A calculated risk finally pays off
The Osama-US saga dates back much before 9/11. A graphic description of all the efforts made by various agencies involved in the security and defence of the United States to nab or eliminate bin Laden from the late Nineties has been carefully documented in the excellent book, Ghost Wars written by Steve Coll. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. It is common knowledge that the United States was aware of the imminent threat posed by al Qaeda to it, even way back in 2001. In retrospect, questions do arise on the lack of coordination between the FBI and the CIA, hyped as the foremost intelligence cadres in the world, which led to the devastating catastrophe of 9/11, an incident which could easily have been avoided.This has been clearly highlighted in another award winning book, The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. While a lot of credit goes to the CIA and other agencies which successfully carried out the Abbottabad operation, and even more to President Barrack Obama for giving the decisive ‘go ahead’ signal to carry it out, the Americans will have to do a lot of soul searching and ask themselves whether the failure to carry out similar action in 2000 following the al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole, or the problem in intelligence sharing between the CIA and the FBI as late as September 2001, when the twin towers were brought down by Qaeda terrorists.
During his days in Sudan after he was banished from Saudi Arabia, bin Laden had financed Arab Islamist radicals exiled by Pakistan in early 1993 to join him in Sudan. The Americans found that bin Laden was exhorting, financing and arming terrorists in North Africa, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia from Sudan. Osama had also tried to assassinate the CIA station chief in Sudan when he found out that the CIA was prying into his affairs. Ramzi Yousef, the Pakistani mastermind of the World Trade Centre bombing of February, 1993, stayed in a Pakistani guest house funded by Osama bin Laden after Ramzi escaped from the United States. This information was passed on to the US agencies by their Pakistani counterparts who had arrested Ramzi and handed him over to the US to stand trial there. It was in such circumstances that the United States government brought pressure on the Sudanese government to send him out of Sudan.
The United States then considered whether there was enough material against Osama to indict him in an American court, failing which they tried sounding the Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and Jordanian governments to take Osama to stand trial in one of their courts. But all these efforts proved futile.
Osama then landed in Afghanistan in 1996, when the Taliban were establishing themselves. With his resources, men and expertise in construction, Laden was able to ingratiate himself with Mullah Omar, the supreme commander of the Taliban. The ISI was then working with and closely monitoring the activities of the Taliban, and came to a working relationship with Osama bin Laden to train Kashmiri militants in some of al Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan. This would provide deniability to the Pakistan government of involvement in Kashmir. By early 1997, Osama had made Kandahar, the seat of Mullah Mohammad Omar, supreme commander of the Taliban, his home, indicating his growing proximity to the Taliban’s leadership.
Around this time, the Americans got inputs that Osama was looking for weapons of mass destruction, and then, sensing a threat to the US and its citizens, started making efforts to get him. Earlier, they were after Mir Amal Kasi, a Pakistani radical who had shot and killed CIA officers in front of their headquarter in January, 1993.
Employing Afghan tribals they had trained and used during the anti-Soviet jihad to locate Kasi, the Americans succeeded in tracing him, and with the assistance of Pakistani intelligence nabbed him in Multan in June, 1997. The CIA had employed hundreds of thousands of dollars, sophisticated weapons, mine-sweepers, scores of vehicles including motorcycles and trucks, and secure communication equipment with the tribal Afghans for this operation. After the successful Kasi operation, the Americans decided to employ the tribal assets to try and locate Osama to either take him to the US to face the law, failing which, to try and neutralise him. Simultaneously, their efforts with the Taliban continued, though they had not recognised their government, to get Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban refused to budge.
In early 1998, the CIA found that there was an isolated farm of about 100 acres near the Kandahar airport, consisting of a number of one and two storey houses made of either concrete or mud, with a mud wall, where Osama was found to be spending time, and focussed on this place, using their tribal agents and satellite images. This was called Tarnak farm. But they also found that there were dozens of women and children living in the farm, and had to factor collateral damage in case of an operation. Finally, this idea was given up as impractical. As bin Laden was also virulently critical of the Saudi royal family, and called for their ouster, the Americans tried to work with the Saudis to get bin Laden out of Afghanistan to stand trial in Saudi Arabia, but this effort failed too.
On August 7, al Qaeda carried out suicide attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam killing over 200 innocent persons, including Americans. The FBI sent hundreds of agents to investigate the cases, with the CIA also working on full steam. Using human intelligence and technical sources, statements of suspects and Laden’s public statements — a strong case was put up by the American agencies that bin Laden was behind the twin attacks. The Americans considered various options to strike back, but ruled out a war against the Taliban who were sheltering Osama. International law sanctioned strike against the enemy’s preparations for future attacks, and the CIA had prepared intelligence of the various camps of the al Qaeda in Afghanistan. At this time they learned of an impending meeting of the Islamists at Zawhar Kili camp in Khost in eastern Afghanistan on 20 August, which was also to be attended by Osama. The Americans decided to attack, and fired 75 Tomahawk missiles into Zawhar Kili camp later that evening. Former ISI chief Hamid Gul reportedly claimed to have warned the Taliban of the impending attack, which in turn could have alerted Osama bin Laden. Several terrorists were killed, and dozens injured, but Osama was not there. Some of the terrorists killed were reported to be Kashmiris.
