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Context of 'February 1999: Possible Missed Opportunity to Capture or Kill Bin Laden in Afghanistan'

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After the Taliban takes control of the area around Kandahar, Afghanistan, in September 1994, prominent Persian Gulf state officials and businessmen, including high-ranking United Arab Emirates and Saudi government ministers such as Saudi Intelligence Minister Prince Turki al-Faisal, frequently secretly fly into Kandahar on state and private jets for bird hunting expeditions. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] General Wayne Downing, who will later serve as one of President Bush’s counterterrorism “tsars,” says: “They would go out and see Osama, spend some time with him, talk with him, you know, live out in the tents, eat the simple food, engage in falconing, some other pursuits, ride horses.” [MSNBC, 9/5/2003] One noted visitor is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, United Arab Emirates (UAE) Defense Minister and Crown Prince for the emirate of Dubai. Another is Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, ruler of the UAE. While there, some develop ties to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and give them money. Both Osama bin Laden and Taliban ruler Mullah Omar sometimes participate in these hunting trips. Al Maktoum allegedly hunts with bin Laden once in 1999 (see 1999). [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 120-121] On one occasion in 1999, the US will decide not to attack bin Laden with a missile because he’s bird hunting with important members of the UAE’s royal family (see February 11, 1999). US and Afghan officials suspect that the dignitaries’ outbound jets may also have smuggle out al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] The CIA also develops suspicions that many royals use the hunting trips as cover to fly out of Afghanistan with large amounts of heroin, but they are unable to prove it (see 1998).

Entity Tags: Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Turki al-Faisal, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Wayne Downing

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Imagery of bin Laden’s Tarnak Farms compound prepared for the aborted operation.Imagery of bin Laden’s Tarnak Farms compound prepared for the aborted operation. [Source: CBC]In 1997 and early 1998, the US develops a plan to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. A CIA-owned aircraft is stationed in a nearby country, ready to land on a remote landing strip long enough to pick him up. However, problems with having to hold bin Laden too long in Afghanistan make the operation unlikely. The plan morphs into using a team of Afghan informants to kidnap bin Laden from inside his heavily defended Tarnak Farm complex. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, calls the plan “the perfect operation.” Gary Schroen, the lead CIA officer in the field, agrees, and gives it about a 40 percent chance of succeeding. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 220-221; Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] The Pentagon also reviews the plan, finding it well crafted. In addition, there is “plausible denialability,” as the US could easily distance itself from the raid. Scheuer will comment, “It was the perfect capture operation becauase even if it went completely wrong and people got killed, there was no evidence of a US hand.” [Shenon, 2008, pp. 192] However, higher-ups at the CIA are skeptical of the plan and worry that innocent civilians might die. The plan is given to CIA Director George Tenet for approval, but he rejects it without showing it to President Clinton. He considers it unlikely to succeed and decides the Afghan allies are too unreliable. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 220-221; Washington Post, 2/22/2004; Vanity Fair, 11/2004] Additionally, earlier in May 1998, the Saudis promised to try to bribe the Taliban and try bin Laden themselves, and apparently Tenet preferred this plan (see May 1998). Scheuer is furious. After 9/11 he will complain, “We had more intelligence against this man and organization than we ever had on any other group we ever called a terrorist group, and definitive and widely varied [intelligence] across all the ends, and I could not understand why they didn’t take the chance.” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] There will be later speculation that the airstrip used for these purposes is occupied and will be used as a base of operations early in the post-9/11 Afghan war. [Washington Post, 12/19/2001]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Central Intelligence Agency, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, Alec Station

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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:
bullet May 1998: a plan to capture bin Laden at his compound south of Kandahar, canceled at the last minute (see 1997-May 29, 1998).
bullet September 1998: a capture opportunity north of Kandahar, presumably by Afghan tribals working for the CIA (see September-October 1998).
bullet December 1998: canceled US missile strike on the governor’s palace in Kandahar (see December 18-20, 1998).
bullet February 1999: Military attack opportunity on governor’s residence in Herat (see February 1999).
bullet February 1999: Multiple military attack opportunities at a hunting camp near Kandahar attended by United Arab Emirates royals (see February 11, 1999).
bullet May 1999: Military attack opportunities on five consecutive nights in Kandahar (see May 1999).
bullet 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]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Michael Scheuer, George J. Tenet, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Clinton administration, National Security Council, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

El Shifa Plant in Sudan.El Shifa Plant in Sudan. [Source: US government]The US fires 66 missiles at six al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and 13 missiles at a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, in retaliation for the US embassy bombings. [Washington Post, 10/3/2001] The US insists the attacks are aimed at terrorists “not supported by any state,” despite obvious evidence to the contrary. The Sudanese Al Shifa factory is hit in the middle of the night when it is unoccupied. Intelligence will later suggest that the factory had no links to bin Laden (see September 23, 1998). Between six and 30 people are killed in the Afghanistan attacks. But no important al-Qaeda figures die. [Observer, 8/23/1998; New Yorker, 1/24/2000; Wright, 2006, pp. 285] At least one of the missiles accidentally landed inside Pakistan and Pakistan may have been able to build their own cruise missile from examining the remains. There are additional reports that bin Laden was able to sell unexploded missiles to China for more than $10 million. [Wright, 2006, pp. 285] President Clinton is soon widely accused of using the missile strike to distract the US public from a personal sex scandal (see August 17-Late August 1998).

Entity Tags: Al-Qaeda, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Afghan tribal allies of the US apparently make some failed attempts to capture Osama bin Laden around this time. The 9/11 Commission will later report that during these two months: “[T]he tribals claimed to have tried at least four times to ambush bin Laden. Senior CIA officials doubted whether any of these ambush attempts actually occurred. But the tribals did seem to have success in reporting where bin Laden was.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 127] Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit at the time, will later list a September 1998 attempt by the tribals to capture bin Laden north of Kandahar as one of the ten missed opportunities to capture him in 1998 and 1999. [Scheuer, 2008, pp. 284]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer, 9/11 Commission

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The governor’s mansion in Kandahar, Afghanistan.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]

Entity Tags: Clinton administration, Anthony Zinni, Osama bin Laden, Gary C. Schroen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.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]

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Ariana Airlines, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Michael Scheuer

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

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]

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden, George J. Tenet, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Michael Scheuer.
Michael Scheuer. [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]

Entity Tags: Michael Scheuer, Jack Downing, George J. Tenet, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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