At the end of the last episode, Osama bin Laden was taking a meeting with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a man with more than 50 aliases … but most commonly known as KSM. It was 1996, five years before 9/11. Bin Laden is 39; KSM is 31. They’re in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan, as rugged as any on Earth, near a cold mountain stream where bin Laden draws the water for his tea.
The two men have crossed paths before … during the Afghan War.
Bin Laden led a platoon against the Soviets; KSM sat in an office and wrote press releases for Abdullah Azzam, the legendary and now deceased mujahideen leader. After the war, KSM struck out on his own to become a freelance terrorist, doing jobs here and there in the Middle East and Asia. Bin Laden, for his part, has used part of his wealth to found an institution. It’s called Al Qaeda. His goal is to strike an American target. He has the resources … but needs a plan.
KSM and bin Laden know each other, but they’re not close.
KSM has a round head with beard and glasses and a five-foot-four-inch wrestler’s body. He’s known to kneel and say his prayers but is otherwise not religious. He’s a carouser and a womanizer. His friends remark on his habit of talking through his problems out loud and at length.
Bin Laden, is a semi-ascetic who’ll sleep on a cushion on the floor. He’s six-foot-five and watchful, a man who speaks and moves deliberately. The two are equally ambitious but temperamental opposites. So why has Khalid Sheikh Mohammed come all this way for an audience with Osama bin Laden, whose fame has waned and prospects dimmed since his glory days in the Afghan War … which are now several years behind him?
Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars, says the reason was to conduct the terrorist equivalent of what he calls “a pitch meeting for a Hollywood fireball thriller.” In Coll’s analogy, bin Laden is the studio head and KSM is the journeyman producer with a high concept proposal.
STEVE COLL: According to the best accounts we have, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed approached him in Afghanistan and started to talk with him about his ideas that were seemingly born from the Bojinka plot in Manila, from past ideas involving attacks on aviation. And he had a grand, almost Hollywood vision of how this attack could be carried out.
The Bojinka plot -- a mass casualty attack involving commercial airlines.
Here’s FBI Agent Steve Gaudin:
STEVE GAUDIN: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he’s a very central figure in the Bojinka plot, in the first World Trade Center case. He’s Ramzi Yousef’s uncle.
The Philippine authorities disrupted the Bojinka plot with little time to spare. And Yousef was later captured. He was now behind bars in the U.S., awaiting trial. But KSM got away … and has been a fugitive ever since, moving among jihadist safe houses in Africa and Asia, even Brazil.
He tells bin Laden that he’s determined to pull off what he calls a “spectacular.” Steve Coll says despite their many differences, KSM has met his equal in bin Laden when it comes to thinking big.
STEVE COLL: Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed both had experience of the wider world. They’d both traveled to the United States. They both had lived trans-national lives. They were both educated to the college level. They were creatures of the modern world but they also were in radical violent opposition to it. But the most important thing they had in common was that they could imagine a crime on this scale.
Coll says KSM’s blockbuster plan also shows his knack for theatricality.
STEVE COLL: He had as many as nine hijackings in mind originally. “We’ll strike tall buildings, we’ll strike seats of government, we’ll strike a nuclear power plant, and then the last plane will land on an airport tarmac in the United States, and I’ll get out and hold a press conference.”
Bin Laden, despite his reserve, knows a little something about showmanship and cultivating an image.
STEVE COLL: Osama bin Laden wasn’t especially interested in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed being the star of the show, and asked him to scale it back. And it was in the editing process that they kind of came down to the idea of a smaller number of hijacked planes concentrated on New York and Washington. So this is where September 11th’s specific vision begins.
Bin Laden invites KSM to join Al Qaeda and move with his wife and two sons to Afghanistan. Together, they can work on the plan. KSM knows this invitation comes with the strong suggestion that he swear a personal oath, or bayat, to bin Laden. He politely declines.
To extend the earlier metaphor, KSM isn’t looking to sign a multi-picture deal or become a contract player in bin Laden’s studio. For years, he’s moved through the terrorist underworld as an independent operator. He’s only interested in getting bin Laden to throw his resources behind what he’s calling his “planes operation.”
KSM needs two things: venture capital and access to volunteers -- specifically, Al Qaeda volunteers from what KSM thinks of as the “department of martyrs.” Bin Laden can offer both. And he approves of KSM’s basic idea.
And yet, the two men fail to reach terms. KSM leaves Tora Bora empty-handed. But he and bin Laden will meet again. Next time, in Kandahar.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11. The story of the long, strange wind-up to the attack that remade the world … and the chances we had to stop it. I’m Jim O’Grady.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists.
PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: The building was shaking. I thought, “I’m going to die.”
CYNTHIA STORER: It was very clearly a hierarchical organization, and bin Laden was at the top.
JOHN MILLER: When you tried to connect these wires between the FBI and the CIA, what you got was sparks.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: If you wanted him dead by assassination, he would have been dead two years ago for fifty cents and one round of ammunition.
Episode 7: The Falcon Hunt.
Y’know over the months I’ve been working on this podcast and afflicting friends and loved ones with little bits of research I found exciting, I’ve been a little surprised by the question they’ve asked the most: “Why did bin Laden hate America so much?”
