mentioned. “Many others mentioned in the book decorate the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ lists.… There was nothing like [the] book to put everything in order, organize loose bits of information, and clear parts that were obscure to me (and to everyone else.)” Katz has connections in the US government, so she calls the White House and tries to convey the importance of the book’s information. She repeatedly sends them translations of important sections. However, she sees very little interest in the book. After 9/11, she will get a call from the Justice Department, finally expressing interest. Katz will later comment, “The government took interest in the book only after 9/11, two years after I’d first discovered it and offered it to them. No wonder that government agents told me I knew more about al-Qaeda than they did.”
Entity Tags: Wali Khan Amin Shah, White House, Rita Katz, Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Adel Abdul Jalil Batterjee, Al-Qaeda, Enaam Arnaout, Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, Mohammed Galeb Kalaje Zouaydi, Mohammed Loay Bayazid, Wael Hamza Julaidan
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. [Source: UAE Government]Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Defense Minister and Crown Prince for the emirate of Dubai, allegedly goes bird hunting with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Bin Laden is already widely considered to have approved the bombing of two US embassies in Africa the year before (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 120-121] In early February 1999, counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke meets with Al Maktoum in the UAE and gets him to agree to work with the US to get bin Laden. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 486] Al Maktoum is known to love bird hunting, as do many other UAE royals (see 1995-2001). The US calls off an attack on bin Laden in 1999 because he is bird hunting with UAE royals at the time (see February 11, 1999). Al Maktoum hunts in Afghanistan several times in 1998 and 1999, but is only known to hunt with bin Laden once. He is so impressed by the Taliban that in 1999 he suspends all landing fees for Ariana Airlines, the Afghanistan national airline which has been effectively taken over by the Taliban and al-Qaeda by this time (see Mid-1996-October 2001). His father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of the UAE, also hunts in Afghanistan around this time, but there are no reports of him hunting with bin Laden. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 120-121] In 2006, Al Maktoum will become the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE, and the ruler of the emirate of Dubai. In 2007, his wealth will be estimated at $16 billion. [Forbes, 8/30/2007] As ruler of Dubai, he and his family have 100% ownership and control of DP World, a UAE company that will be the subject of controversy when it attempts to purchase some US port facilities in 2006. [Newsweek International, 3/16/2006]
The Greek press reports that Afghan mujaheddin are entering Albania in large numbers. Osama bin Laden is named as one of those who have organized groups to fight in Kosovo to fight alongside the Albanians. According to the Arab-language news service Al-Hayat, an Albanian commander in Kosovo code named Monia is directly linked to bin Laden, and commands a force that includes at least 100 mujaheddin. An Interpol report released on October 23, 2001 also reveals that a senior bin Laden associate led an elite KLA fighting unit in Kosovo. According to the report, bin Laden also maintained extensive ties with the Albanian mafia. [Ottawa Citizen, 12/15/2001]
Hashim Salamat. [Source: BBC]Western intelligence monitors a series of phone calls in which bin Laden asks the leader of a Philippine militant group to set up more training camps that al-Qaeda can use. Bin Laden is said to call Hashim Salamat, the leader of Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). There are reports that al-Qaeda started funding and using MILF training camps in 1995. But apparently bin Laden successfully asks for more camps because the movement of militants into Afghanistan has grown increasingly difficult since the African embassy bombings in 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). [CNS News, 9/19/2002; CNN, 10/28/2002; Asia Times, 10/30/2003] The same month, Salamat claims in a BBC interview that the MILF has received money from bin Laden, but says that it has only been for humanitarian purposes. [New York Times, 2/11/1999; Asia Times, 10/30/2003]
The US apparently misses an opportunity to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. In a 2008 book, Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit until mid-1999, will list a number of missed opportunities to get bin Laden (see May 1998-May 1999). He will briefly mention a “military attack opportunity” at the governor’s residence in the Afghan town of Herat during this month. This is separate from an opportunity to get bin Laden at a bird hunting camp in the same month, which he also lists (see February 11, 1999). But nothing more is known about this opportunity and the 9/11 Commission will not mention it. [Scheuer, 2008, pp. 284]
