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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

The CIA proposes a policy of abducting Islamic Jihad militants and sending them to Egypt which will soon be approved by President Bill Clinton (see June 21, 1995). The Clinton administration began a policy of allowing abductions, known as “renditions,” in 1993 (see 1993). At first, renditions were rarely used because few countries wanted the suspects. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is one of the architects of a 1995 agreement with Egypt to send rendered militants there. He will later recall: “It was begun in desperation.… We were turning into voyeurs. We knew where these people were, but we couldn’t capture them because we had nowhere to take them,” due to legal and diplomatic complications. The CIA realized that “we had to come up with a third party.” Egypt was the obvious choice because the Islamic Jihad is the prime political enemy of the Egyptian government, and many Islamic Jihad militants also work for al-Qaeda, an enemy of the US.
Turning a Blind Eye - However, the Egyptian secret police force, the Mukhabarat, is notorious for its torture of prisoners. As part of the program, the US helps track, capture, and transport suspects to Egypt (see Before Summer 1995) and then turns a blind eye while the Egyptians torture them. Scheuer claims the US could give the Egyptian interrogators questions they wanted put to the detainees in the morning and get answers by the evening. Because torture is illegal in the US, US officials are never present when the torture is done. Further, the CIA only abducts suspects who have already been convicted in absentia. Talaat Fouad Qassem is the first known person the CIA renders to Egypt (see September 13, 1995). But the number of renditions greatly increases in 1998, when the CIA gets a list of Islamic Jihad operatives around the world (see Late August 1998). These renditions result in a big trial in Egypt in 1999 that effectively destroys Islamic Jihad as a major force in that country (see 1999). [New Yorker, 2/8/2005]
CIA, NSC, Justice Department Lawyers Consulted - Scheuer will say that lawyers inside and outside the CIA are intensively consulted about the program: “There is a large legal department within the Central Intelligence Agency, and there is a section of the Department of Justice that is involved in legal interpretations for intelligence work, and there is a team of lawyers at the National Security Council, and on all of these things those lawyers are involved in one way or another and have signed off on the procedure. The idea that somehow this is a rogue operation that someone has dreamed up is just absurd.” [Grey, 2007, pp. 140-141]
Leadership of Program - The rendition program does not focus solely on al-Qaeda-linked extremists, and other suspected terrorists are also abducted. Scheuer will later tell Congress, “I authored it and then ran and managed it against al-Qaeda leaders and other Sunni Islamists from August 1995, until June 1999.” [US Congress, 4/17/2007 pdf file] A dedicated Renditions Branch will be established at CIA headquarters in 1997 (see 1997), but the relationship between Scheuer and its manager is not known—it is unclear whether this manager is a subordinate, superior, or equal of Scheuer, or whether Scheuer takes on this responsibility as well. After Scheuer is fired as unit chief in May 1999 (see June 1999), his role in the rendition program will presumably be passed on to his successor, Richard Blee, who will go on to be involved in rendition after 9/11 (see Shortly After December 19, 2001). In a piece apparently about Blee, journalist Ken Silverstein will say that he “oversaw… the [Counterterrorist Center] branch that directed renditions.” [Harper's, 1/28/2007]

Entity Tags: Mukhabarat (Egypt), Richard Blee, Islamic Jihad, Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Egypt, Michael Scheuer

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

The CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center creates a special unit focusing specifically on bin Laden. It is informally called Alec Station. About 10 to 15 individuals are assigned to the unit initially. This grows to about 35 to 40 by 9/11. [US Congress, 9/18/2002] The unit is set up “largely because of evidence linking [bin Laden] to the 1993 bombing of the WTC.” [Washington Post, 10/3/2001] Newsweek will comment after 9/11, “With the Cold War over, the Mafia in retreat, and the drug war unwinnable, the CIA and FBI were eager to have a new foe to fight.… Historical rivals, the spies and G-men were finally learning to work together. But they didn’t necessarily share secrets with the alphabet soup of other enforcement and intelligence agencies, like Customs and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and they remained aloof from the Pentagon. And no amount of good will or money could bridge a fundamental divide between intelligence and law enforcement. Spies prefer to watch and wait; cops want to get their man.” [Newsweek, 10/1/2001] Michael Scheuer will lead the unit until 1999. He will later become a vocal critic of the US government’s efforts to combat terrorism. He later recalls that while bin Laden is mostly thought of merely as a terrorist financier at this time, “we had run across bin Laden in a lot of different places, not personally but in terms of his influence, either through rhetoric, through audiotapes, through passports, through money-he seemed to turn up everywhere. So when we [created the unit], the first responsibility was to find out if he was a threat.” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] By the start of 1997, the unit will conclude bin Laden is a serious threat (see Early 1997).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Michael Scheuer, Alec Station, Al-Qaeda, Counterterrorist Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