Well, friends, loved ones, listeners, I’m going to answer that question now.
It means taking a brisk trip through an absolutely crucial period in Osama bin Laden’s life: the seven years between the end of the Afghan War in 1989 and his meeting in Tora Bora with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in 1996. From bin Laden’s point of view, it starts out rosy with the triumph over the Soviets and the founding of Al Qaeda with him in charge … but when it ends, almost everything he has built will be gone.
One of his worst setbacks came early on, after the Afghan War, when he was living in Saudi Arabia.
CNN NEWS ANCHOR: One of our wire services is … I’m sorry? Say again- the press agency is quoting, uh, Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council on Thursday, is announcing that the Kuwaiti government has been overthrown.
August 2, 1990.
NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Iraqi troops are continuing to amass near the border with Saudi Arabia.
NBC REPORTER: They have moved approximately 30,000 troops down to the Kuwaiti/Saudi border.
Iraq, with the world’s fourth largest army at the time, invades Kuwait. Saudi Arabia and its oil fields are next door … and now they’re threatened. And you know who’s not gonna stand for that? The United States of America is who’s not gonna stand for that.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH: We seek the immediate, unconditional, and complete withdrawal of all Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
As you recall from the last episode, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia had a long-standing deal: The U.S. gets preferred access to Saudi oil and Saudi Arabia gets our military, should a foreign enemy threaten to invade them.
Bin Laden had long detested the fact that his homeland, the birthplace and heart of Islam, was militarily dependent on an infidel army. And now, to him, it gets worse.
The country’s government, fearing they’d be attacked next, agreed to violate a tradition that prohibits non-Muslims from settling in Saudi Arabia. And they did it not just for any non-Muslims ... they did it for more than 200,000 American troops using Saudi Arabia as a staging area before their military offensive on Kuwait.
- SAAD AL-FAGIH: Now, that was a disaster.
Saad al-Fagih, the head of a Saudi opposition group, says the soldiers' arrival in the Kingdom caused so much public consternation that the clerics had to step in.
- SAAD AL-FAGIH: The religious establishment was saying everywhere, “Don’t worry- Don’t worry. They are here to do the job and go away.” So, that was the justification for this sanctioning by the religious establishment.
Osama bin Laden was livid …
STEVE COLL: Osama bin Laden makes an appointment to see the Minister of Defense of Saudi Arabia and essentially goes in and says, “Mr. Minister, you don’t need all of these American troops, British troops. We just defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. I can muster my brigades of jihadist volunteers and liberate Kuwait for you properly, with Islamic forces.”
Uh yeah, not gonna happen. Reporter Peter Bergen.
PETER BERGEN: Well, it was kind of a stupid claim- I mean, like, you know, bin Laden might have at most a couple of thousand guys. They were not gonna be the people to expel the fourth largest army in the world out of Kuwait. That just made no sense.
Chas Freeman was the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time.
CHAS FREEMAN: The king told me about the proposal and laughed at it. You know, this is ridiculous and basically dismissed it out of hand.
So with a wave of the hand, bin Laden was sent to the sidelines to watch the U.S. and allied forces rout the Iraqi Army.
AIR FORCE PILOT: Boom! There’s a hit!
TOM BROKAW: Operation Desert Storm rages on. There is virtually no Iraqi resistance.
And then, in victory, a blunder: American troops lingered on Saudi soil.
CHAS FREEMAN: We bungled the end of the war in Iraq. We did not have a war termination strategy. The war never really ended. We liberated Kuwait and hung around for several years at Saudi expense. Our planes blew fuel paid for by them, our airmen and women lived in barracks provided by them, they ate food provided by the Saudis. This at a time when Saudi Arabia was essentially bankrupted by the war. And it caused a lot of resentment because people knew that their own benefits were being trimmed for the benefit of this continuing American presence. And I was concerned.
Bin Laden would later release a manifesto that said, “These filthy, infidel Crusaders must not be allowed to remain in the Holy Land.”
PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden at this point is, you know, a full-time member of the Saudi opposition. He’s not calling for violent attacks on the regime at this point yet, but he is certainly criticizing them politically.
And al-Fagih says, the Saudi regime does not tolerate opposition.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: People who are opposing the regime publicly can’t stay in the country. They will be immediately jailed. Probably tortured. Probably even killed.
Bin Laden packed his bags, shook the dust from his feet, and said goodbye to his country. It was 1991. His fellow mujahideen fighter, Huthaifa Azzam, remembers it:
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: Osama, he left Saudi Arabia and he said, “I will never go back.” This was the beginning of his anger toward the United States.
Bin Laden moved with his four wives and children across the Red Sea to Sudan … where life, for a while, was sweet. The militant Islamist government welcomed him gladly. Cofer Black was the CIA Station Chief in-country. Part of his job was monitoring bin Laden.
COFER BLACK: He would make it known that he was supportive of the government of Sudan. So he was, from their standpoint, trying to be a good citizen.