Apparently, this surveillance photo of a C-130 transport plane from the United Arab Emirates plays a key role in the decision not to strike at bin Laden. [Source: CBC]Intelligence reports foresee the presence of Osama bin Laden at a desert hunting camp in Afghanistan for about a week. Information on his presence appears reliable, so preparations are made to target his location with cruise missiles. However, intelligence also puts an official aircraft of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and members of the royal family from that country in the same location. Bin Laden is hunting with the Emirati royals, as he does with leaders from the UAE and Saudi Arabia on other occasions (see 1995-2001). [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] According to Michael Scheuer, the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, the hunting party has “huge fancy tents, with tractor trailers with generators on them to run the air-conditioning.” Surveillance after the camp is established shows the “pattern of bin Laden’s visits—he would come for evening prayers or he would come for dinner and stay for evening prayers.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 192] Local informants confirm exactly where bin Laden will be in the camp on February 11, and a strike is prepared. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] But policy makers are concerned that a strike might kill a prince or other senior officials, and that this would damage relations with the UAE and other Persian gulf countries. Therefore, the strike is called off. Bin Laden will leave the camp on February 12. A top UAE official at the time denies that high-level officials are there, but evidence subsequently confirms their presence. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004; Shenon, 2008, pp. 192] Scheuer will claim in 2004 that “the truth has not been fully told” about this incident. He will claim that the strike is cancelled because senior officials at the CIA, White House, and other agencies, decide to accept assurances from an unnamed Islamic country that it can acquire bin Laden from the Taliban. “US officials accepted these assurances despite the well-documented record of that country withholding help—indeed, it was a record of deceit and obstruction—regarding all issues pertaining to bin Laden” in previous years. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] This may be a reference to Saudi Arabia. In mid-1998, the CIA called off a plan to capture bin Laden in favor of an ultimately unfulfilled Saudi promise to bribe the Taliban to hand bin Laden over (see May 1998). Many in US intelligence will be resentful over this missed opportunity and blame a conflict of interest with the Emirati royals (see Shortly After February 11, 1999).
A classified Philippine military report claims bin Laden is funding Muslim militants in the Philippines through known charity fronts. Some of the charities include World Alliance of Muslim Youth (WAMY), the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), and the Islamic Wisdom Worldwide Mission (IWWM). WAMY has been under investigation for ties militant groups in a number of countries, including the US (see February-September 11, 1996). The other two organizations are said to be connected to Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden’s brother-in-law. All the charities are accused of passing money on to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a militant group in the southern Philippines. [New Straits Times, 2/15/1999] Between this time and 9/11, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf militant group will say in an interview that “the primary purpose of the IIRO is to help groups like us.” [Newsweek International, 10/22/2001] Also in February 1999, the head of the MILF admits to getting funds from bin Laden, but says they are for humanitarian purposes only (see February 1999). The charities remain open after the report. In 2002, Mohammed Amin al-Ghafari, the head of the IWWM, will be arrested and deported. It will come out that he was arrested and then let go in 1995 after being strongly suspected of involvement in the Bojinka plot (see June 1994). He also had protectors in the police and military who are IWWM directors. In 2002, one of them will admit to having helped prevent his deportation (see October 8-November 8, 2002). The US will not officially accuse the IIRO’s Philippine branch of funding al-Qaeda until 2006 (see August 3, 2006).
Yellowcake. [Source: CBC]Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan takes a trip to West Africa. Ostensibly, he is going to oversee the construction of the Hendrina Khan Hotel in Timbuktu, Mali, which he bought the year before and is named after his wife, but it is believed that is just a cover for nuclear-related business. He spends several days in Khartoum, Sudan, where he is spotted touring the al-Shifa factory, bombed by the US the year before in response to al-Qaeda bombings in Africa (see August 20, 1998). In 2006, intelligence sources in India and Israel will claim that Khan actually partly owns the factory. Khan then travels to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, Timbuktu in Mali, and Niamey, the capital of Niger. Niger has considerable uranium deposits and had been a major supplier of yellowcake uranium to Pakistan in the 1970s. Khan returns to Sudan, where he meets with the Sudanese president, and then returns to Pakistan. He is accompanied by his top nuclear aides and a number of Pakistani generals, and all expenses on the trip are paid for by the Pakistani government.
