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Context of 'February 11, 1999: Bin Laden Missile Strike Called off for Fear of Hitting Persian Gulf Royalty'

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In early February 1999, US intelligence gains good information that Osama bin Laden is bird hunting with members of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) royal family in an uninhabited region of Afghanistan (see February 11, 1999). A later book by Daniel Benjamin and Stephen Simon, both officials in the Clinton administration, will note, “At the moment the Tomahawks [US missiles] were being readied, the United States was in the final stages of negotiations to sell eighty Block 60 F-16s, America’s most sophisticated export fighter jets,” to the UAE government. “America’s relationship with the [UAE] was the best it had in the [Persian] Gulf, and the [Clinton] administration had devotedly cultivated Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s president and the leader of the country’s royal clans.” [Benjamin and Simon, 2002, pp. 281] The F-16 fighter deal is worth about $8 billion. Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke is particularly close to the UAE royal family, having negotiated arms deals and US military basing agreements with them for several years. He has a hand in negotiating the F-16 deal in 1998. In fact, just days before the US learned of bin Laden’s presence in the hunting camp, Clarke was in the UAE working on the fighter deal. [Coll, 2004, pp. 486; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 128] Journalist Steve Coll will later say: “If the United States bombed the camp and killed a few princes, it could potentially put [business deals like that] in jeopardy—even if bin Laden were killed at the same time. Hardly anyone in the Persian Gulf saw bin Laden as a threat serious enough to warrant the deaths of their own royalty.” Clarke is one who votes not to strike the camp, and others within the US government will speculate that his UAE ties had a role in his decision. [Coll, 2004, pp. 447-450] Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit at the time, will later comment: “Why did President Clinton fail to attack? Because making money was more important than protecting Americans.” [Scheuer, 2008] The missile strike does not take place and the fighter deal is successfully completed. Some US officials, including Scheuer, will be very irate and vocally complain later this month (see Shortly After February 11, 1999).

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Clinton administration, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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.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).

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, Alec Station, United Arab Emirates

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The failure to strike at bin Laden in February 1999, despite having unusually good intelligence about his location (see February 11, 1999), causes strong resentment in the US intelligence community. It is believed that the US held its fire because of the presence of royalty from the United Arab Emirates(UAE), but some felt those royals were legitimate targets as well since they were associating with bin Laden there. Further, intelligence at the time suggests the planes carrying these royals to Afghanistan were also bringing weapons to the Taliban in defiance of United Nations bans. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit at the time, is particularly upset. He reportedly sends a series of e-mails to others in the CIA that are, in the opinion of one person who read them, “angry, unusual, and widely circulated.” His anger at this decision not to strike at bin Laden will apparently contribute to him losing his position leading the bin Laden unit a few months later (see June 1999). Some resentment is directed at counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, who voted against the missile strike. Clarke was known to be close to the UAE’s royal family. He’d negotiated many arms deals and other arrangements with them, including an $8 billion deal in May 1998 to buy F-16 fighters from the US (see Early February 1999). [Coll, 2004, pp. 447-450] In March 1999, Clarke calls Emirati royals and asks them to stop visiting bin Laden. However, he apparently did not have permission from the CIA to make this call. Within one week, the camp where the Emiratis and bin Laden met is abandoned. CIA officers are irate, feeling that this ruined a chance to strike at bin Laden if he made a return visit to the location. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 138]

Entity Tags: Taliban, Richard A. Clarke, Michael Scheuer, Alec Station, United Arab Emirates

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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