And business was good. Bin Laden grew sorghum and sunflowers on ten-thousand-acre farms. And his construction company won a 20 million dollar contract to build a road. Steve Coll:
STEVE COLL: In Sudan he’d enjoyed an office, prestige, an audience for preaching. He had land. He had horses. He enjoyed a relatively comfortable life.
But he couldn’t stop publicly denouncing the Saudi king.
Nine times, Bin Laden’s family members traveled to Sudan and asked him to a) stop b) apologize c) come home. He refused. In 1994, the Saudi government took the rare step of revoking bin Laden’s citizenship. They even sent an emissary to collect his passport. Bin Laden threw it at the man and said, “Take it!” That’s when his family disowned him.
But Cofer Black says there was another reason for bin Laden to stay in Sudan.
COFER BLACK: Virtually every major terrorist organization had bases there. Some had training facilities. It was what we call in the intelligence field a “target rich environment.”
For years, bin Laden had been actively funding jihadists in several countries, including, in the U.S., the Blind Sheikh and El-Sayyid Nosair. But he may have been doing more than that. Remember those American soldiers who came to Saudi Arabia at the start of the First Gulf War … and then lingered?
PRESIDENT CLINTON: An explosion occurred this afternoon at the United States military housing complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. There are many injured. There have been fatalities. The explosion appears to be the work of terrorists.
In 1996, a car bomb ripped through the Khobar Towers housing complex, killing 19 American soldiers and injuring hundreds. It came just months after another explosion killed five troops at a National Guard post in Riyadh. That got the full attention of the Clinton White House.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We will not rest in our efforts to find who is responsible for this outrage.
Leon Panetta was White House Chief of Staff at the time:
LEON PANETTA: It fed into this growing concern that terrorism was not just an Israeli problem, it was not just a Middle East problem. It was a problem that we were going to have to deal with.
U.S. intelligence wasn’t certain that Al Qaeda was behind the attacks. But there was evidence for it. And that concentrated the mind of the CIA on Osama bin Laden.
COFER BLACK: This is self-evident that this guy was dangerous, that this was not going to take care of itself, and um, we needed to do something about it.
STEVE COLL: But when bin Laden was in Sudan he hadn’t committed a crime
under American law. At least, he hadn’t been indicted for a crime. And the Saudis didn’t want him back either. They just wanted him to go away.
The month before, the U.S. gave Sudan an ultimatum: Bin Laden must go. James Astill, a former foreign correspondent for the Economist in Africa and Asia, describes a conversation from the time between a CIA officer and a Sudanese general. The general tries to warn that Bin Laden is just going to set up shop again in Afghanistan. The CIA officer leans back and answers, “Let him.” Sudan moves swiftly. The government seized bin Laden’s assets -- anywhere from 30 to 160 million dollars. He would still have resources … but bin Laden lost his base of operations when Sudan booked him and his family on a charter flight out of the country.
Steve Simon was on the U.S. National Security Council:
STEVE SIMON: Okay, if he’s not in Sudan, where does he go? Elsewhere in the Arab world, there were no reasonable destinations. I mean, certainly not Iraq. Not even any of the smaller states like Qatar that were sort of sympathetic to a more militant brand of Islam. At some point he was destined to go back to Afghanistan because there were no alternatives.
Almost overnight, bin Laden went from being a wealthy entrepreneur with a villa in Khartoum … to taking shelter in a Tora Bora cave. He’s still receiving funds from Saudi sympathizers … but now living in exile in a broken country.
STEVE COLL: In Afghanistan he arrived in a place that barely had electricity, barely had telecommunications, still shattered by years of civil war. And his eldest son went home, one of his wives left him. His family broke up over this exile. He was angry.
Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan visited bin Laden when he was newly back in Afghanistan.
BARI ATWAN: I was editor in chief of Al-Quds al-Arabi, which is a pan-Arab daily newspaper. When I met him you know, I was shocked. For example his dinner, a very rotten cheese. And about five fried eggs for about 14 people and a very, very bad bread, baked with sand so you cannot chew it.
Steve Coll says bin Laden was sure about who to blame.
STEVE COLL: He blamed the United States not only for all of these sins of history and these manipulations of the Islamic world, but now it was personal. His own life had been turned upside down by American pursuit of him, American pressure that had forced him out of Sudan and to this broken country again.
There you have it.
A thumbnail sketch of how bin Laden’s resentment of America turned to hatred. It brings us to a familiar crossroad. U.S. officials have banished a dangerous enemy. He might yet be a threat … but a distant and manageable one. The temptation is to say, Mission accomplished.
STEVE COLL: They sent him off to Afghanistan thinking that surely he will fade from the world scene now. And the first thing he did after he arrived in Afghanistan was essentially climb up on a mountain top and write a declaration of war against the United States.
Bin Laden was not a Muslim cleric but he called his statement a “fatwa” to give it the aura of a religious edict. He issued it around the time he sat down with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed near a cold stream in the mountains of Tora Bora. The meeting that planted the seed of 9/11. Nobody knew it yet, not even bin Laden, but the end game was in motion.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
Osama bin Laden writes a 26-page Declaration of War against the U.S. It presumes to speak on behalf of all Muslims. In one passage, he addresses U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry, personally. “I say to you, William, that: These youths love death as you love life … They will sing out that there is nothing between us that needs to be explained, there is only killing and neck-smiting.” The declaration made big news in the Arab world. Bari Atwan’s newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, published the whole thing.