CIA Investigates Khan Trip - CIA undercover agent Valerie Plame Wilson learns about the trip, and the CIA is so concerned that it launches an investigation, especially to find out if Khan could be buying yellowcake from Niger. Plame Wilson’s husband Joseph Wilson, a former National Security Council official and US ambassador to the nearby country of Gabon who has close ties to important politicians in Niger, and who who has just set up a private consulting firm with a focus on advising clients who want to do business in Africa, is approached by officials from the CIA’s National Resources Division (NR) to visit Niger. The agency asks Wilson, who already has a business trip planned to West Africa, to find out what he can about Khan’s trip.
Illicit Uranium Sales Highly Unlikely - Wilson concludes that illicit uranium sales are very unlikely since the French government tightly controls Niger’s uranium mines and uranium sales. However, Khan’s trip does raise concern that he could be working with Osama bin Laden, because of his interest in the al-Shifa factory in Sudan, and because of intelligence that the hotel he owns in Timbuktu was paid for by bin Laden as part of a cooperative deal between them. The CIA writes and distributes a report on the trip. (In 2004, the Senate Intelligence Committee will erroneously conclude that the CIA did not distribute the Wilson-Niger report—see July 9, 2004.) Wilson will keep this trip secret, even refusing to mention it in his 2004 memoir The Politics of Truth, presumably because he signed a confidentiality agreement with the CIA. In 2002, he will return to Niger to investigate if Saddam Hussein could be buying uranium in Niger (see February 21, 2002-March 4, 2002). That will lead to the eventual outing of his wife Plame Wilson’s status as a CIA agent. [Levy and Scott-Clark, 2007, pp. 283-285, 516; Wilson, 2007, pp. 358-360]
In his 1999 book The New Jackals, journalist Simon Reeve will write: “According to some intelligence reports, bin Laden and al-Qaeda benefit [from] drug money because bin Laden is understood to have helped the Taliban arrange money-laundering facilities through the Russian and Chechen Mafia. One American intelligence source claims that bin Laden’s involvement in the establishment of new financial networks for drug distribution and sales has been pivotal, and that by the spring of 1999 bin Laden was taking a cut of between 2 and 10 percent from all Afghan drug sales.” [Reeve, 1999, pp. 208] Other reports suggest bin Laden is taking a cut of up to 10 percent by this time (see Late 1996).
Randy Glass is a con artist turned government informant participating in a sting called Operation Diamondback. [Palm Beach Post, 9/29/2001] He discusses an illegal weapons deal with an Egyptian-American named Mohamed el Amir. In wiretapped conversations, Mohamed discusses the need to get false papers to disguise a shipment of illegal weapons. His brother, Dr. Magdy el Amir, has been a wealthy neurologist in Jersey City for the past twenty years. Two other weapons dealers later convicted in a sting operation involving Glass also lived in Jersey City, and both el Amirs admit knowing one of them, Diaa Mohsen. Mohsen has been paid at least once by Dr. el Amir. In 1998, Congressman Ben Gilman was given a foreign intelligence report suggesting that Dr. el Amir owns an HMO that is secretly funded by Osama bin Laden, and that money is being skimmed from the HMO to fund al-Qaeda activities. The state of New Jersey later buys the HMO and determines that $15 million were unaccounted for and much of that has been diverted into hard-to-trace offshore bank accounts. However, investigators working with Glass are never given the report about Dr. el Amir. Neither el Amir has been charged with any crime. Mohamed now lives in Egypt and Magdy continues to practice medicine in New Jersey. Glass’s sting, which began in late 1998, will uncover many interesting leads before ending in June 2001. [MSNBC, 8/2/2002] Remarkably, Dr. Magdy el Amir’s lawyer is none other than Michael Chertoff, a prominent criminal defense lawyer in New Jersey, who will later join the Bush administration’s Justice Department as assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division and then become homeland defense secretary. [New York Times, 12/18/1998; Bergen Record, 6/19/2000] After 9/11, Chertoff will play a leading role in investigating and prosecuting terrorist crimes, including terrorism financing through money laundering. [New Yorker, 11/5/2001] It seems that the only subsequent media reference to Chertoff’s involvement in the el Amir case will appear in an opinion column by Sidney Blumenthal, a strong critic of the Bush administration. [Salon, 12/22/2005]
German intelligence gives the CIA the first name of 9/11 hijacker Marwan Alshehhi and his telephone number of a phone registered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Germans learned the information from the surveillance of al-Qaeda Hamburg cell member Mohammed Haydar Zammar (see March 1997-Early 2000). They tell the CIA that Alshehhi, who is living in Bonn, Germany, at the time, may be connected to al-Qaeda. He is described as a UAE student who has spent some time studying in Germany. The conversation is short, but a known alias of Mamoun Darkazanli is mentioned. The CIA is very interested in Darkazanli and will try to recruit him as an informant later in the year (see Late 1998 and December 1999). [US Congress, 7/24/2003 ; Deutsche Presse-Agentur (Hamburg), 8/13/2003; New York Times, 2/24/2004; McDermott, 2005, pp. 73, 278-279]