The Americans tried the diplomatic route yet again to get hold of bin Laden. In return for custody of bin Laden, the Americans were even ready to recognise the Taliban government. They tried to use the leverage of the Pakistanis with the Taliban in this effort. Yet, in their discussions with the Pakistanis at that stage, bin Laden was third in the list of priorities — the first being Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and the second Pakistan’s economy. By late 1999, al Qaeda operated in 60 countries, according to the counter terrorist cell in the CIA. It was around this time that Mohammad Atta, the leader of the 9/11 group, and three of his friends entered Afghanistan and met bin Laden.
During the investigations of the embassy bombings, the FBI had picked up a piece of intelligence — that two Arabs, with links to al Qaeda, had planned a trip to Kuala Lumpur. This information was shared with the CIA and in a follow up, in early 2000, the CIA obtained a copy of the visa of one of these persons, Khalid al-Midhar, who had a US visa issued in Jeddah. The CIA, with assistance of the Malaysian intelligence, photographed the Arabs meeting with other suspicious characters in Kuala Lumpur, and briefed the FBI, but soon lost trail. Unfortunately, the fact that al-Midhar had a US visa was lost sight of, especially in view of his meeting with suspicious characters in Kuala Lumpur, and his own links with al Qaeda. CIA later discovered that the Arab companion of al Midhar, who was identified as Nawaz al-Hazmi, who had gone to Kuala Lumpur, had later flown to Los Angeles in mid-January, 2000. Though this was reported to the CIA headquarters in March, 2000, this too did not trigger any in depth enquiry.
The CIA used Predator drones over areas earlier frequented by bin Laden to focus on his movements. There were pictures that indicated that he was visiting Tarnak farm. The pictures also showed swings used by children and a mosque, along with scores of small structures.
On 12 October 2000, a small boat packed with missiles came close to a US Destroyer, the USS Cole, docked in Aden, and blew a hole in the hull of the ship, killing 17 US sailors, and wounding over two dozen. This was a time when the US Presidential elections were heating up, and President Clinton’s image had taken a beating due to the Monica Lewinsky affair. No decision was therefore was taken to take out bin Laden because any adverse fall out could have affected the chances of Presidential candidate, Al Gore!
The FBI’s investigations into the attack on USS Cole had established that a one-legged Yemeni, Khallad, from bin Laden’s inner circle was the mastermind of the attack. Khallad was one of the suspects who had met Khalid al-Midhar in Kuala Lumpur and this meeting had been photographed by the CIA. A CIA intelligence representative, who was working in the FBI international terrorism section, who found the connection between al-Midhar and Khallad, and knew that Nawaz al Hazmi, al-Midhar’s companion had already entered the United States, wanted to share this information with the FBI, and sought permission of his agency for this. He got no response! Though there were meetings between the case officers of the FBI and CIA, and sometimes even heated arguments, the CIA officers refused to share details like the passport number of Nawaz al Hazmi who had already entered the US by then, with the FBI. The FBI had the legal authority to undertake a full scale investigation into this matter inside the United States, and had they done so, the 9/11 plot could have come to light before the attack took place, and perhaps, neutralised. It was later discovered that al Midhar and Hazmi were part of the nineteen suicide terrorists who participated in the 9/11 attacks.
After the attack, the rules changed, and the US went after the Taliban and drove them out of Afghanistan and into the arms of the ISI in Pakistan. The question is whether bin Laden was also resting in the arms of the ISI.
The decision of President Barrack Obama giving the Special Forces the go ahead to take out bin Laden this time after gathering requisite intelligence was also fraught with adverse possibilities. In an interview, Obama has said that the probability of finding Osama in the mansion was 55 to 45. Further, there could have been unacceptable collateral damage; the Pakistanis could have got alerted and counterattacked; bin Laden may not have been present in the building at the time of that attack. Anything was possible. It is now learned that the President had insisted that the Navy Seals should be in sufficient numbers to fight their way back in case the Pakistanis challenged them. Considering that he was facing a re-election next year, and his ratings had taken a beating on other grounds, Obama had taken a serious risk in deciding to go ahead with the attack. The operation was certainly a great success for counter terrorism move. It really was Obama’s operation.
(The writer recently retired as the first chief of NIA. Earlier he was the additional director general of police, Jammu and Kashmir)