BARI ATWAN: He is now, uh, very radicalized to start to launch some sort of military actions against the Crusaders and the Jews as he characterized them.
Peter Bergen, from his desk at CNN in New York, noted the escalation in hostilities.
PETER BERGEN: I said to my bosses at CNN, “You know, something is happening in Afghanistan that I think we need to cover.” I mean, they said, “You’re right.”
In 1997, Bergen traveled to Afghanistan and produced Osama bin Laden’s first televised interview for the English-speaking world.
First, he and his crew were picked up in Jalalabad. They rode in a minivan with curtained windows and then, as night fell, they had to switch to a four-wheel drive vehicle, which brought them up a mountain path past armed men at checkpoints. They were led into a hut and Bergen was told to sit on the floor. After a while, bin Laden walked in.
PETER BERGEN: The first reaction I had was, wow, this guy is very tall. He’s very thin. He was carrying a small, semi-automatic weapon, which he always carries with him, which he claimed to have recovered from a dead Russian soldier. I thought he would be a table-thumping revolutionary, but he was very quiet.
PETER BERGEN: When you listen to the interview and you don’t know the content, it just sounds like he’s reading from a phone book. But it’s a diatribe against the United States.
OSAMA BIN LADEN [in translation]: We declared Jihad on the United States, because the US government is an unjust, criminal, and abusive government.
PETER BERGEN: He wasn’t Adolf Hitler, you know. He wasn’t, like, angry and shouting and screaming. He had this sort of ambiguous smile that played on his lips, which you know, was kind of strange given what he was saying. He had this kind of, like, almost feline presence.
OSAMA BIN LADEN [in translation]: As for the Saudi regime it is a part of, or an agent of, the U.S. regime. By being loyal to the U.S. regime, it would be committing an act that is antithetical to Islam.
PETER BERGEN: The headlines from the interview, I think, were: I’m declaring war on the United States. Why am I declaring war? American support for Israel, American support for the Saudi royal family, who are not sufficiently Islamic, American support for other Arab regimes that aren’t sufficiently Islamic. What he did not mention: Hollywood, alcohol and drug consumption in the West, our freedoms. Just none of that was there. So the later account that, you know, it was about our values and freedoms, it just – like, that’s total nonsense. It was a religious, political critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
After an hour, the interview wound down.
PETER BERGEN: He ended the interview by saying - We asked him the question:
CNN REPORTER PETER ARNETT TO BIN LADEN: What are your future plans?
BIN LADEN: [in translation]: You will see them God willing in the media, and you will hear about them.
PETER BERGEN QUOTING BIN LADEN: “You will read about them and see about them in the media, God willing.”
PETER BERGEN: But I remember thinking that was all really interesting, but how do you attack from a mud hut in the middle of the night in Afghanistan, thousands and thousands and thousands of miles from the United States? That just seems kind of implausible.
And it was. In 1997, it was implausible that bin Laden, stateless and exiled, could inflict major pain on the United States of America.
But not impossible. According to The U.S. State Department, he was still -quote- “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world.” For example, the Landmarks Plot in New York. Using relatively small amounts of money, he continued to catalyze terror overseas.
So the CIA made a prudent decision. It had opened a unit devoted to tracking just one man: Osama bin Laden.
The unit was housed in a bland officer tower used by the CIA in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. It’s code name was Alec Station. And it was run by a prickly son-of-a-gun named Michael Scheuer.
MIKE SCHEUER: Perhaps I can be abrasive. I think that’s probably true. Um, certainly I can be blunt, and, uh, if those are shortcomings, then I’m your man.
Truth be told, Scheuer was an odd choice for the job. Alec Station was the first time that the CIA and FBI would be working as partners on a single project. In theory, Alec Station was built on cooperation. But reporter John Miller says that in real life, not so much.
JOHN MILLER: When you tried to connect these wires between the FBI and the CIA, what you got was sparks and short circuits about turf and about rules.
The conflict was almost guaranteed by the agencies’ different missions. The CIA’s job is gathering intelligence and sometimes taking action to stop attacks against the U.S. The FBI, by contrast, gathers evidence with an eye toward trying defendants in a court of law. The agencies’ goals, and therefore their methods, tend to diverge.
Another reason for the conflict … was Michael Scheuer.
MIKE SCHEUER: Cooperation between the intelligence agencies’ components is a monumental idiocy.
Scheuer believed that nobody got bin Laden like he did: his lethality and persistence. Scheuer grew angry with anyone who didn’t share his sense of urgency, especially the FBI, with its case-building procedures. OK, let’s see what FBI Agent Dale Watson has to say about that. He worked as a liaison between the FBI and CIA in the 1990s.
DALE WATSON: In defense of that I think Mike never really understood federal rules of criminal procedures.
MIKE SCHEUER: The FBI was a pain in the butt.
DALE WATSON: Not naïve, but it’s a steep learning curve to know how this town works.
