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Context of 'Shortly After September 11, 2001: US Decides Not to Bomb Drug-Related Targets in Afghanistan'

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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] (click image to enlarge)Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35, 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. The attacks are blamed on al-Qaeda. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. (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 allegedly told 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 speculate that 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 Miller 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.

In response to the 1998 US embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), an interagency US intelligence team is created to identify potential bombing targets in Afghanistan. The team continues to work steadily. By 2001, it will have a comprehensive list of potential bombing targets in the country. This list will be turned over the US military after 9/11 and used during the bombing campaign beginning in October 2001 (see October 7, 2001). (Risen 2006, pp. 154)

Before 9/11, US intelligence had collected a list of potential bombing targets in Afghanistan (see Late August 1998-2001). The list is said to include 20 to 25 major drug labs and other drug-related facilities. But according to a CIA source, when the list is turned over to the US military after 9/11, the Pentagon and White House refuse to order the bombing of any of the drug-related targets. This CIA source complains, “On the day after 9/11, that target list was ready to go, and the military and the [National Security Council] threw it out the window. We had tracked these [targets] for years. The drug targets were big places, almost like small towns that did nothing but produce heroin. The British were screaming for us to bomb those targets, because most of the heroin in Britain comes from Afghanistan. But they refused.” This source believes that if the US had bombed those targets, “it would have slowed down drug production in Afghanistan for a year or more.” (Risen 2006, pp. 154) The US will continue to avoid taking action against drug operations in Afghanistan (see February 2002).

The Afghan village of Darya Khanah is bombed on October 27, 2001.The Afghan village of Darya Khanah is bombed on October 27, 2001. [Source: Associated Press]The US begins bombing Afghanistan. (MSNBC 11/2001) The bombing campaign will taper off around the end of 2001. Some, like counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke, will later criticize the amount of time before the bombings could start. Shortly ater 9/11, Clarke was made co-chairman of an interagency committee to devise responses to al-Qaeda. He had advocated a “rapid, no-holds-barred” retaliation in Afghanistan, including sending troops to immediately seal off Afghanistan’s borders and cut off escape routes. But the Bush administration decided to focus on air power. The start of the bombing campaign was delayed until this date mostly because of concerns about US pilots being captured. A network of combat search and rescue teams were set up in neighboring countries first, to allow a rapid response in case a pilot was shot down. (Fallows 10/2004) Most documentary evidence suggests the US was not planning this bombing before 9/11. However, former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik has claimed that in July 2001 senior US officials told him that a military action to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan would, as the BBC put it, “take place before the snows started falling in Afghanistan, by the middle of October at the latest.” (Arney 9/18/2001)

According to one former National Security Council official, Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith argues in a White House meeting that since counter-narcotics is not part of the war on terrorism, the Pentagon doesn’t want to get involved in it. The former official complains, “We couldn’t get [the US military] to do counter-narcotics in Afghanistan.” Author James Risen comments, “American troops were there to fight terrorists, not suppress the poppy crop, and Pentagon officials didn’t see a connection between the two. The Pentagon feared that counter-narcotics operations would force the military to turn on the very same warlords who were aiding the United States against the Taliban, and that would lead to another round of violent attacks on American troops.” (Risen 2006, pp. 154) Immediately after 9/11, the US had decided not to bomb drug-related targets in Afghanistan and continued not to do so (see Shortly After September 11, 2001).

A British special forces team in Afghanistan calls in a US air strike on a drug lab. The damage leads to a 15 percent spike in heroin prices. It is unclear if US commanders knew that the proposed target was a drug lab. However, this seems to be nearly the only such strike on drug-related targets since 9/11. Shortly after 9/11, the US military decided to avoid such targets (see Shortly After September 11, 2001). The US continued to gain new intelligence on the location of drug facilities and continued not to act. Assistant Secretary of State Bobby Charles later will complain, “We had regular reports of where the labs were. There were not large numbers of them. We could have destroyed all the labs and warehouses in the three primary provinces involved in drug trafficking… in a week. I told flag officers, you have to see this is eating you alive, that if you don’t do anything by 2006 you are going to need a lot more troops in Afghanistan.” (Risen 2006, pp. 152-162)

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