Wednesday, September 07, 2005

CIA videos reveal the missed chances to kill Bin Laden
CIA videos reveal the missed chances to kill Bin Laden
Yosri Fouda and Nick Fielding
Wrangles stopped arming of plane

::nobreak::PREVIOUSLY unseen footage of Osama Bin Laden taken by a CIA spy drone reveals how close the Americans came to killing the Al-Qaeda leader two years before the September 11 attacks.

The pictures were filmed by a Predator unmanned aircraft and show Bin Laden, in white robes, with a small group of followers at a training camp near Khost in eastern Afghanistan at the end of 1999. The drone was one of the first to be used in Afghanistan by the CIA, but because of bureaucratic wrangles it was unarmed.

The pictures, thought to be the first spy plane footage of Bin Laden to be published, have been obtained from American sources by Al-Jazeera, the Arabic language television station. “We had no doubt over his identity. Bin Laden can clearly be seen standing out from the rest of the group next to the buildings,” said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer who headed Alec Station, the agency’s unit which tracked Bin Laden during the 1990s.

He added: “Nobody at the top of the CIA wanted to take the decision to arm the Predator. It meant that even if we could find him (Bin Laden) we were not allowed to kill him.”

The pictures are part of a mass of evidence now emerging of the missed opportunities to kill or capture Bin Laden and his associates before they launched the terror attacks on America in 2001.

They include at least three further occasions in Afghanistan between 1998 and 2000 when the CIA had Bin Laden in its sights but was prevented from acting. There were divisions between the agency and the White House over who would have the authority to fire and the legality of killing the Al-Qaeda leader.

On one occasion a satellite photographed the Al-Qaeda leader on a hunting trip, but the White House ordered the CIA not to launch a missile attack after finding out that princes from a friendly Arab country were in his party.

On another occasion a raid by local tribesmen on Bin Laden’s base in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, was called off after American officials could not agree on whether it should go ahead.

The third episode, also in Kandahar, involved a human spotter tracking him for five days, but the decision was taken not to attack because of fears over civilian casualties.

The missed opportunities are documented in Blinking Red, an Al-Jazeera series beginning this week to mark the fourth anniversary of September 11.

It describes how Bill Clinton’s administration turned down an offer from the Sudanese government to help to capture Bin Laden when he was living in Khartoum in the early to mid-1990s. It also shows how the Americans “lost” two of the September 11 hijackers despite having them under surveillance. The two men later entered America.

“The Bush administration has still not come clean with the American people about 9/11. Our investigation, which has taken a year to complete, has raised many outstanding questions that urgently need to be answered, not least over the missed opportunities to take out senior leaders of the organisation,” said Al-Jazeera.

The nearest the CIA came to killing Bin Laden was on the hunting trip in February 1999, just a few months before the Predator incident. The site was a camp in the desert south of Kandahar where Bin Laden had gone with wealthy visitors from the United Arab Emirates.

Afghan agents reported the trip to a CIA station. Tracking teams were immediately dispatched and by February 9 they had located the isolated camp, close to a large airstrip.

Richard Clarke, Clinton’s senior counter-terrorism adviser, has written in his memoirs: “When word came through that we had a contemporaneous sighting from our informants, the counter-terrorism security group met immediately by secure video conference.”

An attack on the camp using cruise missiles was the only option the Americans could employ at such short notice. The previous year a similar strike using dozens of missiles had been launched on the Khalden training camp in the east of the country, but there were few casualties and the work of the camp was hardly disrupted. This time, with a smaller, more clearly defined target, the intelligence experts believed they would have more luck.

The attack was planned for February 11, but according to Scheuer the White House stalled. Officials wanted more information about Bin Laden’s movements.

In addition it was now clear that the hunting party consisted of minor princes from the United Arab Emirates, an American ally in the Gulf.

As the White House dithered, the hunting party moved on. “All that was left was a pile of burning garbage in the desert,” said Scheuer this weekend. He claimed that the group had left after Clarke called a senior figure in the Emirates royal family. “It’s hardly surprising that they pulled out so quickly and that we lost our chance to kill Bin Laden,” said Scheuer.

The Al-Jazeera series also reveals how the January 2000 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, at which the September 11 attacks were planned, came to light after the CIA tracked the telephones of Khalid al-Midhar, later to become one of the hijackers.

Most of the senior planners of the attacks, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, were at the meeting, which was also photographed by intelligence agents. Shortly afterwards Al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, another of the future hijackers who was also at the Malaysian meeting, flew to San Diego using their real names and passports. They were so casual that Al-Hazmi’s name appears in the San Diego residential phone directory for the period when they were in the area.

The ease with which the two men were able to operate in America came partly because the CIA did not show its evidence to the FBI — responsible for internal security — until June 2001, 18 months after the planning meeting and well after the two had entered the country.

The failures revealed in the Al-Jazeera documentary were echoed last week by further revelations about the so-called Able Danger military intelligence unit.

Two members of this unit have come forward in recent weeks to say that Mohammed Atta, leader of the September 11 hijackers, was known as a terrorist suspect at least a year before the attacks.

Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Shaffer and Captain Scott Philpott, former members of the unit, said that Atta and three of the other hijackers had been identified. They say that they testified to the September 11 commission but their testimony was not taken seriously.

The Al-Jazeera series, together with Scheuer’s disclosures, add to growing pressure on the American authorities over their performance in the run-up to September 11. In an unpublished report to Congress last week John Helgerson, the US government’s inspector-general, delivered a scathing attack on George Tenet, CIA director at the time of September 11, and a score of other agency personnel for their failure to develop a strategy against Al-Qaeda.

The report recommends a public reprimand against Tenet, James Pavitt, former deputy director of operations, and Cofer Black, former head of the counter-terrorism centre.

Yosri Fouda, a journalist with Al-Jazeera, is the presenter of Blinking Red. His interviews with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, the 9/11 planners, were first published by The Sunday Times in 2002