MIKE SCHEUER: All of our charters are different. Law enforcement does not mesh completely with overseas intelligence and covert operations.
DALE WATSON: There is a legal system in this country that we all adhere to.
MIKE SCHEUER: The CIA is empowered to break any law on earth except an American law.
DALE WATSON: Just because you think you have the best idea, might not work around DOJ and their ability to agree with you or disagree with you.
Whether Mike Scheuer liked it or not, The Department of Justice would need to charge Osama bin Laden with a crime against the United States before he could do what he wanted, which was kill him.
Finding grounds for such a charge would not be easy.
First the CIA had to sift through reams of information to get a fix on what bin Laden might be up to. That was analyst Cynthia Storer’s assignment. And it was practically Sissyphian.
CYNTHIA STORER: Our officers estimated there were about 300 such reports a day that an analyst would have to look at. So it could be anything from 2 paragraphs of conversation to a 100-page journal- I mean, it could be anything in between. Hundreds if not thousands of pages a day.
Some analysts thought the jihadists in Afghanistan did not present a viable threat to the U.S Cynthia Storer disagreed. She’d later be chastised in a performance review for spending too much time at work researching Osama bin Laden. She just kept turning pages.
CYNTHIA STORER: You know, you’re just trying to narrow it down to who is this guy, and who is that guy, and who is this guy? So trying to do all these- connect the parts using multiple Word documents and spreadsheets and drawing out the network by hand on big pieces of paper. So, it was just really this painstaking, you know -- “Draw it again!” I’m looking at phone numbers and names and one morning, I don’t know what happened. I just kind of had one of those eureka moments where I looked at what I had and I thought, Wait, this is a bureaucracy. And so I started drawing out the bureaucracy: who was sending paychecks to who, who was doing the accounting, who was doing military planning, who was doing this, who was doing that. And – And once I drew that out, it was very clearly a hierarchical organization, and bin Laden was at the top.
She’d just made a rough sketch of Al Qaeda.
It’s hard to get a fix on the real size of Al Qaeda at that time. I’ve seen an estimate that puts the group’s membership at around 90 men. I’ve also seen a chart that shows a more complex operation like the one that Storer describes. It has six main committees with the kind of sub-departments you’d find in a typical mid-sized company, like “archive” and “accounting.” Other departments are less typical, such as “documents and forgery” and “WMD”, also known as the “nuclear weapons section.”
So that was Step 1: follow the money and understand your opponent.
Step 2 … you can’t plan for. You have to get lucky.
In the summer of 1996, a Sudanese man walks into a U.S. Embassy, looking to make a deal.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: The Sudanese man’s name was Jamal al-Fadl, and he – he came to be known within the FBI and within the agency as “Junior.”
FBI Agent MIke Anticev is assigned to Junior’s case. Mike is the brother of John Anticev, the New York-based FBI guy from previous episodes.
MIKE ANTICEV: Jamal became the third person to give bayat or allegiance to Osama bin Laden.
Junior worked for bin Laden’s businesses in Khartoum.
MIKE ANTICEV: At some point Jamal took it upon himself to take, as he called it, a commission. And actually stole approximately $100,000 from bin Laden.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: And they found out. And so he went to bin Laden and he confessed what he had done. And bin Laden said, “Yeah it’s not a good thing to do. Just repay it and we’ll go on from here.” And he said, “Well, there’s a little problem…” [LAUGHS] In that he had spent or given away all of the money that he had extorted. So I think he read the writing on the wall that there was going to be some punishment administered, and so he hit the road.
Junior found his way to the U.S. Embassy in Eritrea, Africa.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: Junior’s motivation was protection. He thought that Al Qaeda was after him for the money. He wanted to come to the United States or to Europe where he would be safe and he also wanted us to get his family out of Sudan.
Junior could draw Al Qaeda’s organizational chart by heart.
MIKE ANTICEV: He knows all the players. He knows the people.
Junior described training camps and sleeper cells. But what really got Mike Anticev’s attention was this: Junior said Al Qaeda operatives had trained the insurgents who shot down American helicopters on a peacekeeping mission in Somalia … better known as the Black Hawk Down attack. Death toll: 18 U.S. soldiers.
MIKE ANTICEV: We saw how determined they were to fight the United States in the West. It just opened our eyes completely to what was really going on.
And that was it, the key piece of evidence: provided by Junior. In secret, the U.S. Attorney charged bin Laden with conspiracy to attack the United States. Now law enforcement is authorized to work with a foreign country to take him into custody. For his part, bin Laden carried on as before: issuing threats against America in another round of interviews and a second so-called fatwa.
And then he struck. It was August 7, 1998. Prudence Bushnell was U.S. Ambassador to Kenya.
PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: August is a winter month in Nairobi so it was fairly chilly, a beautiful day. I had managed to secure a meeting with the Minister of Commerce just across from the embassy. We went through the courtesies. We had a cup of tea. When this locomotive of a percussion threw me back. And the next thing I know I was on the ground, the building was shaking. I thought, “I’m going to die.”
CNN ANCHOR: Two explosions rocked U.S. embassies in East Africa this morning in the neighboring capitals of Kenya and Tanzania. More than a thousand are injured including the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell.
PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: A couple of Kenyan military police rushed us out the building. As we got out my colleague who was with me said, “Put your head down, Ambassador. There’s press,” and literally put my head down so that I was looking down at the sidewalk. And I saw shards of glass and twisted metal, and then my eyes came upon the charred remains of what was once a human being. And up came my eyes and I saw the seven-story office building next to the embassy pancaked entirely. So you had hundreds of people under the rubble. Within hours of the bombing Al Qaeda sent a fax to London taking responsibility for the bombing.
224 dead and more 4,500 wounded in both bombings. General Hugh Shelton was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time.
GENERAL HUGH SHELTON: The gut reaction was that we needed to after the bad guys. That we needed to find these individuals and track them down and even capture or kill them.
But it wasn’t that straightforward. Richard Clarke was Counterterrorism Adviser to the National Security Council.
RICHARD CLARKE: Doing a raid in Afghanistan was a bridge too far. We didn’t have a base that was close enough. We didn’t have any on the ground assets. So we were left with using cruise missiles.
So on August 20, the U.S. launched dozens of cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda training complex in Afghanistan … and at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that U.S. intelligence claimed was producing chemical weapons for bin Laden.
The attacks killed several Al Qaeda fighters … but missed bin Laden. It made him an overnight celebrity. When a superpower targets you, people pay attention.
Saad al-Fagih describes the reaction in parts of the Arab world.
- SAAD AL-FAGIH: When the embassy was attacked people were talking about the possibility that it was Al Qaeda or bin Laden, and there was a huge controversy whether that was right or wrong. People did not like the idea because they say, “why should you kill innocent people in the embassy?” But once Clinton stood in the platform and said, “bin Laden, bin Laden, bin Laden, I’m going to hit him,” the controversy was over.
Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan.
ABDEL BARI ATWAN: They considered him the “Little David,” who challenged and confronted the “Mighty Goliath.”
The Clinton Administration’s response to the Embassy bombings had backfired. As everyone now knew, Goliath had a weak spot.
General Hugh Shelton.
GENERAL HUGH SHELTON: The difficulty in fighting any terrorist organization is that it’s like fighting organized crime. It’s not like conventional military. I mean, we don't have infrastructure. We don't have large formations of soldiers. So you’ve got to go after the individuals.
STEVE COLL: You’re looking at this kind of hybrid between military challenges, policing challenges, paramilitary challenges, and intelligence challenges. The closest that the president has to such a flexible vehicle is the CIA because it has an intelligence collection function, it has a paramilitary function, and it can go around and arrest people if it has the right authorities and the right information.
Those authorities come from the president. There’s a debate to this day about whether the Clinton Administration gave the CIA permission to capture or kill bin Laden. Richard Clarke, who was working in the White House, says, Yeah, they had the authority. He points to a classified instruction to the CIA that Bill Clinton signed on Christmas Eve, 1998.
RICHARD CLARKE: We were able to get the President of the United States to change years of precedent, which said we couldn't do assassinations, wouldn't have hit lists, and he overcame all of that history and authorized CIA to establish a hit list with bin Laden’s name on it.
COFER BLACK: Yeah. OK, that’s fine. Well Dick Clarke is wrong.
That’s Cofer Black of the CIA. And here’s his colleague Michael Scheuer:
MICHAEL SCHEUER: We never had lethal authority. Through the whole thing we never got lethal authorities.
Steve Coll splits the difference.
STEVE COLL: All of the documents that instructed the CIA about its activity in Afghanistan, all of the most important ones remain classified. So what we’re really relying on are summaries of what the documents did or did not permit from people who read them at the time. I’ll tell you one thing is absolutely clear. There was a lack of clarity about exactly which circumstances were required to strike.
Scheuer and Black blame the White House for giving mixed signals on bin Laden.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: If you wanted him dead by assassination, he would have been dead two years ago for fifty cents and one round of ammunition.
COFER BLACK: If they wanted us to do that, then they should write it down in memorandum notification. You know how hard that would be? It would be: Line one, “Kill Osama bin Laden. Period. By, President of the United States.” … Why don’t they do that? I don’t know. They’re politicians.
They’re politicians, but that's their job. They do the math about how a high-profile kidnapping or killing might reverberate politically around the globe. How it could impact America’s vast matrix of foreign alliances and interdependent interests.
And that’s the set up for what comes next. The distinct agendas of two Washington, D.C. power centers -- the White House and the CIA -- are about to clash.
It starts when a spy satellite sends back images of a gathering in the desert.
They reveal a falcon hunt is underway in Afghanistan.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: The Saudis, the Qataris, the Emiratis love Afghanistan. They hunt with falcons, and they hunt a bird called the bustard.
It’s February, 1999. Gary Schroen was CIA Station Chief in Pakistan:
GARY SCHROEN: The bustard is prized as sort of, like, rhinoceros horn. If you eat the meat of this bustard you're supposedly- you’re energized.
This falcon hunt is happening on an open landscape where the army of Alexander the Great marched through. And the CIA has eyes on it.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: We’re shooting, of course, overhead imagery of where we think that Al Qaeda is based and training and where bin Laden is, and we run across a place in the desert, south- I believe south and west of Kandahar.