In 1996, al-Qaeda assumes control of Ariana Airlines, Afghanistan’s national airline, for use in its illegal trade network. Passenger flights become few and erratic, as planes are used to fly drugs, weapons, gold, and personnel, primarily between Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Pakistan. The Emirate of Sharjah, in the UAE, becomes a hub for al-Qaeda drug and arms smuggling. Typically, “large quantities of drugs” are flown from Kandahar, Afghanistan, to Sharjah, and large quantities of weapons are flown back to Afghanistan. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] About three to four flights run the route each day. Many weapons come from Victor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer based in Sharjah. [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/2002] Afghan taxes on opium production are paid in gold, and then the gold bullion is flown to Dubai, UAE, and laundered into cash. [Washington Post, 2/17/2002] Taliban officials regularly provide militants with false papers identifying them as Ariana Airlines employees so they can move freely around the world. For instance, one flight on a Ariana small plane in 2000 lists 33 crew members. A former National Security Council official later claims the US is well aware at the time that al-Qaeda agents regularly fly on Ariana Airlines. (However, US intelligence will not learn of the widespread use of forged Ariana IDs until after 9/11.) The CIA learns of Bout’s connection to Ariana and the Taliban in 1998, but takes no action (see 1998). The US presses the UAE for tighter banking controls, but moves “delicately, not wanting to offend an ally in an already complicated relationship,” and little changes by 9/11. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001; Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 139] Much of the money for the 9/11 hijackers flows though these Sharjah, UAE, channels. There also are reports suggesting that Ariana Airlines might have been used to train Islamic militants as pilots. The illegal use of Ariana Airlines helps convince the United Nations to impose sanctions against Afghanistan in 1999, but the sanctions lack teeth and do not stop the airline. A second round of sanctions finally stops foreign Ariana Airlines flights, but its charter flights and other charter services keep the illegal network running. [Los Angeles Times, 11/18/2001] About nine of the 9/11 hijackers work at the Kandahar airport in 2000, which is Ariana’s main hub (see Summer 2000).

Entity Tags: Taliban, United Arab Emirates, United Nations, Al-Qaeda, Ariana Airlines, Victor Bout

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

A houbara bustard.A houbara bustard. [Source: Eric and David Hosking / Corbis]In 1998, the CIA becomes interested in the links between arms dealer Victor Bout, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, and some US counternarcotics officials are particularly intrigued by a pattern they see between the flight patterns of Bout’s airplanes to and from Afghanistan and the hunting vacations of some Persian Gulf royals. Many of the Persian Gulf elite are known to regularly go bird hunting in Afghanistan, sometimes meeting Taliban ruler Mullah Omar and/or Osama bin Laden during their hunting trips (see 1995-2001). US analysts notice that there is a surge of Bout-controlled flights to Afghanistan in February and March of each year, the same time many royal elite fly to Afghanistan on their private jets in time for the migration of thousands of houbara bustards through Afghanistan. Then, in early autumn, there is another surge of flights by both Bout’s planes and the royal jets when the bustards migrate through the country again. Officials at the CIA’s counternarcotics center suspect some of the royals are using the hunting flights as cover to export heroin. The Bout flights increase the suspicion, since he is a known drug trafficker as well as an arms dealer. Scheuer will later comment, “They were very interested on the counternarcotics side about the patterns between Bout’s flights and the bustard-hunting season.” British intelligence is interested in the same thing, and at one point they approach United Arab Emirates (UAE) officials for permission to sneak a team of agents aboard one of Bout’s flights to search for Afghan heroin. However, they are unable to get permission, and the CIA also does not act on these suspicions. [Farah and Braun, 2007, pp. 141]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Victor Bout, UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Michael Scheuer

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

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]

Entity Tags: Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, Turki al-Faisal

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Sayyid Iskandar Suliman. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files.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).

