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Thursday, October 4, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The elusive target: How bin Laden evaded the reach of the U.S.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In 1999, the CIA secretly trained and equipped approximately 60 commandos from the Pakistani intelligence agency to enter Afghanistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, according to people familiar with the operation.

The operation was arranged by then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his chief of intelligence with the Clinton administration, which in turn promised to lift sanctions on Pakistan and provide an economic-aid package. The plan was aborted later that year when Sharif was ousted in a military coup.

The plan was set in motion less than 12 months after U.S. cruise-missile strikes against bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan that Clinton administration officials believe narrowly missed hitting the exiled Saudi militant. The Pakistani commando team was up and running and ready to strike by October 1999, a former official said. But the operation was aborted on Oct. 12, 1999, when Sharif was overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who refused to continue the operation

Musharraf, now Pakistan's president, has emerged as a key ally in the Bush administration's efforts to track down bin Laden and destroy his terrorist network. The record of the CIA's aborted relationship with Pakistan two years ago illustrates the value — and the pitfalls — of such an alliance in targeting bin Laden.

Pakistan and its intelligence service have valuable information about what is occurring inside Afghanistan, a country that remains closed to most of the world. But a former U.S. official said joint operations with the Pakistani service are always dicey, because the Taliban militia that rules most of Afghanistan has penetrated Pakistani intelligence.

"You never know who you're dealing with," the former senior official said. "You're always dealing with shadows."

Other groups involved

In addition to the Pakistan operation, President Clinton the year before had approved additional covert action for the CIA to work with groups inside Afghanistan and with other foreign intelligence services to capture or kill bin Laden.

The most dramatic attempt to kill bin Laden occurred in August 1998, when Clinton ordered a Tomahawk cruise-missile attack on bin Laden's suspected training camps in Afghanistan in response to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

At the time, the Pentagon informed the president that other options included a clandestine helicopter-borne night assault with small U.S. special operations units; a massive bombing raid on the southeastern Afghan city of Kandahar, frequently visited by bin Laden and his followers; and a larger air- and sea-launched missile and bombing raid on the bin Laden camps in eastern Afghanistan.

Clinton approved the cruise-missile attack recommended by his advisers, and on Aug. 20, 1998, 66 cruise missiles rained down on the training camps. An additional 13 missiles were fired at a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that the Clinton administration believed was a chemical-weapons factory associated with bin Laden.

Clinton's decision put no American lives in jeopardy. It was supported by his top national security team, which included Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and national security adviser Sandy Berger, officials said.

"I wish we'd recognized it then," that the United States was at war with bin Laden, said a senior Defense official, "and started the campaign then that we've started now."

Outside experts are even more pointed. "I think that raid really helped elevate bin Laden's reputation," said Harlan Ullman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "My sense is that because the attack was so limited and incompetent, we turned this guy into a folk hero."

Several concerns

One worry at the time was that intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts was sketchy. Reports said he was supposed to be at a gathering of terrorists, perhaps 100 or more, but it was not clear how reliable that information was.

A second concern was about killing innocent people, especially in Kandahar, a city already devastated by the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

The risks of conducting a long-range helicopter assault, which would require aerial refueling at night, were another factor. The helicopters might have had to fly 900 miles, an official said. Administration officials especially wanted to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 1980 Desert One operation to rescue American hostages in Iran, during which a refueling aircraft collided with a helicopter in the Iranian desert, killing eight soldiers.

A final element was the lack of permission for bombers to cross the airspace of an adjoining nation, such as Pakistan, or for helicopters to land at a staging ground on foreign soil.

Bin Laden, 44, a member of an extended wealthy Saudi family, was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 1991. In early 1996, the CIA set up a special bin Laden unit, largely because of evidence linking him to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. At the time, he was living in Sudan, but he was expelled from that country in May 1996.

After his subsequent move to Afghanistan, bin Laden became a major focus of U.S. military and intelligence efforts in February 1998, when he issued a "fatwah," or religious order, to kill Americans. When two truck bombs killed more than 200 people at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August of that year, and the U.S. government developed evidence that bin Laden was behind both attacks, the question was not whether to counterattack, but how and when.

Two weeks later, intelligence arrived in Washington indicating that bin Laden would be attending a meeting in eastern Afghanistan.

Hitting bin Laden with a cruise missile "was a long shot, very iffy," recalled Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former Central Command chief for the Mideast. "The intelligence wasn't that solid."

At the same time, new information surfaced suggesting that bin Laden might be planning another major attack. Top Clinton officials felt it was essential to act at once.

In all, 66 cruise missiles were launched from Navy ships in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan into the camps in Afghanistan. Pakistan had not been warned in advance, but Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston, then the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Pakistani officials at the precise time of the launch to tell them of the operation. He also assured them that Pakistan was not under surprise attack from India, a potential misapprehension that could have led to war.

At least one missile lost power and crashed into Pakistan, but the rest flew into Afghanistan and slammed into suspected terrorist training camps outside Khost, a small town near the Afghan-Pakistani border. Reports from the scene were inconclusive; most said the raid killed about 30 people, but not bin Laden.

Intelligence after the raid said bin Laden had left the camp two or three hours before the missiles struck. Other reports said he might have left as many as 10 or 12 hours before.

Cohen came to suspect that bin Laden escaped because he was tipped off. Four days before the operation, the State Department ordered hundreds of nonessential U.S. personnel and dependents out of Pakistan. Some U.S. officials believe word could have been passed to bin Laden by the Taliban on a tip from Pakistani intelligence staff.

But several other former officials argued bin Laden already had plenty of notice that the United States intended to retaliate.

There also is dispute about the follow-up to the 1998 raid, specifically about whether the Clinton administration, having tried and failed to kill bin Laden, stopped paying attention.

There were attempts. Special Forces troops and helicopter gunships were kept on alert in the region, ready to launch a raid if solid intelligence pinpointed bin Laden's whereabouts. In addition, the CIA that year launched its clandestine operation with Pakistani intelligence to train Pakistani commandos for operations against bin Laden.

Berger said, "Al Qaeda and bin Laden were the No. 1 security threat to America after 1998 ... and a range of appropriate actions were taken."

But never again did definitive information arrive that might have permitted another attempt to get bin Laden, officials said.

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