The United States had al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in its sights
at least three times after the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa,
but each time balked at launching strikes to kill him, a US
commission said Tuesday.
Doubts about the veracity of the intelligence, fears over killing
civilians, and worries over alienating allies in the region were
cited by policymakers as reasons for not acting, according to the
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United
"Each time the munitions and the people were spun up, they were
called off because the word came back: We're not sure -- we're not
quite sure," former US defense secretary William Cohen told the
commission at a hearing here.
"In one instance, there was an identification that somehow we had
bin Laden in our sights. Turned out it was a sheikh from UAE," he
"There was another consideration of shooting down an aircraft that
might be carrying bin Laden, should he try to escape. That also
proved to be reversed by the intelligence community saying we don't
think we have him," he said.
The commission, however, reported that a CIA field officer believes
that the episode involving the UAE sheikh was a lost opportunity to
kill bin Laden before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United
In a report on its initial findings, the commission disclosed three
occasions in which bin Laden was in US sights, and a fourth that is
still under investigation.
They occurred in the months after the August 11, 1998 bombings of
the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salam, the report
The Pentagon had launched cruise missiles at a training camp in
Afghanistan where bin Laden was believed to be meeting with
terrorist leaders on August 20, but failed to kill him.
In December 1998, the United States readied a new set of strikes
after receiving intelligence that bin Laden was staying at a
particular location in Kandahar, the report said.
But then-president Bill Clinton's top advisers recommended against
the strike, it said.
CIA director George Tenet "told staff that the military, supported
by everyone else in the room, had not wanted to launch a strike
because no one had seen Osama bin Laden in a couple of hours,"
according to the report.
Tenet told the commission "there were concerns about the veracity
of the source and about the risk of collateral damage to a nearby
mosque." Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism
chief, told the commission that the intelligence was regarded 50
percent reliable, and there was a risk that 300 civilians could be
The next opportunity came in February 1999 after US intelligence
reported that bin Laden frequently visited a hunting camp in
Afghanistan's Helmand province that was frequented by visitors from
the United Arab Emirates.
"At the beginning of February, bin Laden was reportedly located
there and apparently remained for more than a week," said Philip
Zelikow, the commission's executive director.
"This was not in an urban area so the risk of collateral damage was
minimal. Intelligence provided a detailed description of the camps.
National technical intelligence confirmed the description of the
larger camp and showed the nearby presence of an official aircraft
of the UAE," he said.
Preparations were made for a strike, but it was never
"According to CIA officials, policy-makers were concerned about the
danger that a strike might kill an emirate prince or other senior
officials who might be with bin Laden or close by," Zelikow
"The field official believes today that this was a lost opportunity
to kill bin Laden before 9/11," he said.
The next chance to kill bin Laden came in May 1999 when sources
reported in detail on bin Laden's whereabouts in Kandahar over a
But CIA officials were told the strikes were not ordered because of
concern over the precision of the source's reporting and the risk
of collateral damage.
"Having a chance to get OBL (Osama bin Laden) three times in 36
hours and forgoing the chance each time has made me a bit angry,"
the chief of the unit tracking bin Laden wrote to a frustrated
"The DCI (director of central intelligence) finds himself alone at
the table with the other principals basically saying, 'We'll go
along with your decision, Mr. Director,' and implicitly saying,
'The agency will hang alone if the attack doesn't get bin Laden,'"
the reported quoted him as writing - Sapa-AFP
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