Entity Tags: US Department of State, Sayyid Nazir Abbass, Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, Sudan, Osama bin Laden, Janet Reno, John O’Neill, Madeleine Albright, Richard A. Clarke, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right).Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right). [Source: Associated Press]Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35 a.m., local time, a suicide car bomb attack in Nairobi, Kenya, kills 213 people, including 12 US nationals, and injures more than 4,500. Mohamed al-Owhali and someone known only as Azzam are the suicide bombers, but al-Owhali runs away at the last minute and survives. Four minutes later, a suicide car bomb attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kills 11 and injures 85. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. The attacks will be blamed on al-Qaeda. [PBS Frontline, 2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001] The Tanzania death toll is low because, remarkably, the attack takes place on a national holiday so the US embassy there is closed. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195] The attack shows al-Qaeda has a capability for simultaneous attacks. The Tanzania bombing appears to have been a late addition, as one of the arrested bombers will allegedly tell US agents that it was added to the plot only about 10 days in advance. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001] A third attack against the US embassy in Uganda does not take place due to a last-minute delay (see August 7, 1998). [Associated Press, 9/25/1998] August 7, 1998, is the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia and some people will speculate that this is the reason for the date of the bombings. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 46] In the 2002 book The Cell, reporters John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Mitchell will write: “What has become clear with time is that facets of the East Africa plot had been known beforehand to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and to Israeli and Kenyan intelligence services.… [N]o one can seriously argue that the horrors of August 7, 1998, couldn’t have been prevented.” They will also comment, “Inexplicable as the intelligence failure was, more baffling still was that al-Qaeda correctly presumed that a major attack could be carried out by a cell that US agents had already uncovered.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195, 206] After 9/11, it will come to light that three of the alleged hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi, had some involvement in the bombings (see October 4, 2001, Late 1999, and 1993-1999) and that the US intelligence community was aware of this involvement by late 1999 (see December 15-31, 1999), if not before.

Entity Tags: Salem Alhazmi, Nawaf Alhazmi, Mohamed al-Owhali, Hamden Khalif Allah Awad, Khalid Almihdhar, Al-Qaeda, Azzam

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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.

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Taliban, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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]

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke, William S. Cohen, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Osama bin Laden, Monica Lewinsky, Daniel Coats, Arlen Specter, Newt Gingrich

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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]

Entity Tags: National Security Agency, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Central Intelligence Agency

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

State Department official Michael Malinowski.State Department official Michael Malinowski. [Source: Reuters / Corbis]Two days after the US missile strikes on militant training camps in Afghanistan (see August 20, 1998), top Taliban leader Mullah Omar unexpectedly telephones the State Department in Washington. He talks to Michael Malinowski, office director for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh in the Bureau of South Asian Affairs. Although Mullah Omar does not threaten the US, he suggests that the missile strikes could spark more terrorist attacks. He says the Taliban is open to the idea of establishing a secure communication channel with US officials, possibly through the US embassy in Pakistan (there is no embassy in Afghanistan). The State Department comments, “Omar’s contact with a US official is rather remarkable, given his reclusive nature and his past avoidance of contact with all things American.” [US Department of State, 8/23/1998 pdf file; US Department of State, 1/14/2002] The US then sends the Taliban some evidence of bin Laden’s militant activities (see August 23, 1998), but it appears the secure communications channel never materializes.

Entity Tags: Taliban, Michael Malinowski, US Department of State, Mullah Omar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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]

Entity Tags: William S. Cohen, Tarik Hamdi, Osama bin Laden

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

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).