No Response from CIA - The Germans consider this information “particularly valuable” and ask the CIA to track Alshehhi, but the CIA never responds until after the 9/11 attacks. The CIA decides at the time that this “Marwan” is probably an associate of bin Laden but never track him down. It is not clear why the CIA fails to act, or if they learn his last name before 9/11. [New York Times, 2/24/2004] The Germans monitor other calls between Alshehhi and Zammar, but it isn’t clear if the CIA is also told of these or not (see September 21, 1999).
Could the Number Be Traced? - CIA Director George Tenet will later dismiss the importance of this information in a statement to the 9/11 Congressional Inquiry. He will say that all the CIA had to go on was a first name and an impossible to trace unlisted number. But author Terry McDermott will later comment, “At least a portion of that statement is preposterous. The UAE mobile telephone business was, until 2004, a state monopoly. The UAE number could have been traced in five minutes, according to senior security officials there. The United States never asked.” McDermott will add, “Further, the CIA told the [9/11 Congressional Inquiry] it had a long-standing interest in Zammar that pre-dated these recordings. In other words, the CIA appears to have been investigating the man who recruited the hijackers at the time he was recruiting them.” [McDermott, 2005, pp. 73, 278-279]
In the deadliest terrorist attack in Russia since 1996, a powerful bombing in Vladikavkaz’s main outdoor market kills at least fifty people and injures more than a hundred. Vladikavkaz is the capital of North Ossetia, a region of Russia close to Chechnya. It is unclear who is responsible, but in the following days Russian authorities distribute composites of two individuals who left the market shortly before the explosions. Some press reports say that authorities suspect “Wahabbi” rebels in Chechnya, while others speculate on a possible connection to Osama Bin Laden but offer no evidence. The Jamestown Foundation’s Monitor later explains that “the term “Wahabbi” in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] has become a catch-all phrase for any Muslim extremist, whether or not that person is actually an adherent of Wahabbi Islam. “Wahabbis” are now, generally without evidence, blamed for any terrorist act in the Muslim regions of the CIS.” [CNN, 3/19/1999; BBC, 3/19/1999; New York Times, 3/20/1999; New York Times, 3/21/1999; Monitor, 3/22/1999; Monitor, 3/24/1999] Several months later, an Italian journalist will claim this bombing was orchestrated by elements within the Russian government (see June 16, 1999).
US intelligence obtains detailed reporting on where bin Laden is located for five consecutive nights. CIA Director Tenet decides against acting three times, because of concerns about collateral damage and worries about the veracity of the single source of information. Frustration mounts. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, writes to a colleague in the field, “having a chance to get [bin Laden] three times in 36 hours and foregoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry…” [Coll, 2004, pp. 450; 9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 140] An unnamed senior military officer later complains, “This was in our strike zone. It was a fat pitch, a home run.” However, that month, the US mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, due to outdated intelligence. It is speculated Tenet was wary of making another mistake. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004] There is one more opportunity to strike bin Laden in July 1999, but after that there is apparently no intelligence good enough to justify considering a strike. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004]
In early 1999, al-Qaeda operative Khallad bin Attash is sent to Yemen to help al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri obtain explosives to bomb a ship, and also to get a US visa so he can travel to the US to take part in an operation there. Three 9/11 hijackers get a US visa around this time (see April 3-7, 1999), but bin Attash has more trouble, apparently because he is Yemeni and the others are Saudi. While there, bin Attash is arrested by Yemeni authorities. Bin Laden finds out about the arrest and is concerned that bin Attash might reveal the ship bombing and US operations while under interrogation. Bin Laden contacts a Yemeni official and makes a deal, offering not to attack Yemen if the Yemeni government does not confront him and releases bin Attash in the summer of 1999. Both sides agree to the deal and bin Attash returns to Afghanistan without revealing either plot. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 155-156] There is other evidence Yemeni officials will help al-Nashiri, as his ship attack plot eventually targets the USS Cole while stationed in Yemen (see April 2000 and After October 12, 2000).
MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, reports, “Intelligence suggests that while [Osama bin Laden] is seeking to launch an attack inside the US, he is aware that the US will provide a tough operating environment for his organization.” [Daily Telegraph, 10/5/2009] It is unclear who this report is sent to, or what information it is based on. MI6, not MI5, is usually tasked with foreign intelligence.
In an interview with an Arabic-language television station, bin Laden steps up his rhetoric and issues a further threat indicating that all US males should be killed. [MSNBC, 12/11/2001]
[Source: Publicity photo]CIA Director George Tenet removes Michael Scheuer as head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer had headed the unit since its inception in 1996 (see February 1996), and was known as a strong advocate for more government action against bin Laden. The full name of the new head of the unit has not been released and little is known about his performance. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] Deputy Director of Operations Jack Downing tells Scheuer he is being fired because he is “mentally burned out” and because of a recent disagreement with the FBI over whether the deputy chief of Alex Station, who was detailed to the CIA from the FBI, could release information to the FBI without Scheuer’s approval. Downing tells Scheuer he was in the right, but that the criticism of his subordinate “should not have been put on paper”, and the FBI’s management is angry with him. Downing says he will get a medal and a monetary award, but should tell his subordinates he has resigned. Scheuer refuses to lie to his officers, signs a memo saying he will not accept a monetary award, and tells Downing “where he should store the medal.” [Scheuer, 2005, pp. 263-4; Wright, 2006, pp. 313] According to author Steve Coll, Scheuer’s CIA colleagues “could not be sure exactly [why Scheuer left] but among at least a few of them a believe settled in that [he] had been exiled, in effect, for becoming too passionate about the bin Laden threat…” In particular, he was angry about two recent missed opportunities (see 1997-May 29, 1998 and February 11, 1999) to assassinate bin Laden. [Coll, 2004, pp. 449-450] Scheuer will write in 2004 that, “On moving to a new position, I forwarded a long memorandum to the Agency’s senior-most officers—some are still serving—describing an array of fixable problems that were plaguing America’s attack on bin Laden, ones that the bin Laden unit had encountered but failed to remedy between and among [US intelligence agencies]… The problems outlined in the memorandum stood in the way of attacking bin Laden to the most effective extent possible; many remain today.” Problems include poor cooperation between agencies and a lack of experienced staff working on the bin Laden issue. Scheuer never receives a response to his memo. [Atlantic Monthly, 12/2004]
In testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and in a briefing to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence staffers one month later, the chief of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center describes reports that bin Laden and his associates are planning attacks in the US. [US Congress, 9/18/2002]
Anwar al-Awlaki. [Source: Public domain]The FBI conducts a counterterrorism inquiry into Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam who will later be suspected of involvement in the 9/11 plot. He serves as the “spiritual leader” to several of the hijackers (see March 2001 and After), and by 2008 US intelligence will determine he is linked to al-Qaeda (see February 27, 2008).
The investigation is opened when it is learned he had probably been visited by a “procurement agent” for bin Laden, Ziyad Khaleel. Khaleel had helped buy a satellite phone for bin Laden; when he is arrested in December 1999 he reportedly tells the FBI crucial details about al-Qaeda operations in the US (see December 29, 1999).
