On May 1, 2012, I wrote an article on Osama bin Laden noting that he could have been captured before 1996. I had spent five years researching al-Qaeda’s terrorist activities in the Horn of Africa, Arabian Peninsula and Middle East for my book, When the White House Calls. I served as U.S. ambassador, from 2002-2005, to three island nations in the East Africa Indian Ocean region. At the embassy our regional security officer constantly received information on the possible whereabouts of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, one of the most wanted lieutenants of Osama bin Laden, who came from the Union of the Comoros. Since his wife and children, and other family members still lived there we believed the information to be credible. Some of the data possibly could have led to other al-Qaeda operatives-even Osama bin Laden. Today the debate continues on whether bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives could have been captured long before 2011.
The U.S. State Department didn’t respond to the detailed cables as to Fazul’s travel, even when informants told us he would be visiting his family in Comoros, or on nearby islands. Fazul was raised in Comoros, an island nation of 600,000 Muslims. Pakistani imams had infiltrated the religious madrassas on the main island of Grande Comore, where Fazul was indoctrinated by their radical teachings. Offered a scholarship to study computer science in Pakistan, he ended up at the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) center where many of the Taliban were trained. He was then sent to Afghanistan where he eventually joined bin Laden.
Osama bin Laden first went to Afghanistan in 1979 when the Soviets invaded the country, and became an ally of the mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviets. In 1988 bin Laden formed al-Qaeda (the base) with a nucleus of Arab fighters; returning to Saudi Arabia in 1990 just as Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. The Saudi government allowed the U.S. to use their bases as a staging area, which enraged bin Laden. He didn’t want the U.S. troops—which he considered ‘infidels’—in the land of the two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
The Saudis rejected bin Laden’s offer to use his Arab fighters, and was asked to leave the country. Bin Laden and two hundred of his al-Qaeda fighters ended up in Sudan, including Fazul. While there he planned numerous attacks against the U.S. including the disastrous battle in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 when Islamist militias killed eighteen U.S. soldiers. Peter Bergen in his book the Holy War said Osama bin Laden had confirmed that al-Qaeda trained and funded Somali militants involved in the fight with the American troops. Bin Laden noted “Resistance started against the American invasion because Muslims did not believe the U.S. allegations that they came to save the Somalis.”
In mid-1990 the U.S. embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, was closed for short periods of time due to CIA intelligence indicating possible attacks. The embassy was fully evacuated in February 1996. Economic sanctions had been placed on Sudan, which was considered a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering wanted to re-open the embassy for diplomatic relations and intelligence gathering. He was opposed by Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Susan Rice, who stated “the Khartoum government is evil…and must be defeated,” not addressing the issue of finding Osama bin Laden. The U.S. ambassador, Tim Carney had also pressed to continue diplomatic relations with Sudan, noting in September 1997 that “Sudan had indicated [it] was ready to sever its relations with [the] terrorists…” The Clinton administration did not attempt to capture Osama bin Laden, even though on at least six occasions between 1993 and 1996 his whereabouts had been pin-pointed by the CIA and other informants. The jihad against the U.S. had begun and the administration missed the danger signals.
In February 1998 Osama bin Laden issued his ‘fatwa’—declaring war on the United States—stating “the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies…is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it, in any country in which it is possible. With God’s help [I] call on every Muslim to kill the Americans. Those who hesitate to carry out the demands of the fatwa are deemed apostates and will themselves be punished.” His fatwa was given just seven months before the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.
The president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir had wanted the economic sanctions lifted for which he offered to arrest and extradite Osama bin Laden to the United States. President Clinton reportedly did not respond to this offer or subsequent correspondence. The same offer was made to Saudi Arabia which rejected the offer, fearing bin Laden might try to overthrow the Royal family. Al-Bashir even agreed to keep bin Laden in Sudan and monitor his activities, but instead was pressured by the Clinton administration to expel him in May 1996. Al-Qaeda leaders also could have been captured, including Ayman Zawahiri, the chief planner for the September 11, 2001 attacks; Mamdouh Mahmud Salim an electronics expert; Wadih el-Hage, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed and Saif Adel, who were the leaders of the two U.S. embassy bombings.
The U.S. reportedly had several warnings that al-Qaeda was planning an attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, in which six people were killed; the bomb attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing nineteen soldiers; the two U.S. embassy bombings on August 7, 1998, in which 224 people were killed. In retaliation, in late August 1998 President Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack on the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, being informed it manufactured VX nerve gases. Instead it turned out to be a major medical supplier for the Sudanese. Missile strikes were ordered also on four al-Qaeda training camps near Khost and Jalalabad, some 60 miles from Kabul, Afghanistan looking for Osama bin Laden—instead thirty people were killed. In December 1998 and again in May 1999 missile strikes were considered, but never executed.
Attacks against the U.S. continued, including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole destroyer berthed in the Port of Aden, Yemen, killing seventeen sailors. The CIA knew that Osama bin Laden was connected to the terrorist attacks against the U.S. as far back as 1993. With the information available bin Laden and his lieutenants could have been captured before they left Sudan in 1996. Returning to Afghanistan bin Laden became a close ally of Mullah Mohammed Omar the Taliban leader, and joined the fight against the U.S. and its allies.
In the mountainous terrain, which bin Laden knew well, were miles of cavernous tunnels well protected from modern surveillance technology. There were periodic sightings of bin Laden, but not for long enough periods to get him into our ‘cross-hairs.’ Reportedly he moved around regularly, never sleeping in the same spot. He moved to the Peshawar region of Pakistan in 2002, and then on to the Swat Valley and Haripur, finally settling down in Abbottabad in 2005. It wasn’t until six years later that his whereabouts were compromised when a courier was tracked to his compound.
With bin Laden’s fatwa warning we should have increased our security everywhere. Yet we were unprepared to avoid the disastrous destruction on September 11, 2001, which resulted in the loss of over 3,000 lives. Intelligence agencies knew al-Qaeda was training in the U.S. and that operatives were moving freely in-and-out of the country. The State Department had called Osama bin Laden “the most significant financial sponsor of Islamic extremist activities in the world.”
Last Friday news sources broke the story about President Clinton’s interview on September 10, 2001, a day before the attacks against the United States, in which he said that Osama bin Laden could have been killed in 1998–inferring also to several other times. Two former CIA officers, Gary Berntsen and Michael Scheuer, stated in an interview that Agency information had reached the White House as to bin Laden’s location well-before 1998, and could have been ‘taken out.’ They and others in the administration believed that President Clinton did not have ‘the will’ to carry out such a mission. Even though Osama bin Laden was finally killed on May 2, 2011 al-Qaeda has expanded worldwide, and countless innocent lives have been lost.
Today al-Qaeda linked Islamists and other militants are fighting for control in North Africa and the Middle East, wanting to establish a caliphate. There does not appear to be a solution in sight for defeating these radical extremists, whose ranks are growing daily.