Entity Tags: Naseem Rana, Osama bin Laden, Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, Taliban, Mullah Omar, Turki al-Faisal

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

The destroyed Al Shifa factory.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]

Entity Tags: Military Industrial Corporation, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Salah Idriss, Osama bin Laden, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Julie Sirrs.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

Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke advocates an aggressive approach to dealing with terrorists and countries that harbor them, and says terrorists are likely to go after America’s “Achilles’ heel,” which is “in Washington… in New York,” and “throughout the country.” He makes these comments during a two-day conference on countering chemical and biological warfare, held in Washington, DC. [New York Times, 10/8/1998; USIS Washington File, 10/8/1998]
Enemies Could Target Washington or New York - In his speech at the conference, Clarke says, “The United States can defeat in a conventional war any other military in the world.” Therefore: “Our enemies instead will use unconventional techniques, either exclusively or as a supplement to their attack. They will use terrorism. They will use cyber attack and information warfare. And they will use chem-bio attack.” He adds that America’s enemies “will go after our Achilles’ heel,” which is “in Washington. It is in New York. It is throughout the country. For no longer can we count as a nation on the two great oceans defending us from foreign attack here at home.”
US Willing to Take 'The First Step' - Clarke says that the US government has developed a strategy for dealing with chemical and biological weapons attacks, which includes an aggressive approach toward terrorist groups and rogue states. He says these groups and states “should know that those who engage in terrorist acts, including terrorist acts involving chemical and biological weapons, can be assured that they will pay a high price.” The government’s promise to them is “attack us and you will unleash a relentless and methodical machine against you.” Furthermore, Clarke says, the US is willing to act preemptively: “The United States reserves for itself the right of self-defense, and if that means our taking the first step, we will do so. We will not tolerate terrorist organizations acquiring or maintaining stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.” [USIS Washington File, 10/8/1998]
US Will Target Countries that Harbor Terrorists - In an interview after his speech, Clarke emphasizes that countries that harbor these terrorist groups also risk being targeted by the US. He points to the recent missile attacks against Sudan in retaliation for the US embassy bombings in Africa (see August 20, 1998), and says the US will “definitely do something” about such countries. “The something depends on what the circumstances are.” [New York Times, 10/8/1998] Clarke will repeat his claim that the nation’s “Achilles’ heel” terrorists will come after is “here in the United States” in an April 2000 interview with the Washington Post (see April 2, 2000). [Washington Post, 4/2/2000]

Entity Tags: Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Abu Zubaida

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

An AC-130.An AC-130. [Source: US Air Force]In the immediate aftermath of a decision not to attack bin Laden with cruise missiles for fear of collateral damage (see December 18-20, 1998), the US military looks for other options than the inaccurate cruise missiles. On this day, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Henry Shelton formally directs Generals Anthony Zinni and Peter J. Schoomaker to develop plans for an AC-130 gunship attack against al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. The AC-130 is an aircraft designed specifically for special forces missions. It can fly in fast or from a high altitude, undetected by radar. It is capable of rapidly firing precision-guided projectiles that are much less likely to cause collateral damage. The two generals do submit such a plan on January 12, 1999, but the plan will never be developed beyond this initial document. One reason is that Zinni is against the idea. Another obstacle is that due to technical reasons the AC-130s would need to be based in a nearby country (most likely Uzbekistan, which is the most supportive of US efforts to get bin Laden at this time (see 1998 and After)). Political agreements allowing for basing and overflight rights would have to be arranged, but there is never any attempt to do so. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 135, 486]

Entity Tags: Henry Hugh Shelton, Peter J. Schoomaker, Anthony Zinni

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

Yellowcake.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]

Entity Tags: Valerie Plame Wilson, Abdul Qadeer Khan, Osama bin Laden, Joseph C. Wilson

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, A. Q. Khan's Nuclear Network, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

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

Following the replacement of Michael Scheuer by Richard Blee as chief of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see June 1999 and June 1999), the relationship between Alec Station and its FBI counterpart headed by John O’Neill does not improve. The relationship between Scheuer and O’Neill was extremely stormy, but Blee’s arrival does nothing to calm matters. As O’Neill is the FBI manager most knowledgeable about al-Qaeda, the combative nature of the relationship may hamper interagency counterterrorism efforts. Author James Bamford will write, “The epicenter of the clash between the two cultures [of the FBI and CIA] was the relationship between [Blee] and John P. O’Neill, the flashy, outspoken chief of the FBI’s National Security Division in New York.” An associate of O’Neill’s will say of Alec Station staff, “They despised the FBI and they despised John O’Neill.” A CIA officer will add, “The working relationships were very difficult at times.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 217-8]

Entity Tags: Richard Blee, John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Alec Station, James Bamford