In early 2000 the FBI is aware when al-Awlaki is visited by an unnamed close associate of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 131 ; Washington Post, 2/27/2008]
He also serves as vice president of the Charitable Society for Social Welfare (CSSW), the US branch of a Yemeni charity founded by Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, a Yemeni imam who the US will officially designate a terrorist in 2004. CSSW also has ties to the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan, Italy, considered one of the centers of al-Qaeda activity in Europe. The FBI begins investigating CSSW in 1999 after a Yemeni politician visits the US to solicit donations for the charity, and then visits Mahmoud Es Sayed, a known al-Qaeda figure at the Islamic Cultural Institute, on the same trip. [Burr and Collins, 2006, pp. 243; Washington Post, 2/27/2008]
The FBI learns that al-Awlaki knows individuals from the suspect Holy Land Foundation and others involved in raising money for Hamas. Sources allege that al-Awlaki has even more extremist connections.
But none of these links are considered strong enough for criminal charges, and the investigation is closed. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 517] Al-Awlaki is beginning to associate with hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar shortly before the investigation ends. For instance, on February 4, one month before the FBI investigation is closed, al-Awlaki talks on the telephone four times with hijacker associate Omar al-Bayoumi. The 9/11 Commission will later speculate that these calls are related to Alhazmi and Almihdhar, since al-Bayoumi is helping them that day, and that Alhazmi or Almihdhar may even have been using al-Bayoumi’s phone at the time (see February 4, 2000). Al-Bayoumi had also been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation in 1999 (see September 1998-July 1999).
Entity Tags: Omar al-Bayoumi, Ziyad Khaleel, Nawaf Alhazmi, Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Es Sayed, Omar Abdul-Rahman, Islamic Cultural Institute, Abdul Mejid al-Zindani, 9/11 Congressional Inquiry, Anwar al-Awlaki, Khalid Almihdhar, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Charitable Society for Social Welfare
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
A portion of a US wanted poster for bin Laden, highlighting the African embassy bombings and a $5 million reward. [Source: US State Department]The FBI puts bin Laden on its “10 Most Wanted List.” This is almost a year and a half after bin Laden’s “declaration of war” against the US on February 22, 1998 (see February 22, 1998), and about six months after the CIA’s “declaration of war against al-Qaeda” in December 1998 (see December 4, 1998). It is also three years after an internal State Department document connected bin Laden to financing and planning numerous terrorist attacks. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003]
CIA Director George Tenet tells a closed session of Congress, “We have seen numerous reports that bin Laden and his associates are planning terrorist attacks against US officials and facilities in a variety of locations, including in the US.” [Coll, 2004, pp. 454] However, six months later and after a well-publicized attempted al-Qaeda attack on the Los Angeles airport (see December 14, 1999), he will not mention in an open session that bin Laden has the capability to stage attacks inside the US (see February 2, 2000).
[Source: Public domain]The US gains information that former ISI head Hamid Gul contacts Taliban leaders at this time and advises them that the US is not planning to attack Afghanistan to get bin Laden. He assures them that he will provide them three or four hours warning of any future US missile launch, as he did “last time.” Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke later suggests Gul gave al-Qaeda warning about the missile strike in August 1998 (see August 20, 1998). [New Yorker, 7/28/2003]
In early July 1999, it is reported that a high-powered US delegation from the National Security Council, State Department, and other agencies is visiting the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain to investigate reports that $50 million has been given to Osama bin Laden. Apparently the money mostly comes from rich Saudis and is sent through the Dubai Islamic Bank in a single bank transfer. Journalist Jonathan Randal meets an unnamed US diplomat in Dubai several months later and the diplomat confirms that the transfer took place. Randal asks him why the money is sent in such an easily traceable procedure instead of dividing the sum up into a series of smaller transfers, or even using the nearly untraceable hawala system instead of a formal bank at all. The diplomat merely replies that this was the same question the Maktoum family that rules the UAE asked the US delegation. [Randal, 2005, pp. 211-212] On July 8, 1999, the New York Times reports on this bank transfer, asserting, “The Central Intelligence Agency has obtained evidence that Mr. bin Laden has been allowed to funnel money through the Dubai Islamic Bank in Dubai, which the United Arab Emirates Government effectively controls.” The Times adds, “United States intelligence officials said they had evidence that Mr. bin Laden had a relationship with the bank, which they believed had been arranged with the approval of the officials who control the bank.” [New York Times, 7/8/1999]
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