GARY SCHROEN: It was a camp that was being supported by the UAE government to bring wealthy people from the Emirates out to this desert area so they could hunt with their falcons. Our guys said bin Laden and Zawahiri were in the camp.
UAE is the United Arab Emirates. And Zawahiri, you’ll remember from the previous episode. He’s Ayman al-Zawahiri and he was there at the founding of Al Qaeda.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: When Arab princes go adventuring in the field it’s not a bamboo pole and a hook. There was a tractor-trailer there with an enormous air-conditioning system on it. There was a 90-foot mast for communications back to home and incoming from home. There were three rings of security. We had an asset in the outer ring. And he was able to inform us when Osama would come. And he wouldn’t come to say, you know, “Let me borrow a cigarette, I gotta go.” He would come for dinner and to pray and to talk.
In other words, he’d be sitting in-place for a while. It was a ripe opportunity to kill bin Laden with a bomb or a missile strike.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: These were people who he knew intimately. And it was heaven sent. The first time the guy says, “Okay, he’s in the camp,” that works itself to Gary, that works itself back to the United States, and it goes to CIA, the White House, and the military. No answer from the White House. Nothing. Happens again. He’s there, goes to the White House, no answer. On and on and on it went. After two or three weeks, the first pass of the satellite goes over, everything is the same. The second pass, nothing is there. There is the 4x4’s -- you can see the tracks of all of them leaving, there’s no rugs, there’s no tent, there’s no tractor-trailers, there’s no people. All that’s left is a burning pile of garbage giving off black smoke. We sent word to the White House and to the military that the opportunity was gone. And we didn't think much more about it. A week or so later, there is a CIA officer who is seconded to the National Security Council. And he sends us a memorandum of conversation that was between the ruler of the UAE and Dick Clarke.
Richard Clarke, who was working as a security advisor in the White House.
RICHARD CLARKE: What I wanted to know is: What were they doing there? And I asked the UAE government for that information and got it. They were as shocked as we were to learn that bin Laden was in the vicinity.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: The date of the conversation was the date we saw the burning pile of everybody gone. And so, you know, logic says that those princes scooted out of there like madmen because they got a call from Abu Dhabi that said the Americans say that’s not a safe place to be.
It’s a serious accusation. Scheuer is saying that as the CIA was locking in on the target, Clarke naively took the diplomatic route and reached out to the UAE … and the UAE blew their cover.
RICHARD CLARKE: Well it’s important to understand here is that the UAE government is one of the targets of Al Qaeda and bin Laden. In part because they were helping us fight Al Qaeda. They were helping us find and kill terrorists.
And they were probably not going to keep helping if the US blew up some of their princes. But Gary Schroen of the CIA says that should not have stopped the White House from taking the shot.
GARY SCHROEN: I think one of my comments was, “If you lie down with the dog you wake up with fleas.” And they are lying down with the biggest dog in the world, bin Laden.
The thing is, Richard Clarke worked for the president, where the bucks stops. The White House is just more accountable to the public than the CIA. When decisions like this one are taken, the bulk of the credit or the bulk of the blame is going to land on the Oval Office. And anyway, Clarke argues, the falcon hunt proposal was not a sure thing.
RICHARD CLARKE: They never gave us coordinates that a cruise missile could hit, where we knew bin Laden would be at that coordinate. And we certainly weren’t going to target a camp filled with wealthy people, royal people from a friendly government.
GARY SCHROEN: I know Mike took the decision not to take the strike very hard. I sent him an email that said, “We’re gonna live to regret not taking this strike. It will come back to haunt us in the future.” And of course that’s exactly what happened.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: The operations that were available to the administration weren’t guaranteed successes. But they didn't even try. It almost seems to me to be treasonous.
After 9/11, a Congressional inquiry had a more sober assessment. It did not use the word “treason.” But it did find that the Clinton Administration had nine such opportunities before 2001. And none was taken.
Richard Clarke gives his reasons why:
RICHARD CLARKE: On all of these occasions, when we had these meetings and had the submarines ready to go, the CIA director recommended that we not do the attack because the intelligence was too faulty, or because the collateral damage would be too great. We never once had a meeting where the CIA director recommended that we go ahead with the attack.
MICHAEL SCHEUER: What difference does collateral damage make compared to having an opportunity to stop 9/11? It-it-it pales. I’m very callous on this. I was paid to defend Americans and I don’t care what it takes to do that.
RICHARD CLARKE: And the United States does not, as a rule, kill innocent civilians if it has the option not to. That makes us a little bit different from the terrorists, and frustrates some people, but we don’t do it.
Which approach would you choose?
It’s easy to say, Michael Scheuer was right … because it’s after 9/11 and we know that attacking Osama bin Laden would probably have been worth it. Scheuer adds that Ayman al-Zawahiri was also on the falcon hunt, and could’ve been targeted … by all accounts, Zawahiri heads Al Qaeda to this day.
Steve Simon, who worked in the White House, says he can understand the CIA’s frustration.