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI’s most senior representative at Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, develops cancer and is forced to resign, meaning no FBI agent assigned to Alec Station has the power to release information from the CIA for months. A key cable informing the FBI that hijacker Khalid Almihdhar has a US visa will fail to be released to the FBI around this time (see 9:30 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. January 5, 2000). The representative, who is referred to in documents as “Eric”, is deputy chief of Alec Station. He has the power to release information to the FBI having acquired this power in a row with former Alec Station chief Michael Scheuer (see June 1999). The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will say Eric left the unit in mid-January, which would have given him over a week to give the FBI information about Almihdhar discovered during the surveillance of an al-Qaeda summit held from January 5-8 (see January 5-8, 2000). It is known Eric accessed a cable related to the Malaysia summit on January 5 and discussed surveillance photos taken of the summit with CIA officer Tom Wilshire (see (Mid-January 2000)). Author Lawrence Wright will comment: “None of the… FBI agents remaining in Alec had the seniority to release information, and consequently had to rely on the agency to give them permission for any transfer of classified cable traffic.” [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 241, 320 pdf file; Wright, 2006, pp. 313]

Entity Tags: Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), “Eric”, Alec Station, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Hours after the USS Cole bombing in Yemen (see October 12, 2000), President Clinton says regarding the bombing: “If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable.” [ABC News, 10/12/2000] But the US will not quickly retaliate against al-Qaeda, as it did with missile strikes after the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa (see August 20, 1998), despite convincing evidence that al-Qaeda was behind the Cole bombing (see Shortly After October 12, 2000, November 2000 or After, and November 7, 2000).

Entity Tags: William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Following the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen (see October 12, 2000), the Clinton administration discusses what standard of evidence it needs to launch a counter-strike against al-Qaeda, which it suspects of the bombing. Following the bombing of the US embassies in East Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), the administration fired a number of cruise missiles at suspected al-Qaeda targets (see August 20, 1998). However, the administration decides it must have evidence that bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s leadership has authority, direction, and control of the attack before initiating a response. CIA Director George Tenet will comment: “This is a high threshold to cross.” Tenet will also say that this threshold was not set by the CIA, but by “policy makers.” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 128] Although the bombing is tied to three known leading al-Qaeda operatives, Khallad bin Attash (see November 11, 2000), Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (see November-December 2000), and Ahmed al-Hada (see November 2000 or After), early on in the investigation, no counterstrike is initiated (see Shortly After October 12, 2000 and Late October 2000). Counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke will express his frustration with the inaction: “[I]n Washington neither CIA nor FBI would state the obvious: al-Qaeda did it. We knew there was a large al-Qaeda cell in Yemen There was also a large cell of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but that group had now announced its complete merger into al-Qaeda, so what difference did it make which group did the attack? [Counterterrorism staff] had worked around the clock piecing together the evidence and had made a very credible case against al-Qaeda. CIA would agree only months later.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 223] The authors of the 2002 book The Cell will later write: “The links to bin Laden were everywhere. Each of the suspects being held in Yemen had admitted training in the Afghan camps run by bin Laden… neither the FBI nor the CIA was ever able to tell the president that they had direct proof that the Cole was a bin Laden-ordered job, though now, in retrospect, it seems terribly obvious. In any case, even if there had been compelling proof that bin Laden was behind the Cole bombing, there was little chance that the Clinton administration would have launched an attack on any Islamic country while he was trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians to the peace table.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 238]

Entity Tags: George J. Tenet, Richard A. Clarke, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

US Army Lieutenant General Michael A. Canavan is appointed associate administrator for civil aviation security at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a position that includes being the “hijack coordinator” (see 8:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). [Federal Aviation Administration, 11/2000] In early 1998, Canavan participated in reviewing a CIA plan to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. He was then the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which oversees the military’s counterterrorism operations and covert missions. He objected to the plan, saying it was too complicated for the CIA and “out of their league.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 113] The plan was later canceled (see 1997-May 29, 1998). It is not known if Canavan’s appointment at the FAA is related to his prior involvement in counterterrorism or to any intelligence that al-Qaeda might target civil aviation. He will leave the post in October 2001, after only 10 months, reportedly after clashing with other FAA officials. [Los Angeles Times, 10/13/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Mike Canavan