STEVE SIMON: Among some intelligence professionals, there’s a sense that politicians are afraid to go all the way, they don’t have the guts to do what’s- what’s necessary. If you believe that, you know, it can make you quite angry.
But if you’re Richard Clarke, you’ve decided the consequences of this mission could be bad even if it succeeds. Innocent bystanders are likely to be killed, eroding U.S. moral standing. And a Middle Eastern ally might then stop cooperating to prevent other attacks -- lives might be lost that could’ve been saved. But then later, you might find yourself wondering, Could I have stopped 9/11 by bombing a falcon hunt?
Of course back in 1998, 9/11 is little more than a glint in KSM’s eye. You have no idea it’s coming. Osama bin Laden is not globally famous, or infamous. The American public isn’t clamoring to get him. The American public, and all of Washington D.C., is consumed with a completely different drama.
BILL CLINTON: Indeed I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact it was wrong.
In December, Congress impeached Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with a White House intern. It was all that seemed to matter at the time, says Ambassador Prudence Bushnell.
PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: That was taking up all of the airtime of the media. Everybody was worried about political consequences to the President of the United States, and what had happened in far away Africa was in far away Africa.
STEVE COLL: The only people who were really urging action against bin Laden were the analysts and the decision makers in the counterterrorism field who saw the intelligence, who were really deeply saturated in the details. The details were alarming.
STEVE SIMON: It certainly looked as though the attacks against the embassies in Africa was the leading edge of a bigger assault.
COFER BLACK: The magnitude and the significance of this threat was communicated over and over again.
But the White House and CIA couldn’t agree on how to respond to it. And besides …
STEVE COLL: The country was distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Republicans were interested in impeachment procedure against President Clinton. There was no political appetite to go in with ground forces into Afghanistan. This was a bipartisan failure.
Another year passed and bin Laden was still free.
GARY SCHROEN: I began to realize then in late ‘99 that we weren’t gonna come up with a plan that was gonna really work to catch him or kill him.
The signal was received in Afghanistan.
PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden had a narrative about the United States which essentially is: The Americans are as weak as the Soviets. That it’s a paper tiger and the evidence that he proffered was, Okay, so you’re in Vietnam in the ‘70s, you pulled out. You were in Beirut in 1983, the attack on the marine barracks killed more than 200 marines, you pulled out. You were in Somalia in 1993, 18 American servicemen were killed, you pulled out. And so he based his whole analysis on, you apply enough military pressure on the United States, they will withdraw.
By now, bin Laden’s intentions were out in the open. Who he was targeting was no secret … and the embassy bombings had proved that he was willing and able to inflict mass casualties on the unsuspecting.
PETER BERGEN: The best guide to bin Laden’s actions was always what he said, and I kind of took him at face value. And so when he said he was planning to attack the United States, you should assume that that was a possibility.
Jihadists started flocking to Afghanistan to join Al Qaeda. Bin Laden moved his base of operations to Kandahar. Saad al-Fagih, the leader of a Saudi opposition group, says bin Laden was seen by some as a 20th century version of Saladin -- the 12th century sultan who led a Muslim army during the Crusades.
SAAD AL-FAGIH: Bin Laden was shown to be the symbol, the umbrella, the gathering point where people can aggregate in order to cooperate with each other to fight America.
FBI Agent Ali Soufan agrees.
ALI SOUFAN: More and more people started to look at him and say, You know what, this guy is not only talking the talk, he’s also walking the walk. And they joined him, and one of these people who joined him at that time period was a person who is not an original member of Al Qaeda in any way shape or form. He always operated independently. His name is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11.
It’s what I said at the top of this episode, after KSM left Tora Bora empty-handed in 1996. I said he’d be back … And so he is. He’s in Kandahar and he’s ready to join Al Qaeda. He and bin Laden have renewed their conversation from three years earlier, and now they agree: it’s time to start moving ahead on that “planes operation.”
Next time on Blindspot: The Road to 9/11.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: The system was blinking red.
MARY JO WHITE: He’d escaped the net. And we had the net there.
JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: We could not define the method, the timing, but we could feel it coming.
STEVE COLL: We wouldn’t have had to stop every attack Al Qaeda attempted, we just had to stop this one.
COFER BLACK: “This country’s gotta go on a war footing, now.”
“Blindspot: The Road to 9/11” is a co-production of HISTORY and WNYC Studios. Our team includes Jenny Lawton, Ursula Sommer, Joe Plourde, Jennifer Goren, Michelle Harris, Bill Moss, and Isaac Jones.
This podcast is based on the TV documentary “Road to 9/11” produced by Left/Right for HISTORY, and was made possible by executive producers Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver. Special thanks to Eli Lehrer, Jessie Katz, Celia Muller, and David Lewis. Additional archival footage from CNN and NBC News Archives. All of our Arabic language tape was independently translated by Lara Atallah. Our voice over actor this episode was Louis Sallan. I’m Jim O’Grady. Thanks for listening.
JIM: What do ya got? What do ya got? Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots! [LAUGHS]
YAROSH: I won! I won!
JIM: Wait, wait, wait, wait, get to your corner, get to your corner, get back, now on three. One, two, three!
JIM: I can't even win when I cheat!
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