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

At around 8:00 p.m., Afghanistan time (11:30 a.m., New York time), Taliban leader Mullah Omar allegedly says, “Things have gone much further than expected.” This is according to what the New Yorker will describe as “Afghan intelligence sources” who monitor the call. (It is unclear what “Afghan intelligence sources” means, since the Taliban control nearly all of Afghanistan at this time, but it could be a reference to Northern Alliance forces; the CIA gave them equipment to monitor the Taliban (see Winter 1999-March 2000).) Omar’s comment takes place over an hour after one of the World Trade Center towers collapsed, which means thousands have been killed in the attacks, not hundreds (see 9:59 a.m. September 11, 2001). An Afghan intelligence official will later say: “They were expecting a reaction. But they thought it would be a Clinton-type reaction. They didn’t anticipate the kind of revenge that occurred.” [New Yorker, 6/10/2002] The “Clinton-type reaction” presumably is a reference to the August 1998 missile strikes on Sudan and Afghanistan during the Clinton administration (see August 20, 1998).

Entity Tags: Mullah Omar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Michael Scheuer, former head of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see February 1996), returns to the unit to serve as an adviser, but is not allowed to debrief detainees. Scheuer, who was fired from the unit in 1999 (see June 1999), remains with Alec Station until 2004, when he resigns from the CIA and authors Imperial Hubris, a book critical of the CIA and the US government’s fight against terrorism in general. He had finished his first book, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, before 9/11, and it is released in 2002. He will later complain that he is given a job title but no official duties. Other CIA officers seek out his services, but these requests are blocked, apparently by James Pavitt, the Deputy Director of Operations. Scheuer comments: “The CIA knew that Through Our Enemies’ Eyes was respected by Islamists and that, as the author, I would be an effective debriefer. Mr. Pavitt, however, put burying my career above using me to elicit information to defend America.” [Scheuer, 2005, pp. 264; Scheuer, 2006, pp. xvii]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer, Alec Station, James Pavitt

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA official Michael Scheuer says that the CIA’s bin Laden unit, Alec Station, is still effectively less than 30 people strong. Scheuer was head of the unit until 1999 (see June 1999, and he says this was about the size of the unit when he left. Technically, the unit has hundreds of employees, but Scheuer claims this is not really true. He says: “The numbers are big, but it’s a shell game. It’s people they move in for four or five months at a time and then bring in a new bunch. But the hard core of expertise, of experience, of savvy really hasn’t expanded at all since 9/11.” [Guardian, 8/20/2004] There were about 35 to 40 people in the unit at the time of the 9/11 attacks (see Just Before September 11, 2001). The unit will be closed down altogether one year later (see Late 2005).

Entity Tags: Alec Station, Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Scheuer, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador to the US since 1983, steps down and is replaced by Prince Turki al-Faisal. It is said that Prince Bandar had been suffering health problems and is not close to the new Saudi King Abdullah (see August 1, 2005). Prince Turki was Saudi intelligence minister from the late 1970s until about one week before 9/11 (see August 31, 2001). Then he served three years as Saudi ambassador to Britain. Prince Turki has had a controversial past. He was considered a mentor to bin Laden, and encouraged him to represent Saudi Arabia in the Afghanistan war against the Soviet Union. There are allegations that Prince Turki took part in a series of secret meetings between bin Laden and the Saudis over a period of many years (see Summer 1991; May 1996; Spring 1998; June 1998; July 1998; July 4-14, 2001). There are also allegations that he went falcon hunting in Afghanistan with bin Laden during much of the 1990s (see 1995-2001). In the wake of his appointment as ambassador, US officials try to downplay his past. One unnamed US official says, “Yes, he knew members of al-Qaeda. Yes, he talked to the Taliban. At times he delivered messages to us and from us regarding Osama bin Laden and others. Yes, he had links that in this day and age would be considered problematic, but at the time we used those links.” The official adds that Prince Turki seems to have “gotten out of that business” since 2001 and “he understands that times have changed.” He was sued in 2002 by a group of 9/11 victims’ relatives for allegedly supporting al-Qaeda, but his name was dropped from the suit because of diplomatic immunity (see August 15, 2002). [New York Times, 7/21/2005]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Bandar bin Sultan, Al-Qaeda, Turki al-Faisal

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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